A fallen log with a root ball still attached and a gravel bar worked to form a deep hole right along the bank.
To the right was the rock bar.
To the left was the fallen tree.
A better-than-average cast put the crawfish critter bait against the bank where the shallows fell off into the hole.
No sooner had the bait hit the water than a feisty spotted bass fell for the deception and slammed the lure. It put up quite a fuss against the medium-light tackle, eventually coming to the canoe to be netted, admired, unhooked and returned into the Leaf River near Petal.
In the Leaf, such fishy locations are plentiful, but as much fun as spotted bass can be, my mind was drifting elsewhere.
While lunch was not for several more hours, I couldn’t help but savor the thought of a shore lunch of fresh fried fish. To that end, I decided to try a glob of night crawlers to coax a catfish or two to be put in the basket.
Parking the canoe at the next shoal I waded into the river, casting the live bait into the shallows and allowing the scent of worms to attract the fish. It’s a technique I learned from fellow floating fan John Tanner from Laurel.
“Catfish have been described as a living, breathing, swimming tongue,” Tanner said. “With the pores of its skin, the whiskers of its face and the other sensory organs in its mouth, it can hone in on bait from afar. Keep your rod tip up to keep the bait from getting caught on the rocks, then when the bait slides from the shallows into the deeper hole below the shoal, be ready.”
The first fish to be caught wasn’t a catfish at all, but a hand-sized bluegill big enough to filet.
Re-baited and back in place, I produced a repeat performance with a bigger bream, a fine eater as well.
The third time was the charm. A channel cat weighing maybe a pound and a half swallowed the bait.
Voila! A Leaf River lunch was in the basket, so my mind drifted.
A few puffy clouds were passing overhead and the wind was rattling a few leaves in a cottonwood at the top of the bank. I broke out the fly rod and worked the shoal with a wet fly called a Black Ant. It has a bit of red on the tail and has always been a safe bet for long-eared sunfish. Without a doubt these are the prettiest fish in the river. Far from being a bonus catch, they are scrappy fighters and a delight to the eye.
They are fine to eat, but it takes a dozen to make a good mess, but I already had lunch in the basket so my mine drifted again.
Returning to the float I entered a long track of deeper water. A few fallen trees diverted the water, but not enough to matter. With a silver and black Rapala I tried to reach every possible hiding place a bass might find. In an hour of drifting and chunking, I caught and released five bass. The biggest was two pounds, by my guess. All were the Kentucky spotted variety; fun to catch and good to eat.
I can’t say that for the next fish.
Rounding a curve and enjoying a fun ride on the current the canoe slid through a narrows and over a submerged log. The water here was deeper so I decided to try for another catfish with another glob of worms. Adding a BB weight to get the worms to the bottom I figured I had again struck out when the line twitched and then lay still.
Another bream I thought, so I decided to retrieve and move along. Scarcely had I started the retrieve when the line went tight, catching me by surprise. It was a big fish, a bass maybe, a catfish probably, but it was putting up a serious fight.
Twice the mystery fish took drag on the Shakespeare spinning reel, stretching the limits of the 10-pound fluorocarbon I had on the spool. Finally, the fish began to tire. It showed itself before zipping back to the deep water and one more time making the drag growl. It was a bowfin, what many Mississippi anglers call a Grinnell, or a cypress bass.
Too large for the landing net I had to land the fish in the shallows and remove the hook. It bled a bit, but swam away quickly. Perhaps another angler would have a chance at a surprise encounter another day.
Time to eat
There is little shade on the sandbars in the middle of the day, but I found one with a sycamore that offered some increasing shade as the late summer sun bent westward. There is no shortage of firewood away from the river and in the drifts high along the bank. Making a cooking fire was easy. As it burned into coals the fish were cleaned and laid onto a damp paper towel in the ice chest.
I had to smile as the Boy Scout within me spread out the coals and melted some butter in the skillet. In a plastic bag I added the filets to the pre-mixed fish fry then laid them one by one in the skllet.
Fish fry quickly, and many people cook them too long. Maybe a couple of minutes on each side and that’s enough. With a cup of homemade Cole slaw, a slice of white bread and a bottle of water, my shore lunch was ready.
As I ate I had this thought — somewhere a man was eating a gourmet meal in a fine restaurant, but he wasn’t enjoying it any more than the lunch I was having on a sandbar on the Leaf River.
Having finished lunch and with my appetite sated, I doused the fire with sand until it was cold to the touch. After replacing the food containers in the ice chest and reloading the canoe, it was time again to continue the float.
The end of a good day
This is where my return to nature was interrupted by modern technology. Having pre-loaded the GPS coordinates of the next possible take-out point I was just three hours and perhaps a few minutes from the point at Sims Road. Not the best place to exit and portage a canoe, but as good as I needed.
The bite had slowed a bit, but spotted bass were still hitting the Rapala. A few bream hammered a Barr-Nun lookalike, so many that the rubber legs were showing the wear. The Barr-Nun has been out of production for a couple of decades, but similar bugs are still available. Many old-timers — and I am one — will attest that it is the finest bream fly ever made.
The shadows of the treetops on the west side of the river were starting to touch the edge of the bank on the east side. The mosquitoes, which had been no problem, were now starting to be bothersome. I took the ThermoCell from the dry bag and cranked it up. The ’skeeters scooted. A ThermoCell is one outdoor product that really works as advertised.
Going back to the worm box I again began to fish the down shoals and rapids with a glob of worms on the bottom. The last worm caught my eighth keeper channel cat within sight of the Sims Road Bridge. The long shadows had pushed the sunlight from the treetops on the eastern shore. It was a full day; the kind that leaves you wanting a fresh cup of coffee and hot shower.
That would come soon enough.
The first trip up the bank I carried the dry bag and ice chest and made the call to my expectant ride and confirmed directions to where I was. The next trip was for the tackle and paddle, followed by the final trip with the canoe.
The evening stars were just starting to appear when Jean arrived in the Suburban. We placed the canoe on the top rack and secured the straps. The equipment was stowed in the back and the fish were covered with ice. As I settled into the driver’s seat, she handed me a hot cup of McDonald’s coffee.
“Thought you might like this,” she said. “Next time I’m going.”
The float began at a boat ramp just below the convergence of the Bowie and Leaf rivers, just a few yards from the U.S. Highway 11 Bridge.
A change from the traditional put-in, take-out float, this was to be a foray down the river in an Old Towne Canoe with a trolling motor for the return to the put-in point. It was a solo trip so to speak, a chance for solitude, quiet, and experimentation.
It would be an opportunity to try a multitude of baits from plastics to cranks, to spinners, to flies and live bait. The alternative is to have a pair of vehicles and two fishermen, or have a pre-arranged take-out. The trolling motor was never needed, and never got in the way. The float covered only 12.3 miles as the crow flies.
The Leaf widens a bit after the Bowie joins it, but the stream can still be shallow. Navigating the river at this point is a challenge for anything but a canoe, kayak or small flat-bottom skiff.
There is a daily river level report based on the level at Highway 11. Levels below 3 feet are low even for kayakers. The trip requires planning — too much stuff and the canoe will become heavy and draft too deep, dragging on the bottom. Two people, and tackle gets in the way. It’s a problem offset by having another paddler.
This is a perfect trip for a family, or a parent-child. The fishing is okay and you’ll see a plenitude of wildlife.
The cell phone service is spotty, which can be a good thing.
Thumbs are for controlling a casting reel spool.