Friday, October 9, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Table Rock Lake, MO

A blue heron stands at the edge of the water, silently hungry. A small breeze makes the water sparkle with the waves in the sunlight. The heron does not move, not even a little bit. The bird stands there, like a doomed statue, waiting for the right moment.

I stand in a boat. The sun is piercing hot, and the small breeze is doing little to help alleviate the stillness of the blaze. Even the water looks warm. The depth is about ten feet, estimated from the depth finder and the translucent browns of the dirty lake floor in a small cove on the north side of the lake. I have been casting and retrieving for several minutes, beads of sweat running down my face. Each droplet seems as if it is on a mission to hit the lake water first. My shirt is soaked, my eyes are ablaze from the fire of perspiration, and the riff-raff of water gently touching the shoreline is almost a nuisance to the ears. All of my senses are annoyed.

The heron remains motionless. Not even the added waves from the increased traffic on the lake have stirred the heron. One movement, and the heron's lunch will be lost. Incentive enough to live in the extremely uncomfortable summer air entrenched over the area.

I cast in the same spot, again. Nothing. I change the tube bait. Maybe a monotone color would be better. Clear water. Fish do not like colorful bait in clear water. Change the color. Cast again. Surely, there is a fish there.

An old fishing adage, used by generations of people throughout the fishing world, is that if you cannot see the fish, you look for the birds. The heron, in particular, is an expert fisherman. Where there are birds, there are fish. Casting all day in the same spot is useless if the fish are not there.

I begin to wonder if the heron is alive. The heron is just sitting there, not reacting to my nearby casts. Why is the heron unmoved by the splash of bait on a hook hitting the water? Why does it not cool itself by flying effortlessly in the air? Will it move if I hit it with my fishing line?

The only sounds are of dribbles of sweat hitting the water, the whir of jet skis in the distance, and the subtle shoreline wave crashes. The sun is almost directly overhead. Shadows are virtually nonexistent. The heat is relentless. I am disturbingly uncomfortable. I reach for the cold water. It is almost painful as it gushes down my throat, chilling it excruciatingly.

The heron takes a step.

Immediately, I stop moving. Strangely, the bird and I have switched roles. The bird is now creeping to its right on the shoreline. I am completely still. I could hear almost every step the bird was taking, even though a pin drop on the shoreline would be louder. I could sense the bird's anticipation of lunch now. The heron's neck leaned closer to the water, sensing an approaching meal.

A wildlife dilemma crossed my mind. Should I cast? Would I be stealing this innocent bird's lunch if I cast near his location, and the fish decided to take the bait? Or, would I be saving the life of an even more innocent fish, since I had no plans of eating the fish after hooking it? The bird could theoretically find another meal, no? The fish could not live another life.

After this silent debate, I finally moved. I made a new cast. Really hard. Too hard, really. And it hit a tree branch on the shore. Efforts to retrieve the fishing line and bait were futile. A hard reality had set in. I was snagged. Sheepishly, I asked my father to troll the boat near the shoreline. With a fatherly sigh, he did so.

My father slowly trolled the boat inward. I was on the back side of the boat, sitting there in the endless sun, watching the distant boats motor by in the main channel. I could hear the "yee haws" of water skiers. I could hear a cardinal sing a distinctively different tune than the one he just chirped.

Suddenly, a loud noise came from the front of the boat. Dad had somehow retreated to the middle of the boat in mere seconds. He then quickly trolled the boat away from the snag-worthy branch without a word. His face was almost a color of red I could see, and the beads of sweat were profusely beading down his face. I asked what was going on, and he said nothing initially. Soon, we were many feet away from the branch, and my rod and reel did not like this course of action.

Why are we moving away? I'm still snagged!

Finally, after Dad had taken a few long breaths, he muttered, "There's a water moccasin in that tree."

Yikes. Poisonous snakes. Talk about the worst of the worst kind of wildlife. A slithering, scary-looking, creepy-crawly creature who has venom that can make an already bad day much, much worse. No thanks.

These thoughts were going through my young head when I realized we were approaching the tree again. Before I could ask why, we were on a fast track to a snake encounter. The front of the boat was already under the tree, and suddenly the water looked much more inviting than it had a few minutes beforehand.

Dad was near the front of the boat again, trying very hard to get my bait out of the tree branch. It was a fruitless endeavor. Now, I could see the snake. With a simple use of gravity, the snake could fall right into our boat and make for an extremely unpleasant next few minutes.

"Dad, let's go!"

I didn't have to tell him twice. One snip of the fishing line, a quick dash to the ignition, and a few more beads of sweat later, we were off. The snake remained in the tree the whole time.

I looked back to where the heron was. It was gone. I figured we had caused enough of a raucous to ruin his lunch. The decision I had made was instead made for me. The fish had lived.

Then, something from above caught my eye. It was a heron in flight. Oh, yes. The bird had a fish in its mouth.

There is another proverb involving birds. "People live like birds in the woods. When the time comes, each must take flight." I believe I was still in the woods that day.
Beautiful Table Rock Lake.
A shot of the lake in January 2008.
A heron on the lake shore. Not the same bird as the one told in the story, but it sure brought back memories.
A shot of one of the coves of Table Rock in September 2008.
The Shell Knob Bridge over Table Rock in September 2008.