Influence Paddlers

A long day's journey into night on the upper Wolf River.

story and photo by Bruce VanWyngarden

he section you're doing is about a three-hour float," she said. "And there's a definite flow, so you can't get lost. Just follow the blue markers."

Sarah Wilburn and her husband John have been renting canoes on the Wolf River for a number of years now. For $25 or $30, depending on the section of river you tackle, the Moscow, Tennessee, couple will supply you with a canoe, paddles, life jackets, and lots of encouragement.

My friend John Ryan and I had opted to float a section just above Moscow, a part of the river reputed to have decent fishing, according to Wilburn. "Just ask Bill Dance about this section," she said, referring to the host of the popular TV fishing show. "He fishes here."

We had first considered paddling the "Ghost River" section of the Wolf, a trackless cypress swamp a little further upstream, but we changed our minds after hearing that it was best done with a guide. Besides, that was a six-hour journey of steady paddling, a little more work than we had in mind for a hot August day.

After leaving our truck at the Feemster Bridge take-out point in Moscow, Wilburn took us upriver a few miles and dropped us off. "About a mile down," she said, as we drifted away, "is a good fishing hole. Look for where a creek comes in."

Within a quarter mile, the river narrowed to a few yards across and the trees closed overhead. Cypress stumps, logs, and clumps of vegetation studded the current. As we bumped our way along, Ryan said, "I'd like to see Bill Dance try to get that bass boat through here." The water was murky, but not muddy, and it was definitely moving, which made fishing a challenge. One cast into a promising spot was usually all we got before the river moved us downstream. Still, there was that promised hole "where the creek comes in."

As we went deeper into the woods, the thick canopy overhead blocked most of the sunlight, giving the river an intimate, tunnel-like feel. The numerous channels twisted like fusilli, never going more than 20 yards or so without making a turn, often under a low branch, often at a right angle, and seldom much wider than a couple of canoe widths. Ryan, a veteran fisherman, but a novice canoeist, grew frustrated with the constant maneuvering. "Just what am I supposed to do up here in the front?" he asked. "The guy in the back has all the control. I'm just an influence paddler."

"An under-the-influence paddler is more like it," I replied.

Now, of course, that's the kind of sparkling repartee you just don't hear enough of anymore. Even the birds groaned. And there were many birds to be seen -- herons, kingfishers, waxwings, cardinals -- and countless more that we heard but that were hidden in the surrounding jungle. The only signs of humankind were an occasional trotline strung from a limb and the small blue signs marking the way at critical junctures. The forest itself was an inpenetrable, primevaI swamp -- a thick wall of old cypress, sycamore, catalpa, maple, and oak closing over the winding channels.

After an hour, we figured we'd missed the fishing hole. And we weren't having much luck otherwise, between canoeing maneuvers and unhooking snagged lures from underwater branches. Still, after changing spinners a half-dozen times, Ryan finally got a fish into the boat. It was a Kentucky bass, a hybrid fish that combines the looks of a largemouth with the stream-feeding habits of a smallmouth -- that is, it prefers moving water and strikes at fast-moving lures. We took a picture of John's 10-inch trophy and slipped him back into the water.

As any fisherman will tell you, the first fish makes all the difference. Once you know there actually are fish to be caught, the day opens up, the possibilities magnify. Bill Dance did fish here, after all. And he wouldn't go to this much trouble if there weren't fish, would he?

As the morning stretched into midday, we surrendered to the river's winding pace. A rhythm emerged: toss a spinner into the shadows, reel it in (usually without a fish), put down the rod, grab a paddle, work your way through a winding turn, put down the paddle, toss a lure into the water.... And so it went.

At what we guessed to be high noon, we pulled onto a muddy bank, ate our sandwiches, and drank a beer. We'd been on the river for four hours and literally had no idea where we were. We had caught six or eight smallish bass, though. And, of course, the repartee was still flowing.

"Jeez, we ought to be getting near the take-out," I said, wittily.

"I hope so. I'm starting to get boat-butt," Ryan cleverly riposted.

Two hours later we were still paddling. The afternoon shadows began to darken. The river narrowed; the jungle closed in. Snakes slithered from logs into the brown water. A great blue heron exploded into the air just in front of us. I began quoting lines from Heart of Darkness. Ryan started humming the theme to Gilligan's Island -- a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour...

"Do you think we missed a turn-off or something?" I wondered.

"Uh, I don't know," Ryan quipped. "Maybe."

Maybe, indeed. A little after four o'clock, more than seven hours after we'd put into the river, we spotted my truck. We'd made it, floated the mighty Wolf. It had been a long day, but a good day. We caught some fish; we explored a beautiful river, and I recommend the experience to you. Just don't count on doing it in three hours. And don't count on seeing Bill Dance.

Wolf River Canoe Trips
Moscow, TN (901) 877-3958.

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