I looked forward to retirement more than many, I think, because I longed for a day of leisurely fishing not rushed by weekend chores and family commitments. And it’s not like I don’t live close enough to good fishing holes to make it easy for me to get out there. A number of man-made lakes and outstanding fishing creeks are located less than an hour from my home in East Tennessee.
Crappie run well here in the spring, so one Saturday morning a fishing buddy from across the street and I hooked up my 17-foot skiff just after daybreak and took off for Clear Creek cove on Tellico Lake. The ‘creek’ runs as a current about 30 feet below the surface off the main reservoir built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1979.
After our drive across the Fort Loudon Dam bridge that morning and our arrival at the Clear Creek boat ramp, the boat engine started right up on the second crank after sitting idle through the whole winter. In just a few minutes, we were off the trailer, through the highway overpass, and on our fishing hole for a promising day.
We set our jigs—or what my father from Kentucky used to refer to as “haddie calls”—down to about 25 feet and used the trolling motor to work the old creek bed up and down the cove. White and purple jigs with any color of fur worked well that day. Still, we only managed two fry-pan- size crappies between us before noon.
Our original ‘float plan’ called for a half day of fishing at Clear Creek, followed by lunch at a local marina grill, and then a few more hours trying our luck in another cove before trailering the boat and heading back home. But the trolling motor battery gave out at noon (somebody—no idea who—neglected to fully charge it before the weekend), so we decided to release the two fish we had in the live well, stow the gear, go eat and call it a day.
But when I turned the key to start the engine…nothing. I don’t mean it was slow to crank; I mean ‘nothing’! So, naturally, we checked the terminal connections at the battery and the wiring behind the console to the ignition. Once again…nothing. At this point, my fishing buddy, Holtzclaw, gives me a quizzical look and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Beats me.” Anyone will tell you that Holtzclaw is an easy-going type and slow to get excited under these kinds of circumstances, which is good because his luck seems to run thin when he’s out with me in a boat. Once, I ran his jon boat aground in the shallow and swift-running headwaters of a trout stream near the Smoky Mountains…but that’s another story.
By now we are floating downstream with the current and drifting steadily toward the shoreline. Along the bank are several lake homes—populated in great part by retirees from up north who have found living south of the Mason Dixon line pleasant and affordable. We had a little luck at this point when our boat drifted near a private dock at the bend of the cove, and I managed to steer into it, which stopped our forward progress toward the concrete abutment that supports the state highway crossing. I was not looking forward to the several hundred dollar beating that my fiberglass hull was about to take on the rip-rap leading up to the overpass. As we nosed into the small covered dock at snail speed, it was no effort to tie up and bring the boat to rest. OK, now what?, I said to myself.
Just then—about the same time that I pulled my cell phone from my shirt pocket to look for help—a man’s voice called out to us from the top of the steps that led down from his lake house to this boat dock below:
“What’s goin’ on fellas?”
We looked up to see a man near our own age gazing down at us with his eyebrows raised just a bit—not alarmed, but quizzical. Folks who live in lake houses here are generally tolerant of fishermen casting around their docks in search of bass, but they can get a bit testy if you tie up to their docks without some kind of invitation to do so.
I’ve met a lot of friendly and helpful folks on the river in my forty years of fishing and generally Huck Finning my way through most of the Tennessee River system, but I was totally unprepared for what came next.
“Dead battery, huh?
“Yep,” I said in a straight-forward manner. “Dead as a carp.”
“Well, hold on right there. I’ll be back.”
We weren’t going anywhere, so we looked at each other across the boat and watched the man’s back as he re-climbed the slope up to his house.
“He didn’t sound to me like he was about to call the law or fetch a shotgun, do you think?” I said to my buddy Holtzclaw, mostly to break the silence.
“Nope,” Holtzclaw grinned. Then he squinted and studied the house a bit closer. As you can tell from his conversation, Holtzclaw is not given to over-analyzing a situation. So we went back to just sitting in the tied-up boat, staring blankly up at the house, and waiting for whatever came next.
Did I mention it was getting pretty warm out by now? It was noon-thirty, and I was working up a pretty good sweat from the combo of long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, the intense sun in a cloudless sky, and the tension of needing to do something about it.
We didn’t have to wait much longer. In just a few minutes, we spotted the man in the shadows of the trees along his walkway leading down to the river. He was carrying something in each hand that looked like cinderblocks from our vantage point.
Does he intend to sink us right here? Surely not. Makes no sense—unless he intends to shoot us first! Clearly, my thinking was deranged by the bright sun overhead. Despite myself, I looked hard to see if he might have a revolver sticking out of a pocket of his khakis.
“I’m Bob,” the man informed us as he stepped out of the shade and descended the few steps to the dock.
“I figured you two could use a cold beer about now while we wait for your battery to re-charge.”
Now in plain sight, we realized that he wasn’t carrying cinderblocks but, instead, a six-pack of beer in one hand and a battery charger in the other!
“Bob,” I acknowledged with a nod, “I’m Kyle. And this is Holtzclaw.” And we love you, man!
No, that’s not what I actually said to Bob. That would be embarrassing. What I did say was more like, “Wow! Thanks a bunch. We definitely owe you one.” But I was thinking the former, I confess it.
We stayed on the boat and Bob sat in a chair on his dock for about half an hour while we each had a cold one and waited for just enough charge to build up to kick over the engine. Then we started her up, offered Bob a twenty dollar bill for his trouble (which he refused to take, of course), and made our way back to the ramp to load the boat on its trailer.
After we reloaded the boat, we began to think about the lunch we didn’t have, and it was getting late. Our plan called for docking at a nearby marina where they serve a barbecue lunch buffet in the grill on Saturdays. But by now, it was well after one o’clock in the p.m., and the buffet shuts down at two. I was beyond hungry by this time and convinced Holtzclaw to drive out to the marina—for a sandwich or a cheeseburger, if nothing else.
We made our way back over the Fort Loudon bridge and around to the marina on the upper end. Parking the truck and boat trailer was easy at this point in the day, and the grill was still open, although we held out no hope for barbecue. As we made our way inside, I was trying to make the best of a disappointing situation by telling Holtzclaw how much I like the grilled cheese sandwiches at this place (which is true).
“In any case,” I followed up, “we can get a cold beer here before we head home.”
Holtzclaw agreed and was almost in his seat at a table just inside the front door when a guy in an apron from over behind the buffet line in the back spoke up: “We’ve closed the line here, but if you grab yourself a plate, you can get food from the trays before we take them up.”
“We’re glad to pay,” I told the clean-up man, as Holtzclaw nodded in agreement and headed toward the back of the grill.
“No need. I don’t like throwing food out, and we can’t serve it again since it’s been on the buffet, so you might as well eat whatever leftovers you want.”
Sitting there at the marina grill eating free barbecue and beans and drinking ice-cold draft beer, all I could think of to say to Holtzclaw was:
“I don’t know about you, but this is my best day fishin’…ever.”
Holtzclaw grunted in agreement as we chowed down.
So now, whenever some guy tells me ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world,’ I just grin and say, “You ain’t been fishin’ in the right spot at the right time, fella, that’s all.”