By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
Years before I had any idea what spring turkey season was or when it opened, my outdoor activities fell under the direction of the Old Men who’d taken me to raise. Grandaddy and Uncle Buddy were avid fishermen and were good at it, and the fishing season began for them each year in March, when the crappie ran shallow to spawn.
Both were World War II veterans, members of Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, and they retired from public employment to become fishermen full time around the same time I got old enough to be of service in dark-to-dark fishing operations.
The first spring that found both of these conditions in effect was also the first that saw the newly-flooded Tenn-Tom Waterway open for business and, above the Fulton lock, within sight of the main access ramp that sits just up the levee from Itawamba Community College, the rising water covered one particular patch of ground that must have been a scaled critter’s dream come true.
When I was paroled from 7th grade for spring break in March of 1985, the three of us hit the water on the Itawamba County lock. On our first morning we put in searching for likely crappie spots. The first place we came to was a patch of freshly-flooded timber due west of the landing, almost within sight of the truck.
We tucked up into the trees, dropped our lines next to a thicket of honeysuckle that still had green leaves, and never fished anywhere else that week.
They call crappie “paper mouths” for a reason – typically getting one to the boat requires some real finesse and a gentle but firm touch. The spot we fished, however, required something of a different technique. There, a successful retrieve was one executed vertically, and the quicker the better, like a child at a Halloween carnival snatching a bag of candy from behind a shower curtain via cane pole. Anything else lost the fish and probably the hook to the tangle of vines. Furthermore, a missed fish also lost the hook. Grandaddy and Uncle Buddy didn’t miss many fish. I lost a lot of hooks. Still, I pulled in my fair share and, together, the three of us filled Igloo coolers on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Three people operating crappie poles in the same boat is a lot of pole ends and elbows so, after the first day, we hauled a two-man mini-boat along as an outboard rig. Once we were in the timber, I’d slide the two-man rig overboard from the main boat, then get into it along with a trolling motor, deep cycle battery, cooler, minnow bucket and pole. And a big box of hooks.
On Thursday, Grandaddy and Uncle Buddy had chores to attend that kept us off the water. On Friday, Grandaddy took Aunt Judy, my dad’s sister who taught school and was likewise paroled, and me, and we caught a bunch more.
Other people came and went from the flooded woodlot during those days, but the brushtop we had found was the only really productive spot and we held onto it, if not by good fortune or forbearance of our fellow fishermen, then by simple blockade.
On Saturday, I guided my dad to the spot. He had missed the week’s festivities due to the inconvenient fact he didn’t attend or teach school and was nowhere near retirement. We pushed away from the landing with the mini-boat across the bow and were immediately passed on the water by a guy who’d seen us in our crappie spot at some point during the days prior.
He dashed into the woods too far to the south, however, and dad and I got into position and deployed the mini-boat with our rival far down the treeline. He made an attempt to reach the opposite side of the brushtop before me but, with a full charge on the deep cycle, a light boat beneath my feet (I’d shed most of my hooks by now) and the bulletproof nature of every 13-year-old in the world, I cut him off at the pass and the hole paid off again. We weren’t gluttons by any means, and we certainly weren’t wasteful, but we were in the crappie-catching business and had pound after pound of slabs in the freezer for months afterward.
If you pull the spot up on Google Earth today, there’s nothing to be seen of the little hardwood thicket. The trees are only occasional snags now and the honeysuckle only a memory, but what a memory.
These days come spring, on the first clear, blustery mornings while I’m on my way to work, I look ahead on the road for a pickup truck pulling a boat trailer, crappie rigs and minnow bucket lids flapping behind, carrying two old men and a boy in the cab, and I wish them good luck.
What I really mean, though, is good memories.
Kevin Tate is VP of Media Productions for Mossy Oak Brand Camo in West Point.