Stories of the Escatawpa
The Round Dinny Trip
Since my last story, let’s jump ahead—over many more yearly trips on the Escatawpa with Daddy. Past high Semmes High School and even past Auburn—to somewhere to a summer in the 1970s. I was somewhat newly married—at least new enough, I could still go on an overnight fishing trip without asking permission. After all, I was going with my older and longer married brother, Bill, and his also married brother-in-law, and my lifetime friend, Bubbie.
I don’t remember the date precisely. Consequently, let me say right here, that lots and lots of Americans my age would jump up and claim memory loss due to Woodstock. However, I am just of a certain age, and nothing more need be said. Besides, God-fearing Southerners did not attend Woodstock—at least none that I knew.
As summers in southwest Alabama were back then and are today, it was hot on our trip—Alabama hot. Mid-90s in both humidity and temperature. Hot at daylight and hot at midnight. The kind of hot that makes you change your underwear twice a day for fear you might have a wreck and had to go the emergency room with a pair of sweaty jockeys on.
Alabama heat was not a worry when fishing the swift waters of the Escatawpa River for bluegills and goggleyes, and redbellies. Get hot on The River? Over the side. Swim to a sugar-white sand bar always nearby, and yell to your friends who have not missed a cast on the other side of the river for fear of missing a bite
We carried two limber flyrods, each with a floating line, maybe six-foot of four-pound leader, and tipped with a Round Dinny by the Accardo Company out of Baton Rouge. The Accardo Company burned down and never rebuilt. I still have a Round Dinny in the bookcase in my office. We only carried two rods, as the third person in the boat had to paddle and steer.
The Round Dinny, as its name implies, was … well … round, and could be found almost any fishing supply store or filling station near Dog River in panfish attracting colors. The Round Dinny was our preferred bug on the end of our fly rods because its round shape meant you could get it loose from most hang-ups without having to paddle over and ruin the fishing in that spot; because it had the sharpest bream hook we had ever found, and the fish liked it—the best reason of all.
Why fish preferred it is still a mystery. It did not resemble anything in a fish’s environment. Most bream bugs resembled crickets or mayflies, and we had a few of these in our tackle boxes, too. However, the esoteric discussion of the likes and dislikes of Alabama and Mississippi bluegills was not a topic we discussed. Usually, we were too busy catching fish on this little round “creature” that came in the unnatural colors of white, chartreuse, yellow, black, and dark green. Don’t hold me to these colors only. But they were the colors we caught fish on.
In fact, much this story is about a dark green—almost black—Round Dinny.
As I recall, we and our wives, drove out to the U.S. 98 bridge and launched in our 12-foot three-man wooden skiff. However, this was no ordinary wooden boat. This was Bubbie’s Granddaddy Jewel Smith’s cypress boat. With cypress sides and a plywood bottom, that boat weighed about 300 pounds when wet. And when it wasn’t wet, the cypress would shrink away from the bottom, and it would leak like a sieve. After a little expected bailing, soon the seams would swell up, and it would become as tight as a tight-lipped fisherman about his favorite fishing hole. About a one-third of the way down from the gunnel on the starboard side, patched with Bondo where someone (likely one of Cap’n Jewel’s timber cutters) ran over a buck deer swimming across Tensas Lake.
In our history and provision-laden craft, we planned to float and paddle south from U.S. 98. We would pass under the Howell’s Bridge (to Mobilians, this was Old Shell Road that ran all the way into Mississippi). A bit south of Howell’s, we would find a sandbar to camp on. The next day we would travel to the Wade Vancleve Road Bridge—once more, to Mobilians, this was the Airport Boulevard Bridge. It was here our wives would meet us in the afternoon a day later.
Back to that sandbar. We would find the biggest sandbar we could find to set up our primitive camp on. No tents. A sleeping bag if one was lucky. More likely, a wife’s mother’s quilt quickly packed away while she was not looking as we each assembled our camping paraphernalia.
The Escatawpa River is an ultra-clean waterway (at least in our day) because there were no industries on it. Its banks are swampy down to the waterline except for those sandbars. Of course, where there are swamps, or, as we say down South “swaumps,” there are mosquitos. Big ones. And Mosquitos who have conversations about whether or not the humans they are surveilling are big enough to take back home for supper.
So, it was crucial to find a big sandbar some distance away from the swampy banks. Generally, mosquitos, yellow flies, and deer flies did bother campers on the big sandbars, as well as creatures bigger than mosquitos. Those were really not on our minds. We never worried about alligators, although there must have been thousands in those wet and muggy swamps. (Bubbie did lose a hatchet to an armadillo on embedding it into his armor, but that was another trip!)
I am going to do some short time traveling here. We caught fish on our first day—we always caught fish on Round Dinnys. Camping was uneventful except for the perfectly fried bluegills in the Dunaway Family Fish Fryer after the camp was set, and the fire was stoked.
It was the second leg of this journey that produced the memories that, to this day, are conversation starters for a long afternoon any time any of us are together.
My Daddy would have been proud as we packed up our provisions and equipment and slipped Cap’n Jewel’s mighty Tensaw Lake timber boat silently into the silky black waters of the Escatawpa River at wolf-dawn on our second day.
We began catching bull-bream or she-bream (male and female bluegills) and the occasional goggleye, redbelly, or even yearling bass. As my Daddy would say, “If he is big enough to stink the grease, he’s big to put in the ice chest.” Conservation took a backseat to stocking the freezer for family fish fries or special winter suppers.
As the sun came up bright and hot, the fishing often slowed down with it. However, bream, usually found in the deep dark bends of the river around logs and limbs and under overhanging tree branches, would bite throughout the day even if a bit slow at high noon.
However, this day, after good sunup, our fishing was pathetic until one of us tied on a Round Dinny—shiny and dark green, and the fish started striking on practically every cast. One problem. We had only one dark green Round, Dinny, in the boat, and the fish would not hit any other color.
We swapped the rod with the weirdly compelling bug on it around in the boat so we could all get in on the action. Time and time again, we paddled Cap’n Jewel’s skiff into moccasin-territory to retrieve that little dark green creature stuck way up toward the bank in the branches or on a snag just in the water. Both perfect places to get bit … by a moccasin.
Now, the reasons it got stuck were several. (1) We were semi-expert fly fishermen whose adrenalin soared each time one of us had that enchanted flyrod in his hands. (2) There was the wind, always a fly fisherman’s enemy (OK, that is a weak one). (3) This one, however, is a Baptist Preacher’s Gospel truth, a roll-cast to gently land that Round Dinny on a bull-bream’s nose two-feet under an overhanging limb is a heavenly thing to behold and hell to accomplish!
But accomplish it we did until we wore that little dark green Round Dinny, almost out. More on that shortly because there was another story going on as we rescued that bream-bug over and over. Because, I—not brother Bill or best friend Bubbie—was being bodily consumed one insect bite at a time by yellow flies. If I had an open area not covered by cloth, I was bitten, and sometimes through the cloth—so evil were those insects.
A yellow fly, diachlorus ferrugatus, looks and is about the size of a common housefly with two distinguishing differences—the insect from hell is yellow and packs a bite like a small nuclear blast erupting on one’s skin.
Fisherman and golfers alike enjoy saying that bad things don’t happen on the water or the golf course—like rain or yellow flies—as these two heavenly venues are protected from the Almighty from allowing such trivial things. With apologies to my Maker, that is just B.S.! By the time we arrived back at the car to meet our wives, I had been bitten so many times that I had no fingers on either hand—just massive red stumps on the ends of my arms. And on my head, it looked like I had cauliflower ears and a tiny little head in between.
However, until we arrived at Airport Boulevard Bridge to meet our wives I just kept on fishing and paddling … and scratching!
How many times we rescued that little dark green Round Dinny is now the stuff of legends in our families. However, what is not argued is that Bubbie was fishing with Round Dinny as we were closing in on the end of the trip, when this giant bluegill—probably a combined Alabama and Mississippi state record—exploded from beneath the log over which the dark green Round Dinny had landed ever so expertly, and smashed that artificial creature invading his territory. Bubbie set the hook to thin air and all that he brought back to the boat was a hook with one little speck green dangling from hook.
Our day was over and I went to find my wife and pay whatever was asked for some calamine lotion.