By WENDY HODGE
When last we met, Tim and I were in Jasper, Alabama – home of the donkey statues and the actor who played Merle Dixon on “The Walking Dead.” Morning came early for us that Sunday because all good fishermen know that sunrise is best seen from a boat in the middle of a lake.
We checked out of the hotel, making one last stop at The Treat Room for an emergency Snickers, and drove a few miles north. The roads were bathed in a hazy, blue-black light that you only see when you’re awake before the fish are.
We arrived at Duncan Bridge Marina in Arley, Alabama. The parking lot was already filling up. Boats dotted the lake, fishermen already casting their lines and settling in for a day of tall tales and cold drinks.
Our guide was Keith Prather of Smith Lake Fishing Adventures. What follows is an unapologetic testimonial of Mr. Prather’s skills both as a fisherman and as a guide.
We spotted the 21-foot fishing boat and Mr. Prather well before he tied up at the dock. The boat was a beauty, and it gleamed in the first rays of daylight. We made our introductions and climbed aboard.
After insisting we call him Keith, our guide explained what the next six hours would look like. He knows all the best points and hidden areas and planned to take us wherever the fish were biting. A dozen poles stood ready, baited and waiting, for us to use. The live well was stocked with dozens of live bait of varying sizes. We would not have to bait a hook or choose a pole. We’d brought a cooler with soft drinks and snacks. All we had to do was relax on a seat and be handed everything we would need.
It was the fishing equivalent of a spa day or a five-star restaurant. Pure luxury.
We fished by the underwater lights on a nearby dock, waiting for the sun to fully wake up. In the glow, we could see bait fish and small bass circling the posts. The water was clear, even without full sun. We had a few nibbles, but decided to move on to the shoreline where Keith had been successful many times.
With few clouds in the sky and a brisk wind blowing, we pulled parallel with the bank and cast our lines. It wasn’t long before we had a bite, and then another, and another. Within an hour or so, Tim and I had both caught several 8- to 10-pound stripe. We took pictures of each other, fish held out at arms’ length (because all good fishermen know how to make a fish look as impressive as possible). With each cast, the fish got a bit bigger and then bigger again, until it became a sweaty exertion to reel in our catch.
Conversation was light and comfortable. Keith made it so with his easygoing nature and sense of humor. We found we had a lot of things in common — from our upbringing to our political views. Keith and I grew up going to the same type of church, while Keith was thrilled to learn Tim was an experienced boat captain himself. It only took a few minutes to feel as if we were out fishing with a longtime friend rather than someone we’d just met.
We talked about the delicious dinner we’d had the night before in Jasper and the history of the donkey statues and how charming I thought it all was.
“Did you know Jasper is the hometown of Merle from ‘The Walking Dead?’” Keith asked.
I laughed as Tim rolled his eyes, shrugged his shoulders and said, “I give up.”
And then there were the companionable silences. Words would fade, and all to be heard was the sound of the lake … that gentle, ever-present lapping sound as the water spills across the shore and rolls back out. There were birds making figure eights overhead and turtles sunbathing on half-submerged tree branches. Watching them lazing in the light made it harder to fight my heavy eyelids.
But then, another tug on the line, and we’d be on our feet, cheering each other on and reeling in another big stripe.
All in all, we caught about 15 stripe, with Tim’s largest being 14.5 pounds. My largest was a close second at 13.5. I was thrilled to haul in such a monster fish, and I have a couple hundred pictures to prove it!
As the end of our tour approached, we were exhausted but reluctant to call it done. I left Keith a five-star review before we even got off the boat. Tim and Keith shook hands, and we said our goodbyes, already planning when we could return.
As we walked toward the truck, I glanced back and saw a father and his young son stepping onto Keith’s boat. Someone else’s turn.
Captain Prather, if you are reading this, Tim told me that was the best Christmas gift he ever got. I will always be grateful to you for that and for the experience of fighting a fish I thought would surely beat me.
This weekend I will buy frames for the 8 x 10 pictures of our colossal catches that will hang next to our fishing rods and tackle boxes… a reminder of epic fish and unexpected friendships.
And then maybe I can talk Tim into watching an episode of “The Walking Dead”….