My alarm went off, shockingly waking me up. It was 4:30am. Maybe it was 5am. I was pretty sure it was Sunday, and I was in Birmingham, Alabama. It took a minute to realize what was happening, just like it always does. I was at Sam’s parents’ house, where’d I’d been staying since the previous Tuesday. In town for work, visiting ChartCapture HQ in Vestavia, Alabama; meeting many of my coworkers for the first time (that’s what happens when you work from home) and generally having a great time.

Just like pretty much every day so far, we were going fishing. Perhaps more than the other impromptu fishing trips, this trip was going to be more of an adventure.

Sometime soon Scott and his son Alex were going to show up at the door, ready to hit the road. Sam and I quickly made coffee, gulped it down, and took stock of our fishing gear. I put some new mono line on my L.L. Bean ultralight reel, hoping I could escape the recent reel problems I’d been having. My $15 Meijer ultralight reel and the braided line I put on it were not getting along… Every few casts a bird’s nest of epic proportions would spontaneously form, and my lure would splash into the shallow water, held back by the un-untie-able knots.

Scott arrived, surprisingly awake; Sam and I loaded our gear into his SUV. I strapped on my river shoes, plopped myself into the seat, and we were off. We were headed for Big Will’s Creek, about an hour north of Birmingham.

I’d been surprised how quickly urban/suburban landscape of the city transitioned into rural Alabama. This was my first trip to the south, if you don’t count a random trip to Georgia to get a dog when I must have been 8 or 9. I didn’t know what to expect, other than a vague idea of southern culture and the idea that I needed to drink some sweet tea.

Sam and I had fished a bunch of places all around B-ham; the Cahaba River, Little Shades Creek, Big Shades Creek.. Perhaps some other ones. Unfamiliar with the geography and overwhelmed by the sheer number of rivers and streams winding their way through the appalachian foothills, it was hard to keep track. I was constantly surprised by how beautiful the landscape was in suburban Birmingham where I was staying. Not that I anticipated an ugly city, but the plentiful “mountains” (very very tall hills) and extra-green foliage everywhere made for some marvelous vistas.

Alabama mountains

These were things we saw as we made our way north/northeast toward our fishing destination. As the sun came up, fog meandered around the ever-present kudzu greenery which covered most everything in the whole area. Big bright green leaves, some kind of vine. Whole areas of hillside were blanketed with the stuff.

We stopped to get the necessities; ice, some more water, beef jerky, and another pack of beef jerky. I grabbed a little can of starbuck’s something-or-other that promised multiple shots of espresso that in my early-morning state I was powerless to resist.

Soon we were close. Sam and Scott trying to get their GPS’s to agree. Looking at the little purple lines and arrows, watching the blue dot bounce on Sam’s phone, it was incredibly unclear quite where we were and where we were going. Our destination was Big Will’s Outfitters in Gadsden, Alabama. It is not right off the expressway. It is not on a main drag. There are no bilboards for it.

We made our way up a mountain- and it really was a mountain- on a gravel and dirt road snaking around precarious-looking cliffs. Scott expertly maneuvered his SUV up the road that, to my midwestern eyes, absolutely did not seem wide enough to be two lanes. At one point a car going in the opposite direction flashed by my window and I was amazed. The whole thing was a bit like a roller coaster ride, in a good way, especially since I knew it would end in fishing instead of me throwing up into a bucket. Well, maybe both.

We passed a sign that said “Road closed ahead.” I wondered if we might just fly of the mountain into the river. Wouldn’t be the worst way to go, at least we might provide some structure and food for some fish.

What the sign should have said was “There used to be a real scary lookin’ bridge going from one mountain to the other but that done broke and all that’s left is a post-apocalyptic-lookin’ pile of scrap metal perched above the river.” The four of us sat there, staring at the mess of metal that was the only thing between us and our destination. Apparently.

Maybe the photogenic mist floating all around the mountains was messing with our GPS. Maybe we were just too far away from civilization. Either way, it was clear we had to retrace our steps back down the mountain. Pedal to the metal, we flew back down the thin and winding road, eventually finding the unmarked street we needed to take.

After a comedic scenic drive through the country, the ultra-green foggy mountains providing the backdrop to postcard-like farms, we caught a glimpse of a little sign. “Big Will’s Outfitters” I think it said and an arrow. Might have just said “BWO.” A few feet later there was a wooden paddle sticking out of the ground. Maybe it fell off the mountain and that’s where it landed.

Finally, passing a couple of cows, we were there. As we passed the cows I couldn’t help but simultaneously admire them and think about how good I bet they would taste. I bet they had nice lives out there in the country, free to wander around the fields, eating plants and stuff. There are probably worse ways to live as a cow, even if they end up as steak  and brisket eventually.

And then we met Josh, the proprietor of the fine paddling and fishing establishment. He was a good-natured dude who didn’t mind we were quite a bit late for our paddling adventure. Josh had agreed to open up shop a little early so we could get fishing before hordes of pleasure-paddlers drifted down the river. His shop was adorned with the requisite “big fish” pictures, a few lures for sale on a couple lonely racks, and a bin full of multi-colored glasses keepers. You know, foam things that will prevent your glasses from sinking to the bottom of the river. Seems like something I should get, but I didn’t. There was also a rack of t-shirts I already knew I’d be revisiting later.

We parked the car and transferred our gear to his van. A giant wooden cross rose from an otherwise empty grass field. At first I thought it was some kind of practical wooden device, serving some kind of paddling-related purpose I didn’t know about, but then I realized it was just a cross. A Jesus cross. I suppose he was into fishing, from what I read.

I did manage one fish that day…
a spunky little redeye bass

Josh drove us and two canoes upstream to our put in. On the way he talked about the fish in the creek, what they liked, where to find them; he clearly knew a lot about fishing. I sure like meetin
g people who know a lot about fishing. It occurred to me that I was now in the south where, according to the internet, fishing was a big-time sport with big-time celebrities. There were bass fishing teams at high schools. Everybody seemed to fish. I liked it.

At our launch point we each marked our territory in the woods, rigged up our rods, and took the obligatory group photo. The creek (or river; still not sure which- I’ll just call it a river) was pristine and brown. I couldn’t tell if it was muddy or just off-color from clay deposits or something. I guessed it was the latter. Coolers, rods, tackle, and snacks in the boats, we set off into the river. Scott and I in the first, Sam and Alex in the second.

Immediately it was clear this was a different kind of water than I’m used to in the midwest. Like the rivers I’m used to fishing, the banks were lined with trees, rocks, foliage; the usual riparian suspects. Unlike my usual streams, there were towering kudzu-covered mountains in the distance. The river was the natural result of the valley- the water has to go somewhere. The water was cold, very refreshing after a few outings in bathtub-like water. I was sure the fish would appreciate it as well.

Looking down the river, I had to do a double-take when I saw two cows in the water. They were standing there, maybe cooling off a bit, their tails casually swatting flies away. We gave each other questioning looks, saying “What are *you* doing here?” As we approached they walked back up onto the bank and watched us float by. I’m glad they did, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to keep floating downstream. I was so enthralled I didn’t even get a picture.

Scott and the first catch of the day

Scott was the first to hook up with a fish, one of the native red eye bass found only in certain areas of the southeast. Unknown to Sam and me until recently, the red eye bass is a distinct species from the other more familiar members of the black bass family (largemouth and smallmouth). It looks like a smallie, fights like a smallie, but also kind of looks like a spotted bass. They don’t grow as big as their relatives, but they make up for it with their striking coloring. And their awesome red eyes.

Energized by tossing off the skunk so quickly, we got down to serious fishing. The four of us floated, fished, made adjustments with our paddles, and fished some more. Sometimes one would fish and the other would paddle, then we’d switch. The scenery was amazing, the river was awesome. The sonic landscape was just as surprising to me; not even a hint of an expressway. No cars nearby, no planes overhead, just the sound of cicadas and other bugs doing their thing in the agricultural land around us. It was a refreshing change from the usual roar of transportation-related sounds in Chicago.

Early on it was clear to me I was going to have one of those days. On of those fishing trips where everything goes wrong, where it’s a struggle to cast, hard to hit the right spots, and lures are lost by the pound. The river was in no short supply of downed trees and branches. They were everywhere; whole trees lined the river, gnarly roots snaked down into the water. These all made for great fishing spots, but also lent themselves to stealing lures and snapping lines. The sometimes jagged bedrock on the river bottom didn’t help either.

Scott doesn’t fish rivers often, so I was doing my best impression of a river fishing guide. Putting him on the fishiest spots, those little pools near timber and rocks; suggesting he cast right next to that tree trunk, working the chigger craw in that particular way. I was overjoyed when he pulled out his first bass!

In the meantime, I felt like I was a total newbie fisherman again. Loosing lures after every few casts, my line snapping inexplicably; the trees and branches reaching out to catch my lures on otherwise nice casts… It was tough going.

The fishing was fairly tough, but everything else about the adventure was exceptional. It was great to get to know Scott a little more. We’ve been working together for weeks but never met in person until recently. The scenery was gorgeous. Our coolers were full of beer and sandwiches. Sam produced a flask full of whiskey from some unknown corner of his fishing vest. It was real good times.

We stopped to fish a particularly fishy-looking bend in the river. I told Scott how the outside bend in rivers is always deeper, sharing information that is fairly new to myself, as I cast like a four-year-old and lost another jig with a snap. I would have switched to crankbaits or spinners, but I left that box in the van at Sam’s parents’ house.

Scott’s son Alex, on his way to becoming an expert angler at 13, is really into fishing. As I understand it he will sit for hours trying to coax reluctant fish from their hiding spots. Sometimes he gets frustrated, as we all certainly do, but he persists because he knows how great it is to hook into a nice fish. He has a great attitude about fishing; somehow he already knows it’s as much about getting there and fishing as it is the catching.

Suddenly he got snagged, which was probably the first time that happened to him that morning. Then I heard “Dad, I think I got a catfish!”

Sam, Scott and I stopped fishing and turned toward Alex, who clearly had a fish on. A nice one. A nice big cat, go Alex! I thought. I dropped my rod and headed over to see the action- I think Sam and Scott did the same. Alex got the fish to the shallows, and we saw it wasn’t a cat, but a VERY nice bass! I think Sam giggled. I most certainly did. Usually in these situations I perfume the air with my patented celebratory profanity spray, but I did my best to stifle that due to the younger ears. “Oh darn! That’s big!” I might have said.

Alex got the fish up, lipped it, and the four of us stood there in awe of the GIANT monster he’d just caught.

Alex and the catch of the day- creek monster spotted bass

Well that right there makes it all worth it- to see the look on his face, holding that monster of a fish. Heck, I’m sure my face looked the same! That was an awesome fish. I seem to remember shouting a lot, congratulating him, my own fishing troubles melting away- so happy to see Alex with such a nice fish.

Naturally we all fished the heck out of that spot- I got snagged about 300 more times, which meant I got find out there was a deep whole where he caught the bass. In fact, I discovered a few deeper holes in the river. Water came up almost to my neck, but I was determined to unhook my snagged lures. I don’t mind getting wet if I can learn a little something about where the fish hang out…

There were some spots downriver we worked; Scott got a few more, I got one; Sam and Alex were cleaning up over in their boat. At some point we looked at our watches and realized how tired we should be; although there were tons of fishy spo
ts in the last mile of our trip, we mostly paddled over them. It was late afternoon, we were tired, and it was time to go.

I’ll never forget the amazing scenery, the great conversation, and of course the single really nice fish from this trip; as I sit here in Illinois, part of me wants to go back to Alabama. The other part just wants to go fishing- right now.

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