Rumors feed the minds of fishermen and tempt us to consider the most outlandish possibilities. The frozen lake at the center of Dante's hell, I have often thought, would be no exception; nor the River Styx, if word got around that trout lurked in the gloom of the far side.
I have no idea where the rumor came from that first took me to South Carolina to fish for striped bass in French Quarter Creek. Rumors seem to live the lives of moles and are impossible to trace. But whatever the origins, the rumor must have been substantial in its promise, because South Carolina is a goodly drive from where I live and the automobile is not my favorite mode of transportation.
In any case, there I was at the end of a spectacularly drab day at the start of winter. Although French Quarter Creek is one of the world's loveliest rivers, meandering among vast marshes, it would probably prefer to go underground during this dingy time of year and not be seen again until spring. Clouds the color of wet concrete slathered themselves across the sky and oozed a cold gray drizzle on everything beneath them.
The accepted way to fish for stripers in these parts is to cruise the river until you encounter a school feeding on the surface, whereupon you are advised to cut your motor and glide silently among the churning throng. I had spent the day doing just that, cruising, and now with dusk approaching, numb as a board and homeward bound, I had switched to a different technique, that of probing the edges of the river with a fly rod while the rising tide carried me in the direction of the landing where I had launched my boat.
A mile or so down the river from the landing, however, a surprising thing happened. Some whim of the tide, which was reaching full throttle, wheeled the boat around and shot it backward into the wall of bare bushes growing from the bank. One grasping branch tried to wrench the rod out of my hand while another seized my hat. I flailed about and almost fell overboard. By then the boat had left the river, having gone straight through the bushes and entered a lake of considerable size, hemmed in by high dirt banks on which gum and oak trees stood.
The sun was just moments away from making its dull departure, and owing to the dimness of the light and the large amount of moisture in the air, I had the impression of being not so much in a place as part of its reflection in a stupendous rain puddle. All around me the outlines were hazy and remote, and nothing moved except the tide hissing through the rushes. Grass as high as a man's head covered most of the lake, but there were a few open patches of water here and there and a channel that seemed to connect them. I wished I could see better. Muted shapes on the shoreline were bothering me, especially a small stump that suddenly acquired wings and flew into a tree as an owl moaned low in the background.
I have fished my share of creepy places; shadow-and fern-shrouded pools never reached by the sun; sullen backwaters in the Everglades, where each drop of rain thudded on the glossy green leaves. Here was another.
Joining spongy logs and wads of limp dead grass that the tide had accumulated during its shoreward journey, I drifted, the boat spinning much of the time, into the murky heart of this strange place. Finally it entered a narrow waterway blocked at the far end by a crumpled, black oblong listing on a pair of hideously bent legs. The rational part of my brain told me what I was seeing was a duck blind. It was overruled. Before the thing could pounce—Grendel of the Bogs—I started the engine with a yank and left, bursting through the bushes like a 14-foot aluminum spear.
Such was my introduction to South Carolina rice fields. I was not aware of it at the time but there are hundreds of these abandoned bogs scattered across the low country from Georgetown to Savannah. You find them on the Santee, the Combahee, the Ashepoo, the Edisto, and on the east and west branches of the Cooper. The fields and a few of the plantation houses that they helped to build are about all that remains of the great rice boom that lit up the economy of South Carolina during the 17th and 18th centuries, when millions of pounds of the grain were harvested annually.
Most of the fields have been idle since the early 1900s and many of them have returned to the woods or been overcome by swamps. Pine trees, a 20th century crop, cover a number of them. Others, their untended dikes crumbling, now seem to be owned jointly by rivers and marshes, existing without fixed boundaries in a tidal world populated by herons and crabs. Only a few have been kept up over the years, like carefully preserved frames surrounding a cherished but vanished picture.