With a single sharp tug on the pull cord, the trusty old Mercury outboard purred to life. Not waiting for instructions from my uncle, I gently shoved the boat clear of the sandbar on Middle Ground Island. The swift current caught our 16-foot johnboat and carried it into the main channel of the river. Using the powerful outboard, my uncle swung the bow of the boat upstream and headed in the direction of our first trotline set.

Johnny Smith, like all my uncles on my mother's side of the family, was a seasoned trotline catfisherman on the Father of Waters. I, on the other hand, was a true greenhorn. In fact, this was my first-ever overnight fishing trip on the Big River. Even at the young age of 14, I knew this trip would be a life-changing experience.

"Shine your light over there by that clump of willows," shouted my uncle. "See if you can find our flagging."

The bright beam bounced off the muddy water as I slowly scanned the shoreline for the orange and white flagging that marked the location of our first trotline set.

"There it is!" I shouted over the whining of the outboard motor. "Just to the left of that big cottonwood tree."

With the skill of a riverboat pilot, my uncle carefully guided the bow of the boat within inches of the willow tree marked with flagging tape before shutting off the engine. Holding onto the tree with one hand, I grabbed hold of the white nylon trotline with the other. Instantly, I felt a gentle tug on the line, then another.

"I think we're going to have some catfish fillets for supper tonight," I laughed as I worked my way down the line to the first hook.

"Don't count your chickens before they hatch," my uncle shot back. "They don't count until you get 'em in the boat."

We pulled three pan-sized cats off that first trotline and eleven more off our other four lines before heading back to our campsite.

Back at the sandbar, my two older brothers had pitched our tents, started a campfire and heated a pan of oil for the catfish fillets.

"How did y'all know we wouldn't come back empty-handed?" I asked looking at the pan of oil on the Coleman stove.

"We figured with all the laughing and carrying on that we were hearing, y'all had to have caught at least enough cats for supper," my brother Dwayne replied. "Besides, Uncle Johnny always catches fish."

In a matter of minutes, we had our first batch of catfish fillets sizzling in the frying pan. And I can tell you from experience, there is something truly unique and special about fresh catfish fillets that is fried up on the banks of the water that produced them.

While my first camping catfishing trip took place almost three decades ago, I still feel the same sense of adventure and excitement each time I venture out onto the Big Muddy. And it's not so much about the camping and fishing as it is about the experiences. We all know that most anglers don't go to the river to fish; though that is the excuse we give to our spouses, bosses, bankers and preachers. We go to the Big River to renew our spirits, to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life, to commune with nature, to dream tomorrow's dreams and to regain our perspective.

And when it's all said and done, nowhere is our enjoyment of the outdoors so fulfilling as when we are sitting together with good friends around a campfire, toasting old memories and sharing the adventures of days gone by.

Camping and catfishing go hand in hand in Mississippi. And I can think of no better place to experience the outdoors in the Magnolia State than by camping on a sandbar and running trotlines on the Mighty Mississippi.

As the poet T.S. Elliot, who grew up along the Mississippi River, wrote, "I feel that there is something in having passed one's childhood beside the Big River, which is incommunicable to those who have not."

Planning a trip

From the moment you decide you want to go camping, the most-important decision you'll make is where you want to camp. Each subsequent decision you make will be dependent on this choice.

Before selecting a destination, consider the primary activities you want to include in your trip. If fishing is the main purpose of the trip, begin by locating all fishing areas in which you are interested and determine which of them will fulfill your other interests.

If the Mississippi River is your choice, then you are in luck. In July, the water level is low enough to expose literally thousands of sandbars, which offer several good campsites well off the water. And even though it will be hot, there is usually an evening breeze coming in off the water to make things pleasurable, or at least tolerable. Just don't forget to bring along plenty of insect repellent to help keep the mosquitoes at bay.

But if roughing it isn't for you, there are numerous campgrounds located just a stone's throw from the Big River that can handle even the largest motorhome or camper.

Be prepared

The first step in preparing for your camping fishing trip is to make a detailed list of everything you intend to take. Discuss each item on the list with all participants, and mentally go through the activities you have planned on the trip. Forgetting a single item, like fuel for your lantern, can turn an otherwise enjoyable camping trip into a very unpleasant one.

The next step is to get out all of your gear and do a thorough inspection to ensure that there has not been any damage since its last use. It's also a good idea to check stoves, lanterns, and the like to make sure that they still work properly. The same goes for any battery-powered devices. Check the batteries in each one and make sure you have a backup set, just in case.

If it has been awhile since you used your tent, it may be a good idea to set it up and make sure all the pieces are still functional and the material has not deteriorated or been damaged while in storage. A leaky tent can make for a miserable camping experience.

A first-aid kit is another necessity that should be in every camper's list. Make sure it contains everything necessary for any emergencies you may encounter. And by all means, don't forget to pack a box of large garbage bags so you can leave your campsite as clean as you found it.

Pack smart

At first glance, loading your gear should be a simple process of collecting everything on your camping list and placing it in your vehicle. However, some thought should go into how this should be accomplished. When it comes to packing your gear, organization is the way to go.

Large plastic storage containers work great for storing and transporting your camping gear. Purchase at least three of these inexpensive containers, and designate them for camping gear only. In one, pack up your stove, cooking utensils, lanterns, saws, hatchets and other camp tools you might need. In the second, store all sleeping bags, air mattresses, pumps, sleeping pads, cots, tents and tarps. The third one should contain everything else you need for camp: toilet paper, paper towels, soap, extra rope, garbage bags, spices and seasonings and a first-aid kit. These storage containers also make loading your camping gear into your vehicle a cinch.

The items you will need first should be loaded last. Once you arrive at camp, the empty storage containers can be put to use as dirty clothes hampers or dry storage for firewood until it is time to pack everything up and go back home.

Don't forget the food

While everyone would love to be able to "catch" their meals on their camping/fishing trip, sometimes things don't always go as planned. So if you don't want to risk having to eat cut bait or catalpa worms for supper, you may want to pack a few meals along for insurance. These "camp" meals should be hearty, simple and enjoyable without a great deal of effort. A few snacks and candy bars are always welcome, and will come in handy to fuel the extra energy you will exert during your trip. Casseroles and stews made in advance and frozen help to keep other foods cold until it is time to thaw them out. This also helps reduce the amount of ice required for the entire cold storage.

When planning your food inventory, don't forget the one nutrient that we all must have to survive. Because we take it for granted, water is the most frequently overlooked item on a camper's list. Sometimes we don't realize how many times each day we use fresh water for purposes other than drinking. So be sure to bring along plenty of fresh water if it is not readily available near your campsite.

Safety first

Before leaving for a camping/fishing trip, be sure to let your neighbors or family know where you will be camping and how long you intend to stay. This is good advice anytime you venture outdoors, especially on an extended trip.

For obvious reasons, fishing on the Mississippi River, especially at night, requires a great deal of caution. A high-quality map of the section of the river you plan to fish is invaluable. And in this modern age, a cell phone isn't a bad idea either in the event that you experience mechanical problems with your boat while on the river.

Although most people wouldn't consider anywhere in Mississippi to be wilderness, knowing a little bit about wilderness survival could save your life. Simply knowing some basic survival skills could make all the difference in being safe until rescued by others.

Trotlining catfish

Now that we have the camping part of our camping/fishing trip covered, let's get to the fun part. Trotlining is one of the most effective methods for catching numbers of catfish. It is an activity that several people can participate in at the same time. And to top it off, it is a great way to introduce a young person to the outdoors and fishing.

As Sydney Montgomery, who grew up fishing the Mississippi River, so aptly put it, "If a man doesn't like catfishing, then there's something wrong with him. He just ain't right."

As a youngster growing up along the mighty Mississippi, I thought that trotlining was the only way there was to catch catfish. When I went off to college, I was astonished that there were actually people out there who had never run a trotline, let alone made their own. So before I assume too much, I will go into a little more detail about trotlining catfish.

Specifically, a trotline is a type of setline containing multiple hooks that is employed in open water to catch catfish. The number of hooks can vary from a half dozen to over a hundred, as is the case with commercial "longliners."

On most trotlines, the hooks are set about 3 to 4 feet apart and attached to the main line by shorter lines called drop lines or "trots". A swivel is often used to attach the trots to the main line, and this connection is called the "staging."

Making your own trotline is actually a very simple process. The mainline should consist of a 300-pound-test nylon cord, and the trots of about 100-pound-test nylon cord. To construct a typical trotline, lay out about 100 feet of the 300-pound-test line. Slide a large barrel swivel down the main line to the far end, then make a half hitch to hold the swivel in place on the line. Then slide another swivel down the line to within 3 to 4 feet of the first swivel, make another half hitch, and continue until you have 20 to 25 swivels in place.

Next cut 20 to 25 trots from the 100-pound-test line in 12- to 18-inch lengths. Tie one end of each trot to a swivel and the other end to a hook. Most trotliners use anywhere from 2/0 to 6/0 hooks, depending on the size catfish they are after.

Now you're ready to gather up the family, load the camping gear in the truck, hook up the boat and head down to the river for the time of your life.

And since catfish are considered non-game fish, there is no creel limit on the Mississippi River. So make sure you take along plenty of ice chests.