Sore Mouth Pond


Anyone who has made a habit of fishing knows the occasion is readily spoiled, and those who hunt know it all the more. Both are crafts, and like most other crafts they have a way of drawing your flaws out like a magnet. The impatience, frustration, and pride in you will surface as trout rise for dry flies. If you enter into it, though, faithful and up to the task, you’ll look up while waiting in a tree stand or wading in some misty water and discover you have stumbled your way into stillness—the grace redeeming your mistakes.

Of the two, I have taken to fishing the most, which has been the case since I was a boy. My father was always more of a fisherman than a hunter. The same was true of his father and my Momma’s father. Growing up we were in the water after our supper more than in the woods; or, if we were in the woods, we were after the water veiled therein—Penn Warren’s “Pondy Woods.” So while I have been hunting and shooting enough and enjoy them plenty, fishing is what I know best.

There is something peculiar in the ritual of fishing, at least where I’m from. Sure, in Georgia you’ll find anglers in forest creeks, in bass boats on sprawling lakes, or in jon boats running trotlines on tired, but still mighty, yellow rivers; many journey to the Gulf of Mexico, too, for red snapper or the Florida Keys to wrestle with a marlin; but the bulk of our fishing takes place on farm ponds.

I am unaware if this is particular only to the Blue Ridge Valley or to Georgia or the South. I have lived in the Northeast for almost a year now and have not seen or heard much of the practice, or of farmers. I, however, will not speak for other parts of the country. I will only speak for what I know.

Upon reflection it makes sense, though, that this happens in the place where I was born. Looking back on my childhood, at least half of our family friends either farmed or owned land. The best part of these parcels contained ponds full of crappie and catfish and largemouth bass. Leagues of friendship between people who, cherishing land, felt obliged to share it created the ideal circumstance to learn the art of fishing. Trust, like clay, solidified through the years between the landowners and those who fished their land. Father upon father brought his children to the ponds to teach them how to fish. Then, as those children matured, they continued to fish them if they fell in love. Most did.

My brothers and I were among them. We spent countless nights on these farm ponds trying to perfect the method; fishing well beyond the grayness, when the geese descend with the pink and all yields to the darkness. In those moments the world was a pond. I would look to my left and to my right and see my brothers. Behind us there was only wheatgrass grown up to our waists, hiding the ponds. We would see deer tracks in the mud. Cottontails would scamper at the sound of our feet. Sometimes there were snakes. But always there was water and my brothers. Nothing else in the cosmos mattered because everything was consigned to the water. To the moment. And we never felt more like artists.

It is no wonder, then, that after my graduation from college, and before I moved away from home (with every intent to return), I spent all of last summer fishing. I fished public lakes and creeks and the faithful fishing holes of my childhood, but I also tried a pond unfamiliar to me.

Though that pond was owned by a dear family friend I have known all my life, it was a new pond. Built in 2019, few had the chance to cast on it before COVID struck. Then I went off to college and didn’t do much fishing.

But while the world was in a frenzy our family friend fished his new pond, belaboring the hours and the fish. What else was there to do? Men have long made excuses to get out on the water. None were needed during COVID. So he fished it until he was worn slap out.

He caught every bass in that pond five times over, too. Indeed, he fished it so often he decided to name it: Sore Mouth Pond. Faulkner himself could not have drawn up a better one.

The night before I went, my youngest brother asked me where I was off to in the morning. Upon revealing to him that I was headed to Sore Mouth Pond, he forewarned me:

If you want to catch catfish until you’re blue in the face, or bluegill as big as your shoe, then it’s a fine spot. But if you’re bass fishing then don’t go. You won’t catch nothing. I’ve been a couple times and so has Sam and we ain’t even felt a bite.

I told him I was aware of the pond’s reputation but still planned on going and that he was welcome to join me. He said his one principle in life was not to get up at five a.m. for nothing—fair enough.

When I arrived at the pond the next morning the sun had started to break. A hazy, silver blue peeked over the pines past the pond, and I could see the early morning orange at their trunks. I stepped out of my truck and could smell the afternoon’s coming rain. The air was heavy and sweet. There was an undressing, a nakedness for the nostrils on the breeze. I stopped and played with the smell for a second, breathing it in and out before I made my way downhill to the pond just beyond the apple trees. Chills went up my arms in spite of the scorching summer heat.

After three hours of fishing, no bass had been caught. I did catch a stunning little sunfish on a road runner crappie jig right as the sun had cleared the pines past the pond. He had blue streaks running up his jaw like he’d been struck by lightning. Color sizzled though him. It was beautiful. It looked an awful lot like the feeling in my jaw when I drink mint juleps too quickly.

I tried multiple different crappie jigs, assuming the bass were far too accustomed to normal bass jigs and chatter baits and whopper ploppers. I even threw around a pink rooster tail and caught three catfish on it, which is incredible. With every cast I was increasingly aware of what all I did not know and could not foresee.

I did not leave disappointed, though. Rather, I was hopeful; determined to return the next evening. I wanted to catch a bass, of course, and rather badly, but I also wished to see the fog settle on the pond silhouetted against a warm sky.

I went at half past six the next day, and after fishing for two hours I had yet to get a bite on a chatter bait or any of my crankbaits. Then the night began to settle, and the critters came out to praise it. To their cue, I tied on a yellow, black speckled top water frog with black and yellow stringed legs and a white belly. At the corner of the pond were tall, healthy sweet flags that the top water frog would fall into comfortably. I made my way there. On the third cast a bass rose and struck the frog forcefully and fast. But, out of impatience, I jerked my rod too quickly and yanked it from its mouth before the hooks could even separate from the frog.

I did not see another bite so I left as all went black, and I paid no attention to the fog.

When I made it home I wrestled with the thought of fishing Sore Mouth Pond again over my nightly cup of coffee. The chief problem was not that I was bored plum out of my mind—which I surely was—but that I was bored and I knew there were fish in there. I was not fishing in a puddle. I had spoken to the owner the week before, and he assured me of the fact. No doubt, he explained, the pond was worn and the fish were weary to bite; but they’re in there, he promised, and you can catch ‘em.

I, however, was growing annoyed. Everything was so idle on that pond. There was no action. The silence, once peaceful, had become an agitation. I was doing everything I could to keep the boredom at bay, oscillating between all the different lures and jigs. Different colors and sizes and speeds and shapes. But there was the fact: two days of bass fishing on the pond had born no bass. The boring fact.

As a result, my mind was restless—which is probably why Kierkegaard labeled boredom as the root of all evil, and the subsequent restlessness as that which “keeps a person out of the world of spirit and puts them in a class with the animals.”

Indeed, I was turning to what Kierkegaard claimed men turn to to cure them of their boredom: activity and work, which seem to annul the boredom but ultimately manufacture anxious and fidgety men resembling “humming insects … the most boring of all.”

More and more I wanted to give up on Sore Mouth Pond. I wanted to just fish somewhere else. Kierkegaard, though, condemned me again: “Change is what all who are bored cry out for.” Men grow bored of the country and move to the city; bored of where they’re at so they travel abroad, maybe even move states or countries. Bored of silver? Try gold.

The change that Kierkegaard proposed to solve boredom, though, is not change in this way at all, but a rotation of sorts. A crop rotation, as he posited. Like farmers attached to a place, Kierkegaard believed the principal boredom-curing method is not in a moving away, or a radical changing of the soil, but in the rotation of grains in the same soil. A faithfulness to the place one is in. Underlying this for Kierkegaard is the principle of limitation, “the only saving one in the world.”

In this way, “idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; quite the contrary, it is a truly divine way of life so long as one is not bored.” One must go through the idleness when he feels boredom breathing down his neck. Fleeing it only begins the “infinite bad,” the ceaseless pursuit.

So I went to bed, resolving to go back to Sore Mouth Pond in the morning.

When I arrived the air was quiet. I could not sense if it was going to rain; it did not smell like it, but the sky was overcast, and the morning mist had yet to rise. I could not really see where I wanted to start fishing, but I knew the general direction. After walking for a minute I saw where the logs slipped into the water and went to cast there.

I decided to Texas rig a green Yamamoto Senko worm with red sand-like speckles. It’s a tried-and-true bass rig that I had assumed the bass had seen a million times. But my time on Sore Mouth Pond had already revealed all that I cannot predict. So I went with it.

I cast around the logs a few times before moving off slightly to the right, casting beyond the logs and far enough into the mist that I did not see the splash of the Senko worm. Before the second, slow revolving of my spin reel was complete the line pulsed with life like a vein with burning blood. My heart took off with the bass now firmly set on the hook. I let him run for a second and thanked God. I knew he wasn’t getting off.

He was a beautiful, two-and-a-half-pound largemouth bass with yellow ribs and green checkers falling to his tail so dark they were almost black, caught on the most standard of bass rigs I had been refusing to use the whole time. Despite my stubbornness, fidelity bore its fruit.

I held the bass, inspecting him for a minute and then placed him softly back into the water by the tail. I waved it from side to side a few times to return the breath he gave to me. The mud in the shallow of the pond billowed up like smoke, then he slipped out of my hand and slowly swam into the mist and everything was still again.

Image Credit: Robert Scott Duncanson, “Man Fishing” (1848) via Picryl


  1. This brings back some lovely memories of fishing farm ponds and borrow pits. Shoving off from the wharf, gliding for a bit before paddling across still waters on what passed as a cool morning in south Louisiana, then casting towards a tree that had toppled into the water the previous year. And then seeing that uplift of water behind the plug, knowing what was coming. But yet it still managed to surprise and thrill each time.

  2. Thank you for this fine essay. I am not drawn to fishing, but I am to Kierkegaard. Anytime one can weave the wisdom of great writers into our daily doings, one is doing a fine thing. Thank you for that fine thing.


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