BOB KORNEGAY: Southern cypress swamps are things of beauty

OUTDOORS: A swamps is alive, vibrant and vital

Bob Kornegay

Bob Kornegay

My, oh my. To think such a location was once thought of as cursed, some even said haunted. Nasty, it was said. Drain it, cut the trees, and “improve” the acreage. That’s all the place is good for.

Why was it, long ago, that people could not see the beauty and downright sanctity of a Southern cypress swamp? Was it ignorance? Perhaps merely a sign of the times, an era in which nothing had value save dry land that could grow crops or provide a foundation for human construction and exploitation?

Godforsaken. Worthless. Log it. Drain it.

I look upon these dark, reflective waters now and shake my head in disbelief. The reflection is such that the trees and the clouds show forth in perfect mirror images. It is only when a breeze stirs the clean, tea-colored water of the swamp that the images show any sign of abstractness. Let the breeze blow. That, too, is art.

The swamp is alive. It is vibrant and vital. It teems with life. Both flora and fauna.

Two chicks inhabit the osprey nest. The parent birds dive and fish. The babies’ appetites are seemingly insatiable. I manage a wry smile when a diving adult osprey hits the water and emerges with a fish bigger than any I’ve caught or likely will catch today.

The cypress trees are impressive, though few are old-growth in nature. And so stereotypically Southern. Like Spanish moss, waterlilies, and big old sinister-looking alligators; cypresses somehow make me feel at home. They have a way of telling me this is where I belong.

The fishes in the swamp are different from those found elsewhere. They take on an appearance unlike that of their brethren in the big lakes and rivers. The largemouth bass are dark, short, and decidedly “chunky.” The bluegills and redears are fat and feisty, exuding the heady, slightly pungent aroma of the swamp itself mixed with that clean good smell of a bedding summertime panfish. I love it. I’ll smell it in my sleep tonight.

There are other fishes here as well. Oddities. Species seldom encountered in habitats other than those like this one. There are fliers, for instance. Flat-bodied sunfish with tiny, dark spots and scales that shimmer with almost-luminescent shades of olive green and burnished gold. My father called them Coonrod bream. Lord knows why.

Here swim scores of chain pickerel. Such lithe, beautiful sharp-toothed predators. Their jaws are lined with needle-sharp teeth. Woe be unto the angler who attempts to land one with a lip grip. Woe unto him also who fails to bring along plenty of spinnerbaits. It takes very few chain pickerel strikes to reduce a spinnerbait to worthlessness. Likewise with the bowfin, that hard-headed, prehistoric prowler that has fooled many a fisherman into thinking he has just set his hook in the mouth of a trophy bass.

The swamp is beautiful, but unforgiving. Water moccasins sun on stumps and blow-downs, waiting for the errant hand or foot of a hapless daydreamer. Mosquitoes feast on the blood of those who leave their DEET in the truck. Gnats plague the ears and the eyes. Red wasps nest in low-hanging willow foliage near the bank, taking no prisoners should their nests be disturbed. The summer heat is oppressive, the humidity dank and strength-sapping. All these are swamp-sacred, too. No swamp would be the same without them.

And I, for one, would not be the same without the swamp. It is here that I came of age, not merely as a fisherman, but as an outdoorsman, period. As a youth, the swamp taught me much. It taught me skill. It taught me caution. It taught me that nature is far more awesome than any video game or new-to-market digital device could ever hope to be. It taught me respect. It taught me reverence. It is still teaching.

I love the swamp. Did I mention that?

Email outdoors columnist Bob Kornegay at cletus@windstream.net.