Terry Bunde was casting his imitation minnow when I spotted the large bird perched in the top of a dead tree 300 yards away. I lay my fly rod down and paddled quietly toward the tree, taking photos at intervals as I glided closer and closer. I wanted a shot of the eagle flying off his perch, and to get this shot, I had to be ready.
Bunde, retired from teaching chemistry at Maryville College, suggested that I either fish or photograph.
I like to do both. And that’s probably the reason I don’t rely on fishing to put food on the table. Like Bunde, I was fishing out of a kayak, and I think we’d both say we were practicing catch and release, though the truth was that the fish we caught—mostly of the blue gill variety—were so small that they were more suited for a fish bowl than a frying pan. Regardless, fishing out of a small boat, close to the water, gives you a little more of a thrill, I think, than fishing in more conventional boats or off the bank. The little blue gill fight hard, and the occasional bass that we caught seemed like a monster pulling us toward the void at the bottom of Tellico Lake.
We had put in at Rasor Landing, near the mouth of Notchy Creek off Corn Tassel Road, via Niles Ferry Road, near Vonore, a lovely collection of place names that you would only find in East Tennessee. Bunde, who had fished from the bank here the week before, said the carp had been spawning, stirring up a ruckus near the bank, where the males crowded in on the females. “Get a room!” his fishing companion had said to the rowdy carp.
Notchy Creek, where we put in, is less a creek than a large embayment that reaches far back from the main channel of Tellico Lake, over a mile, where you can find the actual creek flowing down from the Notchy Creek Knobs.
We didn’t see any carp spawning that day, but what we did see made me realize how lucky we are to live in a place with such natural diversity. There was the bald eagle, of course, and I don’t care how common they are on Tellico Lake, it gives me a thrill each time I see one, the flash of white on the head and the wings, the yellow beak and the fearsome talons. I have never seen so many great blue herons in a day, though it was tough to count them because every time they fly off, squawking majestically, they usually land nearby and fish from the bank until you disturb them again. I’m sure there were at least four.
After launching from the bank near the ramp, we glided past a fisherman backing his boat and trailer in the water. He said, “You plan on fishing in those things?” I said that it was so.
“If you catch one big enough, he might drag you across the lake,” he said.
Later we chatted with a man standing on the bank who said he’d begun fishing that day after quitting for 30 years. He had about six rods propped on the bank, and he was catching crappie with minnows from an underwater brush pile. As we paddled away, he told us to please be careful.
There was diversity between Bunde and me, even though we were both academics, both gray bearded, and we both talk to the fish we catch. “Your mouth is going to be a little sore,” said Bunde to a blue gill. “Take two aspirin and you’ll be fine.” Each of us had fishing gear handed down from our fathers. We both sat in bright yellow kayaks, but Bunde’s was clean, and he had little slots to prop his fishing rods, a clear plastic tube for a fancy one he had stowed behind him. My boat was full of pebbles from another river in western Kentucky, scraped and smeared with mud inside and out. When I wasn’t casting my fly rod, my lures dragged behind me in the water: I called it popper trolling, and I did get a couple of strikes this way.
Bunde kept his lures in a little canvas satchel with different compartments. He caught fish on the following: a Rebel silver minnow, a yellow and black beetle spin, and a Panther Martin in-line spinner bait. What lures I brought were on the ends of my lines; if I lost those, fishing was over. This gave me more incentive to cast accurately and to avoid mimosas, etc. Did I mention I got hung in a mimosa tree? Therefore I did not need a case for my lures, though I do have an advanced system of storing them so that the unsuspecting, namely me and my dog Norm, don’t hook ourselves. I wrap them in aluminum foil. I had two poppers on my leader, one fluorescent green, the other white. Every fish I caught that day took the smaller white one. I am sure I won the contest for smallest fish.
The closer I got to the eagle, peering through my zoom lens, the more I marveled that he stayed there, unintimidated. He was maybe sixty feet high, but I got right below him and snapped away for five minutes. He stared right back at me in a way that made me understand how his prey might feel. I looked away for a few seconds to back off with a paddle stroke or two, and when I looked up, he was gliding downward, toward the surface, where he dipped his talons, missed whatever it was he had spotted, and soared in graceful arcs across the lake. I’d missed the money shot.
I lost count of how many fish we battled that day; there were many, almost as many fish as branches, rocks, weeds and bushes. The smell of sourwood blossoms filled the air. When the shade next to the bank got too chilly, with a few paddle strokes, we could warm ourselves in the bright sun. Fishing that day was less about harvesting and consuming, more about connections. To birds and turtles and butterflies. To bass and gar and carp. And to our own species, all of us sharing the water on a glorious spring day.