Fishing and hunting forays usually fall under one of three categories — prize, consolation prize or surprise. And then, in the outdoors, there’s the occasional “booby prize.”
Being finely in tune with the signs of nature can help you avoid a booby prize adventure. See if you can pick up on the signs in this story.
It was a beautiful spring week, many moons ago. A group of family members and friends headed out for a long weekend of tent camping and fishing on a secluded hump in the Atchafalaya Basin, acting like we were French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle and company. The prize was to be big bunches of catfish and bluegills. We were prepared — an eight man tent, two lean-to tents, sleeping bags, two big cast iron skillets, three miles of rope and a grocery sack full of poor man’s peanut oil (Crisco), cornmeal, potatoes and onions. Ice chests were full with 10 pounds of bacon and six dozen eggs. We also had Dr. Pepper and water. And of course, fish bait, trotline hooks, poles, bobbers, lines, sinkers and almost enough cans of Deep Woods Off.
We had no AccuWeather forecast, no cell phones, not even a map. But we had good directions and permission to stay on the little dry spot of land poking right up from some camps on a lonely dead end canal.
Boudin and Dr. Pepper
We hit the road early and had to stop and eat, of course. Our party included a Baptist preacher. He almost turned around and went home when we stopped at a Sportsman’s Quickie Pack and I got a link of boudin and a Dr. Pepper for breakfast. Instead, he scribbled some written notations in his little black prayer book while muttering inaudible incantations.
A couple of hours later, we had launched our boats loaded down with gear at a tiny landing off Belle River. All was going well, but then… The preacher’s outboard motor wouldn’t crank. There it was. A sign. A sign that all of us, except him, unfortunately overlooked.
Even though we had at least six expert mechanics who knew about everything from where to tap it with a screwdriver to blowing WD-40 into the intake to get it running, it didn’t start. We had about a two mile boat ride into the swamp to camp. The boats were too full to tow one, so the preacher just loaded up and went home. We made sure he left critical supplies — like Off, the big black skillet, boudin and Dr. Peppers.
The next day was great. We caught a washtub full of nice catfish and bream and cleaned them right on the bank not far down from where the boats were tied up. We had a great night’s sleep. The next morning, we got up and ate a big breakfast and took our time. We already had almost enough fish to fill up our ice chests. But when we headed down to the bank, one of the guys yelled, “Look at that big water moccasin! Shoot him.” We did. Then we shot another. And another. Before it was over, we had killed 11 snakes and run off about 1.5 million more. Pretty stupid to clean fish that close to camp. I know now.
Then, suddenly, as if we had made the snake gods mad, the sky started clouding up like a scene from the Twilight Zone. Wind shook the tops of cypress trees. We went out and ran our lines, caught more fish, took up the lines and headed back for camp. Our fish to ice ratio was at the max. So we fired up the skillets and reduced the inventory of fish as much as possible. Mid-afternoon as we relaxed and kept an eye on the darkening sky, a local commercial fishermen pulled up and said, in his best Coach O voice, we better get out of there. Real bad weather was coming. Guys that live in the swamp almost never talk to outsiders. The fact that he took time to do it made us realize he wasn’t kidding.
There it was. Hit us like a brick. If you go off on a wild outdoor adventure and the preacher’s motor won’t crank, you should go home.
We tried to pack up. But before we could even take down the big tent, the northwest wind was churning up waves way too big for us to cross the big lake. Too late. We hunkered down on our hump. Remember that three miles of rope? We used all of it tying everything down.
I’ll never forget two things from that night. One, the brutal wind filling our tent with air like a balloon and then the sudden poof of the tent deflating, all during a glorious and loud lightning and thunder show. Two, there was my former brother-in-law, who came despite thinking a rugged day outdoors was getting in 18 holes of golf after work. He “slept” wearing his life jacket over a borrowed yellow slicker suit, tied to a big tupelo tree.
Morning brought sunlight and calmer waters. Sadly, destructive tornadoes had claimed the lives of several people in the area, two in a boat on the very lake we had backed away from trying to cross. We got to the landing and hurried to a phone to call the wives and let them know we were okay and headed home.
Calling the wife. That’s an important survival skill. It would have been a shame to live through that night only to be taken out by a cast iron skillet back home.