Rays of quiet emotions broke through with daylight as I made the drive up Bonner Ferry Road, across the Bayou Bartholomew Bridge past fields of sunflowers and soybeans into the oak and pine canopy tunnel overlapping the roadway.
The road to Bussey Brake. Officially, La. Hwy. 593 North.
After crossing the scenic Bayou Bartholomew bridge, to the left was the man-made lake levee; to the right, the God-made twisting tree-lined bayou. Folks say this road that winds through quiet, moss draped woods is the most scenic and peaceful in the state. I concur.
“You rode down this road to a whole lot of your life,” my emotions whispered to me on this recent trip. The second anniversary of the re-opening of my childhood “home away from home,” Bussey Brake Reservoir near Bastrop, is this month. Not many old lakes get to live again. Bussey does.
Trips back to the lake rekindle all kinds of memories. Passing the pumps that feed life’s water to the lake, I saw the turnstile entry where an old friend and I often parked his speedy Pontiac GTO, unloaded our gear and caught bass off the rocky banks.
Buckets of bass
The next spot brought memories of later work days at IP, when I actually helped manage the reservoir. We unloaded buckets of the first Florida strain bass fingerlings into a grass bed on the lake’s edge right about here. And here, we ate fried fish at the annual Kraftman Fishing Rodeo. There was a trip with the Sheriff’s Department to evict squatters, a group of campers that decided it was so much fun, they brought their relatives and built a regular little tent city across from the lake. I think those folks moved on to Seattle.
I passed the old water outfall structure that we stood on catching white perch in the 20-foot deep hole. But somebody got drunk one Saturday night and fell in (no, it wasn’t me, but thanks for asking), so it was fenced off with razor wire.
I instinctively slowed down in the curve approaching the main boat dock. Here on opening day, April 30, 1960, I sat waiting in line with my dad, a 12-foot aluminum boat resting on an old piece of paper mill felt strapped on top of grandpa’s solid black 1949 Pontiac Silver Streak, four shiny new cane poles sticking out the back window.
Bussey re-opened in July, 2020 after being closed for seven years for renovations. Since then, she’s given up multiple 10 pound bass, three pound crappie and even hosted the finals of a Major League Fishing pro bass tournament where a Kentucky angler pocketed $100,000. In the same event, an Alabama angler caught a new lake record 12-pound, 14-ounce. It won’t go down as noteworthy anywhere, but I sat in a boat 20 yards from Howell on this day, watching him fish. About five minutes after we left Howell, he caught the big fish. If you were watching the live stream, you could have seen our boat idling away about 100 yards to the East as he boated the monster. Big bass have done me that way my entire life.
Bussey Brake. Over the years, time and nature wore on her. She got old and unproductive. But she has new life.
Into the lake
At the main dock, I glanced at the bank where Dad and I kept our old aluminum boat. We didn’t even have to lock it up. Times have changed, haven’t they? That’s the only place I ever fell into the lake. My school-teacher parents had saved up money for a three-horse Evinrude Lightwin outboard. Carrying it down the slippery slanted wooden ramp to put it on the back of the boat, I went in. And under.
The story goes that I sorta walked/stumbled up out of the water, still holding on to the Lightwin. It still cranked up that day and we went fishing. The story is true because Dad told it often. He was a straight shooter, a trait I may have partially missed in the family’s gene distribution.
Outdoor legends like Grits Gresham, Bill Dance, Homer Circle, Cotton Cordell and more fished here back in the day, even before my back in the day. When she was new, Bussey was featured in the outdoor publications of the day, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield and newspapers around the south.
Today, her big trees are gone, but she held on to plenty of stumps, lingering ghosts of trees past, once standing so thick you couldn’t see 100 yards into the lake. Out in the boat to see the new waters, I motored past the spot where I caught my first flathead catfish on a stump line. I learned why folks said grabbing a 40-pound flathead was like grabbing hold of an earthquake.
I passed a big flooded flat now covered with blossoming lily pads. We used to call it Stump City, an area that fed us hundreds of meals of fresh bream and crappie every year. There were many days where friends and I would catch a Coleman cooler full of bream in the morning, Dad would bring us a bottle of Coca Cola and a hamburger and fries from ToTo’s or Slayden’s for lunch. He would take the fish home to start cleaning them. We’d go back out and start catching them all over again for the rest of the afternoon.
Too much butter
My Mom read from some crazy outdoor writer somewhere (again, not me, but thanks for asking) that you could improve a crappie hole by baiting it with grits. She cooked up a big washtub full and we dropped them in one of our favorite Stump City holes. It didn’t work. As far as I remember, we never caught another white perch out of that hole. Knowing Mom, the grits had too much butter in them.
I fished my first bass tournament on Bussey with legendary Bussey angler Speedy Goodnight. He had three lures in his tackle box — black, purple and blue Fliptail plastic worms. We won that tournament with a 20 fish limit. Speedy caught 19 of them.
The old “graveyard island” is gone. It’s where I caught my first bass on a rod and reel my Uncle Virgil gave me. He won it in a bowling tournament and he didn’t fish, so there you go. The memories seem unending. But that’s a good thing. Bussey is going to be a great place to fish for a long time to come. If you grew up near Bastrop and know what a fishing pole is, you have Bussey stories. Make sure and pass them on to others. And wherever your “Bussey Brake” is, make sure and share the stories with others. Keep them alive. Just like Bussey.