Here we are. The local miracle. Roosevelt State Park. It’s between Meridian and Jackson, Mississippi, just outside of a woebegone chicken factory town called Morton. Forest, my hometown, is just 10 miles to the east. The fishing here is almost always good, even in winter, if you bring a boat and motor. Ask for directions, depth, and lures at the closest bait and tackle outfit. A park ranger might give you a rough idea of where to haul in the lunkers, or delicious catfish and white crappies.
If you’re staying awhile, take your pick of Rooseveltian Civilian Conservation Corps cabins. You won’t hear any long words here, though–the lodge clerks and officers don’t use them. You’ll find them gentle and smooth, even if you aren’t. Roosevelt State Park is our very own piece of the great American state park systems. Many were built by the poor boys of the Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt started the Civilian Conservation Corps–a mighty movement toward good on this sad planet. The state parks have done a remarkable service to the American soul, and they were sometimes first in conservation of natural resources. The point of them is to offer ease and recreation, a sort of green church for people of modest means. They last now as oases for desperate, nervous people of all stripes fleeing the morbid racket of the U.S.A. I almost hate to bring attention to the parks, in case the rude, greedy, and shrill might be alerted to yet another venue they can ruin with their cellphones.
The bass, the waters, the cabins, the feel of the late ’30s through the ’40s, the wood smoke in winter. Go to the cool creeks and pitch a Lil’ George across to the shallows of the other bank, bump it and then reel quick to keep the treble hooks clear of the snags, and suddenly you’ve got a good one on. You’re fishing an ultralight spinning rod you’ve bought at a pawn-shop, or one of the good old cheapos, a Zebco or Shakespeare. It doesn’t matter. Anything that gets it out there and pulls ’em in. The great poet Richard Hugo fished for lake trout in Montana from a Buick convertible with swing band music on the tape deck, a heavy sinker and worms on the hook. However, and whenever, I’m a warbling poet of the waters, exhilarated by fishing pals like the great Evans Harrington, who ate everything he caught, including a 14-pound catfish that moved our boat around like a great sea creature. Harrington grew up with an uncle who used a single bait, the classic Lucky Thirteen. Imagine Tiger Woods doing it all with one iron.
It was here in Roosevelt State Park that I caught my first largemouth bass, about 4 pounds, on a baitcasting throw of a crazy humped surface lure whose action over the black-green water was so erratic and heavy, you thought you had a good fish on already just reeling it back. Well, I had 10-year-old skinny arms, so add 5 pounds to the bass. Say a 9-pound bass and a wise one. It took the plug with a frightening wallop and then went deep to wind the line around a limb on the bottom in 10 feet of spring-fed clean water. When my Uncle Troy rowed us over to get the line straight-vertical we could see the bass with the glowing yellow, red-specked lure in its mouth. My uncle wanted to cut the line, black cotton and nylon thread then, 1952, but I wouldn’t have it. I took off my clothes and dove in, swam to the bass and pulled the plug out of its lips, swam up to the rowboat and threw the fish in. Only when my uncle helped me board the boat did I think to be humiliated: I was showing my thin self to this tough uncle, and I hunched down quick enough to rock our flat craft. But I had my bass, flopping and gorgeous on the floorboards. Uncle Troy smiled and lifted the bass by its gills. Good lord it was fine, and we’d eat it that night. “You’re a fish yourself, boy. You’re all right. I ain’t telling your aunt what a tiny pecker you got, don’t worry,” he said. “Your first bass and it’s too good to mount. Let’s fry her.”
Another uncle, 6 feet tall and called Uncle Slim, managed Roosevelt State Park itself. I stayed in his house in the park many summers, becoming even more of a fish and fisherman. In Uncle Slim’s house were many shotguns and rifles. He and his family were allowed to hunt squirrels, rabbits, quail, and doves in the park. My Aunt Bertha, a beautiful, soft-voiced, wise woman, cooked up the game and fish for Slim, his four boys, and me.
I think of all the good fishing trips with my father, my sons, my nephews, my father again, because he took such huge delight in fishing with a strong cane pole, a cork, and a frisky minnow, from a lawn chair under the willows, vodka and lemonade in one hand, a Roi-Tan cigar clenched in his teeth, waiting and waiting with child servants all around him. My father holds the family record for bass, 7 pounds–not much for slick magazine covers, but that’s the way it goes for most of us. All these recollections swarm me every time I flick a rod toward water. The burden is light, because fishing history costs nothing. Some men feel guilty when they fish on Sunday, but they wonder why they also feel just capital. They snuck out of church and found God himself.
These days nobody loves fishing in the parks with me more than my daughters and sons. We like to gather in them for reunions around Christmastime. Even when it’s way too cold to fish for anything, or just too unbearably hot in July, August, half of September, to fish anytime but sunrise and sunset, we gather, at my selfish insistence, around big bodies of water. You get everything, and the hugs of your beloved, the irreplaceable family reunion, and the faces of your own little ones when they light up in the woods. Each time we’re here, walking along gorgeous trails and hill paths, we’re assured of nature’s furious desire to be itself.
We’ll all pass on soon enough, even here in Mississippi, but the Lord does not subtract from our allotted time the hours spent fishing–or in a park. Still inexpensive, still kind, still heaven. For these states there is no flag, but long may she wave.