Boondocking at the Boone Lake docks for big stripers
The tip of the rod dipped down, almost into the water from the strike. Like the previous fish, this was a good one. I grabbed the rod and worked it out of the holder in spite of the pressure generated by the surging fish. I looked at Charlie, my grandson, “Do you want this one”?
Charlie looked tired and for good reason. In the last 30 minutes, he’d boated three fish, all bigger than any fish he’d caught in his life, the first and largest being a 16-pound striper. The last two had been hybrids in the eight pound range. His arms were tired and his stomach was sore from the butt of the rod, supported there to allow him to keep pressure on the fish. He shook his head indicating he was just too tired.
“OK, I can handle this one,” I said and started to turn around and fight the fish. The rod was bucking, alive with the power of the fish. Charlie watched the diving rod tip. The rod was alive with the bucking fish 20-feet deep and moving away from the boat. The drag sung as the fish made a long run and the rod tip surged down again.
I could understand Charlie’s reluctance. This would be his fourth fish; the total weight of them probably came close to equaling his own body weight. I know when I catch a fish that weighs a quarter of my body weight and to think of landing four that equals my weight would be tough.
Charlie and I take a guys-only trip every summer and this was our last day. We’d kayaked the Watauga River, camped on Lake Watauga, and visited the Gray Fossil Site to make sure the trip had an educational element.
We were fishing Boone Lake, just northwest of Johnson City, Tennessee, and the fish were there. Our guide was Rod Salyer, the foremost guide on Boone Lake, and probably top striper guide in the East Tennessee area. Rod has fished all over the world and guided TV personalities and other high profile clients including giving casting lessons to former Vice President, Dick Cheney.
Our morning had begun at 4:30 a.m. when my cell phone rang. Rod had then been on the water for two hours, charging his bait tank with alewives, one of his secret weapons for stripers. Bait can be a game changer and Rod goes to a lot of trouble to put the best baits in the water on his trips with live bait. Watauga has gizzard shad, threadfins and alewives and the alewives are by far the hardest baits to obtain. Casting a high sink rate 11-foot net, he needed almost two hours to put enough quality baits in the tank for our trip. This kind of dedication is what separates average guides from the best in the trade and his passion for what he does makes the difference.
Charlie and I had boondocked, at the ramp the night before, turning in at 9:30 p.m. Charlie likes to “boondock”, the practice of camping without benefit of a campground. Our slide in truck camper has everything we need including water and a generator that will run the air conditioner in really hot weather. We turned in after a boat ramp supper of fried chicken, stewed potatoes and barbecue beans. As we ate, Charlie observed that we were boondocking on Boone Lake at the docks and that we were truly Boone-docking. After Rod’s wake up call, we had a quick Honeybun breakfast and walked down to Rod’s 20-foot center console.
Rod’s love of the TVA Lakes has lasted his whole life. As a young man of 18, he fished the area for a solid month and he’s returned for mountain lake stripers through his entire fishing career. He’s the only licensed captain who guides on Boone Lake. While Rod specializes in fly fishing, he’s the kind of guy who loves to fish and enjoys clients with less experience as much as seasoned veterans.
On Charlie’s first fish, he was surprised at how hard his fish pulled. I had to help him keep his rod at the right angle to best work the fish while keeping it away from the other lines. By the third fish, he was managing the rod well and keeping his rod at the proper angle to keep the line tight and the fish working. He learned to allow the fish to take drag, and was learning to get line back when the fish didn’t have the traction to take line from him. Boating a 16-pound striper on light tackle requires a lot of effort and technique. He learned surprisingly quickly. As the fish led Charlie and me around the boat, Rod was managing the other lines and we made a pretty good team.
I was especially pleased with the effort he made to make Charlie confident and comfortable on our trip. Early fishing trips can make or break a young angler and it’s truly a talent when a guide has the patience to handle the most inexperienced angler but the expertise to put hard-core anglers on the kind of fishing they appreciate.
Now, I had a fish on and the rod was dancing. I was a little surprised that Charlie wasn’t hot to catch this one but I realized he must be pretty tired. With three fish in about 30 minutes, I could understand why he was passing the fish up and I hoped his little rest would put him ready for the next bite. Charlie moved to my side of the boat. “OK, Papa, if you really don’t mind, I’ll take it.” Maybe he wasn’t so tired after all.
We caught enough fish that we lost count but I estimate we boated between 15 and 20 stripers before the trip was over. Our big fish was 16 pounds and our smallest was a single brown trout of about a pound. The rest were stripers and hybrids, and probably averaged about eight pounds. By the end, my grandson was worn out, but smiling. Rod tied the boat up at the dock and we all shook hands and promised to fish together again. Charlie thanked Rod for a great trip and carried our gear back up to the truck.
Trips like this make memories of a lifetime. I can remember this trip till the end of my days; Charlie will likely remember it long after I’m gone and I know he will also remember his new friend, Rod Salyer, for both his kindness and skill in the outdoors. Not only had Charlie caught the biggest fish of his life, he had caught them until he was dog tired. As we walked up to the truck, Charlie looked up at me and said, “Rod is an extraordinary man.”
“Yes, Charlie,” I said. “He is.”