Every year along about April, our town celebrates the coming of spring with our annual Dogwood Arts Festival. Now, in our parts, bass fishing is considered a fine art, right up there with the classical arts like whittling and moonshining. So naturally we put on an annual Dogwood Arts Festival Fishing Tournament with lots of fabulous prizes for the winners. To qualify for the tournament, all you need is a fishing boat, a fishing buddy, and fifty dollars for the entry fee.
I remember one Dogwood Arts Festival Fishing Tournament in particular. Being young scallywags without a fishing boat or the required fifty dollar entry fee, by buddy Donny Ray and I didn't exactly qualify for the tournament. Donnie Ray's daddy Big Ed, on the other hand, was a renowned local sportsman who possessed not only a fishing boat but more importantly the fifty dollar entry fee. Big Ed, along with his buddy Sparky, made up their minds to enter that tournament and win the top prize, a shiny new bass boat.
Even though we couldn't enter the tournament, Donnie Ray and I decided we'd go fishing that day anyway. We figured we'd have our favorite spots all to ourselves, because the tournament was way down on the south end of the lake and the really serious fishermen would be down there all day. We scraped up enough money to rent an old row boat and had enough left over to buy some nightcrawlers and some gas for my old three-horsepower Evinrude portable fold-up outboard motor.
The Friday night before the big tournament, I stayed over at Donnie Ray's. We stayed up late going through our tackle boxes, trading plugs and swapping lies about the big fish they'd caught. Donnie Ray liberated an old L&S Shiner Minnow from his daddy's tackle box and traded it to me for one of my frog colored Jitter Bugs. Later we snuck a couple of cold refreshments out of the cooler in Big Ed's boat, finished them off, and turned in for the night.
We dragged out of bed about nine-thirty or ten the next morning. It was a beautiful spring day, and Big Ed was long gone with Sparky to the fishing tournament. We figured that by then they had already been out on the water for a good two or three hours and most likely already had their limits. After enjoying a few Saturday morning cartoons and a leisurely breakfast of Slim Jims, Oreo Cookies, and grape Kool-Aid, we went outside, hung the old Evinrude on the handle bars of my bike, and pedaled our way on down to the Stock Creek Boat Dock.
We rented one of their finest row boats on which we mounted my mighty three-horsepower Evinrude. We motored out into the lake and on up into Little River to one of our favorite spots. We pulled up to a wide place in the river where a submerged fence row ran out to a drop-off at the edge of the old river bed.
I rummaged around in my tackle box and came up with the biggest, ugliest, dumbest looking thing I could find, a Tennessee shad colored Doll Thompson Top Secret with silver sparkles, a red belly, and a big black spot on the tail. I tied it on, threw it up along the fence row, and started cranking it in. Just as it reached the last fence post, it stopped cold. "Shucks!" I muttered (or words to that affect). "I'm hung on that old fence post".
Just about then, my $11.95 Gateway Sporting Goods Fiberglass Custom rod bent double as the eight pound test/line began ripping off my trusty old Mitchell 300. "Gosh Darn!" I exclaimed (or words to that affect). "I believe I got a biggun!". By now I had Donnie Ray's undivided attention. He threw down his rod and grabbed the net, hollering "Take it easy!", "Don't horse him!", "Don't let him get wrapped around that fence post!", and other timely advice.
After a sensational display of fish acrobatics, I finally got him up to the boat. It was the biggest largemouth bass I had ever hooked in my life. We figured it to be at least six-and-a-half or seven pounds, easy. Donnie Ray scooped him into the boat with the net and I nearly collapsed from all the excitement. We admired our trophy for a bit, then put him on my all-purpose rope stringer and tied him up to the side of the boat.
We fished a while longer, but knew nothing could top the excitement of our earlier success. After another hour or so with no luck, we tied up under a willow tree to relax and catch a few bluegills on worms. We discussed the relative merits of ripe chicken livers versus fresh shad guts for catching big catfish, and wondered how Big Ed and Sparky were doing in the tournament.
About that time, a boat came roaring around the point and up the river towards us. "Hey Donnie Ray, isn't that your daddy's boat?" I asked. "It sure looks like it" replied Donnie Ray as he tossed away the Marlboro he had been smoking. "Wonder what they're doin' way up here?" he pondered. Sure enough, it was Big Ed and Sparky, all hunkered down in the boat as it streaked up the river like a cat with its tail on fire. We began waving to them and pretty soon they spotted us and headed over our way.
As they throttled down hard right up along side our boat, nearly swamping us, Big Ed hollered out "You boys doing any good?". About then, he spotted our rope stringer hanging down in the water and yelled "Whaddaya got there - lemme see that!". With a sly grin, I reached down, pulled up the stringer, and proudly hoisted our prize catch up out of the water. Big Ed's eyes nearly bugged out of his head as he looked over at Sparky, who was just sitting there with a slack-jawed sort of incredulous expression.
Before we could ask how they were doing or why they had motored all the way up there to Little River, Big Ed whipped out a hunting knife, grabbed my rope stringer, and whacked right through it with his knife, yelling "Gimme that fish!". Before I could object he flopped my fish over into his live well, stringer and all. As he cranked up his motor and jammed down the throttle, we heard him callout to Sparky "That fish'll win this tournament".
As they took off back down the river, we were sitting there sort of dumbfounded, exchanging puzzled looks. Suddenly we burst out laughing as we realized we had just had our prize catch plundered by a pair of scurrilous rogues. This was bass piracy! Treachery on the high seas! Or at least the lower part of Little River. Not exactly sportsmanlike conduct by any definition of accepted standards. We figured the fishing must have been pretty sorry down on the south end of the lake for Big Ed to run all the way up the lake and back just to steal my trophy bass.
Well, as we sat there reflecting on this latest developments, it occurred to us that Big Ed might actually win that new bass boat. This opened up several interesting possibilities. Now, we weren't particularly devious young boys, but in a situation like this we couldn't totally rule out blackmail, even if it was Donnie Ray's own daddy. At worst, we figured we could get the use of Big Ed's new bass boat one or two Saturday's every month. At best, he might be persuaded to give us his old bass boat outright. We figured it was only fair for Big Ed to share his ill gotten gains in exchange for our silence.
We cranked up the trusty old Evinrude and puttered on back to the dock, daydreaming about all the great fishing trips we would have in our bass boat. We went back to Donnie Ray's house and anxiously awaited Big Ed's return from the tournament. "You think he'll get away with it?" I asked Donnie Ray. "Sure", he replied. "My daddy can lie and cheat and talk his way in and out of more situations than a New York lawyer." Admirable qualities for any good Southern sportsman, indeed.
As we waited, we discussed plans for getting Big Ed to see things our way. Now, fixing a bass tournament wasn't exactly a Federal offense, but you would probably rather have the FBI after you than to have some of them good old boys from that fishing tournament laying for you. We figured it would only take a few subtle hints for Big Ed to get the picture.
Finally about five or six that evening, Big Ed and Sparky arrived home from the tournament. We ran outside to greet them, anxious to see all the fantastic prizes they had won. We were a little bit surprised and sorely disappointed when we didn't see a shiny new bass boat behind Big Ed's old pickup.
"Where's our new bass boat?" we inquired. "Hmph. What bass boat? We didn't win no bass boat." grumbled Big Ed. "Yeah," said Sparky, "That was the crookedest fishin' tournament I ever seen. I didn't see hardly any fish caught all day, but there sure was a lot of limits brought in."
Big Ed agreed. "I swear them boys must of had fish staked all over that lake. They probably been out there all week dynamitin' and shockin' and pullin' every other low-down dirty trick you can think of to catch fish. Why, I saw one old ' boy workin' a gill net across the mouth of a big cove. It's hard to believe they would let such liars and cheats and scoundrels enter a fishin' tournament like that."
We were wishing that Big Ed and Sparky would just dispense with all the moral outrage and tell us what they had won. "Well, how did y'all do?" Donnie Ray finally asked. Big Ed replied "Your fish and the two others we caught was only good enough for sixth place. That fish of yours weighed in at five pounds three ounces. Nice fish but not even close to the big fish prize." said Big Ed. "All we got was this here prize package with a bunch of outdoor supplies and fishing tackle and stuff." he said as he wrestled a big cardboard box out of the truck.
"Let's see what we got here," said Donnie Ray as we spread it all out on the driveway to take inventory. "We got a Coleman lantern, the two mantle white gas burnin' kind, we got a bucket of rubber worms, assorted colors, an Uncle Henry pocket knife, a sack full of Doll Flys, assorted weights, we got us this big green handmande balsa wood crankbait made by some guy named Bill Norman (never heard of him), two spray cans of Cutters, a Ray-o-Vac floating sportsman's flashlight, the big six volt battery kind, a Devil's Horse topwater plug, we got an all aluminum mess kit, we got a good nylon anchor rope, a nice camouflage rain poncho, a pair of fisherman's pliers, and looky here, we got us a Zebco Fisherman's De-liar." That last item seemed somewhat appropriate in an ironic sort of way.
Well, it wasn't a new bass boat, but it was a pretty good assortment of stuff. To show that he was a good sport and all, Big Ed offered to let me have my pick of the fishing lures. "Hmmm, I believe I like the looks of that big, green, ugly plug you got there." I said. "It's all yours." Big Ed said as he handed it over. It was a bit of a letdown after dreams of adventures to far-away exotic fishing spots in our bass boat, but at least it was something. And it wasn't a bad looking plug.
Anyway, now you know the story of the biggest bass I ever caught and the subsequent treachery and deceit perpetrated by the Rogue Bass Pirates of Little River. You also now know how the fine tradition of bass tournament polygraph testing got started, not long after the great Dogwood Arts Festival Fishing Tournament of 1977.
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