Robert Hitt Neill column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rock dikes great for fishing and sunbathing snakes

Years ago there was a rapid spring fall on the Mighty Mississippi River, and the word went out that the catfish were absolutely tearing it up on the downstream side of the rock dikes where the water was running across them.

I knew just such a place, and loaded up son Adam and his buddy Sanfrid, to hie ourselves over the levee and load up the back of the pickup with tasty large catfish. I even gave the boys sketched-out instructions on skinning and filleting catfish, so they could do the dirty work for the grown-up in the party.

The morning woke up cold, and you can bet your boots that when it’s cold walking out of your house in the pre-dawn darkness, it’s going to be sho’nuff cold on the Mighty Muddy! We layered ourselves in insulated jumpsuits, vests, and coats, packed up stout fishing rods and appropriate baits, fixed a thermos of Slung Coffee, and hit the road for the River.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Rock dikes make for slippery traffic when the River is falling, so we had to be especially careful making our way out onto the dike, especially when one adds a layer of frost to the left-over mud on the rip-rap stones.  But we made it to our fishing spot with no broken ankles, rigged our rods, and settled in to cast for catfish with bought stink-bait, rotten rat-trap cheese, and Octogan soap, wrapped in the remains of a nylon stocking.

There are a lot of uses for Octogan soap besides washing one’s hands: stopping a gas tank leak on the jeep springs to mind, along with catfish bait. Once we figured which offering the fish preferred this morning, we could all three switch to the correct bait.

Of the which, there was not one, on this morning. During the night, the water had fallen below the top of the dike, so daylight revealed unto us that we were no longer fishing where the fish were biting. We stayed with it until late morning, but we were getting skunked, as the day heated up.

It heated up fast, too. By ten o’clock it was over eighty degrees, and the rip-rap stones were getting warm, even though we had shed our layers of insulation.

Finally we reeled in our rods, packed up our bait boxes, and gathered our garments for the trek back to the truck. But as we reached the part of the rock dike that had not recently been underwater, we found that we had a major problem.

Herpetologists have tee-totally missed publicizing the fact that rock dikes are the ultra favorite hibernation spots for water moccasins!

There was a .22 rifle in the truck, about 150 yards away. It was no help atall.

The upper level of that rock dike was literally alive with poisonous snakes, but we were unarmed and carried armloads of insulated clothing, plus our fishing rods, which turned out to be useful for flipping basking snakes off of the top of the dike.  

Fortunately, because it had frosted that morning, most of the snakes were relatively passive (NOT usually a problem with moccasins!), at least until flipped off of the rock they’d been happily sunbathing upon. However, a major problem was that, for every snake that we could see, there were at least a half-dozen more that we could not see, down in the rocks awaiting their turn to sunbathe.

We’d flip a snake out of our way, and another would rapidly emerge to take its place, sometimes before the point man, Sanfrid, could take the next step. Adam was covering San’s back, and I was trying to cover Adam’s, although one emerging viper struck his boot heel before I could flip it away. Talk about hairy!

Somehow we finally made it to the bank without anyone getting an injection of venom, but we were all trembling from the tension when we arrived at the truck.

Which held not only the aforementioned .22 rifle, but also a gas can!

I could see the teenage avenging minds at work immediately, but I was also once a teenager, and knew from experience that a great way to multiply the number of visible moccasins on a rock dike is to pour five gallons of gas into the rip-rap, then strike a spark with a .22 rifle! No, we did not. But it was sure a temptation!