Early February 1979 saw several consecutive warm days. I was in my junior year at Auburn and like most students welcomed some better weather.
We knew we better take advantage of the early spring temperatures for winter weather in Alabama can change in a heartbeat.
My roommate and a buddy of his invited me to go golfing. I was not a golfer and didn’t know a driver from a pitching wedge. But, I gave in and accompanied them to a local course only a few miles from our apartment. I didn’t own any golf clubs, but the clubhouse manager allowed me to borrow a couple of irons and a putter.
Due to time constraints and a late start, we just played the back nine. The longer walk to the back course was a blessing. We were away from the clubhouse, so no one could witness my “golf” swing. I paid two dollars for six golf balls. I figured I would only need two. I was right, two balls per hole.
Walking over the hill toward the next tee, there she was — a beautiful lake of about 10 acres. Trees lined the dam and up one side next to a fairway. A long, skinny finger shaped point of land jutted out into the lake. On the upper end was a green, I forget which hole, with water around three sides.
A closer look around the edge of the green I spotted some bass swimming in the clear water. They were small, but at least there was something in the lake. I had seen the lake many times before from the air.
The lake was situated about 700 yards from the approach end to Runway 11 at the Auburn-Opelika Airport. I knew the lake was there, but never realized it held fish. I thought it was a large water trap for golfers and bad pilots.
We finished the last hole as the sun was setting. I could see the lake from the clubhouse and the surface was like glass. As my golfing buddies tallied the score, I asked the manager about fishing the lake. He said hardly no one fished since there was only small bass and bream in the lake.
A few days later, I was back in the air practicing touch-and-goes for an upcoming check ride. The wind was from the east which allowed me to use Runway 11. My flight path would take me directly over the lake. On my next approach I lined up with the runway. Crossing the lake at about 400 feet I could see some stumps near the green and a cart path bridge. I needed another look.
After touching down briefly, I shot the throttle forward and the 160-horsepower single-engine Piper Warrior leaped skyward once again. I circled the field and lined up for another approach over the lake to the runway. Over the lake, I spotted some more stumps in the upper end. The stage was set. I parked the aircraft and headed to my car.
The entrance to the golf course and lake was on the other side of the airport. I drove around and entered the parking lot. It was almost dark, but the clubhouse was still open. Hurriedly I swung open the door and the manager recognized me.
“A little late for golf,” he said sarcastically. “But, in the dark no one can see you swing.”
I explained I wasn’t interested in golf, but rather fishing in his lake. My inquiry to fishing the golf course lake had the manager puzzled. I asked if some afternoon I could fish around the edge of the lake. He said no problem, just stay out of the way of the real golfers. I thanked him and departed for home.
A few days later I arrived at the golf course about an hour before sundown with a single fishing rod and a handful of lures. Having no fishing experience on the lake I surmised a shallow diving minnow bait, a Rapala, would be the ticket for bass. However, the lake contained much more moss than I had anticipated. The minnow bait gathered too much moss to effective.
Changing to a soft-plastic worm drew a couple of strikes from some small bass. Still the lure was grabbing too much moss. At last light, I circled over at the green where I had spotted some stumps from the air. Seconds after the worm hit the water I felt the distinctive tap-tap of a fish. Upon hook-set it was another small bass.
Surely there were some larger bass in this lake. My dad always said, “Where there’s little fish, there’s big ones.” I just need a lure that caught less moss and larger fish. A small top-water lure should do the trick. Grabbing a propeller-style bait, an old Heddon Torpedo, black and a few worms, I stuffed them into small bag.
Fishing the golf course lake would have to wait. Over the next few days the weather turned cold and nasty. The taste of the early spring days was just a memory. But, after a few days the weather began to improve, and spring-like days were in the forecast. However, classes and labs kept me away from the lake.
Finally, on a warm winter’s day I found an opportunity to slip down to the lake. That special day the temperature was flirting with the 70-degree mark. It was Valentine’s Day, and my sweetheart was 120 miles away at Jacksonville State. That afternoon, my second love would have to keep me company. Her name, fishing.
Arriving at the lake well before dark, I started on the back side, off the fairway. A few golfers were on the green and I would have to wait until they finished. As the sun began to sink behind the trees, I eased out to the green, since no golfers were around.
After a few casts, a bass larger than I had caught in the past, sucked in my torpedo lure. Several more casts from the green yielded a couple of smaller bass. As darkness was approaching, I headed up the cart path, across a small bridge to a cluster of stumps.
I couldn’t see the stumps from shore. But, going by memory, I knew their location from flying over the lake. About the second cast, my lure hung one of those stumps. With too much pressure the lure broke free of the line. I didn’t have another top-water bait.
Digging in my humble tackle bag I retrieve a small silver spoon, which was weedless. I affixed a small white grub over the bend of the hook for little enhancement. After a few casts, I got no strikes from any fish. I moved a few feet and made a long cast, past the stump I had hung earlier.
With a slow retrieve, I moved the bait through the water toward the stump field. Abruptly my lure stopped.
“Hung up on another stump,” I said.
Then my line began to move. The weight was heavy. Was it a stick or part of a log? No, it was a fish, a big one sloshing in the water. I reeled and began to back pedal up the shore. I slid the monster bass out of the moss and up on the grass.
I couldn’t believe it. There were some large bass in the lake. With darkness blanketing the lake I headed home with rod in one hand and the big bass securely gripped in the other. After reaching my apartment and showing off the bass, my friend and fishing buddy, Trey, suggested we have it weighed.
We marched into a local grocery store, directly to the meat market. We asked the butcher if we could weigh a fish. When he saw the bass, his jaw dropped on the scale. Gaining his composure, he slid a piece of wax paper on the scale. The numbers whirled and stopped at 8 pounds, 2 ounces.
Word quickly spread about the Valentine Day bass from the golf course lake. Over the next few months many anglers tried their luck fishing the lake. Some were heartbroken, others dejected. I too continued to fish the lake until graduation, catching only numbers of small bass. But, I’ll never forget about my sweetheart of a bass that surprised me that spring day.
Charles Johnson is the Star’s outdoor editor. You can reach Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org.