Dateline – November 13, 2010 – Big Bone Lick State Park, Kentucky
So how was it that I found myself at an isolated State Park in northern Kentucky at 5:30pm on a given Saturday last fall, a couple of hours away from Indianapolis where 7pm dinner reservations were looming? And how was it that I was ankle deep in mud, photographing myself holding a spectacularly small fish? As always, it’s complicated, but it started with two very old friends in the midwest, one in Indianapolis who I see every couple of years, the other in Cincinnati – who I hadn’t seen in more than two decades.
Indeed, this wasn’t even supposed to be a fishing trip, and there was certainly no intent for it to end up in rural Kentucky. This was planned as a “guy weekend” in Indianapolis; sporting events and unsupervised man food with old buddy Steve Ramsey. Steve and I worked together at Bank One many years ago – he was the senior guy managing large affiliate relationships, I was the clueless young guy. (I have since morphed into the clueless old guy.) He was nicknamed “Dr. Detail” for his incredible precision, I was called “Dr. Doom” for my antics on the company softball team. Every couple of years, we catch up in Indy and go to a couple of games – Colts, Hoosiers, or Pacers – and eat as irresponsibly as possible. We used to work in a few sets of tennis, but I got tired of getting crushed, so we skip that now. I got even with him by going to IU games wearing a bright yellow Michigan sweatshirt.
Me and Steve Ramsey at a Colts game. This kind-looking man is actually viciously competitive and can whip my socks off at tennis. He’s not as competitive as Jaime Hamamoto, but somewhere close. Of course, Jaime killed a wild boar with a crossbow last week, so she scares me a lot more now.
November is not typically the right time to visit Indianapolis for decent weather. Indeed, I almost didn’t even bring a fishing rod – gasp – but a last minute check of the forecast indicated some chance of mild conditions. The Thursday night I arrived felt more like September than November, and the weather report, which called for a 55 degree Friday, was way off. By the time I headed out for lunch, it was pushing 70 – an absolutely perfect day of what we Americans call “Indian Summer.” And no, I don’t know why we Americans call it that.
The White River, Indianapolis. My old back yard.
So I chased over to a very familiar part of town – the apartment complex where I lived in 1989-1990, on the northeast side of Indianapolis. (Where I had to agonize over whether I could afford $315 a month in rent.) The reason I wanted to live at this place so badly was because it was landscaped with 5 lakes and was bordered by the White River, which would leave me walking distance from fishing. I parked over by the tennis courts (where Steve Ramsey used to routinely stomp me 3 sets to none and mock my sprained ankle,) and rigged up a small jig on my trusty Shimano telescoping travel rod. In my shirtsleeves, I headed through the still-familiar paths and down to the river.
A tunnel through the autumn woods
I had never seen a finer fall day – brilliant colors on the trees, bright, clean sunshine, the woods and river completely to myself. It’s strange – I almost never caught anything except poison ivy when I lived there, but on my return trips, I have done very well on smallmouth in the riffles and on bluegill and yellow bass in the lakes. I managed a couple of beautiful, hard-fighting smallies from the pool by my favorite downed tree, so all was right with the world.
Self-portrait with smallmouth. Note the Skyline Chili hat.
I fished until late afternoon, then drove to meet Steve for our traditional Skyline Chili dinner, followed by our traditional watching the Indiana Pacers lose a basketball game. Skyline Chili is difficult to explain to persons who did not grow up around it. It’s not technically a food, it’s more of a substance – a thin, viscous (or vicious, take your pick) chili typically served over spaghetti with onions and cheese. And we both love it, even though it can only be rendered digestible with a delicate mix of hot sauce and Metamucil.
But on the next day – Saturday – things got complex. The plan was deceptively simple – drive over to Ohio, eat lunch with another old buddy, Bill Sennett, then head back to Indy for a dinner with Steve and some other friends. Basically, since I had planned to be in Indianapolis in mid-November, I gave Bill a call and arranged to drive the 90 minutes over to Cincy and get lunch with him. I had not seen Bill Sennett in 20 years.
I had no idea how 20 years had gone by so fast. Bill was a grad-school buddy of mine from back in the mid-80s. We were tight in those years, very tight. A friendship based on chicken wings, beer, a passion for sports, and occasional studying. A shared bond of watching Ted Power blow saves for the Reds. (And Power wouldn’t just lose on a cheap single. He would give up massive, dangerous-to-be-in-the-bleachers type of 5-run homers.) And Bill had my back. On one particular evening, I ended up in an unfortunate dispute with about 8 slightly-built frat boy types over rights to a pool table. When it looked possible that fisticuffs were on the agenda, Bill whispered over to me “You take the 4 on the right, I’ll take the 4 on the left.” When I looked up at him incredulously, he allowed “I didn’t say it was a good plan.”
Bill Sennett and Steve Wozniak, age-progression photo. And yes, we are eating at Skyline Chili.
It was Bill who shocked me out of my funk when I was dumped by an old girlfriend, who shall remain anonymous except that her initials are KIM TAYLOR. Sitting in the basement of some low end bar, I was in a wretched state – pathetic, weepy, and morose. That was when Bill marched in and gave me a General Patton-style pep talk that scares me to this very day. The finer details are hazy, but yes, I am almost certain he slapped me.
The last time I saw Bill, we were performing bizarre rituals to ensure that Denver defeated Cleveland in an AFC title game. It’s not that we’re Denver fans, we just don’t like the Browns. And somewhere between the homemade Elway jerseys and the ritual hex dance on the coffee table, it worked. I still believe, faintly but insistently, that we were personally responsible for Ernest Byner’s fumble.
And so it was that we caught up. And despite the fact that, as 22 year-olds, we had thought we were a lot smarter than everyone older than us and that we were destined the change or own or run the world (as soon as we digested all those extra-hot chicken wings,) here we were, 20-odd years later, and we had more or less turned in to our parents. (And worse, that we were actually pretty darn proud of this.) Still, when we got talking about the old days, it seemed like it had all happened last week, and I knew that we probably could still get into trouble really, really easily, so it was probably best that we kept it to a quiet lunch and that no meaningful football games were on that day.
Bill had a bunch of stuff to do with his kids and … giggle … grandkids – let me say that again – GRANDKIDS – that afternoon, so I was back on the road by noon. Hmmmm, I thought. Kentucky is quite close. I am free for a few hours. Why don’t I just run on down there, find a creek, catch a quick fish or two, and get on back to Indy in time for dinner? It sounded so simple, but the ghost of Moltke was laughing at me.
I drove south on I-275, and things looked normal enough, but as soon as I got off the Interstate, the billboards started. Religious billboards. And not the old “Bingo night at the Hebron Calvary Church” thing – we’re talking “You’ll Burn in Hell” sort of stuff that would embarrass Dante. Then I passed signs for the “Creation Museum” – apparently someone spent a lot of money to try to convince us that God put the dinosaurs here – when we all know it was Steven Spielberg.
I could swear the “missionary lizard” was a popular dance when I was in college, but I could be wrong.
I tried to get a Kentucky map at several gas stations, but no luck. Who would have thought that a map of Kentucky would be so hard to get? Perhaps they’re hiding them in case the Union invades. And so I proceeded without one, which was not the best idea. I wandered the rural roads of Kentucky, looking for a stream or small lake in which I could pick up an unfortunate bluegill or catfish to add KY to the state list. The landscape was certainly dotted with just the right kind of pond, but all of these seemed to have two big signs that said things like “PRIVATE POND” and “WE SUPPORT THE NRA.” Yes, I get the hint. And so I continued to drive down rural state highways looking for creeks.
Unfortunately, this part of the country had been in a drought for several months. Creeks which would ordinarily hold enough water to host at least small fish were almost dry. I tried a couple of them anyway, scrambling under muddy culverts as bemused locals looked at me suspiciously, looking for that one pool that might hold the stunted chub I needed. These were not to be found. Time marched on, and it was getting late enough in the day where I was going to have to worry about making it back to Indy in time for dinner.
And then I saw a magnificent sign – a sign which caused me to do three separate double takes (or 6 total takes overall) – Big Bone Lick State Park. Yes, I giggled like a 9 year-old when someone says “fart.” But State Parks sometimes have lakes. So I composed myself and headed over there as sort of a last chance.
You just can’t make stuff like this up.
I am certain that no one intended for the name to be racy. The place is a salt lick and a fossil site, and it’s just unfortunate the combination came out that way. And not that I saw any of the interesting stuff, because I sped right on by it and headed to the lake. I dashed up the short incline to the water – beautiful place, several acres. But it was windy and getting colder, and no one was catching anything. I gave it a game try for about half an hour, but I knew I was almost out of time and needed to get moving. And so I headed for the gate, which meant I was pretty much giving it up for the day. But as I drove out the long access road, I crossed a creek I hadn’t noticed on the way in. I stopped to have a look.
The creekbed was largely dry, but the remaining water had pooled up in a few places where I could not see the bottom. Did I really want to try this? (Silly question.) I stared some more, and then I saw it – a single dimple on the top of one of the pools. A small fish had risen – clearly a sign from the Fish Gods. (Who do not threaten you with flaming hell, although they do seem to throw poop on Spellman a lot.) And so I sprinted back to the car, rigged up a float and the very smallest hook I own, and headed down the muddy embankment.
The scene of the crime.
The bites started quickly, but nothing would stay on the hook. This is because the fish were likely so small, so miniscule, so much tinier than even the impulse control part of Charlie Sheen’s brain, that they could not fit the #22 into their itty-bitty little mouths. But I persisted, because that’s what I do. And there were more bites, and more bites, but no catching. Not even any hookups. But I persisted, because, as we mentioned, that’s what I do. At 5:15pm, when I was already coming up with excuses for being late to dinner, the float went down much more aggressively than it had before – perhaps 2 full millimeters. I let it drift off a second or two, then swung gently back and lifted what I thought was a surprised creek chub onto the bank. And it was tiny – positively picayune even for a chub. But it was a fish and I had caught one here – state #39. Yes, I was absolutely thrilled.
If you look carefully in the center of the photo, there is a fish.
Almost five years later, sharp-eyed 1000fish reader Brandon Li spotted that this fish was a striped shiner, and so I had actually added a species. Yee-ha.
And then I realized it was very late in the day and I needed to be back in Indianapolis for a 7pm dinner. Without a map, it was a challenging meander back to the main highway – it’s amazing how different things look when it’s dark and you can’t see them. After a few unintended detours, I found I-275 without getting shot or cursed to eternal damnation. (Although the weather did get really bad on the way home – a vicious rainstorm that brought visibility down to a few yards.) But I ploughed through, sort of showered, and got to dinner on time, as long as we count the 8pm reschedule as on time. Hey, at least I picked up the check.
In a day framed by some of my oldest friends, that is how it came to pass that I added Kentucky to my list of states, albeit with the smallest fish I have ever used to add a state to the list. Even smaller than that ridiculous bluegill I caught in West Virginia. But I had done it.
And what this all tells me is I should visit Bill again soon, meet for breakfast, and then head to go fishing in Tennessee. But it might be nice to plan it around some football game that we could really enjoy watching together, like a Bengals/Lions Super Bowl. But that might be a bit of a wait. So Bill, if you’re reading this – and I know you are – get your tail out to California. You bring the Skyline, I’ll bring the Metamucil.