Dateline: September 13, 2012 – Thomasten, Georgia
The word “epic” is overused in today’s media. But when a fishing trip involves four new species, two IGFA royal slams, three world records, a three hour canoe portage, and a full frontal assault by an armadillo, it can only be described as epic.
In September, I went to Atlanta on business. With a weekend to spare, I knew there was one very special fish I wanted to catch in the area. You have probably never heard of the shoal bass – neither had I until about 2 years ago, when I started investigating the IGFA “royal slam” awards given for catching a (sometimes stupidly difficult) set of related fish on one’s lifetime. This rare relative of the largemouth bass lives in a few rivers in western Georgia and eastern Alabama, and it was the last and most difficult species between me and this coveted award.
Interestingly, at least to Martini Arostegui and his cat, (see http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/the-hair-apparent/) is that Martini was in the same proverbial boat – one shoal bass shy of a royal slam. Less than five minutes after he found out I would be in Atlanta, he fired me an email with a suggested river, guide, list of species, and list of open records. The kid isn’t just good, he is fast. Of course, I invited him along, and as the school year at Stanford had not started, he was quick to accept.
Arriving in Atlanta, I was mildly taken aback to see the name of their rapid transit service.
I can never get away from her. I just hope there isn’t a mass transit system someplace called “Jaime.”
We set it all for one day, dawn to dusk, with guide Allen Ragsdale. An experienced outdoorsman, Allen came highly recommended, and he certainly lived up to his billing. Martini and got up very early on the 12th after a fitful night of sleep at the Hartsfield Vermin Inn, and we covered the country roads down to Allen’s house in about an hour. We met Allen and our co-guide for the day, George, then headed down to the Flint. It was a quiet summer morning as we carried the canoes down to the water.
The river at dawn. Little did we know, that in just 15 hours, we would be attacked by an armadillo.
Martini brought along his fly rods, as there were several tippet-class records open on the shoal bass, and he never misses a chance like this. Of course, this made things harder for him. Because fly fishing is hard.
Martini makes things hard on himself.
I took a more traditional approach while Martini flailed around with his fly rod. The water was very low, and the canoes dragged bottom as we looked for small pockets of open water where the bass would be hiding. I flipped a plastic worm into a number of likely-looking holes, and soon, I found myself missing bites like only Spellman can. For about 15 minutes, I was possessed by the spirit of Mark, or perhaps even of Guido, except that no one got arrested. But this passed, like a gallstone, and I finally managed to hook a fish. Reaching down and lipping it, I looked for the telltale vertical lines and tongue structure. It was a shoal bass. I had become the 14th person to complete the royal slam on bass.
My shoal bass. Note Martini wrestling with the fly gear in the background.
I thought back over all the states and guides who had helped me get this grab bag of species – it was a quest that had taken me from California to New Jersey to Texas to New Hampshire and finally to Georgia. It was my second slam – I also got the trout award in 2010, and that one cost me the worst blister ever. (See http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/the-cottonwood-death-march/)
In the distance, I could see Martini flailing around with his fly rod. Still no shoal bass.
Monty Nofishon and the Holy Flail.
I shook my head sadly and turned my attention to some fish rolling in a riffle. They ignored my lures, and just for fun, I tossed them a night crawler. I got an instant hit and reeled up a silver-gray sucker, which turned out to be – and I didn’t make this name up - a greater jumprock.
Why are they called jumprocks? And what make them so great?
I don’t know how it ever got named that, because I saw dozens of them during the day and never once did one jump from, to, or on a rock. I did note that it wasn’t quite a pound, so I needed to find a bigger one if I was to submit a world record.
With two big catches out of the way, I set to some serious species-hunting. The river was very low, and there were endless clear, shallow stretches loaded with attractive rocks.
As much as we had warned Allen, he was still in no way prepared for the sight of me wallowing in the shallows with a handline, poking under rocks, trying to catch whatever oddities might be in residence. He is a super-polite guy, but I still caught him grinning to himself a few times as I groveled near a rock, trying to tempt some micro-beast from its lair.
Now and then, I looked up to see Martini flailing away with the fly gear, fishless as could be. But after some hours, his persistence paid off and see somehow stuck a shoal bass. He thus became the 15th person be awarded the royal slam on bass, an awesome accomplishment, but of course not quite at the level of the pioneers who had been awarded the first 14 royal slams.
Martini’s first shoal bass – the one that gave him the 15th ever royal slam on bass.
We had no idea that in just 11 hours, we would be attacked by an armadillo.
Along with about 50 undersized spotted sunfish, I captured two mini-beasts of note. The first of these was a snail bullhead, a very small catfish that hides under rocks. And the second of these was a bluefin stoneroller, a very small stoneroller that hides under rocks.
The snail bullhead.
The bluefin stoneroller.
Martini gets in on the species hunting. But soon, he was back to the fly rod.
Many thanks to Andrew Taylor at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Stream Survey Team for taking the trouble to identify these monsters.
It was a bit deeper than Martini estimated when he stepped off the rock.
Martini serenaded us with a faintly obscene version of “Besame Mucho” as he continued flailing around with his fly rod, in the apparently vain hope of adding a line class record on shoal bass to his already impressive total. The fish cooperated a bit more, so he started running up a reasonable score. I made rude remarks about fly fishermen and continued to enjoy steady fishing.
Another shoal bass. Around the time this photo was taken, the armadillo attack was less than 5 hours away.
We were thinking about wrapping it up for the day, as we still had about 45 minutes to paddle to the takeout. We came upon a large, deep pool. Martini flailed about with the fly stuff, and Allen and I talked about the jumprocks. He mentioned that there were usually some big ones in this pool. I mentioned this to Martini.
The two royal bass slam anglers model their swimwear.
Moments later, Martini’s voice came across the water in that loud whisper men make when they’re trying to get someone’s attention as unobtrusively as possible. “Steve.” he said. “They’re here.”
“Who?” I asked. ”The jumprocks.” he hissed. “They’re … right … HERE.” And he nodded down toward his feet. I eased over by him, and indeed there was a veritable school of nice-sized suckers using him as cover. We would need to do this quietly. Allen moved in from behind and handed Martini a rod. Martini skillfully dropped the bait and soon hooked up on a nice fish. He eased out of the spot and let me move in to position. I then stuck a nice jumprock.
Both fish officially weighed a pound and a quarter, which, as mentioned above, qualified as world records. To be fair, Martini’s fish was almost a pound and a half, and mine was barely one and a quarter, but they will go into the books as equals, just as the score sheet does not differentiate between one of Jeff Kerr’s beautiful backhand hockey goals and one of my flukes off a defenseman’s skate. (See http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/korean-superman/)
Twin records on the greater jumprock. Martini’s jumprock was definitely greater.
We decided to spend a few more minutes fishing bass before we took off for home. I got several more nice ones as Martini flailed away in the distance. You might even say he had an epic flail, except that the minute I even thought of this joke, he got his biggest strike on the fly stuff all day, and it was a beautiful fish. A record fish. So I have to take my hat off to him, even if this displays less hair than I would have hoped.
Martini’s 20 pound tippet-class record on the shoal bass. It looks big in the photo, because, well, it was big.
Martini and George, moments before we got a nasty surprise.
It had gotten a lot later than we wanted, so we decided to call it a day and paddle downriver. We made it about 200 yards. It was here that Allen stopped and said “Oh #$%@. The river was about six inches higher last week, and it’s too low for the canoes today.” With that, we got out and walked. Walking is slower than paddling.
A lovely view. It would have lovelier if we weren’t dragging canoes.
We had miles to go, and any thoughts of getting back in daylight were dashed. Allen and George dragged the canoes, and Martini and I trudged along. Splashing along in shallow, rocky water is not a fast process, especially for Martini, who was wearing crocs and had bloodied his heel on a piece of glass. We waded on through dark, and we could hear the splashes and pratfalls of Martini and George ahead of us, as they had no flashlight. Little did we know that tiny, sinister eyes were tracking us.
After about two miles of this – almost two hours of splashing, slipping, falling and dragging the boats, Allen and George touched base and changed plans. Allen said “We’re going to leave the canoes here, guys. We can hike to the top of the ridge and shave a bunch of time off. Otherwise we’ll be out here past midnight.”
We started up the hill. The trail was longer and steeper than we had hoped. I was set up in a good pair of Keene sandals, but Martini’s crocs weren’t meant for long-distance hiking. I could hear the squeaking as these ground away the skin on his furry little feet.
We saw a veritable zoo of wildlife on the hike up the ridge – deer, raccoons, opossums, owls, and something scary in the bushes. After what seemed like an hour but was really only 60 minutes, we reached the top of the trail, and stood around there, panting and exhausted, while George gamely went down the rest of the trail to get the truck. While we waited, we swung the flashlight around the area and saw all kinds of critters – more deer, and a pair of close-set, glowing eyes that peered out from some shaking underbrush. We kept the light on the bush, wondering what was in there. We heard faint snuffling noises, and the bush shook some more. We raised eyebrows. Suddenly, the foliage burst open, something headed right for us, and we all yelled in surprise and assumed our action poses.
It took us a moment to focus in the shaky flashlight, but after a few long seconds we finally saw him as he charged. It was an enraged … armadillo? We stared slack-jawed as it trotted toward us, as fast as its little feet would carry it, which isn’t very fast. We relaxed and exchanged bewildered glances as it covered the 50-odd feet between the bush and us, which took long enough where we had time to consider what to do when it arrived. It finally reached us, panting tiny armadillo pants from the effort. Allen held his foot up, and the armadillo bumped into it and stopped, as bewildered as we were. It backed up a step, and ran up against Allen’s foot again. With some sort of breathless armadillo expletive, it backed up, changed direction, and shuffled myopically off into the night, satisfied that it had taught us a lesson.
The tiny face of terror.
Steve and Allen after the Armadillo incident. Allen is clearly still shaken. This guy is an excellent guide – if you’re planning on being in Atlanta, catch up with him at email@example.com.
Martini looked at me. “We just got charged by an armadillo.” I looked back at him. “Yep, we just got charged by an armadillo.” Martini said “It’s not going to get any weirder, is it?” I responded “Only if we eat at Waffle House.”
So we ate at Waffle House. Which, south of Atlanta at 1am, was pretty much like the Star Wars cantina. It was an old Waffle House, and it is possible General Sherman ate here and even more possible that he burned Atlanta because he ate here. Facing early flights and near-exhaustion, Martini and I still maintained our cooperative, teamwork based-relationship. “I got the royal slam first.” I reminded him while choking down an antebellum biscuit. ”Yes,” he agreed while slurping up his eggs with a straw, “but my jumprock was bigger.”
We drove on into the night, not knowing when the next adventure would be, but knowing that it would be tough to match this one for sheer epic. Little did we know that our next time on the water would involve … Elvis.