The Character of Ghosts

*This entry is a small departure from regular Alaska-based material. A detour, if you will. You can expect more of these moving forward as I’d like for this space to become more about fishing stories from everywhere instead of just from trips to Alaska.*

Any place will be associated with the people that inhabit it. Cities, towns, and even shopping malls can all apply here. 

I guess the real question would be; do the people shape the place or the place shape the person? 

In any good place, I would say the answer is both. Take Yahtam for example. George was certainly shaped by his stays in East Yahtam, but in turn, he took care of it. He let certain people in and more importantly kept certain people out. Yahtam was in many ways as George was. They nurtured each other to the point it’s impossible to separate the two from each other.

The Chattahoochee River winds from the Blue Ridge mountains of North Georgia all the way until the Gulf of Mexico where it empties into Apalachicola Bay. The central portion of the river beginning at West Point lake turns south and splits the borders between Georgia and Alabama. From West Point lake until Columbus, Ga there are a series of 4 hydro dams that span roughly the distance of 40 miles while dropping almost 400 ft in elevation.

There’s a dam on this portion of the river just north of Columbus, Georgia. The tailwaters create an excellent run for fishermen. The access to it is easy, and as with most hydro-dams, there’s a platform not far from the turbines that allow conventional tackle fishermen to easily cast into the churning waters for various species that come to feed on the remnants that of what gets pulverized and spit out downstream.

Its named Goat Rock and it certainly isn’t the most crowded fishing spot on this portion of the Chattahoochee. It was named as such because the workers building the dam would often see goats moving from rock to rock crossing the river downstream. West Point Lake (one of the largest reservoirs on the river) is just several miles north while Lake Eufaula (the largest reservoir on the Chattahoochee) is another 40 miles south. Even the reservoirs and dams in between the two get more recreational pressure than Goat Rock. It easily gets lost in the mix.

There’s something else of note that can be found among the platform/trails/accesses to the Goat Rock tailwaters. If you happen to show up as the sun sets behind the western power substation located adjacent to the hydro plant and hear the crisp crack of an Icehouse tallboy you’ll know you’re in the presence of someone else.

Kurt, or who my buddy Paul affectionately referred to as the Ghost of Goat Rock, is native in every sense of the word. I’ll never forget meeting him for the first time.

Paul and I were fishing in mid-January. The sun had just set behind the substation at our backs and I realized in that instance the temperature had noticeably dropped several degrees. It was enough to realize I needed another layer of clothing. It was then I heard a door close and the echoes of a popped top from a malt liquor can.  

“What y’all up to?”

Paul showed him a picture of a nice shoal bass I had caught and released moments earlier.

“Don’t throw that back!”

“Kurt,” Paul retorted, “it’s illegal to keep shoalies in Alabama.”

“Oh, yeah. Well, anything else comes out of there y’all better hold on to because they’re coming home with me.”

It became common that winter to run into him at the fishing platform around sundown. He’d be nursing an Icehouse tallboy, and from time to time he’d pass around homemade moonshine in a 2-liter mountain dew bottle.

I passed on the shine.

He’d give us hell for throwing fish back all the while telling stories of his times fishing Goat Rock.

“You toss one of those swim baits across the rocks in the current, and no telling what you’ll come up with. I swear to y’all I can pull 6 lb crappie outta here!”

Paul had told me about the alleged 6 lb crappie before I met him, but sure enough I heard it from his own mouth. Whether I believe him or not is an entirely different story.

What’s interesting about Kurt is that he’s not an old scruffy guy with a beard. He doesn’t have the old worn out demeanor you’d expect of a lingering spirit. Still, with a character that unique in this day and age you can’t quite be sure that he wasn’t a ghost.

When I lived in Nashville for several years I would spend winter and spring days and evenings fishing the Stones River under the Lebanon Pike bridge. This portion of the Stones River is essentially the last few meandering miles of tailwaters coming from Percy Priest reservoir and dumping into the Cumberland River. TWRA stocked winter trout in the tailwaters and come early spring it was an excellent spot to fish not far from home.

The access to underneath the Lebanon Pike bridge came via a greenway trail that ran adjacent to the river and behind a Kohls department store. I often felt like quite the fish-out-of-water parking at Kohls and getting out of my car only to put on waders and walk around the back of the building.

One lonely November evening my wife was working a late shift at the hospital downtown so I decided to suit up and see if anything was biting. When your wife is a nightshift nurse and your schedules often conflict it’s easy to lose track of the days. Anyway, it was a particularly cold night and the only thing I managed to get on my fly rod was ice in my guides so I decided to leave and head back.

As I emerged from behind the building I almost ran into someone standing still near the corner of the building which is really odd considering it was close to midnight. I’m not sure who looked more bewildered me or the person that almost got knocked over on a sidewalk in front of Kohls by some scruffy guy soaking wet in chest waders carrying a fishing pole at midnight in thirty-something degree weather. Come to find out it was Thanksgiving night approaching Black Friday.

One spring afternoon I decided to head to the Stones River and see if I could find any takers under the bridge. There was a light rainy drizzle so I figured if I stayed around or under the bridge then I might be okay. Two men that were bait fishing bid me welcome and we struck up a conversation. They were both sitting on five-gallon buckets turned upside down, but one looked like he was big enough to crush his while the other could’ve fit two more of himself on that same bucket. The name of the heavier fella escapes me, but the tall skinny one introduced himself as such, “everyone around here calls me Peanut.”

“Okay, Mr. Peanut. Hope y’all have good luck!”

I walked to the opposite end of the bridge upstream from them and started swinging a wet fly by the furthest bridge pillar. I came up with several longear sunfish and one really nice rainbow trout. The trout stocked in this section are winter fish only so they’re going to die off as soon as the water warms up in the summer. To me, if you don’t keep those fish (within regulation) then you’re being more wasteful than if they’re released. I decided it might be a nice gesture to see if my new acquaintances were interested in cleaning and keeping the fish. They emphatically agreed, and I went home happy with a nice afternoon spent on the water.

One week later I ran into Peanut again underneath the bridge, and he thanked me for the fish again.

“That trout was wonderful! Thank you so much,” he said. I immediately began thinking about asking him how he prepared it until he blurted out, “I cut that thing up into several pieces and caught plenty of catfish for supper that night!”

It took everything I had in me not to laugh.

All I could think about were the prudish fly fishing purists that would meet at the fly shop on Saturday mornings arguing about the proper hackle to use on the wing portion of a blue-winged olive. The iconoclast in me smiled.

I ran into Peanut several other times but never had any other meaningful interactions with him.

There are plenty of other one-off random interactions that I’ve had with people over my time fishing. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t really have many friends that share the same desire to catch fish as you do. I can think of a great morning I had catching bluegill in Percy Priest with Tommy. There was the other time I ran into some fella at the boat ramp claiming to be best friends with the rapper Master P. I fished with him into the late night helping fill a bucket full of bluegill and crappie using a few clousers while he bait fished.

I believe I imagine those characters the same way I imagine places like Yahtam. The feeling associated with them is so strong that the narrative often gets adjusted to justify the sentiment. There are some personalities though that really stick out; characters that you just aren’t really sure if they’re real or not.

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