Trips to Reelfoot Lake seldom disappoint. From scanning the skies for weary ducks on a winter morning to navigating through endless fields of lily pads and dodging shallow snags on a late spring bluegill outing, Tennessee’s own Everglades always has a wildlife show going on.
Guide Cody Rodriguez launched a massive boat powered by a huge outboard motor only to slowly idle across Blue Basin where a submerged stump field threatened the lower unit of any boater who dared to speed across what appeared to be a harmless open water path.
Within a few yards, his huge rig slid over a submerged snag. Then yet another one. He trimmed the motor up but the slow journey a mile or two across the lake encountered numerous hidden obstacles that are standard operating procedure here at the “earthquake pond.”
Rodriguez, a 35-year-young man, has logged 16 years as a professional hunting and fishing guide at Reelfoot Lake. He operates Bent Rod Guide Service. On this day, he was attempting to get us on the other side of the lake, seeking shelter from a nasty northeast wind and mile-high skies.
Sharing the boat was national television host Bob Redfern and his cameraman Jerry Hudson Jr. They had traveled from South Carolina for a media outing at Bluebank Resort and Bob hoped to film a segment for his "Bob Redfern’s Outdoor Magazine" national television series, which airs weekly on Bally Sports Network.
A slow boat to China ride allowed us to meet and greet, trading stories of fish, fowl and nasty occurrences that happened recently to Cody and the Reelfoot Lake region. Hoping to encounter some of the famous big bull bluegill on a secluded spawning bed we listened to a life-changing event that happened in early December.
It was a devastating tornado that ripped across several states, tearing a wide path of destruction. Lives were lost. Communities blown away. And, Cody’s house was one of them. Totally blown away.
Fortunately he wasn’t home at the time nor was his family. Otherwise he might not be here today and he knows it.
“I’m lucky to be here riding in this boat today,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief at what happened. “Lost my boat and everything in the house but lots of folks have helped me put my life back together. Still got my family and lots of friends.”
Scars of the nasty storm are still very much visible along the shores of Reelfoot Lake. Odds are some will never go away as twisted reminders will likely remain for generations to come.
The topic of conversation quickly changed as he slowed the boat and idled along the edge of a grassbed where scattered lily patches offered great looking fishing spots. On the dash was a big screen Hummingbird sonar unit scanning a 360-degree display of detail bottom topography.
“What are you looking for?” asked Bob as Cody got quiet and had a serious look on his face while monitoring the screen. “Can you spot those bluegill beds?”
“There’s one or two smaller beds there at the end of two logs,” replied Cody, pointing out small crater-like areas where the fish had fanned out dishes for spawning.
For me it was a busman’s holiday as I wasn’t accustomed to being out of the driver’s seat and watching someone else maneuver the boat. Sort of felt like wearing someone else’s shoes, so to speak.
FISHING AND FRIENDSHIP
Cody extended the hand of hospitality and in a matter of minutes we pulled up to a spot, extended his power poles for anchors and began presenting small jigs tipped with wax worms beneath slip bobbers. Fishing only about two to three feet over the spot Cody had observed is where we made a stand.
Sluggish bluegill began to bite and after a little coaxing we tricked a few nice male bull bream into taking the bait and submerging the tiny bobbers. Then the fight was on as light action 12-foot rods provided a nice thrill as these hefty bronze bombers sported an attitude.
Bluegill at Reelfoot have a reputation that has withstood the test of time. Tangling with these powerful panfish brought back lots of memories for me as my dad used to take me here decades ago. In the old days we used cane poles with porcupine quills for bobbers. Ah, the memories of youth and simple times.
With the camera rolling, Bob landing a nice big fat bluegill and I caught another side by side. We were having a good time getting some good footage as bluegill are known to bring out the youth in anyone. Seeing a bobber disappear never goes out of style.
Male bluegill possess a dark, olive drab color during peak spawning phases which is the result of hormonal changes. Some of the ones we caught were downright dark colored with a light touch of copper color on their bellies but a beautiful blue gill covering.
Nature’s paintbrush had made yet another stroke not only on the fish but on the surroundings as well. Great blue herons stood watch while balanced in the wind on a tiny blade of grass. A mature bald eagle glided overhead and seemed to bless our presence as we visited his wild kingdom.
Any visit to this wonderful waterland is like stepping into a wildlife movie set. All around there are picturesque settings full of live creatures. Here you can find the scratch to whatever itch you may have.
As we moved about looking for additional spots it seemed challenging at times because everything here looks fishy. Logs here; grassbeds there. Pockets within lily pad fields offer endless havens for fish to hide and shelter in the shade of the big bonnets.
We pulled a few stories out of Cody on fishing and duck hunting here. Those of us in the guide arena have a lot of stories to pull from as the memory bank is deep.
With a pretty good segment of fishing courtesy of Cody’s guidance, Reelfoot’s beauty and some aggressive bluegill that cut holes in the water as they battled on camera it was time to head in. I don’t know where the morning went as a noon rendezvous time had slipped up on us all.
Reelfoot Lake always seems to offer an adventure and in a variety of ways. Catching fish was our objective on this windy spring morning and shooting a television show isn’t always easy.
Yet out here in God’s garden the sights and sounds know no boundaries. Meeting some new friends on an old lake and catching some middle aged fish was well worth the trip.
This place had once again lived up to its reputation. Every time I come here, I ask myself why I had waited so long to return.
STEVE McCADAMS is The Post-Intelligencer’s Outdoors writer. His email address is email@example.com.