I’ve always said you could enjoy a trip to Reelfoot Lake without bothering to take any fishing tackle, and my wife and I proved it one day last week.
We spent the day hiking the myriad of nature trails and boardwalks along the lake, visited the Reelfoot State Park nature center/museum, ate at a couple of the famous lakeside restaurants and wrapped up the outing by taking in a breath-taking sunset from the veranda of the Blue Bank Resort.
For over 30 years, fishing buddy Bob Sherborne and I made an annual May pilgrimage to Reelfoot Lake to fish for the giant bluegill that lurk in the lily pads and gnarled cypress that span hundreds of acres.
We missed making the trip four years ago due to the death of Sherborne’s father, and for the next two years we were both tied up with family obligations.
Like anything else, once you break a routine it’s hard to start back.
Last week I decided to take advantage of a couple of idle days to return to Reelfoot and revisit some of our old haunts for old times’ sake. I recommend the trip to everyone, from fishermen to naturalists and historians.
Reelfoot, nestled in the northwest corner of the state, is Tennessee’s largest natural lake. It was created by a series of violent New Madrid earthquakes that rocked the area during the winter of 1811-12. The earth heaved and buckled and the churning Mississippi River overflowed into adjacent hollows and low-lying forests. When the final tremors – felt as far away as Chicago – subsided, a 15,000-acre lake had been created.
The Reelfoot area was originally inhabited by Indians, and later prowled by David Crockett and other early frontiersmen. It would echo with Civil War cannon fire, require state militia to quell murderous Night Riders, spark fierce environmental feuds and provide the setting for several popular movies.
Choked with cypress, lily pads, cattails and swamp grass, the lake and surrounding marshland is one of Tennessee’s most ecologically diverse areas. Reelfoot is home to an estimated different 250 bird species, including a resident population of bald eagles.
Because of its shallowness (average depth, seven feet) and myriad of barely-submerged stumps and logs, no water skiers or speedboats race across Reelfoot. Small fishing craft putter along, and an occasional pontoon cruise boat negotiates the standing cypress.
“I grew up on Reelfoot as a boy and I’ve lived there all my life,” said Mike Hayes, owner of Blue Bank Resort and a retired member of the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission. “If there’s a more peaceful, relaxing, beautiful place on earth, I haven’t found it.”
Among the early explorers who ventured into the Reelfoot area was Crockett. He hunted there in 1822 and later moved his family to the nearby Obion Bottoms.
Crockett described the earthquake-ravaged area as “the harricane,” which was inhabited by deer, wolves, turkeys, bears and other wildlife. Crockett killed wolves for their bounty and bears and deer for their pelts and meat. He preferred bear meat over venison, and in one year boasted about killing 105 bears, enhancing his reputation as a frontier hunter. Crockett eventually departed the Reelfoot region for Texas – and the Alamo.
During the Civil War Union gunboats attacked Confederate forces at Island No. 10, located in a bend of the Mississippi, a cannon-shot away from Reelfoot Lake. The out-gunned rebels retreated to nearby Tiptonville, where some escaped into the tangles of Reelfoot. Some say the ghosts of ragged Confederates haunt the gloomy cypress swamps.
That’s all part of Reelfoot’s rich history, charm and enchantment. The great fishing is just a bonus.