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By Mike Holladay

The sun was just barely below the horizon and twilight moving in when they put the boat on the water. They had all the things that catters consider important, fish finder, poles, tackle, life jackets, drinks, snacks, cast net, various baits like worms, shrimp, and stinky bait.

As they put the boat into the water at the ramp, they noticed swirls on the surface of the water and Cal said, “Looks like plenty of shad available.” Jake just grunted. Jake is a crusty old coot that had to see things to believe. It seemed to be an omen of things to come.

Firing up the old 25 horse Evinrude, a cloud of oil smoke rising slowly into the air, Cal put it in gear and headed out into the cove. “Jake, get the cast net out and try to get us some shad.” Grunting again, Jake threw the net about six times and caught twenty or so good-sized gizzard shad and dropped them into the live well. “That ought to be enough,” he said. Cal agreed and turned the boat out into the river.

There’d been a good rain earlier in the week and the water was moving along pretty good. There was a little deadfall floating but didn’t seem to be enough to worry about. Cal headed upstream to the downed trees he knew about a few miles away.

They’d both been on this stretch of river all their lives and knew every twist and turn and eddy there was. Lighting up a Lucky, he blew a cloud of smoke out and coughed. Jake just grunted.

After ten minutes or so, Jake said, “Turn into that cove on the west side. Saw a big swirl in there the other day.” He started setting up his Tiger rod with the Penn bait caster and put a 7/0 circle hook on it with a 1 oz. no-roll sinker. As Cal slowed to a crawl, Jake said, “Over there by that big log.” Tying up, Jake dropped his line over the side with a big shad on it. Cal started rigging up and had no sooner tied a hook on and Jake was hollering. “Get the net!!! Get the net!!!” Looking over, Cal saw Jake’s pole bent almost double and line was screaming out of his reel like crazy! Scrambling to the other side of the boat, Cal grabbed the net. As Jake slowly pumped the tension out of the line, trying to gain some ground on this fish, Cal lit up again. “Dang it, boy! Put that out and give me a hand.” Jake grunted.

Ten minutes into the fight, the fish rolled about 30 feet from the boat. “Hmmm, looks smaller than I thought,” Jake said. The fish, tiring, came slowly to the side of the boat, a nice blue cat, about 15 pounds, if experience told them anything about size. Reaching over the side, Jake flipped the cat free of the hook with a deft move perfected from years of practice.

“Sure thought I had a biggun on for a minute. Let’s try it agin.” Jake said. Reaching into the live well, he picked out a shad about 4 inches long and slipped the hook through its eyes and tossed it out. Cal went back to rigging his pole again and finally got the stink bait rig loaded with that vile-smelling stuff he’d been making for years. “Good thing there ain’t nobody else out here to smell that stuff, boy. It’s worse than the rendering plant!” Jake muttered under his breath. Cal just laughed.

Lighting the old Coleman, Cal leaned back against the side of the boat and listened to the noises of the night. There was a hoot owl calling in the distance and crickets chattering loudly nearby. A loud splash over by the big log caught their attention.

“That’s more like it,” Jake said. Reeling in, he flipped that big shad right next to the big trunk disappearing into the water. Cal was thinking that no big cat would splash like that, but he hadn’t been here in years. Jake fished this stretch of river almost every day but Cal liked it better on the big flat upstream a ways.

Cal got a hit on the stink bait and reeled in a channel about 3 pounds. Jake said to keep it for breakfast so Cal slipped it onto a stringer and hung it over the side, baited up again and let the line back out right below the boat. Fish were showing up pretty good on the finder so he figured they were lying under the boat as much as anywhere.

The clicker went off on Jake’s reel and started chattering like a mad squirrel. Jake slowly leaned over and flipped the clicker off and started reeling. The pole bent slowly and the line started to run out. “Don’t seem too big, Cal. Don’t worry ‘bout the net. I think I can handle this one.” As he started reeling a little faster, the pole suddenly lunged hard. Jake almost lost his grip until he realized this fish was a lot bigger than his first one. He grunted loudly and held on. The boat slowly swung around almost 90 degrees and if it hadn’t been tied to an old stick-up, it would have started across the cove. Leaning into the bow of the pole, Jake pulled slowly to gain line on this fish. The instant he put pressure on it, it headed for the bottom, pulling line. Tightening slightly on the star drag, Jake kept reeling when he could. “Feels like a big one after all, I think. Wish I could turn it.”

“Need me to untie so we can chase it?” Cal asked. “Naw, let’s just wait a minute of two and see if this old cuss will come up.” Sweating a little, Jake kept the pressure on.
“Told ya that stinky stuff ain’t no good for big ones, didn’t I? Put ya a shad on.”
Cal just ignored him. He didn’t really care for the bigger fish, he liked the “eaters”. To Cal, Jake didn’t seem to be making any headway. Jake was really working on this one. Grunting occasionally, he kept inching the line in, thinking to himself that he was glad to have that old Penn levelwind on this pole. When the fish tired, Cal scooped him up into the net and pulled him aboard. After taking the hook out, Jake picked the fish up. Grunting loudly, he held it for a few seconds and then it flopped out of his hands. “Git the scales, Cal. This one’s got to be thirty at least.”

Hooking the scales under the bottom lip, Cal lifted the fish. 30.8 pounds!! “That’s better,” Jake said. “Let’s move on up to the flat and drift it for awhile.” Cal reeled in and fired up the motor. Jake untied from the stump and they headed back into the river.
There wasn’t much light from the crescent moon lying low on the horizon so Cal didn’t open the motor up too much.

About ten minutes or so into the run, Cal felt a big THUMP under the boat and the motor died. “What the heck was that?” “Felt like a stump or log,” Jake said. Cal cranked the motor but it wouldn’t start. Trying three more times with no response, he tilted the motor up. The prop was bent slightly on one tine but not bad enough to stop the motor, he thought. “Throw out the anchor, Jake” Reaching down, he tried to turn the prop by hand. It was stiff but turned a little. Putting the motor back down, he cranked it again. It fired but was vibrating pretty hard. “Think we need to go back?” he asked. “No, let’s try to get to the flat. It’s only about 200 yards upstream.” Cal pulled up the anchor as Jake just grunted.

Cal put the motor in gear and the motor seemed to smooth out a little so he turned upstream again. Getting to the flats, he picked out their favorite anchoring spot and threw it out, drifting a little to let it bite good into the bottom. “I don’t feel like drifting with the motor like that. Let’s just fish from here.” Jake just grunted again.

Cal had brought a new pole his boy had bought him the day before and rigged it up with a bobber and a 2/0 “J” hook. He decided he’d try a shad like Jake even though he much preferred using his stink bait but figured he could do both. Reaching into the live well, he chased those darn shad till he finally got hold of a little one. Threading it on, he cast it out into the night. He then gobbed a bunch of “stink” onto his other pole and lowered that hook over the side, straight down. Jake had tossed a shad out and was leaning back sleepily on his seat. “That old coot will be asleep in a few minutes,” Cal thought. “He always does that.”

The fog was starting to put tendrils up on the water and the breeze began to blow a little. The moon had gone down almost below the horizon and you couldn’t see much past the end of the boat. As the sound of Jake’s snoring reached him, Cal saw his pole with the shad on it dip just a little. Then it slammed down hard and came right back up.

“Flathead.” he thought. “I’ll just let it sit for a few minutes.” He reached back and picked up his Thermos and poured a cup of coffee his wife had made. Sipping it, he was enjoying the peaceful night when his rod bent sharply. He grabbed the pole and swept it hard to the left to set the hook. As soon as he did, the line snapped and he fell back into his chair. “Dang it!” he shouted. Jake almost fell off his chair, scared to death from the shout. “What the heck’s going on?” he growled. “Had a big flattie hit but my line snapped,” Cal fussed. Jake grunted again.

Baiting up with another shad, he threw his line back out. They both leaned back and soon were dozing. Another THUMP shook them awake. A big log that was floating down the river had hit them broadside and tangled Jake’s line into its branches. Jake just pulled out his hunting knife and cut the line. “Ain’t no use messing with that,” he said.

The sun was starting to peek up and they hadn’t had any more luck so they decided to pack it in. After reeling in their lines, Cal fired up the motor again. It was vibrating pretty hard. He put it in gear and turned the boat downstream after pulling in the anchor. He’d gone around a mile when the motor died again. All efforts to start it again failed. Jake said, “Grab a paddle, boy, and let’s go home.” Cal agreed and started paddling. He’d forgotten about the fish he had hanging over the side that he’d put back out when the motor trouble started. The second stroke of the paddle caught the flat of the paddle in the stringer and almost pulled it from his hands. He recovered his grip and slowly made progress back down to the entrance to the cove where the ramp was and turned into the cove.
Getting to the ramp, he beached the boat and climbed out to go get the truck. He slipped and fell on the wet ramp and skinned his knee but went on. After a struggle to get the boat on the trailer without a motor, they were finally loaded and headed for home.

“Ya know, all in all, it was a good night on the water,” Cal said. Jake just grunted.
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