Wallowing and gurgling between the mossy stumps, the old plug looked like nothing that had ever swum, walked, flown or burrowed. Most fishing lures are designed to resemble something, but this homely contraption—a chunk of painted wood with metal appendages—had been designed solely to scoop up the water and make noise. Noise is often the best bait you can offer bass. I once knew a man who called himself a big-bass hunter, and noise was the only bait I ever remember him using. In his hands a rod became a fuse which he would ignite whenever he saw a fish moving a lily pad. His explosions could be heard far into the night, competing with bullfrogs and owls.
Bass fishing has none of the built-in music one hears fishing for trout. Even the word bass feels heavy on the tongue after the weightless vowels of trout. Bass is a sullen sound, like the object it names—a guttural noise. Trout are called rainbows, brooks and goldens, all pretty words. Compare these with the names of bass—bigmouth, smallmouth—and you have one of the reasons why fishermen in poems always fish for trout.
The stumps in front of me, moreover, were rotten stumps smelling of moist wood long shaded, a heavy musty odor. They were embedded in rive or six feet of dark water, each with a tuft of green sprouts growing from the top and each possibly carrying a snake or two looped among the branches. Snakes in this boggy country seem to latch onto anything that will hold them. Presumably the stumps had once supported a wharf, but the wharf had long since rotted away, as the paths leading to it through the woods had long since disappeared under the sumac and honeysuckle. Lily pads concealed the shoreline, lily pads and roots and fallen limbs and other shapes so far gone in decay that who could say what they were, animal, vegetable or mineral? Beyond the lily pads were the woods bulging over the water. Oaks and poplars but mostly pines. This is pine country, pulpwood and sawtimber country. Loggers hack tracks through the underbrush and bring the sawed pines out on leaning flatbed trucks splattered with mud that lurch and grind and gouge deep ruts in the ground, and because there is no tilt to the terrain water seeps into the ruts and stays there until the sun absorbs it, water the color of red clay at first but changing as the days go by until it becomes yellow. The sun bakes the ruts into hard trenches, and these trenches fill with peepers in the spring so that they sound like lakes. Alders grow closer to the lily pads than the other trees. Bending over, they form something like a screen, and from behind this would occasionally come a thrashing noise such as a fish could have made chasing another fish or being chased by a snake. Any number of things could be going on behind that leafy curtain.
It was not a place that would appeal to the fancy of everyone. Everyone no doubt would admire it from a distance, glimmering softly in the sunlight. But you could not imagine mothers bringing their children here to dabble in the shallows, toddlers splashing, or dads pausing between casts to wash the family car, as dads do on Saturday afternoon from one end of the country to the other. This is generally the case with bass lakes. They lack the friendly charm of trout streams. Sliding along between clean washed boulders, trout streams encourage family outings. But here on Shirley Mill Pond, car, dad and the whole family might sink out of sight in the oozy edges and never again be seen.
May 30, 1971
Shirley Mill Pond covers 200 acres of tidewater Virginia, about 15 miles east of Richmond. From the air it resembles an elongated puddle just north of the sluggish James River. William Byrd's home, Westover, is not far away and neither is the great house of Shirley, a handsome display of red brick where members of the Carter family have lived since the beginning of the 18th century. It was a Carter from Shirley who dammed Turkey Island Creek, one of the tributaries of the James, and constructed a mill on it to serve the plantation. Precisely when this was done has never been determined, although the date usually given is 1710—a very old mill pond no matter how you look at it; and if you look at it from a poplar which is rooted in the earthen wall of the dam it looks older still. As long ago as 1823 the mill had begun to wear out. In 1875 the property was deeded to Beverly Carter, one of Hill Carter's sons, and Beverly drained the pond in order to cut down on the crowds of poachers it was attracting. Apparently Beverly wanted no fish at all if he could not have every one. In any case, the pond passed out of the Carter family in 1921 when it was sold by a Richmond real estate firm to one Moses D. Nunnally, a founder of the Home Beneficial Life Insurance Co., whose son Moses Jr. owns it today.
In a place as old as this, as saturated in history, the proper tackle would be an angling rod of the order Dame Juliana Berners recommends in her medieval treatise on fishing: "a fair staff...of hazel, willow, or aspen" tipped with a "shoot of blackthorn, crabtree, medlar, or juniper" and carrying in the way of a line hair from the tail of a white horse, "the longest and best hair" available. Certainly a spinning rod couldn't hold a candle to that kind of outfit. Neither could the fly rod I had brought along. But having come to Shirley Mill to saturate myself in bass, a roughneck fish, my mission required materials somewhat coarser than any the good Juliana knew about.
The pleasures of fishing are unexpected and swift, beginning often far ahead of the fish. I had gotten up early that morning, intending to reach the lake ahead of the sun, and although the sun had beaten me as usual, it had not beaten me as much as usual. Cows looked at me between the white boards of a fence, the first person they had seen that day.
Mist still covered the far bank of the lake, and the boat seats were wet with dew. Moses Nunnally Jr. maintained a small fleet of aluminum skiffs. They were beached beside a cinder-block boathouse in which his private craft sat on the rollers of a ramp leading down to the water. It was an amazing machine, the Platonic ideal of bass boats. Somewhat longer than the rest of the fleet, it had elevated revolving chairs fore and aft and was powered by an electric motor that the fisherman-skipper controlled with his feet as he glided about the lake, a great box of tackle in front of him, rods on either side of him. According to Joe Brooks, who often occupied the forward seat, "Moses knows every foot of that water. You'll drop a fly beside a stake and he'll tell you to drop it on the other side. 'What the hell's the difference?' you wonder, but if you do what he says, you'll find out. Wham!"
The first wham of the day I had was from a pickerel that whammed the noise as it wallowed beside a log on the opposite bank. Here the land curved in to make a small pocket between the lily pads, a pocket with a pickerel in it. You don't often miss pickerel. I raised eight of them that day and caught seven. The first was the biggest and I missed him. He jumped twice and threw the hook. Thoreau called pickerel animalized water, but I've never seen an animal as savage as a pickerel. It's awful to think what must go on in a pickerel's brain, if a pickerel has a brain and not, as it is easy to imagine, a bed of glowing coals instead. Other fish occasionally pause under a lure, as though they are holding a debate with themselves before attacking it. Not so with pickerel. These jangling, quivering fish mean to sever the object first and then think about it.
I moved on up the shoreline after catching a smaller pickerel near where I lost the first. On the way I passed a number of brush piles with stakes around them which were located anywhere from 10 to 30 yards off the bank. Mr. Nunnally called these structures "hurdles." They were shelters for fish not yet large enough to survive in the savage world of pickerel and big bass. One day, of course, the small fish would become savages themselves, but until that day arrived they depended on Mr. Nunnally's ingenuity. There were a dozen or more hurdles on Shirley Mill. Each lasted about five years. Then fresh cedars were cut in the woods, weighted and dropped inside stake fences. What these hurdles impressed upon one is that good fishing is rarely an accident of nature. Man must take a hand, and signs of Mr. Nunnally's hand were all over the place. There was no milfoil here, for instance, the deadly weed that choked the life out of other lakes in the area. Nor were the shallows blackened by dead gaseous leaves. In the early winter Mr. Nunnally lowered the lake so that the sun dried the leaves that accumulated around the edges. Dry, the leaves float to the top when the water is raised and are washed away.
The stumps produced the first bass I caught. I fished them unsuccessfully for a while with a wooden noise, then switched to something called a Pusher Bug, an ungainly wad of deer's hair which is probably the only fly in the world capable of knocking a man out if it hits him on the back of the head. Anyway, it immediately attracted a bass, a spunky three-pounder, from the deep water around one of the stumps. It says something about bass that this was the same fly rod I used to catch snook in the Everglades. Bass may not sparkle on the end of a line the way snook do, but they are strong fish that require a lot of horsing in cluttered water.
From the stumps I moved on to one of the hurdles and fished a white streamer slow and deep around the stakes. Bass often congregate around these brush houses, big bad wolves howling at the door, but today they had gone elsewhere. Mr. Nunnally had given me a fly he recommended, a spider-shaped creation with elastic legs, but I had put it in my tackle box and forgot it, and in any case there seemed to be no point in trying it now. The sun had cleared the trees and cicadas had begun droning. In midsummer the rhythms of a lake are predictable, pulsing rapidly in the early morning and again before dark with long hours in between when the beat is too faint to be heard. The slow middle hours were approaching. Turtles were crawling on top of logs to sun themselves, and beneath them the shallows were being deserted by all except minnows and small bream. Bass, the big ones especially, were either sinking into deep holes or drawing so far back under the lily pads that it was impossible to reach them. It is maddening to hear fish and not be able to come anywhere close to them. Sometimes bass get so far back in the woods that they sound like cows crashing through the underbrush.
I drank a thermos of tea and let the boat drift up the lake. Serious bass fishermen usually go home during these slack periods, and it is true that they can be times of overwhelming tedium if your mind is set upon big things. Smaller things, however, are usually available if you are willing to settle for them, in particular panfish—crappie and bluegills—which lakes provide to brighten up the dull hours. Fishing for bonefish in Bermuda, I used to occupy myself during the doldrums by catching pompano. Bluegills are something like freshwater equivalents of pompano. I replaced the Pusher Bug with a little bream fly and for several hours caught bluegills on the average of one every third cast, bright chunky fish with flaming orange bellies. In this manner, preoccupied with small things, I drifted into the upper reaches of the lake where the banks came together rather abruptly and, according to Mr. Nunnally, the biggest bass were to be found.
I remembered his advice on how to fish this water: "Be very quiet. Get the plug right up against the bank. Leave it there while you light a cigarette, then give it a twitch. If nothing happens, smoke the cigarette and give it another twitch. Things move slow up there." I followed his advice faithfully, puffing and twitching. Once a slow something stirred in the grass and I held my breath, waiting for a ridge of water to develop as whatever it was closed on the twitching plug—one of fishing's finest moments, but a moment I would have to experience another time, not today, for the water quickly subsided and I returned to catching bluegills.
Then I had something to tell Mr. Nunnally: "If, on some future morning in July, you are fishing the upper end of your lake and find the cigarette-wait-then-twitch method unproductive, hear what happened to me. I tried your method. I tried the big-bass hunter's method and noise and more noise. Both failed. As the day wore on, being tired and feeling upon me the need to rest my aching limbs, I drew the boat under the branches of an alder tree and there in the shade closed my eyes, shutting out for a brief while the glaring world of the lake's deep sleep. In other words, I napped. When I awoke refreshed and prepared to depart, I discovered that I was no longer alone. On the opposite bank, a distance of about 20 yards, two feet were firmly planted in the mud. It was impossible to tell whom the feet belonged to because the torso and the legs from the shins up were covered by an alder similar in size and thickness to the alder which covered me. One thing however the alder did not conceal. This was a cane pole which the man behind the tree had thrust through the branches until the long tip reached a distance of perhaps seven feet from the shore."
A poacher! What else? He had arrived while I was asleep and gone straight to work. This fact registered with considerable shock. I thought of Beverly Carter who had drained the lake because of poachers, and now the poachers were back. I must have stirred loudly under the leaves, kicked the boat or something, for I saw the pole being slowly pulled in and the feet turning around. What happened then I can't fully explain. Perhaps the poacher asked himself what I was doing under the alder branches, as well he might, and came to the conclusion that I was a poacher, too. In any event, the pole reappeared and shortly I heard a timorous "Hello." The voice was much smaller than anyone would have judged from the size of the feet.
"Hello," I said.
It was an unusual situation for a conversation, since both the speakers were buried in leaves, but we covered much the same ground that most conversations do between fishermen, be they poachers or not. He wanted to know what I had caught. I wanted to know what he had caught. Neither of us, in his opinion, had done the lake justice. "The best lake in the whole state of Virginia," he said, "and I fished most of them one time or the other. You come here often?"
"Not often enough. What about you?"
"I can't do it much as I used to could. It's a long walk in here. How'd you get in, up the creek or loop around back?"
"I came up the road," I said.
There was a pause. "Up the road? You came straight through J.J. Pace's yard?" I caught the wonder in his voice.
"I did it in the dark."
"Dark or not, 10 years ago you couldn't of done that. I've knowed J.J. Pace as long as he's been Mr. Nunnally's overseer. He's near about as old as I am. Ten years ago he'd of been on your back like a cat."
"Time passes," I allowed.
"Ain't that a fact. You know who's the best man ever fished this place?"
"The man who owns it, old M.D. Nunnally's son Moses Jr. Plenty of time I been as close to him as I am to you and seen him pickin' fish out of places I been at all day without gettin' a bite."
"What kind of bait does he use?"
"Different things. I seen him catch a bass once right where you are."
"On a plug?"
"Could of been. Tintsey thing no bigger'n your fingernail."
"That wasn't any plug."
"Must have been a fly. Was it shaped like a spider, with long rubbery legs?" I had forgotten about the fly that Mr. Nunnally had given me, until my friend the poacher made me think of it.
He wasn't sure about the fly. It may have had rubber legs. Again it may not. "I don't see good as I used to. All I know is it took some kind of big bass right where that boat is sittin'. How'd you get that boat, anyway? I thought they was kept locked."
"Mr. Nunnally unlocked it for me."
If I had been thinking, I wouldn't have said that. It gave me away. But I was rummaging among my tackle, trying to find the flies with the rubber legs, and when I looked up the man behind the tree was gone and so was his cane pole. I wish he had stayed around a few minutes longer. I would have given him the 3½-pound bass I caught not far from where he had been standing. Noise didn't catch that fish. Neither did the cigarette-twitch method. But a poacher and a rubber spider did.