As I’m driving east up Hwy 18, I’m thinking how tired I am. Most of my spare time the last four weeks has been spent getting ready to sell the homeplace in Hampton. And, here I am again making the 75 mile drive on a Tuesday after a full day of work.
Part of what I have to do this evening is necessary. There are a few more items to get out of the house. The other part of what drives me there is not so pressing, but it could be the most necessary reason for the trip. I want to go fishing with my son.
As I ease out of Molena, there’s a nice pond to my right. The pasture is mowed. It sits about 150 yards off the highway. The water is that perfect green.
I was about 5 when I caught my first fish in the lake at home. Dad was with me. We walked along the path on the south edge of the water. A steep wooded hill behind us, toward the house. There’s a small rock that juts out from the bank. The water narrows to our right up toward the spring head. The water in front of us widens out for what looks like a mile to a little boy.
We were using cane poles with red and white bobbers. A small #2 hook with red wigglers. A lead shot crimped to the line.
“Hold your pole straight up in your right hand and hold your line in your left hand. With one motion, tip the pole out front of you and let go of the line. Let it swing out and drop it real easy to the water.”
My Dad could do it flawlessly. Everything seemed easy for him in my eyes.
The bobber jiggled and went under. I snapped the pole up just like he showed me. A nice Blue Gill. I was hooked on fishing.
I have spent many a day on that lake over the last 60 plus years. I know every nook and bend in the shoreline. I know where the shallow water is. I know the feel of its deepest, darkest and coldest water. I know the contours of the bottom, the spawning shelf laid in around the edge, and where the creek and spring make their way toward the dam.
When I was in about 6th or 7th grade, Dad had a notion to drain the lake, sein it, and have a big fish fry for his Sunday School Class. I mostly remember the mud. Thick soupy mud. Melton Greer caught the biggest turtle I’d ever seen.
Mr. Melton had a slow drawl. “Reckon I know what I’ll be having for supper.” I wondered if Miss Helen shared his enthusiasm.
Most of the work was men’s work. The sein net was too heavy for me, so we walked behind it as it was being pulled along. We had buckets and were supposed to catch any fish that tried to jump the net. My Dad’s cousin Billy was pulling the net in one hand and dragging his free hand in the water. He came up with a bass in his free hand. Just caught him in the mouth like there was nothing to it. I had never admired anything more in my life.
As I make my way between Zebulon and Griffin, there are more ponds on the left and right. I wonder who owns them. How many little boys have dropped a line in the water? Did a father and son paddle around in an old boat catching just enough for supper? Every farm pond has a story to tell.
We used to go frog gigging a lot. Fried frog legs was a delicacy that my parents bragged about but could never convince me that it would be good eating. One night, Dad and I and Billy Dan got out in the boat together. Billy Dan sat in the back and paddled. Dad sat in the middle and held the light. I was up front on my knees with the frog gig.
A bright light mesmerizes a frog. Keep the light in his eyes and he will sing “Way Down Upon the Suwanee River” and never move a muscle. Paddle straight toward the bank. Nice and slow. Then, you jab him with the gig, which is basically a long broom handle with a 3-pronged devils fork on the end.
We were moving along in the dark. In the edge of the light, Billy Dan caught sight of a snake swimming in the water toward the boat. Dad moved the light away from the snake.
“What are doing? Bring that light back around here.” Billy Dan was excited. And Billy Dan was a heavy man. The boat was making waves rocking under his weight.
Dad tried to calm him down. “He’s attracted to the light. If I turn the light away, he’ll go away.”
“I don’t care about that.” Billy Dan was real nervous. “As long as I can see him, I’ll be fine. Now put that light back on him.”
So, Dad turned the light back around. Two little beady eyes wiggling their way toward us. Billy Dan took the paddle and flipped him back away from the boat. He swam back toward the light. Billy Dan tossed him again. And this went on until we got to shore. We got out and the frog gigging was over.
I pulled into the driveway at the house. My son was in his truck behind me. He stopped and took a picture of the old barn. We drove down through the pasture to the lake. And all the time, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking this could be the last time.
The water was like a mirror. The sun was setting. We had about two hours until dark. We rolled the boat upright on the bank. Got our gear in and slid it over the grass to the edge. I stepped over the side and did the wabble walk to the back seat. Water splashing on the underside. My son put one foot on the front seat and shoved us off into the evening.
My Dad was 29 when he built this little 5 acre lake in 1952. There’s a good bit of exposed granite on our farm, and I don’t know whether he planned it or if it was just pure luck, but every cousin and friend who has ever spent any time at that lake remembers The Rock. A granite boulder the size of a truck cab that sits on the edge of the water. My sister sat and read a million books there. We all dove off and swam there. I fished there with my grandchildren. It is the centerpiece of my memory whenever I think about this place.
There are a lot of “last things” in a person’s life. The last day of high school. The last day of a great job. The last child to move out of the house. The last kiss on the cheek of a loved one passing on from this world.
This is a tough last thing for me. To be on this lake one last time. To feel the oar in my hand and hear the swirl of the water as it passes behind me. To hear my Dad saying, “Cut it a little wider at the end of the stroke.” The smell of fish on my hands as I eat a cracker. The sun setting over the pines beyond the dam. The little boy in my mind standing over yonder with a cane pole in his hands.
Dark came too fast. We put our gear away and drug the boat out of the water. Flipped it over and loaded it up in the back of his truck. This boat has never been anywhere but right here. I stand in the last bit of light looking at the shadows across the water. My son hugs the old man because he knows this is not easy.
The headlights come on. The tall grass rubs the belly of the truck. We drive away from the lake and past the old barn. Leaving home to go home one last time.