I fish 10 to 12 tournaments a year, every year — and I’m here to tell you that good partners are hard to find.

Over the last 27 tournament seasons, I’ve had half a dozen “regular” fishing partners and another half dozen or so subs or guest partners.

A good fishing partner on tournament day means more than just showing up to fish. A good tournament team means both members are equally committed to the team’s goals.

For my partners and me, the first goal has always been to have fun. Certainly, we have always tried our best to be competitive, and, yes, we keep score.

Out-fishing your buddies on T-day is a big part of the game. And, having fun while you’re doing it has always been the main goal for my partners and me.

Fishing partnerships, especially long-term fishing partnerships, are kinda like being married. And, I’ve been married to the same beautiful, very understanding and forgiving woman for the last 47 years.

There are some good days and some not-so-good days. Things don’t always go right. There is some give and take, and you just have to get over your differences and work together as a team.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not easy to live with, and I’m not always easy to fish and travel with. I have a temper, and I sometimes say and do things that I later wish I had not done.

My wife and my fishing partners, fortunately, have been the forgiving and tolerant kind, for the most part.

This month’s column is done in memory and respect for one of the best and longest-term friends and tournament partners I ever had. Gil Woodis and I duck hunted and crappie fished together for well over 20 years.

Gil died tragically earlier this spring.

Gil’s sister, Becky, asked me to share a couple of “Gil and Paul Stories” with her.

“Gil spoke of y’all’s escapades all the time. I’d love to have a couple of those memories to keep,” she said. “Will you take the time to write Gil’s family a couple of short stories?”

So, after sharing one duck-hunting story with Becky and then with my family and getting such unexpected delightful responses, I’ve decided to share a couple of “Gil and Paul Stories” with you.

I hope you’ll get a kick out of them, as well.


Wolf Lake tree snake

One tournament at Wolf Lake, Gil and I were fishing in the shade under the giant, ancient cypress trees lining the lake’s banks for miles and miles. It was a hot-weather tournament, and the cool shade was a welcomed side benefit of fishing for our prey using our “shade pattern.”

I had just commented to Gil to be watchful and wary of those long, skinny tree-climbing water moccasins that are common in Delta lakes like Wolf.

That’s right, you guessed it: I had hardly gotten the words out of my mouth before, yep, here it comes — a 4-foot-long water moccasin fell into the front of the boat where I was sitting.

I instantly squealed like a little girl and vaulted to the back of the boat where Gil was. And damn if that snake didn’t follow me just as fast to the back of the boat.

Now, both Gil and I are squealing like little girls as we wrestled with one another. I don’t know what Gil was trying to do, but I admit that I was trying to put him between the snake and me. 

The snake was not afraid of us. In fact, it was staring straight at us, and it was in a striking posture. The damn thing had us treed, friend. We couldn’t go back any farther in the boat without getting wet.

Finally, we gathered ourselves — looked around to see if anyone was watching  — and together, using the dipnet and a jig pole, we were able chase the snake over the side of the boat.

We went back to fishing in dead silence, not saying a word.

“Man, I sure hope nobody saw that,” Gil said after a couple of minutes.


Frozen ducks

Gil and I duck hunted together at Reelfoot Lake in Northwest Tennessee for 15 years or more. We went once or twice a season. We always went to the same place, used the same guide and hunted with mostly the same bunch of friends every year. 

Our guide, Tim Bunch, was really a unique person — he lived hard and hunted hard, but kept his clients entertained at the same time.

He was always pulling practical jokes on somebody. Part of the allure of the duck-hunting experience was waiting to see what crazy stunt Tim was going to pull next.

On one particular three- or four-day hunt, the lake was frozen. Tim used an airboat to transport his 10 or 12 hunters to the blind when the lake froze. The airboat was a metal boat with a giant airplane propeller on the back that pushed the boat over the ice at speeds up to 50 to 60 mph.

The problem with the airboat was that it leaked. No problem, until we hit parts of the lake that were not frozen. We had a real issue with getting the rapidly leaking boat back up on the ice before it took on too much water.

It was one of the most-dangerous scenarios you can imagine. And we had to go through the process of dropping off the ice into the water, crossing the open water for a short distance and then somehow make the now-heavier boat get back up on the ice in a couple of places, both going to the blind and returning to the landing.

It made us all nervous. It made Gil real nervous — so nervous that he wouldn’t go hunting the second day. He stayed at the motel all day while the rest of us hunted.

On the second day, Tim tried something a little different. He put two or three people out of the boat on the ice, crossed the open water, got back up on the ice on the other side, put everybody out once they got back up on the ice, dumped the water, crossed back over to pick up the two or three people he had left, and returned to the whole bunch of hunters with a lighter load.

It was slow, but it was a lot less dangerous.

We told Gil about the new plan when we came back in that afternoon.

“Gil, Tim’s got it figured out,” I explained, and I convinced Gil to go hunting with us the next day.

On the third morning, before sunup, we’re zooming out across that frozen lake in the dark at 50 mph when Tim stops the boat and says, “OK, Johnson, you and your running buddy get out. I’ll be back to pick you up in a little while.”

So Gil and I got out of the boat. We were standing in the middle of Reelfoot Lake on the ice, in the dark. We couldn’t hear or see the boat any more.

The sun began to come up. We were there, stranded on the ice, not knowing what to do but wait.

It seemed like a very long time since Tim put us out of the boat.

As the sun came up, the ice started to make noises — first it sounded like the ice was moaning, and then we started to hear the ice pop and even crack off in the distance.

I quickly got flat on my back with my arms and legs spread out.

“What the hell are you doing, Paul?” Gil asked.

“Brother, I’m just trying to spread this 250 pounds out so I don’t fall through this ice,” I said.” Move over there somewhere, away from me.”

Gil gingerly took a few steps away from me, and then began to stand with one foot off the ice. He looked like a flamingo balancing himself on one leg.

“Gil, what the hell are you doing?” I asked.

“Man, I’m just taking some of this weight off the ice,” Gil responded.

And he was serious. 

Finally, Tim returned to get us. We really let him have it, and he began to laugh.

“Johnson, the spot I left y’all on is only about a foot deep,” he said. “Didn’t think you were in much danger.”

OK — I’m done. Thank you for reading some of my fondest memories shared with one of my best buddies ever.

Gil and I spent hundreds of days together trying to catch crappie as big as they grow and shooting at high-flying ducks. Gil was a much better partner to me than I was to him.

I truly miss his friendship.