The setting sun beams down, creating thousands of tiny sparkles on the water. The smell of burnt diesel from a tug boat pushing a barge down river coincides with the smells of the outdoors. The sounds of birds flying over Desoto Island, and the occasional sound of a fish breaching the water are like music to my ears. I am on the Mississippi River, and I feel so at home.
As we dumped out of the Yazoo River into the Mississippi, I couldn’t help but think of how tall of a task Union General Ulysses S. Grant had. After the fall of Memphis into Union control, Vicksburg was the final Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. Without Vicksburg, the Union could not effectively cut the Confederacy in half. I can imagine when Grant first laid eyes on the fortress in the bluffs that the scene was slightly overwhelming.
The river, as well as Vicksburg, was so important in the war that Abraham Lincoln stated, “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close unless that key is in our pocket.” Even General William T. Sherman claimed that he would “slay millions” to secure the safety of navigation of the river. The defeat of Vicksburg, however, would not come easy. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign suffered failure after failure, including the sinking of the US Cairo, a Union ironclad boat. Finally, in March of 1863, Grant surrounded the City of Vicksburg, but could not penetrate its defenses. He settled for a siege, which lasted for 47 days until Confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered the starving city on July 4, 1863. Lincoln, upon hearing the news, declared, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”
The thoughts of Vicksburg 1863 continue to fill my mind until the sun sets. The sight of the last remaining beams of sunlight glistening on the water almost takes my breath away. It’s perfect. At this point in time, I don’t care if we catch a fish or not. I’m perfectly content, in this moment, to gaze in wonder at the Almighty’s creation. The light fades and my stomach growls, reminding me of why I’m here.
While we only technically took two days to put this trip together, Brandon and I have been talking about doing this for two years. The extent of my catfishing trips have mostly been relegated to small rivers and lakes. My general method for procuring fish has been trot lines, bank poles, handgrabbing, and the occasional rod and reel catch from a sandbar. His method for catching catfish is a little different.
I arrive at the Vicksburg boat launch around 5:30 in the evening. Brandon is already there, rigging the boat. He has seven total rod holders mounted to the boat. There are two on each side of the stern, one on both the port and starboard sides, and three mounted to the transom. Before I know it, we have a rod situated in each holder. I feel as though I’m about to embark on a deep sea fishing trip, except the water is muddy and there aren’t any tuna. Before we put the boat in, he walks over to a slack area of water along the river with a cast net. With one toss of the net, we now have bait for the night. The menu option for our targeted catfish will be shad.
Using much more sophisticated sonar than I’ve ever used in a river, we locate a nice drop-off at the mouth of the Yazoo River as it flows into the Mississippi. The current is strong, but it’s not stable. We try to drop anchor and fish the hole, but the current keeps spinning the boat around. We decide to try a different spot and head back into the Yazoo toward calmer waters. We anchor the boat where a canal runs into the Yazoo, and the water here is much calmer, keeping the boat steady. There’s only one thing in our way of fishing now…barges. This particular canal leads to an industrial area where barges are widely used. Luckily, barge traffic is slow due to the time of the night. We only encounter three barges while fishing this spot, one of which was practically on top of us before we ever heard it. The wake from the barges bounce our boat up and down in the water. It takes a few minutes before the water calms back down.
Now, we sit and wait. We have four baits in the water, with each rod equipped with a bell at the end. The moon is almost full, and I can see the tips of our rods in the night sky. I kick back in my seat and gaze at the stars while we have conversations of wildlife conservation, the future of our country, and baseball. Brandon is a Mississippi State grad, so he is obviously content to talk baseball all night long. Soon, a pleasant sound fills our ears…the sound of a bell ringing.
Brandon quickly jumps up and hammers down on the reel. Fish on! I grab the net with excitement and anticipation of what our catch will be. The fish surfaces next to the boat, and I net him, then bring him aboard. Our cut up gizzard shad did its job and brought us a nearly twenty pound blue catfish. The fish gets its name from its blueish-silver skin color. To be honest, it’s an ugly fish…but they taste great and are a lot of fun to catch.
As the night moves on, so do we. We change locations a couple of more times in search of a fish larger than the one we’ve caught. We stop for a while at what looks like a promising location, but it only yields bites from gar. I glance at my watch and it’s approaching 3am. It’s beyond time to head back to the ramp, so we pull our gear and lift anchor. As I glance at the Mississippi River one last time before leaving, I feel complete. I’ve finally fished the Father of Waters in one of the most important locations in United States history.