How I Learned to Time Travel in the Back of a Jon Boat

Time travel—famed writers like H.G. Wells and Washington Irving have fantasized about it. Renowned scientists Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan tried to explain it.

But what if the real secret to time travel lies not in books or physics, but in places and people? What if the secret to going back to the past was as simple as a boat, a few paddles and a lake?

I suppose that was the point of an unusual fishing trip orchestrated last weeked by FTR’s guppy Gandalf, Joe Sills, Sr. Ever the wizard, “Papa Joe”—as the young ones call him—had prepared a bag full of tricks after I agreed to wake up before dawn on a Saturday to go fishing.

It’s not abnormal for the two of us to head to a fishing hole on the weekend. We typically load up a boat packed with high-tech bass equipment: graphite rods, marine electronics, and a tank full of gas for the outboard motor. The lures change by color throughout the year, but they never vary much in style. Tightly lassoed to each rod you’re guaranteed to find a couple of crankbaits, some floating worms and my personal favorite—the Zara Spook.

That Saturday, as I meandered out of bed and outside to our boat and trailer, I fully expected to find my familiar arsenal waiting on me.

Imagine my surprise when instead of a bass boat loaded for bear, I see that Papa Joe is toting a small, 12-foot jon boat with no motor and no bass gear. In fact, there didn’t appear to be anything in the boat at all.

“This is all pretty weird,” I thought to myself, “he’s finally lost it.”

But the old man hadn’t lost it. What he had done was create a time machine.

Our destination was a cypress-lined river oxbow. Centuries ago, some of the surrounding trees would have been part of a West Tennessee river ambling its way into the Mighty Mississippi. More recently, steamboats would have passed them by ferrying cotton to market in Memphis. And under those same trees, my father’s father had shown Papa Joe where to find the secret beds of a monstrous population of bream. Before then—perhaps under the shadow of those steamboats—his father had shown him.

Now, it was my turn.

At last, I began to understand the weirdness of this early Saturday morning adventure.

As our jon boat slipped into the still, black water of the swamp, we picked up a pair of small tiny paddles and began to make our way towards the hidden lair of the bream. Here, stealth was key, according to the wizard. We had no trolling motor for a reason. In water this calm, a trolling motor would make too much noise. “It would get in the way,” he said.

There was no casting. The crickets might fly off—besides, casting would compromise the technique. The fly rods were with us to give a long reach. They were ideal for dipping crickets between the gnarled twigs and knees of the swamp. A brown water snake skated by through the maze of submerged limbs surrounding the boat. I was glad then for the extra distance.

“We used to have a contest,” the old angler whispered. “Growing up, there was a bait shop in town that made their own cane-poles. They would cut them down from the fields and put some sort of shellac on them. They’d be 10 or 12 feet long, and whoever got there first would get the best one.”

Until that point, we hadn’t caught much. In fact, we hadn’t caught anything at all. But as the water snake faded away into the swampy abyss, I heard a sudden splash and a “whir.”

Papa Joe’s 1966 Heddon Pal was doubled over. A fight was on! The line bounced back and forth as the 50 year old reel struggled to recall its strength. Within seconds, our first catch was in the boat.  Harnessing his inner Sandy Koufax, Gandalf lobbed a blue and yellow, fist-sized bream into the basket hanging from the side of our raft.

Soon enough, my own rod and reel were dancing along as a slew of bream honed in on the crickets.

These fish were home. And their beds hadn’t moved in 100 years.

Normally, we are catch and release fishermen, but today’s fish were destined for a special cook at a local BBQ joint. It was a trade, we decided, that could prove advantageous in the future. Such is life in the food chain.

Back on the boat, Papa Joe and I filled our wire basket with about 30 of the colorful panfish. Bluegill, bream, shellcracker; they go by different names around the country. Still, they are all virtually the same. They’re all small, but they all put up a fight on the old tackle.

We threw another 20 or so back.

50 fish, no matter what size, is no joke.

For anglers of all ages, there’s a lesson here: bream are one of the most widely distributed fish in North America. From Florida to California, you can find them in almost any freshwater. No, they’re not as tasty as crappie, and they’re not as difficult to catch as bass or tour; but what they are is abundant.

Bream are easy to catch, and on light tackle they are also really fun to haul in.

When I told that to Papa Joe, he nodded in approval. “They always say if bream weighed five pounds you’d never get ’em in the boat.”

It was then I realized that despite our many adventures, we hadn’t been bream fishing together since I was a little boy. The jon boat wasn’t just a time machine into my father’s childhood—it was a transport back into my own. My very first fish had been a bream.

As we loaded up our humble water-bound Delorean and headed back to the modern world, I thought about time. Einstein and Sagan had their theories. Wells and Irving had their tales; but back in the waters of a swampy lake, near a forgotten river, we had solved the riddle of time.

On the way, we discovered something else too: sometimes, to have fun all you need is a line, a bug and a pole.

And…maybe a little Chuck Berry on your iPod