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Ellington White
May 31, 1971
But the stump-filled waters and oozy edges of Shirley Mill Pond are a paradise to dedicated bass fishermen—and devoted poachers
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May 31, 1971

Not A Place That Appeals To Everyone

But the stump-filled waters and oozy edges of Shirley Mill Pond are a paradise to dedicated bass fishermen—and devoted poachers

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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?"

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