Tuesday, May 22, 2012

CB goes camping and catches a Mississippi River Monster

Just a slight bit of clarification: Although I did in fact go camping with my lovely wife, I did not technically fish on the Mississippi, and the fish I caught would probably not be considered a river monster by anyone.
My first time camping, ever, was last summer with some family. The Smerglias are expert campers, even Charlie (at the time I think he was five) was a pro and totally knew what was up. He showed me the ropes. Ever since that awesome time, I've wanted to do it again! Recently Claire and I got an awesome tent (thanks Smerglias!) and stocked up on camping supplies. After internet research for camp sites proved inconclusive, Ken G was nice enough to provide a wealth of information on good places to camp.

It was settled: we'd load the car, hit the road, and camp at Mississippi Palisades state park, just feet from the mighty river. It was a good two and a half hours away, but we knew as we drove west the cars would thin out. Thin out they did, especially once we hit the country roads.

I remember as a kid being so completely bored while riding through the country, having no interest in anything until we got back to civilization. I've done a full 180; it was awesome driving through the country, over the rolling hills, seeing the farms and animals. So awesome, in fact, I drove the entire two and a half hours myself even though Claire offered her driving services. I enjoyed the pastoral landscape, the curvy roads, and the lack of traffic.

We arrived at the park, admiring the giant river to our left and the rock bluffs to our right. Had a great conversation with a DNR guy at the entrance; told me about some largemouth bass at the lake (the campground is across the street from Buffalo Lake, which is kind of part of the Mississippi) and instructed us to find an open campsite and set up our stuff. Homestead-style; American western-expansion style. Find some land, make it yours, then pay the $10 fee.

After finding a suitable spot, it only took us an hour to set up our tent, and we were camping! Claire was a good sport, being a veteran camper herself. This being only my second camping trip ever, my camping skill set was severely lacking, to say the least. Walter rolled around in the grass, enjoying the experience much more than being stuck in a car for hours.

Our awesome new tent
We got some ice for the cooler, wood for the fire, and settled in to our temporary home. I thought the lack of wooded areas was strange; it's as if they cut down all the trees to make room for campsites. Personally I think it would be sweeter to camp among the trees instead of across the street from them, but it was still awesome.

I headed to the water with every intention of catching some dinner. Although I was originally intrigued by fishing by the lure of little meals swimming around, I've caught and eaten very few fish. Partly because many of the waters I fish don't have the best water quality, partly because I'm not usually equipped to deal with keeping fish fresh. Like when I'm fishing before work. I figured this would be an ideal time to catch some bluegill or crappie and cook them up over a campfire.

I think it was about a mile to the water from our campsite; I crossed the highway, train tracks, and found myself in the Lazy River Marina. There were a few people fishing already. I found a spot, rigged my gulp minnow under a slip bobber, and cast it out. That's when I realized I had forgotten my stringer back at the car. Doing my best impression of a camper, I fashioned one out of some thin rope I had and some sticks I found. I had visions of walking back to camp with a full stringer on my back. That would be cool.

Walter likes camping
I fished for about an hour, and got a few small hits, but wasn't able to bring any fish in. I hiked along the shore looking for other spots, and soon found myself in what seemed like a boat graveyard. Lots of big houseboats, cranes, trucks, debris; I think the marina also doubled as a boat repair shop. I concluded I was definitely on private property, and decided to make an exit. On my way back I saw a giant turtle hanging out in the grass, far from the water. I would have taken a picture but was eager to get off private property! I didn't have the dark to hide my ninja-fishing activities.

Got back to our campsite, somehow managed to build a fire- that didn't fizzle out- on the first try! Last summer with the Smerglias, we had a hard time keeping the fire going. After doing some "research" (internet) I wondered if we had prevented air from circulating and feeding the fire. This time I propped up the wood on another piece of wood, kindling underneath, and it worked! Since I couldn't find any fish, some delicious polish sausage grilled over a wood fire was on the menu.

I totally made that fire

When we visited the store to get foodstuffs and whatnot, we came to the beer aisle with an important decision to make. Which beer? How many? And then we saw the Newcastle keg, and our decision was made for us. And let me tell you, best. Idea. Ever.

We were camping, but had draft beer. Awesome.
I had not experienced anything quite like sitting by the campfire eating sausage and drinking draft beer out of those tin camping mugs. Simply awesome.

After many mugs of beer, a bunch of sausages, night had fallen. That meant two things: the wife and the dog were going to sleep, and I was sneaking back into the marina to go fishing. I made some campfire coffee, drank it quickly, and I was off.

My camping coffee maker. No power necessary.
The mile walk in complete darkness was another new experience for me. Although I've night fished many times, most has been in a suburban area where there is plenty of lighting even at night. Here, the only source of light was my flashlight, and that only lit a small area in front of me. As I walked a few frogs or toads caught my eye on the pavement. We made eye contact, and I'm sure they were thinking "what are YOU doing up? You're supposed to be asleep by now."

I left the campground and crossed the highway, headed to the water. It was eerily dark, the surprisingly loud sound of frogs got louder the closer to the water I got. I almost stepped on a snake that scared the $%#@ out of me, which is my excuse for the blurry picture.

I got to the marina, which although it "closed" at sunset, the gates were open and there were some people listening to metal in a parked SUV. Each to their own. I think I'd rather listen to death metal while fishing instead of just listen, but hey. Turns out I did end up listening, until they left after about fifteen minutes.

I started fishing right about 11pm, and threw everything in my tacklebox, and worked the entire weedy shoreline. Although the night was extremely dark, there was a single orange light right at the boat launch, making the fishing easier. I heard fish jump everywhere, at least once or twice every few minutes, but couldn't connect with any of them. I didn't mind though; the weather was incredibly nice, the bugs were attracted to the light instead of me, and I was having a great time. All that beer had been nice too.

A few hours and hundreds of casts later, I was still fishless. Not even a hit. Crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs, plastic worms, chigger craws, they were all ignored. It was about 2am, and I was ready to bust out my secret weapon: the tube jig. Last year, or a while I fished exclusively with tube jigs, and caught many fish. Since then I've learned to fish other lures... but when times get tough, the tube jig comes out.

I tied on a brown one with gold specks, cast it out as far as I could, and let it sink to the bottom. I hopped it off the bottom, let it fall, and then BAM! Fish on!

And so began the most amazing fight I've ever experienced fishing.

Although it realistically only lasted about two minutes, it felt like an hour. At first I thought it was a catfish, but instead of swimming down, this fish just swam away. It felt big. Very big. Not like any catfish I'd caught, not like any other fish either. This fish was making runs; I would reel in some line, then it would speed away in the opposite direction, my drag screaming in protest. Thankfully I had set it loose enough the big fish could take line without breaking my 10 pound line!

It made four or five runs, each time I was able to gain a little bit of line before the next one. Finally, after an eternity filled with profanity and giggling, I caught a glimpse of the giant right when it saw me. In a few feet of water, it splashed like the prop of a boat motor running aground. Even standing a few feet away I got some water on me.

As I approached the fish, I could barely make it out in the orange light. It was indeed big. Definitely the biggest fish I'd ever caught. First cast of the tube jig no less! I thought it was a giant smallmouth bass, but quickly ruled it out. With it's tall body and clown-like lips, it wasn't any fish I recognized. As I grabbed it with my boga-grip-knockoff I ran through all the fish I knew might be in these waters, and the only one I didn't really know was the drum. I'd seen someone catch a sheepshead aka the freshwater drum on Lake Erie last year, but that was small and looked quite different.

The tube jig easily fell out of it's mouth, as if it had barely been hooked. I was amazed my line hadn't broken, that I had managed to bring it in. Shouting, giggling, ecstatic, exclaiming with frantic happy profanity, I managed to weight the giant fish. My scale said 8 pounds, but I believe that figure is highly suspect. The scale hasn't been too accurate in the past; I would estimate more than 8. Using my rod as a guide, I estimated the length of the fish was at least 28 inches. 28 inches! My longest fish was the pond catfish in October.

New personal best! Weight AND length! And a new species to boot!

My shaking arms, lame iphone camera, and poor lighting all contributed to my out of focus, grainy pictures. Please forgive me.

After a flurry of pictures, none of which do this amazing fish justice, I returned it to the water. After a few minutes, it slowly swam away, not too phased from our fight.

I know many consider the drum a "trash fish," or "bycatch." Both those terms suggest the angler isn't happy catching the fish. Obviously the opposite was true: this fish had given me an amazing fight, an awesome night fishing experience, and my new personal best (i.e. biggest) fish. I would have been happy with a small catfish, but I got this guy instead!

I fished the tube for a while after catching the drum, but nobody was around. I wondered if all the commotion had spooked any nearby fish. A few minutes later a water snake at least four feet long spooked me, it's outline made into many shadows by the orange light.

Incredibly satisfied with my amazing catch, I packed up my stuff and hiked back to the camp. I couldn't sleep much, still so excited, but when I did I dreamed of drum.

My first freshwater drum


  1. Nice drum, that thing was a monster!

  2. Congrats!! That is a nice drum!!

    Great write up btw...I think this may be my favorite so far


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