Mike Wilson: Tailrace tales
Published 11:00 am Friday, July 14, 2023
More the gourmand than the gourmet, I have never been especially intrigued by all those stories in outdoor magazines about pursuing tiny native cutthroats in Montana in little brooks four feet wide and six inches deep using hand-tied nymphs with number 24 barbless hooks and then releasing them, all while sporting $3000 worth of rod and waders. When it comes to fish, I am all about catching a load and eating them nice and fresh, and some of the best hauls of my life, I now realize, have come from just below dams.
My Uncle Jimmy was a great outdoorsman who would park his Winnebago (when it wasn’t in a NASCAR infield) at Grenada dam and fish for catfish a couple of weeks at a time. He lived and worked in Jackson, Mississippi, but he always enjoyed returning to his old stomping grounds. I guess the same sense of adventure that led him occasionally to the gaming boats at Tunica made him go out on a limb once in a while.
One time when I was about 12, he had invited a bunch of friends and relatives to a fish fry on a Saturday night there at the lake, but the catfish hadn’t been biting well, and it would have been way beneath his dignity to buy fish at a store, so he gave me and my “cousin” (officially a half-step-uncle a year younger than myself) a mission: fill up a #2 washtub with little stripers. Turns out they were running in the spillway that day, and what I thought might keep us there all day long only took a couple of hours! Our sophisticated rigs consisted of Zebco 202’s with a spark plug tied on the end of the line and crude outriggers that let us lower three white or yellow jigs at a time into the churning water there on the side of the dam face.
And you didn’t even have to wait for a bite; if you lowered three jigs, you pulled up three 10-inch stripers almost immediately. When we had the tub full, we couldn’t lift it, but at that point Jimmy was glad to leave his shade tree and come over to give us a hand. Believe me, catching them sure was a lot more fun than cleaning them all! Breaded up with cornmeal and fried quickly in real lard — he always kept a 25-pound can handy — those were some of the best fish I have ever eaten. I am sad to report that Uncle Jimmy, a die-hard Saints fan from the very first day of the franchise’s rumored existence, passed away just weeks before they won their Super Bowl.
When I finally got my driver’s license at 16, I should have had calling cards printed with “Have Rod, Will Travel.” I was now free to test my angling prowess far and wide! I kept a travel rig with a four-section rod in the trunk of my ’62 Corvair at all times. One weekend my buddy John and I decided to go over to Heber Springs to camp out on a Saturday night. On Sunday morning, we were packed up to leave, but decided to stop at the dam and just have a look. There weren’t many people around, and the water below the dam was low and unusually still. I put on some polarized glasses and suddenly could see that there were hundreds of hatchery trout, almost all the very same size, massed up right at the concrete wall we were looking down. It looked like a tank at the minnow farm. At that moment, it did not occur to me to find out anything at all about trout regulations, creel limits, open seasons, out-of-state licenses, etc. I just knew we had to catch some, and I hope the statute of limitations has expired…
We clambered down the rip-rap and cast some little spinners, but they wouldn’t even look at them. I started thinking that, if they were just out of the hatchery, they had most likely only ever eaten those little liver pellets. Then it hit me: those pellets look sort of like a pencil eraser. I went back to the car and got some pencils, we broke off the erasers and put some little hooks through them, and we were off to the races. We had a gunny sack about half full of nice little trout when we heard a loud horn, and I suddenly remembered that sign back up at the rail: “When Horn Sounds, Floodgates Will Open in Five Minutes.” We bugged out of there fast and the gates did indeed open very soon. Thank God for literacy!
Those were among the few trout I had ever eaten, and I can thank Field and Stream for a recipe I had once seen that involved broiling them whole with a strip of bacon on each one. We even had enough to give about ten to our favorite math teacher, who appeared somewhat surprised when we showed up at his doorstep late on Sunday night with a bag full of trout, cleaned of course. I promise neither of us needed extra credit; John is an actual rocket scientist.
I have a friend now who claims that he rounded up so many big catfish using trot lines with no bait, just super-shiny 2/0 stainless steel hooks, that he nearly sank his big jon boat on one outing last year. I am waiting to see a little more evidence on that one…
Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at email@example.com.