SOME SAY A big conch is the most mysterious fish in fresh water. Aptly named the young sunfish, it averages three times the size of a keeper pin and just as tasty. But it’s extremely difficult, apt to ignore a nightcrawler hooked on an Aberdeen hook, but then absorb a red worm cast in the same spot on the same rig on the next cast. Most of the time they hug the bottom, where they probe the gravel bars for snails. When you haven’t caught one in a year, their power against light rolling motion is surprising. For a few short days late in the spring, when the weather is warm and the moon is so, and if you have been a good person most of the year and keep your mouth shut, you may find shells in a bed and catch a mess of them.
Once, and once only, I caught my daily limit of 20 shells from a bed on a local lake. Wade Bourne also caught his boundary. He was standing on the edge of my 16-foot boat, threading red worms onto his hook and laughing in amazement at every hookup, as if he hadn’t spent an entire career doing such things.
I don’t think Wade ever knew what a mentor and hero he was to me. I’ve wanted to be an outdoor writer since I was 12. But I never cared to go to Africa to hunt dangerous game, and I didn’t read Capstick or Ruark or even O’Connor. Instead, I devoured hunting and fishing magazine articles from the 90s. My bedroom was filled with stacks Game & Fish, Bassmaster, Southern out, Buckmasters, Fur-fish game, Life in natureAND Field & Stream. I would look for names like Zumbo, Hanback, and Winke, but Wade Bourne was my favorite. You could find his stories in most of those magazines, but he was also a television and radio host with a genteel, distinctly Southern voice that was instantly recognizable.
Wade hunted and fished in the same places I did, and for the same creatures. On television, he shot wallabies, squirrels, rabbits and whitetails. I remember one show where he was shooting hogs with a Smith & Wesson revolver. As a teenager, I had never seen anyone shoot a pistol before that show, and after it, I became obsessed with the idea. Thirty years before #GetBit became a thing on Instagram, Wade was filming catfish jumping in the Mississippi. Long before I met him in person, I had a copy of Southern out with Wade on the cover, standing knee-deep in a Tennessee creek with a spinning rod in one hand and a smallmouth in the other.
That boy got it, I thought.
Wade had lived less than two hours away from me in rural Kentucky my entire life, but I never knew it. I didn’t even realize he was a graduate of Murray State University, where I went to school. It took me living in New York City for a summer to finally meet him in person. I was 19 years old and an intern at Life in nature. I worked in a cubicle near the editor-in-chief’s office, where I spent my days checking the accuracy of URLs and phone numbers to be printed. (One of the editors had told me the horror story of the intern who didn’t verify a phone number, resulting in an adult chat line that made it into print.) I lived in Greenwich Village and walked 30 blocks to worked on Park Avenue every day, wearing khakis and a button-down shirt my mom had bought me especially for that summer. I came from a small town in the mid-south and wondered every day how living in that loud and noisy concrete hell would lead to a job where I got to fish streams for smallmouths and shoot hogs with revolvers 44 magnum.
Then one day, Wade Bourne came in and stood by my room to talk to the editor-in-chief. He was dressed in nice clothes and the editor introduced me as the summer intern. When Wade heard me speak, he smiled and gave me his undivided attention. “You look like you’re from closer to where I live than up here,” he said. “Learning to get into this business?”
I wanted to burst out, tell him I’d seen him on TV when I was 10, fighting catfish in the Yazoo River. To tell him that I had read that story he had written about calling a gobbler for his young son, Hampton, who had missed him with a small 20-gauge double-barrel, and that the story had made me to feel better because, like Hampton, I had missed the first turkey I shot when I was a kid hunting with my dad. I wanted to talk about squirrel hunting and carp fishing and all the things that Wade seemed to enjoy as much as I did. I wanted to say that my life’s ambition was to be just like him.
But mercifully I said no more than, “Yes, sir, I like to hunt and fish and tell stories.”
But Wade must have heard something extra. My father owned a one-show law office in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, and the next week, he called me to New York. “You won’t believe this!” he said. “Wade Bourne, the guy on TV, called my office to say he’d met you and that he just wanted to say he was impressed.”
Two years later, I was 21 and standing up to my neck in the muddy water of the Yazoo River. A hard-boiled Mississippian named Bob stood next to me, watching the flash. “Get your ass in there and get it, Wade Jr.,” he told me. “He’s a 25-pound jello cat, and I’m not holding him for you.” I remember being worried about losing my wedding band, as I had only been married three weeks and it still felt out of place on my hand.
Wade had shared contact information for his Mississippi catfish noodles, with the caveat that they were rough around the edges, and yes. But I reached my bare hand into a coffin-sized cypress box and grabbed the flat head waiting inside by the lower jaw. He spun and crashed, ripping the skin off my knuckles to leave the scars I carry to this day, but I threw him over the gunpost of the nearest boat. I came home, wrote a story for him and sold it to him Field & Stream– my first.
Wade was the voice and face of Ducks Unlimited then, and when I left the associate editor job at DU that he had put my name to, I was worried he’d be upset. But he just wished me luck and asked me to call him if the shell bite went well. One day in late May, just after a full moon, when the weather seemed right, I called Wade and invited him to come fishing with me. He met me at the lake the next morning at dawn.
We caught some bluegills right off the bat, but the shells were on their own. I had a number of milk points that I liked to check, but they were mostly empty. Late in the morning, with only a few stops left on the list, I feared we might end the day on a tarnish. But then I stopped my boat 20 yards off a rocky point where I’d caught one or two in the past and shot a long cast with a red worm on a loose rig. When I picked up the slack, my line was already drifting toward deep water. When tightened, my ultralight rod bent in a neat arc and the drag reel buzzed.
The shell that finally rolled by the boat was so big that for a second I worried about the strength of my 4 pound test line. But Wade netted it with my net—a quivering carp so thick that it was more practical to make the lip than to catch it in the middle. “What a beautiful fish!” Wade said. It was a line that could have been written for a TV or radio show, but it was shared just with me, and out of genuine appreciation for being there.
“We’d better drop anchor here for a minute,” I said. The site was easy to see, as the shells had created a cloud of silt near the shoreline, right at the end of a long cast. We did not dare to approach. I stuck with one shot, but Wade stuck his red worms under a small cracked sink and a pencil float, just because, he said, he liked to watch a cork disappear. We caught clams on almost every cast and in a little over an hour, we limited it.
Wade and I stayed in regular contact and often talked about those shells. In the summer of 2016, the same year he received the Homer Circle Fishing Communicator Award, he called me for advice on booking an elk hunt. Since I was the hunting editor of Field & Stream and having traveled the world to hunt big game up to that time, he thought I might know a place to go. We talked for a while before bad reception stopped the call. I texted him and said we were going to go deer hunting later, and he texted back, saying it was good to catch up. He died of a heart attack that December, aged 69, after cutting down a Christmas tree.
I still fish that rocky point and while no shell site is a guarantee, it’s as reliable as all of me if you catch it on the right late spring day. Sometimes, when I catch one, I’ll say out loud to no one in particular, “What a beautiful fish.”
This story originally appeared in the Limits Issue of Field & Stream. Read more F&S+ stories.