By DH Steinour
Inspired by childhood memories of fishing in Pennsylvania, a soldier looks to the Sunshine State’s small-stream species as salve for his post-deployment scars.
I wanted to go home. I know they say you can never go home, but I was willing to try. Deployed over the holidays for the third time in five years, I was drained. I was over it. I wanted to be a teenager again, wandering down some green lane with cornflowers garnishing a fence row, spinning rod in hand and some Gitzits tubes and jigheads in my pocket. I wanted a lazy creek with smallmouth cruising the pebble beds and a kingfisher stuttering overhead. I was tired of sand and dust and crises and futility. I missed my wife and son. I missed them hourly. But I knew there was some mending I needed to do alone out on the water.
Stationed in Florida’s panhandle, 1,200 miles from my home creeks in rural Pennsylvania, I would have to improvise once I got back to the States. I decided to fish for Florida’s river bass, and I discovered Florida’s black bass slam: Catch a largemouth bass, a Choctaw bass, a shoal bass and a Suwannee bass all within a year. It sounded intriguing, chasing down three species I’d never caught before and exploring some of Florida’s spring creeks. It was a way to go home without flying north, a way to refresh and reflect.
I passed through Paris on my way back from the desert. It was a cold, rainy morning at Charles de Gaulle, but with a long layover I took an expensive cab into the City of Lights. Wandering the wet streets for a while, I found myself at Le Dôme café, a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway. There was an empty wicker chair on the patio, and I started to decompress over coffee. I wondered if Papa Hemingway, the patron saint of outdoor writers, sat there nearly a hundred years earlier and experienced the same problem as me: I could think only of fishing. I remembered reading that Ed Zern made his writer’s pilgrimage to Paris but he didn’t last there because he missed Pennsylvania’s limestone creeks too much and went home. I plotted a few fishing trips on a napkin and planned my Florida bass slam as a stodgy waiter freshened my coffee.
The Choctaw bass would be my first target. It was only recognized as a distinct species a few years ago, sharing many spotted bass characteristics. Their range is limited to the western panhandle, and some email exchanges with an enormously helpful Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist gave me some tips about where to find them. Upon arrival back in the States, I took some time to reconnect with my lovely wife and son before hitting the water. I had missed some firsts: his first Christmas, his first steps, his first birthday. Many times downrange I lay in my sleeping bag and wondered if being a good husband and father and being a good officer and troop were mutually exclusive. It was like balancing on a seesaw’s fulcrum while juggling steak knives.
But it was late March now, and one Saturday I petitioned my wife and slunk out to the truck, a rod in my hand and the baby in hers. I tossed in the kayak and motored up toward the Alabama border with a vague idea of a creek to try. I crossed a bridge and saw the low, sandy stream that the biologist recommended. There was a pull-off but no launch ramp, and I dumped the kayak off a cut bank. It was 0800 by then and the sun was well up, and I opted to paddle through the bridge pilings and have a look. Blowdowns sucked against the pilings, forming a chute of strong, clear water that I powered through, paddling and tossing a Brush Hog to woody pockets. I worked maybe a hundred yards upstream, passing a meandering spotted gar, until the creek widened and was too swift and shallow to proceed.
I drifted back through the chute and beached the kayak on a sandbar in the middle of the stream. There was a slow-moving pool against the west bank, and on the first cast a bass bit, jumped 2 feet out of the water and threw the hook. I cast back into this calm tub and soon hooked another acrobat that I landed. It wasn’t large, probably 10 inches, and it looked like a spotted bass with rows of black dots on its white belly. It had olive checkering on its back, its jawline didn’t extend past the eye, and it had a tooth patch inside its lip, setting it apart from largemouth bass. I was excited to check one off the bass slam list just an hour after starting, and I continued casting to that sandy pool.