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Bucket list item

by Bryan Hendricks | May 21, 2023 at 3:50 a.m.

I marked an item off my bucket list last week when I visited Reelfoot Lake in Northwest Tennessee.

Only about 20 minutes from the Arkansas state line, Reelfoot Lake encompasses 15,000 acres in Lake and Obion counties. Like our own Big Lake near Manila, Reelfoot Lake was created during the New Madrid earthquake in 1811. Reelfoot and Big Lake formed almost instantly when the earthquake caused the land adjacent to the Mississippi River to fall below the river level. The Mississippi River backflowed to fill these new lowlands, creating some of the richest wildlife habitat on the planet.

Before they were drained and levied for agriculture, these lowlands, collectively known as The Big Woods, provided millions of acres of wetland habitat for migratory waterfowl. They also supported a rich and diverse fishery.

Nowadays, Big Lake and Reelfoot Lake are about all that's left of The Big Woods beyond a few small ribbons of wetland habitat protected by national wildlife refuges and state-owned wildlife management areas. Not surprisingly, they still support rich fisheries, and they still attract a lot of waterfowl. Reelfoot Lake is a legendary destination for duck hunting, but it is also famous for its crappie fishing. It is the only lake where commercial crappie fishing is allowed.

I was there as part of a media retreat organized by Garry Mason, founder of the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame. The group included Larry Rea, a North Little Rock native who served many years as the outdoor editor for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Rea has a long-running syndicated radio program in Western Tennessee. Ray Eye, a highly esteemed turkey hunting expert and member of the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame, who airs a radio program from St. Louis, Mo., was also there, as was Jim Sheppard, founder of the Outdoor Wire, and also Steve McCadams, a crappie fishing and duck hunting authority and media figure in Western Tennessee.

Our hosts were 80 Below Sporting Lubricants, BnM Poles, RBX Trucking Co., Frogg Toggs, Hybrid Lights and Hook n' Bullet Eyewear.

Blue Bank Resort was our headquarters. Blue Bank Resort is an old style fishing camp with modern amenities. Ringed by cypress trees, it would be quite at home in Florida on the banks of Lake Seminole or Okeechobee. Its rooms are spacious and clean with satellite TV, refrigerator and coffee maker. Its phenomenal restaurant attracts customers from around the area.

When I was editor of Tennessee Sportsman magazine in 1996-97, all of the hunting and fishing articles I published every month about Reelfoot Lake were an exotic form of escapism. From my office in Marietta, Ga., across the street from Dobbins Air Force Base, articles about Reelfoot Lake transported me to a much happier place far from the concrete mayhem of the Atlanta area. They also made me pine for a place that seemed out of reach. At best, it was a "one of these days" destination for a day that would probably never come.

When Mason invited me to this outing, I was prepared to move the universe to make it happen. Fortunately, that wasn't necessary. It's less than four hours away from my home in Little Rock, mostly on interstate highway.

Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate. I drove through a torrential storm to get there on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, the rain abated long enough for a morning bluegill fishing trip with fishing guide Nelson Northern and Kent Driscoll of B'n'M Poles. The company is famous for its long crappie fishing poles, but our gear for this trip featured short, ultralight spinning rods that are ideal for bluegill fishing and for trout fishing.

For bait we used live crickets. It was like being a kid again, except with fancier tackle.

Northern's boat is a big War Eagle with a motor that has a camouflage cowling. The bow is equipped with an array of forward-facing sonar. One is dedicated to searching for cover. The other is dedicated to seeing fish within cover.

Between fronts, with the air pressure feeling very heavy, fish were not active.

"A lot of people mess up by parking right on top of the cover," Northern said. "You've got to get out away from the cover like we're doing."

Along with our ultralight spinning rigs, we also used thin wire, long-shank panfish hooks with a bit of split shot pinched about 2-3 inches above the eye. Northern also showed me the proper way to present a cricket. I have always threaded a hook from the bottom of the neck through the cricket's hard collar. I catch a lot of fish that way, but it also enables a bream to tear a cricket apart without ever taking the hook.

Northern hooks a cricket from back to front. He threads the hook from near the vent and exits the barb just behind the collar. It makes it a lot harder for a bluegill to suck in a cricket without getting hooked.

Bites were sparse, but every bluegill that bit was very large. Ever the contrarian, I also caught two channel catfish.

After the second catfish, my balsa bobber plunged hard.

"If you don't quit catching catfish, I'm going to kick you into the water," Northern growled.

"It's a bluegill!" I said assuredly.

"He was quick on the trigger with that one!" Driscoll yelled, laughing.

"The man says we're done with catfish, we're done with catfish!" I retorted, prompting both men to laugh riotously.

It was indeed a bluegill, and a big one.

Fishing was slow around the cypress trees near Blue Bank Resort, so we went to the other side of the lake to fish grass edges near duck blinds. Reelfoot Lake is dotted with duck blinds that have been owned by families for generations. Over the years, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has been acquiring blinds and putting them into the public domain, but they are still hot commodities in the private domain. Northern said that one blind went on the market last summer for $40,000.

Also, the TWRA prohibits gasoline powered outboards in known bream spawning areas during the prime spawning season. Signs mark such areas. The only other place I have seen something similar is among grass beds in the Gulf of Mexico in Southwest Florida.

The weather improved for the afternoon flight. Rea, who is recovering from a bad bout with cancer, accompanied Northern and Driscoll for the late outing. The fishing was a lot better. They caught 62 big bluegill. It made Rea very happy, and we were all happy for him.

Our final day was a rainout, and though I was disappointed not to have an outing as good as Rea's, I was nonetheless happy to cross a long-time item off my bucket list.

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