Dead In The Water by James L. Bruner
It was a beautiful morning. One of those picture perfect sunrise days where the warm morning breeze skimmed across the surface of the bay creating just enough ripple to invite that illusion of millions of diamonds dancing on the waters surface. Inviting yet daunting was the fact that this morning a friend and I would soon be launching my small boat for a quick walleye fishing trip in these same waters that were literally outside the large picture window of my cottage. My reference to daunting is not some obscure labor-intensive procedure of launching the boat from the shoreline. It is, in fact, the relegation to the unique structure of the bay which begins at the rocky shoreline with numerous outcroppings that stretch to a barren sand bottom that is practically void of any further structure or weed formations. Not the ideal walleye fishing scenario given the clarity of the water and the sensitivity of a walleyes vision.
It typically takes a bit of chop on the water to break the penetration of light and stir the bottom before the walleyes will move into these shallower areas to feed. In truth the shallows normally fish better during the hours of darkness but we were counting on a daily event that nearly always found it’s mark with practical precise timing.
We call them the 10 o’clock winds around here. You can set your watch by them with the realization that once the stronger breezes from the bay began to pickup it was right around 10 a.m. These winds usually created enough, and often more than enough, motion on the waters surface to bring the walleye in shallow to feed and, if all went awry with these predictable winds for some reason, we always had the option to venture further into the bay and fish the shipping channel. The channel itself in this area dove to a depth of 150 feet. It was always a gamble fishing here since you would be searching for walleyes suspending along the steep breaks that made the entrance into the channel. And as you might imagine the channel was home to many fish species, strong currents, and it all takes place roughly a mile from shore. With a small 14 foot boat powered by a 4 horse outboard motor it was obvious that a mad dash back to the safety of the shoreline could indeed be fruitless if the weather suddenly changed for the worse.
I guess I was caught in a daydream overlooking the bay while sipping a cup of steaming coffee when I heard a quick procession of knocks at the front door. Chris appeared with fishing poles and tackle box in hand sporting that hurried look like he just escaped a plethora of flying kitchenware from a wife that was not in agreement with his morning fishing plans. Regardless of the consequences to be paid later he was always game for most fishing or hunting trips and shared the same enthusiasm for hitting the water. In merely minutes we were pushing the small boat across the sand and paddling into deeper depths. All the signs of a good trip were at hand as long as the walleyes would cooperate.
We fished the shallows for bass while talking strategies and evaluating our options. We pulled several smallmouths from the reeds with no real effort as they often stacked up in these areas soaking in the morning rays. Within 20 minutes we fired up the outboard and headed for the shipping channel where we figured to fish until the winds picked up and fishing the shallower water would be more productive. For those not familiar with shipping channels and water depths it’s not uncommon to find small smooth roller waves that aren’t discernable from the shoreline. These waves have a different effect on a boat, especially a small boat, as they push and pull the small vessel working with the current that accompanies the dark depths. When I mention dark depths it is due in fact to the immediate visual aspect of floating into the channel. The shallower waters always appear clear and light in color due to the sandy bottom. Once reaching the channel the water turns black in the blink of an eye and all the aforementioned characteristics of waves, and current, grab hold of a small boat instantly. As strange as it seemed to me I have seen people literally panic and feel quite uneasy when entering the channel. In fact I remember one fishing trip where my fishing partner asked to deliberately drive out to the channel just to say he had been there. Like I said, it seems strange to me but everyone has their phobias and hang-ups that they feel they might be able to conquer even if they have to take baby steps.
We had trolled rapalas and crawler harnesses along the breakline of the channel for maybe an hour with nothing but conversation and the relaxation of small waves starting to build before converting over to jigging methods. We used a technique of a flasher spoon for an attractant with a 3 foot dropper line below tipped with minnows for the actual bait. We began by letting line spool freely from the reel and randomly stopping the line before jigging for several minutes before again letting the line free-spool and repeating the process. This continued until our baits hit the bottom at which time we would reverse the process until our bait was retrieved. Again, another hour and nothing, but, the winds were beginning to pickup which we noted as our cue to head for shallower water with the anticipation of better fishing.
With one quick tug I started the outboard and away we went. We traveled about 100 yards before the engine abruptly stopped and Chris turned from the bow and gave me that look of disgust. I sat in disbelief that my brand new motor had assumed a stance of inoperability and returned my friends look with a quick laugh before attempting to restart the motor. No such luck. We were, as it could be so correctly noted, dead in the water.
Chris turned to man the oars while I fumbled with the motor checking fuel lines and all that was possible from the limited tools I had aboard and the sparse resources for making any type of adjustment. I had just begun to comment on Chris’s rowing technique resembling that of a little girl when we heard thunder in the distance. Suddenly this was no joking matter.
The sky grew black in a matter of minutes and an eerie calm fell about the bay as the thunder grew louder with each stroke of the errant oars. We knew by all accounts that we were about to get soaked at the least and the worst was unthinkable. I have to admit Chris made some fairly decent progress while we had calm waters to navigate but his look of moderate calmness was overshadowed with the obvious plight of doom that centered around his true thoughts as the winds began to build in force.
At this point it actually becomes a race to the shore before lightning strikes or the building waves capsize the small craft and leave us with a long swim in rough waters. It’s disheartening to say the least when you can clearly see the shoreline, your wives, and neighbors, in the distance who are all watching in earnest and inevitably expecting the worse outcome. From our standpoint it came to a sense of seemingly complete helplessness when the winds began to howl across the bay tossing our small boat off course and those who were previously watching from the shoreline retreated to the confines of their homes for safety.
It was at this point when I noticed Chris had fallen deeply into panic mode and the oars were no longer making contact with the water. I yelled above the wind that we needed to switch places now before we were blown miles away and smashed against the rocky shoreline. We had one small but safe landing area in front of the cottage that was completely sand where we could, if need be, ditch the boat and swim a short distance to shore. We timed the waves and each made our move at the same moment which ended in both of us lying face down on the deck of the boat before staggering into the seats in opposite positions. It became immediately apparent that Chris was truly no longer holding the confidence he vaguely held earlier as with each word from his mouth grew in octaves to resemble that of a screaming female. That’s not to say that I was calm and collected but from my viewpoint I felt that since I could see my destination there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to reach it.
I ran the oars deep in-between the waves and was able to set the boat back on course but headway was gained and lost with each stroke. The old wooden oars strained and arched with each stroke as wave after wave slapped the side of the boat relentlessly knocking us towards the jagged rocks embedded deeply into the shoreline. In short small bursts we gained enough advantage to see that now those neighbors and family members were watching from their windows. I imagined the helpless feeling they must have endured knowing full well that there was nothing they could have done to help other than put in a distress call that would surely come too late.
I’m not sure if the vision of our wives was the motivation or we actually had a brief moment where the wind subsided enough to gain some ground but it became evident that we could safely reach our landing point. I clearly remember jumping out of the boat with Chris in close procession as the boat itself rode a wave onto the shoreline, got pulled back out, and then was turned over further up the shore than I normally anchored it each night. We grabbed what fishing gear was immediately available and darted for the cottage where both of our wives looked on in relief and anger. We were soon joined by several neighbors who couldn’t believe we actually made it to shore much less in one piece. We found out at this time that we had recently been put under a tornado watch which is rare for the area to begin with. It wasn’t two hours later before the sun was shining and I was digging a boat out from under a ton of wet sand that had all but buried the boat and blasted the outboard motor into nothing but a rebuild project.
This one of those actual events that plays out every year. Even though I had checked the weather forecast you just really never know what mother nature might throw at you. With boating season in full force this old story can serve as a good reminder to those venturing out this summer and create some motivation to be prepared for similar instances that can occur even on small ponds and inlets that offer relative safe harbor throughout most of the boating season.
I could go into a lengthy productive speech on how to safeguard your boating activities but I’ll leave that to the qualified individuals strewn about the internet boating safety websites. Besides, I highly doubt that even the best conveyance of boating safety tips from myself could be construed with any authority after that twisted water trail.