Center Hill Lake is a cool clear body of water that is nestled snugly in a valley surrounded by lush green hills and limestone walls in the middle of Tennessee. As a child it was a tradition for my grandparents and I to venture to this man made fishing heaven once or twice per summer. In more recent years I’ve found that being at a BBQ with the air filled with the smell of roasting hot dogs and the sounds of sizzling burgers often carry my mind back to a campsite on those familiar childhood shores. Later in life the river that is the backbone for this stretch of water would also be my introduction into trout fishing tail waters as well.
One particular early summer morning I arose to smell of coffee perking over an open fire and the sounds of my grandfather and grandmother discussing news they’ve read in the days paper picked up by my grandfather at some ungodly hour at the local convenient store. I roll out of bed, literally as we’re sleeping in a late seventies pop-up camper. If you’ve ever seen one of these things, they have the most amazing capability to go from something resembling a thin rectangle box into a monstrosity of a fort that looms over the campsite stating to all those around; “I no longer accept camping as primal and simple manner to remain in touch with our natural world. No, I am the master of the woods and shall bring along all the comforts of home and just temporarily set-up shop in the woods for a week or two.” My grandfather said that sleeping on the ground in a tent gave him a bad back. I was five years old and had no clue what a bad back was, yet.
Exiting the camper I was greeted as most grandchildren are by unwanted kisses from grandmother and a forceful stroking of my head in an attempt to somehow get my hair from sticking up all over the place giving me the appearance of something raised by a pack of wolves. After all, one must maintain a proper appearance when camping in the great outdoors. Once I freed my self from her arms I slumbered to the safety of my grandfather. He would never “ruin my rep” and slather me with kisses and try to make me look presentable in the middle of the forest. He would however, let me sit on one of his knees and take sips from his coffee which would drive my grandmother nuts. He’d flip to the comics’ section and begin reading me the funnies. Usually this was enough to hold my attention for the first half an hour or so until I fully awaken. Being by the waters edge it would only last a few minutes. My attention fixed on the fishing rod and the tackle box resting against the truck bed. My grandfather nudged me and with a gentle whisper instructed me; “Go ahead, but stay close to camp.” I sprang from my grandfather’s knee, in a split second I had my trusty Zebco 202 and my tackle box in hand running for the trail leading down the hill from our campsite. On my mad dash for the water I took note of my grandmother telling me breakfast was in half an hour.
Moving branches aside while wiping spider webs from my face that I’ve walked into I make my way to the waters edge. I follow along the water a few more steps and find a nice spot with the branches of a submerged tree rising from the surface. This is the spot I say to myself, lots of cover. I pause listening into the silence for any signs of trouble. My grandfather enjoyed telling me fictional stories as a child of bear attacks around the lake and deadly pythons, rattle snakes, even the occasional Boa would be found lurking in these woods to feast on “bad” little boys and girls. Again, I reiterate that we’re in MIDDLE TENNESSEE! And I’m only five. Not to mention that up until my twenties every word uttered by my grandfather was as if it had come directly from the lips of God. Like many young boys I idolized my grandfather and he could do no wrong, even if he did insist on scaring the wits out of me with his fictitious tales.
After ascertaining that I was indeed alone and the coast was clear and I could still hear the faint sound of my grandparents in the distance above me. Unlatching my little tackle box I open the top, reach in and pull out a Styrofoam container filled with dirt and night crawlers. I thread one onto the hook, check that my balsa wood float is secured in place and heaving my rod forward I press my thumb on the release and with a zinging sound and a whoosh my line hurls forward landing with a splash a few feet from the edge of the tree. I turn the reel crank a few times to tighten up the line and make my self cozy on a fold out multi-colored woven aluminum lawn chair left on the banks the first day we arrived. My attention focused towards the open waters of the lake as the sun begins to sparkle on the waters surface with the light begining to break through the trees high atop the hills. The early morning fishing boats motoring across the water leave a wake that turns those gentle sparkles into a light show that seems to come to life in a beautiful dance.
A quick tug and my attention is back to the float. Steady, slowly turning the crank to tighten the line again. Steady, I tell myself. With a slight gulp sound the bobber is tugged under water. I give a quick reel and pull back on my rod. FISH ON! First fish of the morning and I’m all smiles. Thirty years later and the fastest way to make me smile is to hook up with a fish. Well, maybe that comes second to having a pretty girl tell me she likes me. I’m reeling and keeping my rod tip up as I retrieve the fish. My head filled with the day dream of bringing in a lunker of a bass that would certainly impress my grandfather and all else whom saw the picture as it would merit a frame and display on the mantle for all to see. As the fish bolts towards the surface in one last attempt at freedom my hopes are shattered by the sight of a small pan fish about the width of my two little palms placed side-by-side.
Kneeling down to the waters edge I rest my rod next to me and with care I remove the hook and let the little fish swim back for the safety of the branches. As I reach my hands into the water to wash them off, a movement catches my attention from the corner of my eye. Seems that all the commotion of my catch has aroused the curiosity of something else. It darts back along side the log where I can’t see it any more. I stand slowly in anticipation of what it is. Maybe it was just a fish chasing some bait or a water strider darting across the surface. I second-guess the water strider due to the very large wake it left. I can feel my heart begin to pound faster. Images from my grandfather’s stories begin to fill my head. Feeling the fear build within me I’m still trying to be brave. I’m also very curious. What if it is a huge bass crashing some bait just on the other side of this log. I could cast in my worm and potentially catch this monster.
I kneel back down as not to scare the fish as I creep forward toward the edge of the log. I glide my hands quietly over the surface of the log. I maneuver with the skill of a seasoned hunter stalking his prey. I raise my head over the log and that very moment, the head of a snake pops out of the water towards me and comes to rest on a branch about a foot away. Face to face, we stare each other down, neither sure what to do or make of the other. I did the only thing a five year old is to do in this situation. I leap to my feet and frozen stiff open my mouth and let out the highest pitched screech for help that even froze the snake in its place. As we both sat there unable to move with me crying for help; “POPPA, POPPA!” I screamed, my eyes filling with tears. The snake seemed paralyzed and never moved an inch. Upon the forth or fifth yelp for help I head the rustle of the dirt as he raced to my aid. Placing a hand on my shoulder he kneels next to me asking what’s wrong. I point to the snake and he looks in the direction of my hand. Turning back towards me smiling he chuckles. “It’s a harmless water snake, see.” Grabbing a small stick laying on the ground he shakes it at the alarmed two-foot long creature and it turns tail and scurries in the opposite direction.
Returning to camp he fills in the details to my grandmother whom was in the camper bathroom when my screaming began rolling her hair. Again, one must keep up appearances when in the wilderness. They both soothe my worries and guide me to a seat to have some breakfast. Not sure if that was to make me feel better or not. I felt like the biggest wimp. What a sissy I told myself. A few weeks later as some other older generations of family are gathered around for my great grandmother and grandfathers anniversary party I walk into a room when my grandfather motions with a gesture for me to come to him. Sitting me on his knees he looks up at me and with a room full of the elder men of our little tribe sitting around he says; “Go ahead, tell them about the monster of the lake.” Hearing chuckles from them all I don’t hesitate. I launch in to the story with, “You should have seen it. It had to have been ten feet long!” It was at that moment I’m certain my grandfather knew I was destined for fishing greatness. After all I’d already mastered the art of the fisherman’s tale.
written by: Jim "Big D" Harper
Bite Me Belize