My grandfather dearly loved panfishing. He looked upon largemouth bass, which he referred to as “trout,” with disdain. I don’t think he ever caught a largemouth on purpose in his lifetime, though he’d never hesitate to slip one into his ice chest should it be foolish enough to engulf his bait.
Daddy Buck was a cane-poler, never owning a reel-and-rod combo until late in life, a Christmas gift from Aunt Doris, I believe. That old Zebco 33 was passed along to me long after he wore it out.
His favorite fish was the redear sunfish (shellcracker), a stocky, pugnacious light-tackle battler Buck viewed as freshwater royalty. To my grandfather’s way of thinking, God put every other fish species on earth as an afterthought.
If Buck thought the shellcracker was king, he was equally convinced north Florida was its kingdom. Lake Talquin, River Styx, Merritt’s Mill Pond; here and only here were the places one went to pay homage to the red-eared nobility. Other waters were but places to go when there was no time for early rising and all-day pilgrimages.
I remember one day, long ago, Buck’s loading the old fishing car with tackle and ordering his eldest grandchild onto the seat beside him. I dutifully and willingly obeyed. We had only half a day, just time for a short trip. We were going, Buck said, to the “new backwaters.”
These new backwaters, I later learned, were the recently impounded acres of Lake Eufaula, correctly known as Walter F. George Reservoir. A by-product of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ dam-building craze of the 1950s and 60s, the waterway was destined to become one of the South’s premier bass lakes. In later years, I would spend countless hours casting gaudy, weird-looking contraptions into its largemouth hideaways.
No bass were sought this day, however. Bearing offerings of wigglers and pond worms, my grandfather and I probed the depths of the 47,000-acre “pond” for shellcrackers. Throughout the hot afternoon, we checked out the areas Buck instinctively recognized as potential redear feeding grounds. Perhaps a dozen came to hand by early evening, along with a few fat channel catfish.
To a 10-year-old who would have killed for the opportunity just to spend an afternoon with his granddad, our mixed bag was a sign of great fishing success. Buck, however, was unimpressed. A man accustomed to the gargantuan shellcrackers of north Florida had little regard for redears that ran from hand-size down. The catfish didn’t even dignify a response. To my knowledge, Buck never fished Lake Walter F. George again.
That attitude proved contagious. When I grew up, I parroted Buck’s low opinion of the panfish in the southwest Georgia impoundment. I fell in love with its largemouth bass and scoffed at its “tiny” shellcrackers. In short, I was a Lake Eufaula shellcracker snob.
Then one day, not long ago, the unthinkable happened. For some reason, I decided to spend an afternoon on the lake without my bait casting gear and bass lures. Instead, I took along an old spinning outfit (I no longer own a Zebco 33) and a container of wigglers. I anchored over a sandy bottom, impaled a worm onto a No. 8 hook, cast my line and waited.
As the afternoon stretched into early evening, the shellcrackers moved onto the sand flat for their daily feeding run. A few found my bait offering and subsequently joined me in the boat. I’d quite forgotten what a vicious fighter the redear is, particularly on light tackle. I’d also forgotten how wonderful he tastes coated with cornmeal and fried in hot peanut oil.
True to form, the fish, comparatively speaking, were rather small. I found, though, this didn’t bother me as it once did. I could almost hear my grandfather’s patronizing, derisive chuckle over my delighted exclamation as each fish was brought to hand.
Now, five decades later, Lake Walter F. George doesn’t seem like such a lousy shellcracker lake anymore. I’m even thinking about going back soon. It may take awhile, but I think Buck, looking down on me from Heaven, will eventually forgive me.
After all, at least I’m not fishing for “trout.”