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Catching Bucketmouths in the Old Coal Mine

Belly boats, bigmouth bass, an Ohio wilderness and Corneilus

We got out of the truck and saw the wilderness gather in front of us and drift off toward the horizon. The plains of grass were cut across by strips of forest struggling up out of the thin topsoil. Behind us, a pine woods rose densely out of the willows that stopped at the dirt road we came in on. The willows resumed ahead of us on both sides of the wildcat trail we took down to the water, probably not quite a mile away.

That mile would be longer with the belly boats strapped to our backs. Our guide, Corneilus Harris, was inflating the tubes on the boats with a hand pump. Corneilus is a big man. A former college football player, he has made a name for himself as a bass fisherman in the AEP ReCreation Lands where we were fishing that day. He’s spent 33 years exploring the vast wilderness area south of Zanesville, which spans nearly 60,000 acres of reclaimed coalmines. The sheer size of the available lands to hunt, fish, hike and camp in is unlike anything you would imagine exists in Ohio…and it’s peppered with more than 300 lakes and ponds, most of which hold bass. 

Some of which hold very large bass. He showed me a photograph on his flip phone, the tiny screen entirely filled with Corneilus and an enormous largemouth, its bucket-sized head dwarfing his already large hand.

Corneilus’s flip phone is a good fit with the rest of his aesthetic. He wasn’t wearing expensive Simms breathable waders, but a pair of black rubber ones. His jacket doesn’t proclaim brand allegiance to anything other than the Maysville High School football team. He looked dubiously at me and my partner, Robbie, as we string up our fly rods.

“I’m real curious to see how you guys do with those,” he said. Robbie and I only smiled smugly to ourselves.

Jim Stratton also seemed dubious.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’d take Corneilus’s advice, if I were you.”

Founder and CEO of Hocking Hills Adventure Trek, the outfitter sponsoring our media outing, Stratton’s background in technology finance seems like a strange way into the world of outdoor recreation, but the scope of his business includes everything from Native American storytelling programs to bluegrass concerts in the Hocking Hills, as well as rappelling and belly-boat fishing.

And if you picture ESPN-style fishing when you think of bass – razor-shaped $50,000-plus bass boats screaming across enormous lakes, anglers dressed like NASCAR drivers covered in sponsorship patches – belly-boat bass fishing offers the polar opposite of that experience. There are no motors here: belly boats are inflatable pontoons attached to a seat. The angler sits atop the four-foot craft and propels it backwards through the water with snorkel-style flippers. While it takes a moment to get acquainted, soon we were all spread across the unnamed six-or-so-acre lake, which Harris calls “A Little Slice of Heaven.” (It’s one of his favorite holes, and I felt strangely honored to even be on it.)

After a couple hours of relatively slow fishing (Corneilus caught two, I caught one, Robbie looked sad), the clouds began to menace us and the wind came on, with a cold breeze cooling the action further. The water was clear, and the standing timber bent at a refracting angle as deep into the water as the dead poles stood out of it, a small thin forest of spindly chevrons forming a buffet for the lurking bass; but the fish were deep, 20 feet or so beneath my floating fly line, and the cool air put them off. Lightning split the sky to the northwest and Jim called us off the lake; we began the hike back to the road and the rain came as we walked, slicking the tall weeds and making the deeply rutted path more treacherous. We got back to the road and watched as the storm reached down to us. We stood and talked in the driving rain. Corneilus told me of his long treks through the ReCreation wilds, of exploring 150 lakes in the area and narrowing them down to the ponds he found to be most fertile water, of taking enormous bass in January, fishing even as the snow fell on the water around him. He offered to let me use one of his spinning rods, rigged with a long black plastic worm. I had seen the fish he was catching on the damn thing; one he refused to even be photographed with was twice the size of my largest – “Too small,” he said. “I don’t like to take pictures with the little ones.”

“Not yet,” I replied, “I want to see how the next lake treats my poppers.”

Corneilus examined my hand-tied deer-hair mouse. “You made that?”

“Yup.”

“That’ll catch bass,” he said, reassuringly. “That oughta catch ‘em.”

The storm stomped us and left, followed by sun and blue skies and warmer air. The next lake required a less arduous hike, and the wind was such that we could just let it take us down the narrow strip of water, fishing the shoreline. The mouse did little, but a cork-popper began to produce strikes, some of them forceful: huge boils on the surface and the fly rod bent double as the fish dove, but I couldn’t connect. After a minute I examined the fly and found the cork was too large for the hook, sparing the fish its point. I cut off the bottom half of the popper, and the next strike saw the fish catch, but it dislodged the cork from the shank of the hook and the fly was ruined. 

Corneilus floated over to me to chat, and I finally released my pride into the water and borrowed his rig. He explained his technique for retrieving the lure and using slack in the line to see the fish take the plastic worm. As he demonstrated next to me he caught a good one. Sold, I cast the stiff, heavy rod to the shore and tried to mimic his retrieve. I caught another three or four fish in the next half hour, all of them much larger than anything I had taken on the fly. I looked down the lake to Robbie, who had set aside his fly rod, too, and was catching fish on one of Corneilus’s other rods.

We finished the day back at the truck. Jim Stratton told us of reading about Corneilus in a local newspaper and then finding him and offering to pay him to fish.

“He’s really something else,” he said admiringly. “That guy really knows how to fish.”

I’ve been on several guided trips and never has a guide been so patient, wise and cool to let me fish badly until I was tired of it. His gentle spirit belies both his intimidating build and the depth of his wisdom on the water, especially this water; his water.

His appreciation for the land he fished was apparent, too.

“It’s easy to forget you’re in Ohio, isn’t it?” he said at one point.

On 60,000 acres of reclaimed, yet untamed, forest and plains and dirt roads, on 300 barely fished lakes, in the bold and innocent slashing rises of bulky largemouth bass…yes, in fact, it is.

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