Generally, I like to start out all my posts with an insane amount of background details as a means of setting the stage for the meager happenings that I like to pass off as interesting. In this case, I absolutely could do just that, but, if I begin down that road, I will likely never reach the conclusion I intend to set up, and every bit of distant past I conjure up in my costs me valuable bits of the information I just stored on my brain hard drive from this weekend, and it is this weekend I intend to document, so here is the Cliffs Notes version:
My whole family has never gone on a vacation together before.
I haven’t been on a vacation of any kind since my honeymoon.
My wife has never been to (nor really ever wanted to be in) the south.
My daughter has never been on a road trip.
Read on if you want the unabridged version.
Friday morning, my wife, daughter and I packed into my parents’ lovely new Dodge Caravan. We filled the whole back with our baggage, snacks and other road trip provisions. Aside from the 3 of us, my parents and sister were also in the van, filling it to capacity. In my brother’s Mitsubishi Galant, we packed my fishing gear alongside all of my brothers’ luggage and fishing gear. The two of them were piloting that car and we all headed down to Kentucky Lake. The 8 of us were to share a “cabin” at Ken Oak Resort in Aurora. Ken Oak Resort turned out to be a bit dumpy, but considering it was around $400 for 3 nights and 8 people, things like a bathroom door that wouldn’t close, lightswitch fixtures sticking an inch or two out of the wall and that the cable box seemed to believe we were in a different time zone than we actually were could be overlooked. The fact that the place was dirty and dusty wasn’t even a huge problem. The owners were very amenable and we really didn’t need the place for much other than sleeping and eating. The air conditioner kept the place downright frigid, there were no bedbugs or cockroaches milling about (that we saw) and the fridge and freezer kept our perishables from perishing. It was certainly not as nice or roomy as we were hoping, but, in the end, it was sufficient, particularly given the price, laid back atmosphere and proximity to the marina where our rented boats would be making berth.
All was completely acceptable about the place until my wife found a box fan for us to use in closet. After going through the trouble of cleaning the dust of disuse off of it, she knelt down to plug it in and found a dead mouse in the bottom of it. That…that’s not cool.
But I digress. My family is not afraid of tight quarters or mess, and we didn’t head down to Kentucky Lake for the “resort,” but for fishing and Land Between The Lakes. And to take my daughter on her first road trip, which, I’ll have you know, she handled like a champ.
After unpacking and getting settled, my dad wanted to get down to the marina and get our boat rentals set up. He had two john boats reserved with 15 HP motors, and if we could get in before the boat shop closed, we could take the boats out at sunrise before the shop opened up at 7 the next morning. Given the heat that we arrived to and was forecasted for the weekend, the idea of getting out at sunup was extremely important to us. Alas, we were too late and would have to wait until the owners opened up Saturday morning to get on the water.
In the meantime, we were all quite hungry after the drive. We headed back up to the “cabin” to round up our womens and form a dinner plan. We intended at first to make use of the Weber kettle grill that came with our cabin, but were disappointed to find that the nearest stores did not carry the hamburgers and hot dogs we requried. Not having the time or patience to drive to the nearest Wal*Mart to buy stuff to make, we went in search of an eatery. After getting a few rave recommendations from locals, we headed to a place called Belews, a drive-up-and-eat-in-or-on-your-car-or-more-likely-your-giant-pickup-truck type of place. The smells were tantalizing and everything about it screamed to me like it would be my kind of place, but, alas, they only took cash…something that would prove to be a recurring theme of our trip that my parents were unprepared for. So we went in search of a place that would accept plastic payment methods and ended up at a steakhouse called the Brass Lantern. Sitting down to eat at a restaurant was not really what we were hoping to do. We wanted something quick and cheap, but it was either this or eat the remaining road snacks for dinner, so to the Brass Lantern we went. My brothers graciously agreed to split the bill for dinner, as it was an unexpected expense and one that they both opted for instead of waiting any longer for food.
The Brass Lantern is a beautifully decorated place, the menu is big enough for everyone to have an option (and there are a couple picky eaters in our group) but not so big that you get lost trying to decide. I ordered the catfish because, hey, I am in the south and I haven’t been unable to find good catfish up here outside of Popeye’s. The catfish and snap peas were both great, as was the chopped steak my wife ordered and the fried asparagus dippers my brother ordered. The food was great. The staff were all considerate and helpful. The ambiance was lovely, with the walls decorated with sheet metal art and sculptures, some of which were for sale. The only complaint I had about this otherwise wonderful restaurant was the the time it took for us to get our food. We probably spent at least 90 minutes there, and at least 60 of that was waiting for our entrees to arrive. While the food was delicious and I would recommend anyone in the area to eat at the Brass Lantern, I would do it with the very implicit warning that it is definitely NOT the place to go after you have spent 8 hours on the road and you are both extremely hungry and tired, because by the end of that wait, we all were at our wit’s end.
Well, we headed back to the ‘cabin,” full and ready to try and relax. After the kiddo went to sleep, as well as my dad (who had been up for close to 24 hours), those of us remaining hung out, talked a bit, watched some TV and drank some Crown Royal. Knowing I had a big morning of fishing ahead, I turned in a bit before my wife, but not after outdrinking her. The beds in our “cabin” were abominable, but, hey, so is my old crappy Ikea mattress at home.
Roused by the sound of my mom making coffee (the coffee maker leaked about 1/2 of the water you put in, yielding half the volume at double the strength), I got up, and put on a liberal slathering of SPF 50 and some shorts (a decision my sunburned knees would later rue) and we made our way to the marina.
I had my ear to the ground, reading every report I could on what was catching at Kentucky Lake, and most of them all concurred that the largemouth were being caught in medium-to-deep water off of secondary points with craw mimics and creature baits on the bottom or with deep diving crankbaits. I loaded up on football head jigs, craws, creatures, salamanders and every other odd-looking plastic thing I figured I would never have an opportunity to use. I brought 4 rods with me. The 3 I properly own and the 1 baitcasting rod and reel my brother said I could use since he was having trouble with it. I was certainly not unprepared.
I asked one of the fellows at the marina about how the smallmouth were biting, and he said they were out there, but you needed $3000 of electronics on your boat to find them, so I abandoned all hope then of getting a bronzeback. Still, though, he said the largemouth were still being taken in spots that were suggested in the reports I had been reading.
After my dad squared away details on the boats he reserved, we headed off. The 15 horse outboards on the boats were not close to the most powerful on the lake, but easily the most powerful I had ever been on, and making our way over the wakes of the big boats in our little aluminum john boats gave the feeling of the LSTs storming Normandy in Saving Private Ryan. Bouncy and noisy and turbulent and awesomely fun.
Chris and I were in one boat, my dad and Alex in the next. We worked creek and bay mouths and any points we could find, always anchoring parallel to shore for casting into the shallows on one side and working the points and deeper water on the other. The strategy was sound, but also proved to be ineffective, as a dinky largemouth for Chris was all we managed that first morning. I spent most of this trip dragging the bottom with various creature baits on football head jigs, although I mixed in some crankbaits here and there. We also headed out to the bridge crossing Kentucky Lake to discover that we were in at least 100 feet of water, probably more judging by how long it took bait to reach the bottom. In all honesty, I didn’t have the patience to actually let it reach the bottom. I think if I had, I would have been far too creeped out by the depth to stay in that spot and fish. My Dad and Alex had a little more luck, however, with Alex catching the first bass and biggest bass of the trip on a deep diving Rapala. Dad boated a little smallmouth, a fish of indeterminate species (likely a white bass or drum) and another fish…I don’t even remember what it was, to be honest.
We made our way back to the marina so we could meet up with the ladies, have some lunch and hit the pool at our “resort.” The pool, in stark contrast with the “cabin” itself, was immaculately clean and cared for. The pool was small so the water was warm, but not so warm that it wasn’t refreshing and helpful in cooling off, and we all 8 of us ended up taking a dip. We decided that the next activity would be to head to Land Between The Lakes.
We headed across the huge, narrow bridge and entered Land Between The Lakes without a definite plan in place. We happened across something called the Bison Trail. Unbeknownst to us, it cost $5 to get in, but by the time we found that out there were other cars behind us and we were pot committed. The Bison Trail turned out to be real nice. It is a small, scenic, winding road through a hilly preserve that, until the last 5 minutes, appeared to be home to exactly 0 bison. The last stretch before leaving, though, provided us with an up close view of a whole herd just chilling out by a watering hole. We were able to stop and open up the door to get some nice pictures and a good look. My daughter really enjoyed seeing the bison.
After leaving, we pressed on and decided to try visiting the Nature Center so Grace could see some more animals, something we had been promising her we would do since we told her about the trip. It was on the drive to the Nature Center where the enormity of Land Between The Lakes came into focus. What appeared on the map to be right around the corner took what must have been 30 or more minutes of driving. The scenery is beautiful. A mostly untamed wilderness with a handful of two lane roads criscrossing it.
Upon arriving at the Nature Center, a family from Tennessee were walking back to the car as we were exiting ours. They were telling us the place is a ripoff, that there were no animals there and it was just an educational tour. Feeling the wind go from everyone’s sails, I went in to find out what was up and was told implicitly that, yes, there are plenty of real, live animals on the premise that we could all see up close in person. Perhaps those parents from TN didn’t have the $20 it would have cost to get them and their kids in and were making excuses. Whatever the case may be, it was their loss. Alex was kind enough to pay for us to all go in. Immediately in the lobby there are tanks with all sorts of different creepy crawlies, including some impressive snakes. Heading out to the walking tour area you are greeted by a lovely gravel path meandering through more beautiful wooded are with enclosures for a decent range of animals. This, however, is not quite a zoo, as it is more a rehabilitation facility for animals that suffer from injuries and/or other conditions that prevent them from being in their natural habitat. The level of human interaction and domestication they experience also makes them a little less shy than reclusive zoo animals, so we were able to see up close a bald eagle, a variety of owls, a red-tail hawk, turkeys, deer, a bobcat, deer and a few others. It’s not a huge place, but given how hot it was and how anxious we all were to get back into the air conditioned van, we didn’t mind it not being huge and sprawling. After Grace picked out a couple souvenirs from the gift shop, we got back in the car and made our way back to the “cabin,” where my mom planned to grill the Wal*Mart procured burgers and dogs while we boys and my sister headed back out for some sunset fishing. My dad had spoken to someone at the Nature Center and procured a nice, larger map of the lake and come to realize that we had spent the whole morning fishing in a large bay off of the main lake and outside of our marina…not actually in the main lake. The land mass we thought was Land Between The Lakes actually just turned out to be a peninsular point jutting out from the western shore of the lake. As it turns out, the world is also, not flat.
This time, the boat arrangements were Chris and Alex in one, my dad, sister and me in the other. We immediately headed out across the lake…actually across the lake, this time. It took a good 15 minutes, and the water was extremely choppy and the ride was quite bouncy and fun. I was still stubbornly clinging to the recon I had gathered from the fishing reports I had been reading and told from asking around. I focused a little more on Carolina rigging salamanders, creature baits and worms this time, but it was still all for naught. We again focused in on bays and points, but they just didn’t seem to be there. Working up the west shore of Kentucky lake, we set up north of one of the fishless bays about 80 feet from shore. By my estimate of the length of the anchor rope, we had about 25-30 feet of water below us. My dad and sister both started getting bites on nightcrawlers. My dad just tipping a regular old round jighead with a worm and letting it sit on the bottom. Were he not such a nice dad, he probably would have just thrown the container of worms at me and said “HERE, IDIOT. USE THESE.” Instead he passively mentioned how every fish he had caught in the morning had been on worms and how the couple of striped bass he had just caught were on the same.
Reluctant to neglect my fancy tacklebox full of meticulously organized soft plastics and hardbaits for live bait, I decided it would be worth a shot…particularly as I didn’t want to be skunked. Since he hadn’t exactly been pulling up monsters, I knotted on a quarter ounce round chartreuse jig and tipped it with a one inch chunk of live worm on my ultralight, which I had relined with 6 lb low vis Trilene before leaving.
It didn’t take long for it to reach the bottom, and then it didn’t take long to start feeling nibbles, and then it didn’t take long for me to reel in my first fish of the trip, a striped bass. My first striped bass. Not a lunker, but also not the skunk. I was happy, the worm was still on the hook, so I dropped it again and found the same result. Then my dad had a couple more. We took the snell and bobber off my sister’s line and set her up with the same rig. All of a sudden, we all 3 were pulling in these striped bass like nobody’s business. We had not only found the pattern, but we had found a school. Were we so inclined, we probably each could have taken a stringer of just stripers home for dinner…something I will probably do next year if/when we go back. Mixed in was the occasional bluegill, green sunfish and a channel cat, but the bulk of the catch were these, beautiful striped bass of decent size, all of whom put up a fair fight, particularly on my extremely responsive ultralight rod. This went on for an hour. Our anchor was in the water, but we had drifted out far enough that it wasn’t on the bottom and we just let the slow current lazily take us from our original starting position almost up to the bridge. If my interpretation of Google Maps is to be believed, this was almost a mile of drifting north in slow current, pulling fish in hand-over-fist, and it was glorious.
Sometime in the midst of this frenzy, my dad got a call from my brothers stating that they had brought in the boat and were waiting by the car for us. My dad informed them of our success and urged them to come back out. When they chose not to, he informed them that we had an hour until sunset and intended on fishing every last minute of it, which we did.
After it was clear we had drifted well past the school we must have been sitting on, we made our way back across to the western shore, nearer the marina so we wouldn’t have as long a trip on our unlit boat as the sun was going down. We set up just as we had previously. Parallel to shore in about 20 or 30 feet of water. Since I had spent the past 2 hours or so fishing nightcrawlers on the bottom with my ultralight, I decided to give my neglected shit-kicker another go. I had a Carolina rigged Zoom Finesse worm and casted out towards shore, feeling the egg sinker clinking and clanging against the rocky bottom. It was here after a few casts that I hooked up with my only largemouth of the trip and, regretably, he shook free at the surface as I attempted to horse him towards the boat. I say “horse him” like it was a record breaker, but truth be told, this was an average 1-2 lb largemouth bass that I very well could have caught at the pond 5 minutes from my house and I wasn’t all that heartbroken about losing him. It is another lesson I learned the hard way about being overmatched with gear. I should have been using a smaller rod, reel, line, sinker and hook and I should have played it more. Presentation and technique have landed me a lot more fish than huge hooks and heavy line. No matter. There were plenty of fish to be had still. Nothing as large, but fish all the same, and it was beginning to dawn on me that the joy in this was not about the size or species or even the amount of fish we were catching, but to be in a boat on Kentucky Lake with my dad and kid sister having fun with nibbly little bottom feeders. It was a blast, and it was a blast to head back to the “cabin” and tell everyone about it, which is exactly what we did.
The evening was similar to the previous evening, in that it involved a lot of people crashing early and me drinking some Crown Royal. Alas, though, come sunup, we wanted to be back on the water, so I headed to bed before my darling wife, who stayed up to imbibe with my mom.
We rose and headed out to the baitshop around 5:30 am. Much to our surprise, one of the servers from the Brass Lantern was at the counter. He sold us nightcrawlers and we headed out. This time, Alex and I shared a boat with my dad, sister and Captain Gayhab in the other. We only had the boats reserved until noon. The three members of the other boat were going horseback riding around 9, and I wanted to get Grace out on the boat before we left, so we only fished for a couple hours before heading in. The fishing was ok. It was nice to see Alex get some fish. He got a yellow perch, drum, sunfish, bluegill and a hybrid striper, too, IIRC. Apparently my sister hooked my dad something fierce at some point, too, but he was no worse for wear.
At the cabin I liberally reapplied sunscreen to myself and applied some to Grace. She, Alex and I headed back, excited to get her out on the boat and get a few more fish in before our time on the water was done.
Grace had and absolute blast on the boat. We took her across the lake, making sure to cut perpendicularly across as much wake as we could, bouncing and splashing about like crazy. We just cruised for 10 or 15 minutes before setting up camp in the last spot I fished with my dad and sister the previous evening. Grace caught a couple fish. I caught one. Alex caught a few. It was fun, but it was also stupid hot, so we headed back after a while and squared the bill for the boats, which, by the way, was surprisingly reasonable.
We headed back and met up with everyone else. The fishing portion of our trip concluded. We had half a day to drive into Tennessee to visit my grandparents and decided that, instead of spending another night in the “cabin,” to push through and head home Sunday night after returning from the grandparents visit.
The drive home was uneventful, although people would have you believe I almost killed us during my stretch of the drive, which, for the record, is the worst leg to drive. From Champaign to Hanover Park. After being up since sunrise.
The vacation was a blast, and I hope we can do more of them as a family from now on.
These are the pictures from our camera and my brothers’ cameras. Lots of images. Enjoy.