Fish America: The Road

Two months on the road has taken me down much of the East Coast. The road, more than anything, wears you out. Night after night in your jeep takes its toll. Day after day in the heat drains you. But it's got a funny way of picking you back up when you least expect it. Because on a night like this, when you're tearing out of Atlanta, you swear somebody must have dropped a match on an oil-slick sky in your rearview mirror, and you've got to stop for a photo. And you remember why it's worth it.
Not everything on the road is a watercolor, picturesque beautiful though. There are some things, like this abandoned, grafittied train in Baltimore, that catch your eye when the light hits them right. Something about the fact that it's behind a factory, forgotten, and has had its guts torn out, gives it some character.
Then there are mornings like this one, from Lake Lanier in Georgia this past week, when the rising sun turns the lake into a sheet of glass, before any wind picks up, and you think that fish or no fish, you've just gotten your money's worth.
And for everything that surprises you, there are the things that are just as you'd imagined, like the old-fashioned river boat sitting docked on River Street in Savannah, Georgia that looks like it might have been there for 50 years.
But the road has realities. Searching out showers, like this one, is a regular chore, and never an easy task.
A combination lock on a marina shower that doesn't work can be a lifesaver, and lead to one of the sweetest sights for traveling eyes.
A shower. You spend your days sweating on the water and your nights sleeping in a jeep, and I don't think I'll ever take showers for granted again. I've had several people kind enough to have me in their home, I've showered at hotels, gym locker rooms, and marinas. Each one is one less you have to fight to find on the road.
Some are nicer than others, but as long as there's running water and a curtain, you're good to go. To find the pool showers in a hotel, walk in the front door with your head down, and head toward the humidity. Avoid eye contact with people with nametags.
Just remember that if, like me, you've forgotten your key, or can't afford one, ask a towel to hold the door for you.
Empty parking lots are a welcome sight on the road. Every once in a while, you need to do a complete jeep-cleaning, empty everything out and re-stock it. You can take stock of things you've lost, things you forgot you brought, and you'll usually save some money by turning up a spare pack of gum from June.
Of course, even when you're off the water, your mind is still on it, and when I heard that I was within a stone's throw of the largest blue marlin ever caught on rod and reel in Atlanta, I went. It sits within the Fish Hawk, one of Atlanta's better-known outdoor outfitters.
Some things are just incomprehensible up close. How Gary Merriman landed this 1,649-pound marlin in Kona, Hawaii in 1984 is beyond me. All I could do was stare at this thing. It's bigger than it looks in the photo. If you're in Atlanta, swing by the Fish Hawk and see for yourself.
Fishing, really, is everywhere if you're willing to look. I found this handcrafted tarpon art in a Cape Hatteras gift shop I somehow wandered in. I don't think it would have fit in the jeep as a decoration, but intriguing none the less.
And sometimes the road is just about views like this one, from Jekyll Island in Georgia.
Police have been a weird sort of reliable part of the trip for me, and for all the change, you need a few reliable aspects. I've talked with them about the area, learned places to fish, little bits of history, and none yet have hassled me, atlhough they consistently find me. One officer did catch me trying to shave in a parking lot one afternoon. I decided this trip would be a good time to undertake a first crack at facial hair, and it's been a learning process. So, I was covered in shaved-off stubble, using only my jeep window as a mirror, which is a bad idea, and I don't think anything I could have said would have convinced him I was sane. He ran my license, and suspiciously drove away. A Georgia police officer interrupted a phone conversation to see what my purpose in the parking lot was, and I've never bit my lip so hard as when he was perched on my window giving me advice on sights to see in Florida. I considered offering him all of my 11 dollars to leave, but instead quietly listened and nodded, hoping she didn't hang up on me.
But of course, there's always, at the end of the day, the fish. Sometimes fish are the object, the point, and the purpose. Sometimes they are a good reason to see a place you've never been, and often they're something in-between. But I wouldn't be on the road if it weren't for the water. I caught this striped bass this week fishing with guide Clay Cunningham on Lake Lanier in Georgia.
Check out www.catchingnotfishing.com if you're planning on being in the Atlanta area and want to fish with Clay. I'd recommend it. This guy started at the bottom, and learned the ropes from working in a tackle shop as a teenager, and has worked his way up to guiding on a lake that he's spent most of his life fishing. He specializes in targeting big stripers with bait.
Lanier has two distinct and noteworthy fisheries though, and besides stripers there is some great spotted bass fishing. These bass are a hard-fighting, smallmouth-like species that inhabit Lanier. I was fortunate enough to chase them with Brooklyn-born Henry Cowen, who has made Georgia his home, and fishing his passion.
Spotted bass like this one were keyed in on small bait all morning on Lanier the day Henry and I fished, and topwater flies were one of the few lures we could fool them with. We could see the bass pushing bait all over the surface, which made for an exciting morning on the water as we attempted to sneak up on surface-feeding fish. Henry guides for just about everything on the lake, but is best known for his skills with the fly rod. If you want to fish Lanier with a fly, talk to this guy. Visit www.lakelanier.com/cowen.
Spotted bass on Lanier are beautiful and hard-fighting fish and an interesting species to target if, like most freshwater anglers, you've only ever caught largemouth and smallmouth bass.
I guess to show only the 'Fish' is to forget the 'America,' and the road is as much the story as is the water. And the nights in parking lots, and conversations with cops, and endless skies and open roads, the borrowed showers and ceaseless motion and the constant cocktail of trepidation and excitement, both watered down with exhaustion, are at the heart of the journey, perhaps more than anything with fins.