The Dark Side

Garry's Outdoor Kicks & Grins - June 2017

Garry Bowers | June 1, 2017

I am an old man. When I look back to my days as a younger man, I am appalled at how stupid I was. I’m surprised I could dress myself. I actually used to fish at night! It was as if I occasionally took temporary leave of my mental faculties. I never hunted at night. When most sportsmen think about hunting after dark, two things come to mind: Spotlighting deer and slogging around a swamp after coons.

The first is not only illegal, but also despicable. And I will not give the activity any notoriety by discussing it other than to say its participants, in the words of my grandmother, should be stripped naked, tied behind Pa’s tractor, and drug around the courthouse square. (Bless her heart, Granny could be a vicious old woman.)

The second, coon hunting, doesn’t require a great deal of discussion either, at least from me. If I go again into a snake-infested, mosquito-ridden, tick farm at night, it will be on the direct orders of the Lord Almighty. And even then, I would probably hesitate. I am certainly not going there to listen to a bunch of dogs howl. I once accidentally walked in on my mother-in-law as she was getting out of the shower.  Howling enough for me. I didn’t go blind, but I had to wear glasses for a while.

Once in my lifetime, though, nighttime and hunting did coincide. It had nothing to do with actually hunting at night, but since the incident caused me to experience PTSD for several years, it may be worth mentioning. As was our annual habit, a bunch of us preadolescent cub scouts went on a charity drive in the neighborhood to collect canned goods for the local food bank. Parenthetically, we proved that coincidences are nothing more than grand cosmic jokes.

Not two minutes before we went up to the Johnson’s house and climbed the steps up onto the large porch, Mr. Johnson, returning from a day of deer hunting, had pulled into the driveway and parked on the side of the house.  It was almost dark. Had he been 60 seconds earlier or 60 seconds later, he would not have been following directly behind us, completely without our knowledge, as we rang the doorbell.  He was still wearing his ghillie suit.

When Mrs. Johnson came walking to the door, her smile quickly turned to a frown and she fairly yelled, over our heads, “You’re late!” Nine little cub scout caps turned in unison to see who she was talking to. A couple of the kids later confided they thought it was Bigfoot. A few were positive it was the Swamp Thing. I was personally convinced it was a disheveled grizzly bear, possibly rabid.

Kids left that porch in varying degrees of proficiency. Some jumped off, some stumbled and rolled off, and some simply fell off. Ronnie clawed his way through the screen door with his bare hands and ran by a somewhat startled Mrs. Johnson. I temporarily stood frozen in nauseous horror. I know I didn’t scream because I couldn’t breathe.

When my legs began spontaneously working again, I ran the length of the porch and did a beautiful header off the end. As I sprinted down the driveway, I noticed Fred engaged in valiant combat with a rose bush which had grabbed him as he ran by. I yelled words of encouragement as I passed him. When you’re a kid, many things surpass loyalty. Overwhelming dread is one of them.

We gradually regrouped under the only streetlight on the block a few doors down from the Johnson’s. When Fred walked up, scratched and bleeding, someone asked him where Ronnie was. Fred said, “I think it ate him.” Little Jimmy made a whimpering sound, and the front of his uniform pants turned a darker blue than they were supposed to be.

Fred was wrong, because Ronnie showed up at school the next day. We asked him what happened in the house, but he had lost all vocal abilities. As a matter of fact, he didn’t speak a word for a week. My mom said it was called “hysterical paralysis.” He was the only kid in school with snow-white hair. To this day, when I see a ghillie suit, I shudder.

But back to the stupidity of night fishing. The level of imbecility of this activity can be measured almost completely on one factor: location. For instance, as a young man, I spent the night catfishing on the river with a couple of buddies. We set up camp on a sandbar berm exposed due to the low water level about 30 yards from the normal bank and about the same distance from the river. We spent the night tending the campfire, telling stories and walking down to the water to check our rod sets. By 2 a.m., we had a nice string of blues and channels. We did a final rebait, set our lines back out and turned in. Looking back, we should have paid some heed to the ominous thunder to the north of us.

At first light, we awoke to find ourselves on a tiny island. The rods, reels, fish, minnow buckets and campfire were all gone. So was our composure. I cannot come up with an adjective to describe the panic that set in. “Unspeakable” and “incomprehensible” come to mind. There was a lot of screeching and running around in a very small circle. We ended up half-wading, half-swimming back to shore in a life threatening current. Unless you catch a world record bass, a fishing trip should never end with you on your knees in intense prayers of gratitude.

Boat fishing the lake at night isn’t much better, except you can be fairly sure the lake is not going to rise like a river. But, it is a slow and tedious process. You will only drive at daylight speed until you hit a half-submerged log. Thereafter, you will move at idle speed only. The last time I participated in this idiocy, I was fishing piers with lights on the end of them. This one particular little dock had a long, curved aluminum pole and an old street lamp cover over the light. On my second cast, the lure and line wrapped tightly around the light pole.

I began jerking it, easily at first but with increasing force as frustration set in. I did not want to approach it and scare any bass lurking there. As I jerked harder, the pole began to bang against the pier. There was a cabin 20 yards up the bank, and I saw a guy look cautiously out of a window. He could not see me, but could see his light whipping about for no apparent reason. I assume he thought his dock was being attacked by poltergeists. He walked out of the door brandishing a shotgun.

I cut my line off at the reel, hit the trolling motor and started off down the lake. That’s when he fired, and I saw his pier light explode. I have always wondered if he thought buckshot would kill ghosts, or if he thought the light was the victim of demonic possession and he wanted to put it out of its misery. I never returned to ask.

The worst possible form of night fishing is on a farm pond. Unless you have been blindfolded, sealed in a barrel and placed at the bottom of Carlsbad Caverns, you have no idea of how dark an isolated farm pond is on a cloudy, moonless night. My friend Ducky Jones talked me into going topwater bass fishing one summer evening. He came by the house and picked me up.

On the way, I asked him if he had flashlights. He said, “Oh, nooo. You can’t use flashlights out there. They scare the bass! And they might disturb the bulls.”

Before I could ask the obvious, he asked me if I had brought my motorcycle helmet. “Why ever would I need a motorcycle helmet?”

He explained that you can’t see where your lure is, you don’t know how much line you have out, and when you set the hook on a strike and miss, the lure will be coming back at you at the approximate speed of a major-league fastball. He added that his helmet had a full face shield.

I was several questions behind by this time. “With no flashlights, how are we going to look in the tackle box or change lures?”

He said, “Sense of touch.”

I continued, “How do we see where we are walking?”

He said, “Sense of smell.”

I thought for a moment he had experienced a stroke. But he laughed and told me to stay close to him.

I said, “Bulls?”

He said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not that bad.”

He was wrong. After we arrived and started fishing, my questions continued.

“What was that?

“Where are you?

“What was that?

“Are you behind me?

“What was that?

“Did I just cast into the pasture?

“How can you hear in that helmet?

“Did you just say snake, or stake?

“What bats?

“When are they going to start biting?

“What the heck was that?

“Will you please take me home?”

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