1. The Road Trip from Hell Was Paved with Good Intentions
By Colin Kearns
Twenty years later, I remember the silence inside the car as we retreated home. The radio was on, but the three of us were quiet, and had been for some time. Sunrise was a few hours away. Joe was half-asleep in the back of the minivan, and I rode shotgun while Andy drove. He’d been driving for nearly 10 hours straight. We’d offered to give him a break, but he wouldn’t budge. Maybe driving provided him with a distraction to forget, temporarily, the last 48 hours.
The closer we got to home, the deeper the reality of our defeat seemed to sink in. So, I decided to try and lighten the mood by breaking the silence. I turned the radio down, then said, loud enough for Joe to hear in the back, “Let’s talk about what just happened.”
It was March 2000, and with our last high-school spring break approaching, we wanted an adventure. Joe and Andy and I had known each other since kindergarten, yet it was only in the last year that the three of us discovered something new we had in common: a love for fishing. So, while other guys in our class were getting ready for beer-fueled beach bashes in Florida, the three of us decided on something a little wilder—a fishing road trip.
As we discussed destinations, I pitched Arkansas’ White River or Lake Taneycomo in southern Missouri—two spots known for big trout—but Andy suggested something more epic. “I want to fish in the mountains,” he said. It was hard not to love the sound of that. After some research, we settled on Rock Creek, a stream in eastern Kentucky.
On the day of departure, Andy picked Joe and me up at 3 a.m. in his mom’s minivan, trailering a camper with a bumper sticker that read: LIFESTYLES OF THE POOR AND UNKNOWN. To hell with Florida. This was going to be the best spring break ever.
The first hiccup came as soon as we reached the mountains. The old Aerostar stalled on a hill, and Joe and I had to get out and push. But the fact that we were within sight of Rock Creek inspired us to work harder until the minivan was cruising again.
The second hiccup came when we started fishing. In the few hours we all fished between setting up camp and cooking dinner, no one saw as much as a sunfish, let alone a trout.
It was mostly quiet around the campfire that night until we eventually discussed plans for the next day. First, we’d run to the nearest town and have the van checked out. Then we’d come back and explore Rock Creek until we found some fish.
The next morning, about an hour after the van died on another steep hill, Joe, Andy, and I crammed into the cab of a tow truck driven by a guy named J.R., en route to Bob’s Garage.
As Bob worked on the van, a buddy of his struck up a conversation with us. He was a little odd but nice enough, and offered some advice for Rock Creek. “What you do is this,” he said. “You find a spot chock full of trout, and then you stick your head in the water and scream. And if that don’t work, use corn.”
The pit stop at Bob’s cost us most of the day, and I couldn’t wait to fish. We decided to move to a new campsite for the night, but first Andy and Joe dropped me off at Rock Creek. They insisted I fish while they went to break down camp. I didn’t argue. The only problem was that I was in such a rush to hit the stream, I failed to grab my reel. By the time I realized it was in the van, Joe and Andy were gone.
When the guys eventually returned, we fished the area hard for a few hours, but we knew it was pointless. As with yesterday’s spot, there were no fish here. As night began to fall, we had a come-to-Jesus discussion. None of us wanted to go home early, but we also didn’t want to waste another night there. That’s when Andy threw out a Plan B. “How about Lake Taneycomo?”
We figured the drive there would take four hours. If we left right then, we’d roll into the campground at midnight, giving us three full days to chase trout.
The first leg of that drive to Taneycomo was powered by laughter, loud music, and a pile of junk food. We were psyched to be headed toward a spot where we could fish with confidence, but more than that, it was the adventurous spontaneity that boosted our spirits. This was our first-ever unsupervised road trip together, so to capitalize on the freedom that we could go wherever the hell we wanted was thrilling. Life was good.
Too good, as it turned out.
We’d been having so much fun that we lost track of time. Four hours had passed, and we were still nowhere close to Taneycomo. We had miscalculated the distance; if we wanted to get there, we still had another seven hours to go.
I was ready to call the trip, but my pals were more reluctant to go home skunked. So, they devised a Plan C. Kentucky Lake wasn’t far. We could drive there and spend the night. Come morning, we’d fish some, then figure out our next move.
We pulled into the parking lot and saw a sign on the gate at the boat ramp: Closed until September 1. Less than 48 hours after the best spring break ever began, we called it quits.
“Let’s talk about what just happened,” I said.
As we were nearing home, I began to recount, in painful detail, every moment of the trip. Maybe we were just delirious, but by the time I finished, we were all in tears and our sides hurt from laughing so hard. It was the best part of the trip.
Twenty years later, I would’ve guessed that I could still recite the details of that trip as accurately as I did in the minivan on the way home. But it’s only because of an essay I wrote in the weeks after our return—an essay I recently reread for the first time in two decades—that I know the complete story.
I’d forgotten about that odd duck at Bob’s Garage. I’d forgotten about plans B and C. And I’d forgotten—or was too self-centered at the time to see—just what a jerk I was on that trip. But it’s all there, in my story.
When the van stalled, I was furious at having to get out and push. After that first fishless evening, I ridiculed Joe and Andy for picking such a “great” place to come. The reason no one spoke around the campfire? It was because I couldn’t stop sulking. I was so furious at one point that I screamed into the night, “I just want to catch some f—ing fish!” Hell, I even blamed the guys for driving off with my reel.
Revisiting that essay was excruciating. It reminded me of how, back then, flyfishing was less of an escape and more of a competition—and when I lost, my anger often won. I’d break rods. I’d seethe in streams. I’d lash out at friends.
I would like to believe that is no longer the case—that my compulsion to win is in my past. All I want from flyfishing anymore is an escape.
After I reread the essay, I shot a text to Andy and Joe, offering an apology, which they both kindly accepted. “I don’t know how you didn’t leave me with J.R., the tow-truck driver,” I added.
Andy responded first: “We discussed that option.”
A few days after we got back from Kentucky—I guess after Andy and Joe had had a much needed, and deserved, break from me—they asked if I wanted to join them at a farm pond. We must have landed over 100 fish that day. It was perfect.
I treasured that day then because of all the fish we caught. I treasure that day now because of my friends, who saw past my flaws and still let me share their company on the water.
2. Head to the Northwest for the Portlandia Slam
By Will Brantley
A buddy of mine moved from Virginia to Portland a few years ago. He reported that there are a bunch of hippies out there—but also a staggering number of turkeys. I usually take a late-spring turkey trip to Nebraska or Kansas, and as good as those prairie states have been to me, the pressure is getting ever heavier, and in some places, the flocks aren’t what they once were. Meanwhile, Oregon’s bird populations are flourishing and expanding, and they’re relatively underpressured. Turkeys are not native to the Beaver State, but introduction efforts have been wildly successful. Growing flocks are the best ones to hunt because they usually have a lot of vocal birds. So, I’m thinking of planning a road trip to the Northwest this spring—and here’s what I want to do.
Enjoy a Day of Smallies
The Oregon season usually opens in mid-April and runs through the end of May. I’d go in May, not only because the weather is more predictable, but also the fishing is likely to be good. Years ago, I floated the John Day River, in north-central Oregon, for smallmouths in May, and I’d do that again in a heartbeat. There are tons of fish, and big ones too. We caught them—including a couple of 4-pounders—by casting black curly tails and small crankbaits.
Take a Merriam’s Detour
The stretch of river I fished was in the Biggs Unit, where turkey-hunting success rates are fair, but they’re better in nearby areas. Hunters kill a bunch of gobblers in the White River Unit and Mount Hood National Forest, just west of Biggs, but that’s also where the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reports the highest hunting pressure. It seems to get a little easier farther east in units such as Heppner, Northside, and Ukiah, which all border one another. Up there, you’re likely to kill a white-fanned Merriam’s gobbler too.
Round It Out with a Rio
The hotbed of Oregon turkey hunting is in the southwest, where most of the turkeys are transplanted Rios. “That’s where you have the highest bird densities,” says Kevin Vella, Pacific Coast district biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation. “The habitat there is a mix of riparian corridors, rolling oak savanna, brush, and shrub species, as well as different conifers.” Vella says there’s a fair bit of public ground, but the highest turkey densities are usually on private land. “Still, after opening week of the season, you’re not going to see a lot of people out there turkey hunting,” he says. “Compared to the southeast, the pressure is really low.”
Vella advises traveling turkey hunters to cruise back roads well before dawn. “Out here, they will gobble their heads off an hour-plus before daylight,” he says. “Driving around and getting the birds to shock-gobble in the dark is the best way to find them.”
When you’ve filled your tags (you can get three in Oregon), there’s fishing in the legendary Rogue River. Spring chinook salmon make their run beginning in March, and the fishing gets really good by May.
3. Hit the Road for the Snow Migration Marathon
By Michael R. Shea
Some of the best wingshooting in North America happens between February and April along the Missouri River as snow geese migrate to their Arctic breeding grounds in Canada. This route picks up the migration midflight in the Midwest, then follows the birds north. If you have the time, budget, and commitment for nonstop 3 a.m. wake-up calls, listen up.
Pound Birds in Mound City
Come February, Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge holds the largest concentration of migrating light geese anywhere in the Lower 48. In 2013, more than 1 million snows were counted on this little oasis just east of the Missouri River. Mound City is the nearest town, and every motel and restaurant loves hunters. Hunting isn’t allowed in the refuge, but with so many birds, it’s worth a visit just to see—and hear—the mind-blowing flocks that number in the hundreds of thousands. Much of the private dirt near Loess Bluffs is leased by outfitters, so freelancing can be tough. Don’t sweat it, though. It’s worth paying a guide for a heated pit blind to sit so close to snow-goose ground zero.
Bluff Geese into the Dekes
Come March, geese trickle off Loess Bluffs, following the Missouri River northwest, passing over eastern Nebraska. Turn west off I-29 onto State Route 136 and look for farm ponds; every one is a possible touchdown point for migrating light geese. Route 50 from Tecumseh to Weeping Water also has a lot of good options. For a couple hundred bucks, most farmers will lease out their ponds. Set a floater spread on the water, and pepper the shoreline with silo socks and full-bodies. Most of these ponds aren’t deep, but you’ll need waders. A canoe or small boat to tend decoys is a huge help too. Hide on the shore, lying in the dekes in a white Tyvek suit, which you can get at most hardware stores. Migrating birds will see your spread and touch down for a meal.
Go Out with a Bang
By mid-March, leading-edge adult migrators have pushed north to the Rushmore State. Time for you to head north too, back on I-29, until you hit South Dakota’s Route 12 west toward Aberdeen. This is the land of mega-spreads. Scout for hot fields, then knock on doors to ask for permission. Set up feeder spreads with silo socks, full-bodies, and A-frame hides. Leave no decoy in the trailer and set the e-caller on high—but taper the volume to realistic decibels as the geese approach. When it all comes together, it’s not unusual to have 200-plus snow geese land in your lap.
4. Take the Next Exit for Slab City
By T. Edward Nickens
Eastern Virginia’s coastal plain and tidewater rivers sport some of the country’s best small-stream fishing for panfish in waters friendly to both johnboats and canoes. It’s a region rich in history, and there’s a bonus to fishing freshwater streams this close to the ocean breakers: Throughout the spring, you might tag into a migrating striped bass or shad.
Fish a Hidden Treasure
The Nottaway River winds along the Virginia–North Carolina border, through stunning cypress forests, with hardly a town along the banks. The tannic Blackwater River holds healthy redbreast populations and world-class river fishing for shellcrackers, the local term for redear sunfish—a whopper can break the 3-pound mark. Live crickets on a dead drift are shellcracker candy, but small safety-pin spinners can help pull boss bream out of the brush.
Eat Like the Locals
With a cooler full of bream, you’ll want something else that fits pretty well in a pan: country ham. Load up on world-famous Smithfield swine at Darden’s Country Store in Smithfield, where the Darden family smokes 1,000 pig legs every year.
Hit the Twin Rivers
Head toward the rising sun for the North Landing and Northwest rivers, short freshwater tributaries to Chesapeake Bay. The waters are dark and acidic, but there are gems in those black waters—tiger-striped yellow perch and pumpkinseed sunfish, stunning creatures flecked with bright-orange scales. Rent a johnboat, buy a batch of crickets, and spend an hour with your ears open at Bob’s Fishing Hole on the Northwest River. You’ll pick up all you need to know to fill a cooler with panfish.
Find a Rest Stop
Bunk down in a tent or sweet lakeside cabin at Ed Allen’s Campground and Cottages in the Chickahominy headwaters. It’s also a great place for a quick largemouth fix.
Prepare for Battle
Jump on the Jamestown-Scotland ferry to cross the James River near Williamsburg, setting your sights on the Chickahominy River, a well-known bass spot and crappie stream. In places, the Chick’s floodplain is a mile wide, which bedeviled Union troops marching on nearby Richmond, but it pours tons of fish food into the main river. Slab crappies 10 inches or better are common, and that’s about all a road-trip frying pan can handle. Small- to medium-size minnows on light lines are deadly, but Doll Fly jigs dragged along steep dropoffs will help pin down scattered schools.
5. The Road Warrior’s Travel Kit
By Michael R. Shea
You never know when road-trip inspiration will strike, so have these essentials ready.
BioLite HeadLamp 200
BioLite HeadLamp 200 BioLite
Because changing tires in the dark sucks. This model is rechargeable, so no need to pack extra batteries.
Morakniv Eldris knife. Morakniv
Short and light, with a thick, Scandi-ground stainless blade, this is an ideal utility knife to have on hand.
Cold Steel Spetsnaz Shovel
This shovel/ax is great for digging out a stuck truck or building a lean-to.
Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 160
Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 160 Jackery
There’s no such thing as too much power; this beast will charge a cellphone 12 times.
Dewalt 108-Piece Mechanics Tool Set
Dewalt 108-piece Mechanics Tool Set Cliff Gardiner & John Keller
This compact socket and tool set is enough for most basic emergency auto repairs.
Adventure Medical Kits World Travel
Adventure Medical Kits World Travel Adventure Medical Kits
Let’s hope you won’t need it, but if you do, this comes with everything but an M.D.
RhinoUSA Heavy-Duty 2-In. Vehicle Tie-Down Kit
RhinoUSA Heavy-Duty 2-In. Vehicle Tie-Down Kit RhinoUSA
You won’t get very far on a road trip without good ratchet straps.
Dr. Fresh Travel Kit 3-in-1
Dr. Fresh Travel Kit 3-in-1 Cliff Gardiner & John Keller
Sure, you remembered to pack a bass rod for every possible situation. But what about your toothbrush?
Black Gorilla Tape
Black Gorilla tape Cliff Gardiner & John Keller
Easily the strongest duct tape ever made. If you can’t fix [fill in the blank] with this stuff, good luck.
Because the best barbecue joints, dive bars, and roadside pie stands don’t take credit cards.
Yeti LoadOut GoBox 30
This bombproof box is big enough to hold—and keep organized—all the road-trip must-haves on this list.
Black+Decker 12V Multipurpose Inflator
Black+Decker 12V Multipurpose Inflator Black+Decker
This little monster has enough power to fill semi tires, or your air mattress.
5.11 Daybreak Sunglasses
They look way cool and double as eye protection at the gun range.
Free & Clear Baby Wipes
Even if you don’t have a baby on board, bring these. After all, not every accident requires a bandage.
This article originally appeared in Vol. 125, No. 1 of Field & Stream.