Treasures of the Mississippi

Wednesday morning I went fishing in the Mississippi River below the Ford dam. I parked my car at Wabun park and tromped in my waders along Minnehaha Creek to the familiar spot. Along the way I paused to drift my wooly bugger through some promising pools but came up empty. With it being late summer, I thought I might hook into some feisty bluegills guarding their spawning beds. A few years back I took the kids worm-fishing there and we brought home a nice stringer of panfish. It’s fun to see those red and white bobbers go under. The boys are older now and don’t fish with me as much. That’s fine too. I catch more that way, although not on this particular day.

Wistfully, I persisted in the place where I had done so well with my sons. This year the creek seemed too low to hold any fish. Just as I was about to move along to the wider shores of the Big Muddy, I got snagged. My fly refused to budge from what looked like a plastic bag or a hunk of tarp. I waded in and stooped over to remove the troublesome trash. What I discovered was very strange. Some crafty fellow had fashioned a homemade net out of a tree branch and window screen. The net was large and attached to the stick with wire. I guessed that it had been utilized as a minnow seine. That particularly deep hole in the creek always holds a massive school of baitfish. Much as I admired the ingenuity of its creator, I hauled the net to a trash barrel near the mouth of the river so it wouldn’t be a bother to anyone else.

The Mississippi was quite low, as one would expect for the season. The fishing is seldom as good but I don’t mind when it’s like that. I can wade further out when the current isn’t so powerful like it had been in the spring when you wouldn’t have dared stick a toe in it. With each visit the river was different. The graffiti on the giant storm drain had changed. Not as good really as what I’d remembered, but someone else would improve on it soon enough. I looked for my mischievous son’s tag but didn’t see it anywhere.

I continued to work the fly hard, stripping line and letting it sail again in a majestic arc behind me. In flyfishing, I had found a freedom that I did not know in any other aspect of my life–the green line and long pole somehow synching my soul to the rhythm of the wind, sun and water. I kept vigilant for that ticklish bump that would electrify my nervous system just before I set the hook.

The bump never came but I found myself content with the scenery. Downstream from the opposite bank I could hear the babble and shriek of an adolescent bald eagle. The raptor took flight and orbited overhead in the blue sky for a while before returning to the sanctuary of the treetops. A pair of fishermen in a Lund boat slowly motored past. Their wake was small but I retreated for shore to avoid it. It was time to try a different fly anyway. I fished a bold green and white streamer where the creek current flowed into the main river channel without success and then waded upstream toward the dam. It was getting hot and I cursed myself for not setting my alarm. Something moved by my feet. I looked down just in time to see a small turtle tuck its head and feet into its shell which was perfectly camouflaged to the surrounding rocks. Had I not seen it moving, I could never have picked it out as anything but a round stone. Unable to resist, I reached down and grabbed the critter. It was a spiny softshell turtle, a species you don’t see as often as the painted turtles which like to sun themselves on logs. The shy creature craned its neck to bite me as I sloshed back to shore for a picture. I wanted an image without my hand so I set it down. It immediately started running for the water much faster than I would have expected for a turtle. Holding my phone in one hand, I caught it again when it ran into a big rock and returned it to the river where it belonged. It was swimming away from me and gone in an instant.

I’ve hooked a lot of junk in the Mississippi, reeling in face masks, plastic bags, fishing tackle, bicycle tires and a Chicago Bears cap. I’ve caught my share of fish too and, once in a while, I discover some real treasure.

In June of last year, for example, I was fishing this very same location and saw something round glowing in the water. Having no idea what it might be, only sensing in it something magical, I reached my hand in and grasped the object. It felt cold and smooth to the touch. My sleeve dripping, I held aloft a brass bowl decorated with royal blue paint and an exotic script. I felt triumphant, like Indiana Jones with the golden idol in my hand. Only there was no giant boulder coming to kill me.

Happily, I carried the brass bowl home in the back pocket of my fly vest. I assumed the bowl to have a religious significance, postulating that it might have been used for baptisms. Could the River Jordan have been much cleaner than the Mississippi? At first supposing the writing to be Amharic, I showed pictures of the bowl to a coworker from Ethiopia who quickly informed me that the writing was Arabic. Well, that made me feel ignorant but that’s not a curable condition if you don’t ask questions. So much for baptisms. At some point I’ll learn its translation. The bowl produces a lovely ringing tone if you tap the side with a fork handle. It sits on display inside the antique hutch in my dining room. I never plan to part with it.

My relationship to the river is like a conversation. With each visit, I share something with it and the river shares something with me. These conversations tend to be oblique in nature, riddles to be pondered and understood at a later date. I often depart the river’s shores lighter than when I came, as if a burden had been lifted from my shoulders. The river is, perhaps, my best friend. Certainly, my most reliable one. It is, quite obviously, a spiritual relationship. But such things are best expressed without labels.

I worked the next day and came home feeling dissatisfied with myself. It had been too long, I decided, since I had caught a fish. I left the house after dark and walked the quiet neighborhood with a net dangling from the back of my fly vest. I always feel a bit preposterous in that getup but the attire suits my purpose. I left my wide-brimmed hat at home this time with no worries about a sunburn. After crossing the bike trails, I donned my headlamp and entered the forest. A narrow dirt path leads down the gorge to my fishing spot. It was cool but the air was humid with a haze visible in the beam of my light. Apprehensive about mixing with any revelers, I stopped and listened for voices. But all I heard was the hum of insects and the insistent hoot-a-hoot-hoo of a Great Horned Owl somewhere ahead in the canopy. The last stretch of the hike descends sharply and I grabbed onto exposed tree roots so as not to fall in the darkness. I was relieved to see that I had my preferred spot to myself on this particular evening. The Army Corp of Engineers keeps a graduated board in the water a few feet from shore to monitor water depths. Some jackass had managed to rip the six-foot ruler out of the river’s bottom and had charred two-thirds of it in their bonfire. Well, I picked the right night to come out. But if someone had been there, I know of other places to fish. The view of the river was stunning with the Ford Bridge lit up in orange and the big full moon reflecting on the black river. I don’t have my shit together enough to be checking moon phases. This was just good luck. I got excited, recalling the time two years ago when I caught a real lunker of a bass after dark in the exact same conditions.

I tied a black deer-hair streamer with a rabbit-fur tail to my leader and started casting. Some moments later, I heard the howl of what sounded like a coyote. Something seemed off about it though and I thought I heard laughter. I figured it was a person howling at the full moon as a joke. But then other howls began like a chain reaction above me in the gorge with others responding in kind on the whole other side of the river. Talk about a conversation. I was honored to listen. There must have been a half dozen of them. After five minutes they quieted down and never made another sound.

I tried in front of a big culvert. The flow of cold water from deep underground attracts minnows which attracts bass. The bass tend to be small. That’s usually where my son fishes. My casts didn’t produce any hits so I walked along the shore to a small rocky point near a fallen tree. This is my best spot. I always catch fish there. The night did not disappoint. My headlamp didn’t extend far so I was casting blind into the dead tree. Fortunately, I didn’t overshoot the cast and get hung up in the branches. On my third cast a bass exploded in the water on my fly. The bend in the nine-foot six weight could not have felt better. I reeled up my line then fought the fish till it was tired enough for the net. It was about a foot long, a smallmouth to be grateful for but nothing to brag about. I released it unharmed and unphotographed. I kept at the spot and another bass broke the water with even more fury. I reared back on the rod to keep her out of the tree. The bass obliged and swam for deeper water. I fought the fish to near exhaustion and netted it as I’d done the other. This one was more respectable, a chunky fourteen-incher. I removed the fly from the fish’s mouth and slipped it back into the river. Some treasures were to be kept while others were to be returned.

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