You may be wondering about the title. “Bucketmouth” refers to a Largemouth Bass, a big Largemouth Bass. A “Bucket List” is of course something we keep, checking off an item or two if we are lucky, or we endure. But there is more to this title. There were many options to consider as I drove through the scrub forest, swamp and farmland, watching the horses on ranches run and the slow rivers roll. And it came to me then because I started thinking about the great Western films in history. I was thinking specifically of a little known Spaghetti Western by an Italian director named Damiano Damiani, a film called A Bullet for the General (1968). Set during a revolution, it is a film loaded with counter-revolutionary plots and surprises of all kinds. Damiani’s film is one of the best Westerns of its time, and it ranks high on my list of favorites. It’s a complicated film about complex people in crazy times, and as I came to the trail head of a complicated trip, it seemed to point in the direction I wanted to go as I tried to answer the question “How do I explain what happened on that lake?”
A Bullet for the General is a movie about people learning through adversity, but also ignoring inconvenient facts. I checked both boxes while on the water. It’s a movie in which the wide skies and open prairies are loaded with ambiguity, where the bars and banks in dusty towns seem more like traps, the railroad a promise that goes unfulfilled. It’s a movie about deceptive appearances, and like all great art, it is about how complicated life can be. All those boxes get checked, too, so far as my fishing was concerned. You travel the road and make your choices, and you live with them no matter the cost. In the great Western films, the journey is in some way bigger than the goal. You can seek truth, or freedom, or the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but in the end your trail is marked with the sweat and blood. You might make the 3:10 from Yuma without a ticket, but you still paid for the ticket somehow.
My journey involved tracking down a fish. A bucketmouth, to be precise, and a bucketmouth from a big lake. Santee Cooper. Guntersville. “The O.” Toledo Bend. The names of these lakes are dusted with legends and trophies. They are lakes that I dreamed about as a boy, reading Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, hoping to one day try their waters and land a great fish. Jump ahead forty years, and my chance arrived: The 100 Challenge, pitting many of the nation’s top kayak bass anglers in a 2-day long tournament on the hot side of the Red River. It was a chance to finally check that big bass from the mortal register. You’ll remember that Peckinpah’s The Magnificent Seven begins with a man looking for an outlaw. That was me.
The fish had the advantage, as the bad guys always do (of course, “bad” is a relative concept in Westerns). They knew the terrain, and I was new to town. I had scouted maps, studied wind patterns and the forage base, and prepared well for the chase. But there is always a trap you don’t see, a clue you ignore, a deception you miss. The locals are always wary of strangers.
I stopped in a town. I’m not sure it had a name. There were gas pumps on one side of the road, but there was no attendant. On the other side of the road, a convenience store, and two lonely gas pumps. I headed inside to pay. A large man with a sneaker on one foot and only his skin on the other walked out. He brushed against me. I let it slide. I just wanted my gas, and my fish. As the clerk handed my change over the counter, the large man came back and with a booming drawl he said “Hey Jim, remember that house I was working on? Her paint was scaling like a fish, but I fixed her up, and now I’m renting her cheap.” I turned to leave and looked down at his bare foot. The voice in my head stopped my other voice from saying “Maybe you can buy another shoe now, partner.” But I didn’t drive all that way for him. I was there for a fish.
I saw lots of roadkill. Coyote, black bear, deer, armadillo, skunk, boar, possum and rabbit seemed to outnumber the leaves as I left the interstate. Hours passed, and the sun dipped low. It dawned on me then that the lake was big, and the roads were remote. Would I risk the darkness to reach my spots? I would, but for how long? And where? I drifted off to sleep. You sleep well when you reach a certain age. The road calms you, takes your mind from competition. You might even dream. That night, I dreamed of the road.
Dark still covered the woods and a fog had come up on the morning of Day 1. Some of the other North Carolina anglers were leaving the house, others were long gone. Every man had a fish or five to hunt. I studied my plan and my breakfast, scrolling options in my mind. The wind had died, but would come back. Like a dog, it always does. And when it came slinking back around, where did I did I want to be? Open water? At the bridge, with my hand on the plunger, waiting for the train to cross? A creek? The timber? The docks? I needed a place where I could find a range of options, not just one, and work my way through each like a bandit in ambush.
I crossed it in the first light, but I kept driving. Five minutes later, it dawned on me – I had passed my spot. Every feature I wanted was there. I hadn’t seen it all on the map, but I had just seen it with my eyes. Every feature was there, in one place. I pulled over, talked to a few competitors, and launched.
Fishing is in many ways a simple process of elimination. You eliminate water, but the water eventually eliminates you. The key is to find your fish before that happens. One fish.
I was looking for clues around a sand bar in the main channel when the first fish showed up. I hadn’t been ready and missed my shot. I stayed with it, and had a fish two casts later. Then nothing. The one I was looking for wasn’t there. I paddled off and a bass boat rolled up on the sand bar where I’d been. He left quickly. He knew it too. A few hours passed and I searched the open water, winding through the standing timber, working my way across the Bend. The wind picked up, and right then I knew where they were.
Wind has a way of stirring up trouble. It may be the food it carries, or the oxygen it mixes, or the way it turns a dumb tree stump into an ambush point. I paddled and found the spot. I knew it before I even took a cast that this was the place. Within a few minutes I had landed two fish and lost another. It had all the features I had been looking for – a smaller channel, some grass, a wind seam and wood structure.
She was waiting between two stumps. I had seen the stumps early, but decided to work my way toward them. One stump had a small bush growing beside it, its leaves long dead, the whole thing looking like someone gave up on clearing the last patch of prairie. Anomalies make good traps – she had set hers, but her trap was now mine, too. I made a cast to the near side of it. There was no strike as it passed that stump. I made a cast to the far side, near the bush. No strike. On the third cast, I sent my line down the gap, placing the lure about 5 feet ahead of where the wind and water cut a V through the stumps.
Another V shape appeared as my lure passed through the gap, and this second V was moving. The strike was at full speed in about 2 feet of water, and by the time I set the hook the lure had moved at least 3 or 4 feet. I was quick on the draw, too, but she was really quick. It didn’t matter, because the set was true, and the battle was engaged. This was the fight I had asked for.
Everything slowed down. This was the Sergio Leone moment at the end of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly when Angel Eyes, Tuco and the Man with No Name face off in the cemetery. Close ups and landscape shots, there isn’t a sound but the wind, your blood is still. Even the sun.
The fish hit the lure moving from the right stump to the left, so I first had to make sure she didn’t swim around the bush. She turned farther left, so we were clear, but now she turned my boat and ran toward shallow water, and more shallow stumps. She stripped some line and turned me about 45 degrees, looking for deeper water in the creek channel, then she circled back toward me. I picked up line – she changed direction and jumped. You may have heard it me yell then from anywhere on the lake.
I have to land this fish. This is the fish that people fly here from Japan to catch. This is the fish I need when I am competing, the fish I drove here for, the bucketmouth for the bucket list.
She started to slow down and made two runs near the kayak. Those worry me, because your line can tangle on your boat or the fish can gain leverage against the hull and pop loose. I also had a machete standing upright near my fish finder, the blade exposed. I suddenly realize that was a bad idea.
I have the net in my hand now. I can hear the wind. The sun is moving again. The world comes back. The fish is in the net.
With her mouth closed according to tournament regulations, this Largemouth Bass measured just over 20”. She may not have been the longest bucket mouth, but she was a fat nugget of green and white gold. I made sure I had my photos and let her go. She paused by the kayak for a bit and I watched her sit there and recover. Then I gently tapped here with my paddle to be sure she would revive, and she shot back to the trees. The golden bullet had left the rifle.
I was in contention headed into the second day of the tournament, in the top 20 and with a good spot to fish on Day 2 of the tournament. When we reached the house, I told a friend my work was done. I didn’t care what happened on day 2 of competition. Yes, I went out and fished anyway. You don’t walk away from a good chance at $10,000, but you walk away less slowly after you landed a good one. On Day 2 I went back to the areas I fished on Day One, but I only had two bites there, and lost both. As the sun rose and the wind picked up, I figured where the fish had gone. But another angler had staked the spot. It was high noon. The town was his now, and he reeled in one good fish, then another, then a third. I’d won the first battle, but lost the war. Or was it the other way around? Regardless, it was time to hit the road.
You don’t measure a bucket list fish with numbers alone. The bounty isn’t the reward. As I crossed America’s main artery, a sunset turned my head.
© Henry Veggian 2017