Lake McQueeny Sunrise: Fishing Memories and the Reason Why I Fish Today

 I would go fishing often when I was young. I looked forward to the times we would go out Lake McQueeny or Lake Dunlap in my father’s old 72′ Terry Bass boat, not only for the art of fishing, you see, but so I could curiously watch my father at work and learn something from his skill. That was educational and entertaining all on its own.

We would leave early on fall mornings when the leaves of autumn had just turned golden brown. On mornings that had sunrises that seemed to have no beginning or end, we would walk out into the cold, dew swept backyard with birds chirping in neighboring  trees  as they began to scavenge for food. I would watch my Dad go through the same ritual every time we got ready to leave. He would mumble something like,  “Rods,  reels,  tackle  boxes, okay. Plenty of gas for the outboard? Yes. Two hot batteries: one for  the  trolling  motor,  one for the outboard. Okay. Hmm. Do we have it all, Dusty-Boy?” he would ask.

We would pile into his old Dodge pick-up that was about the same year model as the boat and marked with a dented blue replacement fender on the driver’s side and two-tone tan and dark brown color on the rest of the body. There was something that I always loved about that old truck. Maybe it was that my father held onto it for well over two decades. He would never give it up. When an engine went out, he replaced it. When the transmission broke, he would shell out the money to fix it. He always told me that if he kept on putting parts in that old truck, he would at least know what he had. I had trouble understanding that then but as time went by, I began to see the wisdome behind his thinking. That truck reminded me of Harry, Robert Kinkade’s truck in Robert James Waller’s book, The Bridges of Madison County.

Some might say that my father was a very unconventional man for his time.  I guess he was and remains that way today. While most other men would surely be driving new or late model trucks, he was quite the opposite. Many of the things that he owned were simple but I came to value that aspect about him as time passed. Later in my own life, I began to see that he and I shared the fact that “newer” or “faster” doesn’t always mean better.

I would watch Dad start the truck. He carried out the same ritual every time. Two steps on the gas pedal, turn the key, press the gas again, then it started. The truck was old but after it started, it ran so quiet and smooth you could hardly hear anything at all.

We would pull out on the main road as we saw the light of dawn slowly break through on the horizon and we began barreling down the road towards the lake. I think that, for both of us, the lake held part of us ransom in its beauty and called us back to it repeatedly. There was something so serene about the long moments I would stare in the distance at it as we approached the boat launches. The power that it had over me was something that I truly admired. I know that my father appreciated it too.

At the launches I would watch Dad get out of the truck, gauge the distance between the end of the boat in comparison to the boat ramp, get back into the truck, and back the boat further down the ramp’s  slope towards the water. There was almost a science related to this and I think that all boat owners can agree with me. But during those times, I never saw a man so serious about his work. There was a feeling of accomplishment with him and all his friends if you were able to get the boat trailer’s two tires submerged all the way in the water of the boat ramp without having to think much about it. The task became more of a feeling after a while.

“The Old Blue Canoe,” I would hear him whisper under a freshly lit cigarette that let off and orange glow in the darkness. That is what we called the boat: The Blue Canoe. It was older than I was but, for most of its life anyway, it didn’t look that way. I admired that boat more than many things and I did this for more than one reason. It had character about it as many old and treasured things do. Plenty of character hung out in the old things that  sat out  on  Memaw  and  Fadder Warnckes’ back property. I loved their house  for that value.

Once in place, Dad would get out of the truck, hop on the hitch of the boat trailer, unhook the harness, and push the boat out on the water. It was a ritual I had seen him do countless times and I was still amazed to watch the sleekness of him around the dark and cold water.

Dad would tie off the boat, park the truck, get back into the boat, and throttle the engine to a slow start after I was inside. I always picked up a sense of excitement when  he looked over at me, boat in motion at a steady wake speed, and turned his hat backwards saying, “Hold on to something!!”

Some days, when fishing tough on the boat and the summer weather was blazing hot, we would get a can of worms and fish for bluegill and other panfish by the McQueeny marina or down by Hot Shots, another famed place that was washed away by the infamous 1998 flood years later. Or sometimes we would walk down from the grandparents house to Lake Dunlap and sneak out onto an abandoned dock in pursuit of some quiet “perch jerking”. Those were good times.

Yet, there is one fishing excursion that will remain etched in my mind forever. It occurred when I was 11 years old, or around that time. Summer had set on the valley of an old South Texas shore of Lake Wood. Dad and I were camping. I had recently learned the fine skill of casting horizontally instead of the  traditional vertical cast with my old fishing rod. We were at a nice spot on the lake in our boat, next to a large tree stump, some lily pads, and an old bridge that was half submerged  beneath the water. I could have taken a picture of that scene and made into a calendar.

My lure was a bit unusual that day; a plastic gray top water mouse with two sharp hooks protruding from its belly. This was a great bass rig. I had landed my first fish of the morning with this lure so I decided to continue using it in hopes for more success. It was time to cast out. I was anxious.

I held the rod out, cocked the release of the reel, and practiced my forward stroke a few times before I put my newly learned method into practice. I began to whisper what I had taught myself for doing this correctly: “Slowly back, thumb on spool, use the wrist, forward swing.” WHAP! I heard my father scream like I had never heard a man scream before and realized that the lure had never even left the boat. It had, instead, caught something totally unexpected – my Dad!  And in that moment, I wanted to laugh and scream so hard  all  at once. I didn’t know what to do first, so I began to hysterically laugh. That was one of those feelings that you have and never forget. Dad chuckled a bit after the pain wore off.

I quickly realized in a shy, adolescent way, that I would never hear the end of this one. It would be one for the record books of father and son history. Perhaps a news header might read: Father and Son Go Fishing. Son Catches Father, or something to that effect.

Dad had to complain in a very open and joking tone from that day on about how his son had both beat him in the number of fish we caught and beat him with a small gray topwater fishing lure. For a while, he looked snake bit from the two hooks that only briefly caught into his skin.

I love my father for that kind of humor and thank him for the laughter that he has given me. His simple ways and loving manner have helped shape me into who I am today. Like him, I don’t place value in a lot of new and expensive things. I try to live simpler life basing value off of the people and experiences with them that bring me joy.

I owned the Blue Canoe for a few years. My father gave it to me for a keepsake, for high school graduation, as a memory of life and days passed by. My rod and reel that carried me through my younger years is now an antique. It was a gift from my Opa Shaefer before he passed away. The boat is now gone but the little things, like that K-Mart spinning reel, will always be with me.

Memories still remain, lost in the water of the Fall mornings when fishing weather was good, and the sunrise was breathtaking. When life was not so busy, and I had more time to reflect on what mattered to me the most.

When schoolbooks, backpacks, and other formal education garb were thrown aside on late Friday afternoons for a different kind of education. And although the days of  fishing with my father are now few and far between, a part of me is still in the water we used to frequent. The lake still calls to me  on  those  cold and dry mornings and I go, knowing that I will forever feel the laugher and peace it provides.

One of my favorite high school fishing memories was freshman year in the late summer of 1994 with my Dad and his friend J.P. when we were fishing for channel and blue catfish using bait shrimp on a night when the mayflies were so thick in front of dock lights that the catfish were scooping them up with their mouths on the top of the water and were biting on everything that hit the water with a hook in it. We could hardly lift the fish basket out of the water at the end of that night after we limited out. We lost a few that jumped out of that floating basket and that was when J. P. famously said, “Easy come, Easy go.”

I have fished many waters in my adult years. Freshwater, saltwater, brackish – it all provides me a remembrance of why I started loving those McQueeny sunrises as a young child. I have caught bull reds in Venice, Louisiana, fought big fish off both the East Coast, West Coast and Gulf Coast and spent countless hours with my own son teaching him the basics of catching fish in local community lakes. It all has a special meaning and sort of therapy that makes me feel centered and grounded, no matter what the world throws my way.

One of my outdoor writing buddies, Cal Gonzales, recently passed away and I am reminded of a podcast Chester Moore, Cal and myself did together at ICAST (the annual fishing trade show) one year. Cal was on dialysis for kidney issues and while he was hooked up to the machine, he had a woman die right next to him while also being treated. He was haunted by the sounds of the defibrillator machine as they tried to bring the woman back to life. Fishing was his release for this stress and many other issues he faced in life. Fishing made life better in many ways for Cal and has for me as well. It’s therapy in it’s simplest form.

I joined Cross Water Outfitters in 2012, a Christian fishing ministry that serves people from many walks of life. The work I have done over the past decade with CWO has been so deeply meaningful and it is all around a pastime I love so deeply.

Fishing will always mean something to me as it refreshes my soul and brings me back to focusing on the things that matter most in life: God, people, places and overall experiences. I fish to remember the night of the mayflies and the basket of catfish so heavy you could hardly lift it, the grey top water mouse, McQueeny sunrises, the blue canoe, my Dad and the joy and memories all of this brings me every time I encounter a lake. Fish on!