Sporting Life

Escape to the Woods

Even if it’s all in your mind

“Fishing doesn’t actually happen. It just goes on in your head.”

— Robert Ruark, The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older

By Tom Bryant

Good night, nurse, it was cold! I had been working on the little Airstream in preparation for our annual fishing trip down South and was taking a break in the Roost, the apartment above our garage where I do most of my writing and heavy thinking; that is, if I have any heavy thinking to do. It had been a crazy year, what with the pandemic and other happenings that didn’t sit well with this good old boy.

I was kicked back in my desk chair, thawing out numb fingers, thinking about the last several months of 2020 and how glad most of us were to see that miserable year plowed into the history books. I had spent a lot of time in the woods, supposedly hunting, but in reality, escaping cabin fever. North Carolina had been locked down, hiding from the virus, and the woods were my breakout mechanism. If I had to rely on the game harvested during those ventures afield to feed Linda my bride and me, we would be starved down to the bone by now.

A couple of friends and I closed out duck season with a canvasback hunt up in the northeastern section of the state. It was a dud. No ducks. Pretty scenery, though, and also a welcome break from all the political angst and health concerns generated during the last months of the year.

If nothing else, the past year gave me plenty of time to reflect on bygone successful hunting and fishing trips. Ruark could have added “hunting” to his old man’s quote. It also doesn’t really happen; it goes on in your head, too.

While sitting in the blind on that unsuccessful canvasback chase, the three of us reminisced about wonderful hunts when the ducks were plentiful, we were younger, and life seemed to be so much simpler. If laughter is a cure-all, as many doctors seem to think, the three of us came away from that hunt without a single duck, but a lot healthier.

Our recent fruitless sojourn and the memories of adventures in the field hunting and fishing were a welcome balm for the miseries of the past year. And as I warmed in the roost, I reflected on how fortunate I am to have lived the life I have during a very special time.

Growing up in the little village of Pinebluff where all a youngster needed was a bicycle and a dog was, in a word and in retrospect, wonderful. It was pre-TV and the small borders of our community, which we determined by how far we could ride our bikes in a day, was our world.

World War II was over, the country was settling down for a period of stability and prosperity, and the good times were not lost on my friend Maurice Pickler and me. Maurice and I were in the fourth grade at Aberdeen Elementary, and we spent many hours roaming the woods and wild areas surrounding our small village. We built a camp in the far reaches of his backyard that, in our minds, rivaled that of Jim Bridger, the mountain man we read about in our history books. We constructed tables out of lengths of trimmed pine branches and a fire pit and oven from scrounged bricks we found on many excursions in the neighborhood. We camped almost every weekend while school was in session and during that summer whenever we could. Maurice and I remained close friends until he and his family moved to Wilmington. Sadly, he died from cancer early in his life, but our adventures when we were very young remain some of my fondest memories.

There is an ancient bait-casting rod and reel propped in the corner behind my desk, and it is remarkably like the one my granddad gave me one summer I spent on the farm in South Carolina. He had a rustic cabin right on the banks of the Little Pee Dee River, and whenever farm chores slowed, we would head to the fish camp. Those were idyllic days spent fishing from his river skiff or on the banks of the slow-moving black waterway.

One lazy afternoon right after he somewhat formally presented me the gift of the rod and reel, he said, “Son, this little fishing pole is made by South Bend and will serve you for many years if you take care of it. Come on, let’s put ’er to use.” We loaded the river skiff and were off for an afternoon of laid-back fishing.

Our plan was simple. We would motor up the river for several miles, then slowly drift/fish back toward the cabin. Nothing very complicated, but we caught fish. Mostly big fat red breast, but every now and then a catfish, and on rare occasions when we ventured off the fast-moving river to a shallow tributary lake, a bass or two. The bass were cause for celebration; and most of the time, we released them because Granddad said they were rare on the river and needed time to reproduce.

Unfortunately, that special South Bend rod and reel was lost as I moved about during the teen years and on to college. My interest was elsewhere: sports, mostly baseball and football, cars, and girls. Needless to say, I was preoccupied, and fishing took a back burner.

Shortly after Linda became my bride, we were browsing in a dilapidated antique store that was way off the beaten path. The old place was located in South Port, close to Long Beach, now known as Oak Island, where we were spending part of our summer vacation. I had been surf fishing without any luck, and we decided to visit the little village that was right on the Cape Fear River and the location where Robert Ruark, one of my most liked outdoor authors, enjoyed time with his grandfather.

As we were leaving the store, I glanced in the corner and saw a rod and reel leaning against an old bureau. The time-worn furniture almost hid the fishing rod, but when I pulled it out of its resting place, I saw it was almost exactly like the one Granddad had given me so many years ago. The ancient fishing pole now resides permanently in the corner behind my desk along with a spinning outfit that belonged to my father.

My desk is located right in front of a window of the Roost, and during the dead of winter when I’m watching frosty Mother Nature in all her glory and hunting season is over and fishing is a while away, all I have to do is glance at those two pieces of antiquated equipment and I’m off on some river or lake or coastal waters, fishing somewhere.

Ruark was right when he heard the Old Man say, “Fishing doesn’t actually happen. It just goes on in your head.”  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

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