I think of her every year about this time. It was early March when she broke it off. When I close my eyes, I can still see her shaking her head.
Years ago, line was not very good. After a day in the hot sun, it would break easily. And that is what happened with the biggest smallmouth I ever hooked. She was easy over eight pounds. That is why I say hooked. Because I did not get her in the boat.
In 1976, I was working at the same company as the late, Harold Dotson. I was new in the office and did not know Harold. One day, he heard me mention fishing.
The next day we were on Center Hill. I had never caught a smallmouth and had no equipment suited to fishing a fly and rind. Harold had 133 rods with Cardinal Three, open face spinning reels. He loaned me two and gave me an 1/8-ounce doll fly with pork rind trailer. We went fishing.
Harold had a two bedroom trailer at Cove Hollow Dock. We drove up and hit the water. I had never been on Center Hill prior to that time. I had done plenty of fishing and after an explanation about what a strike felt like, we hit the bluff in front of Holmes Creek. My third cast, I dropped the fly right against the bluff, swam it out and let it sink. I felt the slight tap Harold had described and set the hook.
I was ruined.
My first smallmouth weighed four pounds and thus began a love affair with brown fish that lasts still today. I became a smallmouth snob. Every other fish was trash.
We fished light rods with either four or six pound test line. We broke a lot of fish off and started changing line every day. It would go “bad” that quickly. Now, I may change line twice a year. It is that good.
We caught fish all that first afternoon, kept three about 1-3/4-pounds for supper and started at daylight the next day. We began on the right hand bank of Jones creek about 400-yards in from where it joins Indian. Right where the old deer stand use to be.
It was one of those March mornings, cool and cloudy. I matched Harold fish for fish and we tore them up. I expect we caught close to 30-smallies that morning and formed a fast friendship “I’ve never seen anyone pickup fishing the light stuff so quickly.” Harold told me one day. Coming from him, it was quite a compliment.
Harold made a lot of money. I was struggling somewhat. As he bought new and better equipment, I inherited his old. It was that way for several years. One day, he tossed me a set of keys and said, “Here, you might as well have keys to the camp so you can come whenever you want.” It was that kind of friendship. I lived there for a few weeks in 1984 and fished every day. I got good at it.
Through Harold, I met Chuck Wilson, another smallmouth junkie. We soon converted Mickey Pope to our way of thinking. Over the years, Harold, Chuck, Mickey and I fished all over the U.S. and Canada.
Mostly we fished light stuff, 1/8-1/4 ounce jigs with a variety of tails and colors. That was part of the mystique of smallmouth fishing. You had to know what you were doing. You couldn’t just “chunk and wind”. We looked down on guys who threw crankbaits on 10-pound line. Early spring was our favorite time of year. If we could find 60-degree water, we could catch fish.
Harold was the Slider master of the Hill and he taught me well. I became more than proficient with flys, tube lures and jigs with tails. I became the GitZit master. The real secret to that kind of fishing is in the “feel”. You have to feel the light strike or sometimes, just an absence of weight on the line. As rods improved, feel improved.
For over 20-years we fished together. Frequently, we would fish the Hill all day, eat supper at the camp and drive to Dale Hollow and fish most of the night. Through those years, we caught several smallmouth in the six-pound class. That is a big smallie. We lost some big fish, too.
Then, in 1995, he suggested we go spend a few days at Pickwick. I was ready. I have no idea where we were. All I know is it was a rocky bank about five-feet deep, dropping off to 15. It was cloudy, the kind of cloudy that guarantees rain. I had a brown, 1/8-ounce hair fly with orange streaks and a black U-2 trailer tied on six-pound Stren.
There was no strike, just weight on the line. I set the hook and she came out of the water. I had her on for several seconds until she caught sight of the boat. Only a smallmouth fisherman can understand the rush they can make when they first see the boat. You had better have the anti-reverse off. The line broke halfway between us. I think it broke my heart as well.
Neither Harold or I said a word. I just tied on another fly and wiped my eyes.
I miss Harold, Chuck and Mickey greatly. I miss those days of smallmouth fishing. The Hill is not what it once was and neither is Percy Priest. I have my theories as to why but who knows? I miss going out at two in the morning and fishing until dawn when they would hit on top for a while. I still have a box of Baby Torpedos and Hellcats.
I have not caught a big smallmouth in a couple years. I have not fished for them much. Maybe this year will be different.
The love affair continues.
Contact John L. Sloan -- email@example.com.