The Most Important Lesson

Ben Bailey.

By Joe Woody

It’s amazing how fast your adrenaline kicks in when there is a shock to the system. The 50-degree water had not yet broken through to my shiver mechanism…I just stared in disbelief at what had just happened. Off to my right, my fishing buddy, Ben Bailey, had still not found his footing and had gone completely under for the third time. I gathered my wits and reached my hand out to help him. I grabbed him by his arm and helped him to his feet…we stood there…in the dark trying to comprehend what had just transpired. We looked down at my canoe, now full of water, only saved from submersion by the rock we had hit. We made a fruitless effort to grab some of our gear now floating away. Off to our right, we heard a large splash in the water…something had jumped in from the bank. We couldn’t see it in the dark. I then looked at Ben and realized we had lost Jasper. I panicked and thought about going under to look for him…wait there he is…oh no!!! Not Jasper!!!

Two Days Earlier

Ben and I stared in disbelief at the pictures Mike and Mark Hensley, electricians extraordinaire, were showing us. They were pictures of really big fish they’d caught. We’ve seen pictures of big fish before but it was the story surrounding these particular fish we couldn’t get our heads around.

Mike claimed to have caught them in the French Broad River. Again, no big whoop, there are plenty of monsters in the French Broad…the “Musky Mile” comes immediately to mind. There are huge Catfish and Carp; however, he was showing us pictures of a huge Smallmouth but more importantly…a huge Brown Trout.

Now, anglers who know how great a fishery the French Broad is, know all too well that the upper portions of the French Broad are loaded with trout. The “Forks” of the FB are stocked with plenty of big fish for the Delayed Harvest enthusiasts. The upper-upper branches are loaded with wild beautiful fish. But Mike claimed to have caught this fish exactly where they were not supposed to be. He said he caught this fish near (Exact location Redacted for National Security). Ben and I just nodded our heads and did not say much else. We knew what we had to do. It’s a dirty game.

One Day Earlier

We couldn’t stand it anymore. The mountain stoicism we generally practice had run its course. Ben and I had been fishing together for almost twenty years and the nods and sly looks we’d been giving each other in some way or another had developed into a plan.

I finally said, “You know, we should probably go check that out.” “Yep,” was Ben’s reply.

Ben went back to work installing our laundry room cabinets. I should mention Ben is a Master Carpenter.

Three Hours Earlier

All our planning and detailed conversation about the subject finally came to a head. It was COB on a Friday and if it was going to happen, it had to happen then. There was no more time to waste.

Ben started to clean up for the weekend but then we simultaneously realized that our usual responsibilities were secondary to the task at hand. We actually sprinted toward the “Squatch”…I refer to my truck as the Squatch, probably because I have a Bigfoot magnet on the back of it.

We loaded my canoe on top and didn’t worry about equipment. I have the Squatch pre-loaded for emergencies…we probably should have thought more about this. Our PFD’s (Personal Flotation Devices) remained safely stored in my garage. If we were lucky, we would have two hours of sunlight for a three-hour float. It was early spring.

We spoke briefly about our put-in location and decided to launch our canoe from (Exact Location Redacted for National Security), which would be an impromptu decision that would have repercussions.

We floated to our fishing spot near (Exact location Redacted for National Security) dangerously too late in the evening but immediately started landing fish. We were using exactly what Mike had told us he had used…a sinking (Redacted).

30 Minutes Earlier

I landed a Smallmouth in the three pound range. We took a picture. However, our true goal still eluded us. Then Ben got a bite. I figured it was another Smallmouth but the fish made a run toward our canoe and flashed its beautiful rainbow colored side. Ben then landed a gorgeous 16 inch-ish rainbow. We took a picture.

It was true!!!

He then hung another but it broke free before we could get it in the net.

The sun was almost down and we still had an hour to float. I then hung a fish. It hit the Sinking (Redacted) like a freight train. I actually thought I was hung on the bottom but then the bottom started to move. It took off up stream and I had no power over it. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to reduce my drag from the previous three pound Smallmouth and combined with the current, poor Jasper didn’t stand a chance.

Jasper is what I call my trusty ultra lightweight rod with a Pflueger Bullet Reel. It has a trigger and a Kung Fu Grip. I love that set up. My six-pound test line snapped, causing Ben to look back at me in disbelief. That was probably the monster we were told about.

We felt like we were on an episode of River Monsters. We had followed the clues, fought through impossible time and equipment issues and had proven the impossible.

30 Seconds Earlier

Ben and I picked up our paddle pace. The sun had set. The headlamps I usually kept in the Squatch were safely stowed back in my garage with our PFD’s. Ben and I are both fairly competent in a canoe and knew the river well. The high water would safely keep us off the rocks as long as we stayed in the deep channels… or so we thought

A familiar rock formation appeared out of the darkness and we both knew we were close to our take out point. We moved to the right but, due to a slight miscalculation and poor eyesight, the front of our canoe landed on a long flat rock, which had apparently moved into position without our knowledge. The front of the canoe beached but the current pushed our canoe sideways. Just like that…we flipped…Disaster!!!

Back to the Beginning of the Story

Ben grabbed my arm and prevented me from going under to look. He then reached down and gently picked up the broken body of my beloved Jasper.

We just stared at each other…dripping wet…freezing. I’m pretty sure a tear started to form in the corner of my right eye.

I then looked at Ben and said, “Do you know the most important thing we learned today? He replied back in a more excited tone…”I sure do, we caught trout where they were not supposed to be. This trip was freakin awesome!!!” Who would have thought there were trout this close to (Location Redacted for National Security).

Too bad about Jasper though.