SOME PEOPLE SAY a great shellcracker is the most mysterious fish in freshwater. Properly called a redear sunfish, it’s three times the size of a guardian bluegill, on average, and just as delicious. But it’s notoriously finicky, apt to ignore a nightcrawler skewered on an Aberdeen hook but then inhale a red worm thrown to the same spot on the same rig on the next cast. Most of the time they hug the bottom, where they explore gravel bars for snails. When you haven’t caught one in a year, its power against light spinning tackle is amazing. For a few days in late spring, when the weather is warm and the moon is warm, and if you’ve been a good person most of the year and keep your mouth shut, you might find firecrackers in a bed and catch a mess of them.
Once, and only once, did I catch my daily limit of 20 shellcrackers from a single bed in a local lake. Wade Bourne also reached the limit of him. He was standing on the stern of my 16-foot johnboat, threading red worms onto his hook and laughing in surprise at every connection, as if he hadn’t spent a storied career doing stuff like this.
I don’t think Wade knew what a mentor and hero he was to me. He wanted to be an outdoor writer from the age of 12. But I never minded going to Africa to hunt dangerous game, and I didn’t read Capstick or Ruark or even O’Connor. Instead, I devoured hunting and fishing magazine articles from the 90s. My bedroom was filled with mounds of game and fish, bass guitarist, outdoor southern, buckmasters, Fur-Fish-Game, outdoor lifeY field and current. I would look for names like Zumbo, Hanback, and Winke, but Wade Bourne was my favorite. You could find stories about him in most of those magazines, but he was also a TV and radio host with a kind, clear southern voice that was instantly recognizable.
Wade hunted and fished in the same places I did and the same creatures. On television, he photographed mallards, squirrels, rabbits, and whitetails. I remember a show where he was hunting pigs with a Smith & Wesson revolver. When he was a teenager, he had never seen anyone hunt with a gun before that show, and after that, he was obsessed with the idea. Thirty years before #GetBit was an Instagram thing, Wade was filming catfish eating noodles in Mississippi. Long before I met him in person, he had a copy of outdoor southern with Wade on the cover, standing knee-deep in a Tennessee creek with a fishing pole in one hand and a cute little mouth in the other.
That guy’s got it figured out I thought.
Wade had lived less than two hours from me in rural Kentucky all my life, but I never knew it. I also didn’t realize that he was a graduate of Murray State University, where I went to school. He took me living in New York City for a summer to finally meet him in person. He was 19 years old and was an intern at outdoor life. He worked in a cubicle next to the editor-in-chief’s office, where I spent my days checking the accuracy of URLs and phone numbers that were about to go to print. (One of the editors had told me the horror story of the intern who didn’t verify a phone number, resulting in an adult hotline being published.) He lived in Greenwich Village and walked 30 blocks to work on Park Avenue. every day, wearing khaki pants and a button-down shirt that my mom had bought me especially for that summer. I came from a small town in the Mid-South, and every day I wondered how living in that noisy, noisy concrete hellhole would lead me to a job where I could fish the creeks for smallmouths and shoot pigs with revolvers. 44-magnum. .
Then one day, Wade Bourne came in and stood by my cubicle to talk to the editor-in-chief. He was dressed in nice clothes and the editor introduced me as the summer intern. When Wade heard me speak, he smiled and gave me his full attention. “You sound like you’re from closer to where I live than here,” he said. “Are you learning how to get into this business?”
He wanted to joke, tell him that he had seen him on TV when he was 10 years old, wrestling catfish in the Yazoo River. To tell him that I had read that story he had written about calling a gobbler for his young son, Hampton, who had missed it with a small double-barreled .20 caliber, and that the story had made me feel better because, like Hampton, I had missed the first turkey I ever shot when I was a little boy hunting with my father. He wanted to talk about squirrel hunting and bream fishing and all the things that Wade seemed to enjoy as much as I did. I wanted to say that my life’s ambition was to be like him.
But luckily I didn’t say much more than, “Yes, sir, I love to hunt, fish, and tell stories.”
But Wade must have heard something extra. My dad owned a one-man law office in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, and the next week he called me in New York. “You will not believe this!” he said. “Wade Bourne, the TV guy, called my office to tell me that he had met you and that he just wanted to say that he was impressed.”
Two years later, he was 21 years old and standing up to his neck in the muddy water of the Yazoo River. A diehard Mississippian named Bob was standing next to me, looking at me. “Get your ass in there and catch it, Wade Jr.,” he told me. “He’s a yella cat about 25 pounds, and I’m not going to hold him for you.” I remember being worried about losing my wedding ring as I had only been married three weeks and it still felt out of place on my hand.
Wade had shared the contact information for his Mississippi catfish noodles, with the caveat that they were coarse, and they were. But I reached into a coffin-sized cypress box with my bare hand and grabbed the flathead waiting inside by the lower jaw. He rolled and flailed, stripping enough skin from my knuckles to leave the scars I have to this day, but I tossed him over the side of the nearest boat. I came home, wrote a story about it and sold it to field and current-my first.
Wade was the voice and face of Ducks Unlimited then, and when I left the associate editor job at DU that he had put my name up for, I was worried he would be upset. But he just wished me luck and he asked me to call him if the shellcracker bite turned out any good. One day in late May, just after the full moon, when the weather seemed right, I called Wade and invited him to go fishing with me. He found me at the lake the next morning at sunrise.
We caught some bluegills early on, but the shellcrackers were just being themselves. It had a lot of places that I liked to check out, but they were mostly empty. Late in the morning, when there were only a few stops left on the list, I was afraid we might end the day with a skunk. But then I stopped my boat 20 yards from a rocky spot, where I had caught a red ear or two in the past, and fired a long shot with a red worm on a launch pad. By the time I grabbed the rope, my line was already swinging into deep water. When it was tight, my ultralight rod bent in a neat arc and the reel drag hummed.
The shellcracker that finally rolled alongside the boat was so big that for a second I worried about the strength of my 4lb test line. But Wade caught it with my net: a quivering bream so thick it was more practical to touch it with your lips than to grab it in the middle. “What a beautiful fish!” Wade said. It was a line that could have been written for a TV or radio show, but I only shared it with myself, and out of genuine appreciation for being there.
“We’d better drop anchor here for a minute,” I said. The spot was easy to see, as the firecrackers had kicked up a cloud of slime just off the shoreline, just at the end of a long launch. We dared not approach any closer. I stuck with a drop-shot, but Wade set up his red worms under a little split-shot sinker and a pencil float, just because, he said, he loved seeing a cork disappear. We caught shellcrackers on almost every release, and in just over an hour, we were down.
Wade and I kept in touch regularly, often talking about these thieves. In the summer of 2016, the same year he received the Homer Circle Fishing Communicator Award, he called me for advice on how to book a moose hunt. Since I was the hunting editor of field and current and traveling the world to hunt larger game at the time, he thought I might know of a place to go. We talked for a while before poor reception interrupted the call. I texted him and told him we’d follow up on that moose hunt later, and he wrote back saying it was nice to catch up. He died of a heart attack that December, aged 69, after cutting down a Christmas tree.
I still fish that rocky spot, and while no shellcracker spot is a guarantee, it’s as reliable as any I know of, if you catch it on the right day in late spring. Sometimes, when I catch one, I say out loud, to no one in particular, “What a beautiful fish.”
This story originally appeared in the Limits Issue of field and current. Read more stories from F&S+.