A Gaggle, a Murder and a Bugle-Nosed Bass

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Wendy Hodge

By WENDY HODGE

Nicholas Sparks wrote, “It is life, I think, to watch the water. A man can learn so many things.” And it’s true — I’ve learned so much over the last couple of years spending time in a boat or on a dock on Lake Harding and, most recently, on Sougahatchee Lake.

My best friend is a lifelong fisherman and boat captain. He has steered us over many miles, through choppy, wind-swept waves and under bridges and around sandbars. Because he grew up on Lake Harding, he knows the best spots to catch crappie and where the monster catfish hunker down at sunset. He has dropped Christmas trees all over the lake because every fisherman worth their salt knows that bass shimmy through structures searching for bait fish to munch. He knows instinctively where to avoid the shallow waters and which deep channels are the smoothest. He can make it from one end of the lake to the other with one arm tied behind his back and blindfolded. I’ve so far managed to convince him not to prove that to me.

Sougahatchee Lake, however, is new for both of us. We have spent quite a few early mornings and late afternoons casting our lines up and down the grassy banks of each and every slough, “learning the fish” as my captain calls it. We’ve had sporadic luck but constant fun. It is, in fact, sitting on this very lake on an overcast Thursday evening that I write this column. My best ideas come from the back and forth conversation my best friend and I have when we are sitting in his metal-bottomed boat with the open sky above us and our favorite lures in the water.

It began, this time, with the sound of geese in the distance.

“That’s a gaggle, you know,” he said.

“What’s a gaggle?” I asked.

“That noise you hear. That’s a gaggle of geeese. They’re giggling. It’s a giggling gaggle of geese.”

I laughed, and it echoed across the lake. Confession: I do not have a dainty, ladylike laugh. I’ve always wanted one, but it is not in the cards for me.  I laugh like … well … a giggling gaggle of geese. Or maybe like a donkey. Anyway, it’s heartfelt and comes from deep in my soul.

Not wanting to be outdone, I pointed to the opposite shore and said, “There’s a murder.”

He turned quickly to look and said, “Where’s a murder?”

“Right there. You’re looking straight at it. Yep, that’s definitely a murder.”

He looked at the group of crows circling above the treeline and then looked back at me. “You googled that, didn’t you?”

Dang. He caught me.

“Maybe I already knew that a group of crows was called a  murder…”

He raised both eyebrows at me.

“Okay, fine. I googled it. But isn’t that just the best term? A murder of crows. I love that!”

“You can add that to your long list of new terms you’ve learned on the  lake … right under bugle-nosed bass.”

And we were off laughing again at the memory of the very first fish I ever caught. It happened a couple of years ago on Lake Harding. It was a hot summer day and the whole family was down for a long weekend. In-laws and cousins boarded the pontoon boat for an afternoon cruise down the lake, but I opted to stay behind.

My best friend’s dad (known to all as Fishy Pop) was dozing on the porch, and I stood on the dock watching a group of large fish circling beneath my feet. These were huge fish. Really huge. A pole was standing there, baited and ready to go. I couldn’t resist. I lowered the line into the water and only waited a moment or two before one of the big fish spotted my bait. I watched him swim toward it, mouth wide open, and felt (for the first time) the thrill of knowing I was about to catch a big one!

That thrill lasted about 1.5 seconds and was followed by the realization that I had no idea what to do once I’d caught this monster. He pulled on the line and dove under the dock. I pulled back and he slid back toward me. I hollered something like “AAAAHHHHHAAAAEEEE!”  which, when translated, means, means “Please help. I have caught a fish and am clueless!”

Fishy Pop startled from his nap and sprinted toward the dock. One foot was asleep, so he actually hopped his way across the lawn. The dock was newly painted a gray so dark that it was almost black, so at noon on a July day it was quite possible to fry an egg and bacon breakfast right where I was standing. Once he hit those steaming boards, he began to do what looked like a salsa dance combined with the bunny hop. It’s not every day you see a man in his 70’s dance like Bobby Bones on the final night of Dancing With the Stars. I swear the fish stopped fighting me long enough to watch.

“My feet!” Fishy Pop yelled. He grabbed the net and thrust it in my hands.

And, like the true outdoor sportswoman and clear genius that I am, I began trying to scoop water onto his feet. With a net. Yes, I actually did do that. The fish once again stopped to stare, and this time I know he actually rolled his eyes and shook his fishy head.

Fishy Pop took the net and stood on it, making it bearable long enough to reach down and pull my fish onto the dock.

“That’s a monster!” I grinned as I said it and marveled at the beast I had caught. All by myself. Sort of.

“That there is a bugle-nosed bass,” Fishy Pop told me. “It’s been a long time since anybody caught one of those around here, and I’ve never seen one that big.”

“A bugle-nosed bass?” I was already seeing the headlines: NEWBIE CATCHES RARE FISH followed by LOCAL MAN TREATED FOR SCORCHED FEET AND DANCING  INJURY.

I immediately snapped a 112 photos with my phone – pictures of me and the fish, Fishy Pop and the fish, the fish all by itself, Fishy Pop’s burned soles … I am a picture taker.

About that time, the pontoon boat returned with everybody waving. I ran to meet them and may have squealed like a little girl. “Look at what I caught!!!!” Everyone gathered around the live well and oohed and ahhed.

“Your dad says he hasn’t seen one of these caught in a long time,” I said to my best friend.

He tilted his head and stared at the fish. “Is that right?” he asked.

“Yeah. I mean, this might be a record. It’s the biggest bugle-nosed bass your dad has ever seen.”

My best friend began laughing, and soon the entire crowd was doubled over, slapping each other on the back, and pointing at my fish.

“What?” I asked, growing uncomfortably suspicious and slightly defensive.

“Google bugle-nosed bass, Wendy,” my best friend said and kept laughing all the way up to the front porch.

I stood on the end of that dock, googling and realizing that what I’d caught was a common carp. Ugly, not really anybody’s favorite fish to eat and certainly not rare or world-record worthy. We let him go later that day, after more pictures and laughing, and he returned to the water to fight another day.

Since then, not a family get together goes by without the retelling of Fishy Pop’s burned feet and my rare bugle-nosed bass.

And so tonight, sitting here on the water with nothing biting at the moment, and with a gaggle and a murder giggling and crowing in the distance, I am filled with gratitude for everything the water has brought me, whether real or exaggerated, because every memory is laced with laughter and knit together with love. And somewhere, deep in the waters of Lake Harding, there swims a carp with my mark on his lip and the memory of our laughter in his heart.

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