Rays of quiet emotions broke through with the daylight as I made the drive up Bonner Ferry Road, across the Bayou Bartholomew Bridge past fields of sunflowers and soybeans into the overlapping oak and pine canopy tunnel. The road to Bussey Brake. To the left was the levee; to the right, the twisting bayou. Folks have long said this stretch of road through quiet, moss draped woods is the most scenic and peaceful in the state. I concur..
“You rode down this road to a whole lot of your life”, the emotions whispered to me on this recent trip.
Passing the pumps that feed life to the lake, I saw the turnstile entry where an old friend and I often parked his speedy GTO, unloaded our gear from the trunk and caught bass off the rocky banks in pre-boat teenage days.
The next spot brought memories of later work days at IP, when I actually helped manage the reservoir. Flashbacks of helping to unload buckets of Florida strain bass fingerlings into a grass bed one the lake’s edge. Or eating fried fish at the annual Kraftman Fishing Rodeo. Some not as pleasant, like going with the Sheriff’s Department to evict squatters. We let people camp on the bayou side. One particular group decided it was so much fun, they brought their friends and relatives and started building a regular little tent and cardboard city. It started to look permanent. From what I’ve seen on TV, I think those folks must have moved to Seattle. All in all, it was always a pleasure to make a “work” trip out to the boat dock store and hear tales from Catfish Jack Pruden and Frank Smith, two fellows who at one time or another ran the dock. No book ever had fictional characters as colorful as these real ones.
I drove by the old water outfall structure protecting the simple gravity pipes used to lower the lake. We used to stand on top of the structure and fish in the 20-foot deep hole at the end, catching white perch. Then somebody got drunk one Saturday night and fell in, so it had to be gated and fenced off with razor wire (No, it wasn’t me, but thanks for asking). Fortunately, that was before the days of “one call, that’s all”.
I instinctively slowed down even before I got to that last curve before the main boat dock. I just knew I was there. It was right about here on April 30, 1960, that I sat waiting in line with my dad, a 12-foot aluminum boat resting on an old piece of paper mill felt strapped on top of our black 1949 Pontiac Silver Streak and cane poles sticking out he back window. That’s a car, in case you young folks don’t know. It had been grandpa’s and it still cranked. So we still had it. That’s the way it was.
And now, afer being closed for almost a decade, Bussey was about to have a re-opening day, July 15, 2020. Over the years, time and nature wore on the lake. She got old and unproductive. But she’s has been given new life for Mother Nature to nurture once again.
Now back in a boat and on the lake where my whole family spent decades fishing, I glanced over at the bank and remembered where we used to keep our old aluminum boat. IP allowed people to build little wooden boat ramps on the side of the rocks there to pull up boats so we didn’t have to haul them to the lake every trip. Boat trailers were rare. We didn’t even have to lock our boat. We just tied it up to a metal pole. Times changed. Years later, somebody stole our neighbor’s boat, a nice 14-foot Duracraft made up in Arkansas. Ours was safe. It wasn’t nice enough to steal, but it was all we had. So we started locking it, too.
That old boat pier is the only place I ever fell into the lake.
My school-teacher parents had saved up enough money for a three-horse Evinrude Lightwin motor. You needed to get to the backside to fish. It was too far to paddle. There were always more fish on the “backside” of Bussey, or so it seemed. It was a luxury item for us. It was still relatively new and I was carrying it down the slippery wooden slope to put it on the back of the boat and in I went. All the way under.
I don’t remember, but the story goes that I sorta walked/stumbled up out of the water, still holding on to the Lightwin. Somehow, it still cranked up that day and we went on fishing. A wet day fishing is better than a dry day at work. This story is 100% true because my dad, with that slight grin of his, told it often. He was a straight shooter, a trait I may have partially missed in the family gene distribution.
Outdoor legends like Grits Gresham, Bill Dance, Homer Circle, Cotton Cordell and more fished here. It was featured in the outdoor publications of the day, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield.
Here she was again. My old friend, Bussey Brake.
I quickly noticed there are no big trees left in the lake, at least above water, but lots of young willows. There are plenty of stumps, lingering ghosts of trees past, once standing so thick you couldn’t see 100 yards out into the lake. I motored past the spot where I caught my first flathead catfish on a stump line. I learned why folks said grabbing a 40-pound flathead was “like grabbing hold of an earthquake”.
I passed a big flooded flat, now covered with blossoming lilly pads. We used to call it Stump City, an area that fed us hundreds of meals of fresh bream and crappie every year. There were many days where friends and I would catch a Coleman cooler full of bream in the morning, Dad would bring us a hamburger, fries and a Coke from ToTo’s or Slayden’s for lunch and he would take the fish home to start cleaning them. We’d go back out and start catching them all over again for the rest of the afternoon. Funny some of the things I remembered. My mom read from some crazy outdoor writer somewhere (again, not me, but thanks for asking) that you could improve a crappie hole by baiting it with grits. She cooked up a big washtub full and we dropped them in one of our favorite spots there. As far as I can remember, we never caught another white perch out of that hole. Knowing Mom, the grits had too much butter in them.
I fished my first bass tournament here with a legendary angler named Speedy. He had three lures in his tackle box — black Fliptail worms, purple Fliptail worms and blue Fliptail worms. He only used blue if ran out of the other two colors. We won that tournament with a full 20 fish limit. He caught 19 of them. I caught one .
The old Eagle’s Nest, a giant cypress that is now more Eagle’s Stump is still there. It’s where eagle’s always used to nest. Imagine that. The deep channel of Bayou de Butte used to be almost impossible to follow with my old Humminbird Super 30 depth finder, but now it’s easy. It’s the only water other than the boat run in the northwest corner not totally covered by pads and brush.
The cypress windbreaks are still there. But the old “graveyard island” is not. That’s where I caught my first bass on a reel Uncle Virgil gave me. He won it in a bowling tournament and he didn’t fish, so there you go. I could go on and on. The emotions and memories seem unending. But this was a good thing. Bussey’s going to be a great place to fish. It’s not bad now. It’s just got more water than fish. It will get better much every year for a while. It was fun being back. I’ve already ridden back up with both my grown kids and yes, all five of my grandchildren have already asked, “Poppa, can we go see Bussey”. And yes, I have taken them as well.
If you grew up in Bastrop and you know what a fishing pole is, I know you have Bussey stories.
And if you go back to the lake, emotion will visit you, too. I’ve seen dozens of older anglers like myself there already, checking a big box off their bucket list. There are enough old Bussey stories to keep every Walmart gossip bench in the south warm with the tales of old men and women for weeks. Soon there will be new Bussey stories.
And memories. And emotions. For generations to come. And maybe some more legends, too.