The lure of Lake Mary: Exploring, scenery, fun

Aubrey Rimes steers the boat as Jamie Harrell fiddles with a pocket knife.

First in a series

“I have laid aside business, and gone a’fishing.” — Izaak Walton

As I woke in the pre-dawn darkness to go to Lake Mary one recent morning, I just had to wonder: Why in the world do people make this trip — not just now and then, but regularly?

It’s a long drive — two hours from Pike County — and any way you slice it, it’s going to cost money: boat, fishing tackle, bait, food, fuel and especially a camp.

Why bother?

That’s what the Mayor and the Judge were aiming to show me.

The sky brightened as I cruised through Centreville and Woodville and west on Highway 24 until the curvy hills flatten out at Percy Creek.

At the now-abandoned Sportsman Stop convenience store, I turned right and went down the last slope into the sure-nuff Mississippi River floodplain, where everything changes: the trees, the weeds, the birds, even the air itself, which suddenly smells of willows and mud and cypress.

At the bottom of this last hill is where the Mississippi River backwaters reach in flood time. Now the gravel road was dry and dusty as I curved around and crossed the bridge over Percy Creek, where buzzards clustered at sandy pools around fish offal dumped over the railing.

Past the bridge I turned left onto an uneven sand road that not long ago was underwater. The new county supervisor apparently lost no time in getting it leveled again.

The road parallels Percy Creek to the left and buttonwood swamps to the right until it crosses Buffalo River. To either side stretched a maze of waterways.

A white egret stood in the shallows with a small fish in its mouth. And I got the first inkling why folks come to Lake Mary: People aren’t in charge here. Nature is.

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“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun...” — James Joyce, “Finnegans Wake”

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The road curves around past a row of camps perched 20 feet up, many having been raised after the flood of 2011. The big lake gleamed beyond them like rough-hammered silver.

To the right through the trees were the backwaters of smaller Foster Lake, and green fields backed by swampy woods.

A bare lot on the left was where the old Lake Mary Lodge once stood overlooking the lake shore back in the day. I followed the road at it swung right past some fine camps at the point where the Old Homochitto River enters from the east.

I paralleled the muddy river, passing camps, the concrete bridge leading to Lake Mary Planting Co., more camps, and pulled up where three men were outside talking under a shade tree.

Aubrey Rimes of Progress — that’s the Judge — and Jamie Harrell of Osyka — that’s the Mayor — were chatting with neighboring camp owner Jennings Reid of Columbia, who was sitting in a silver-gray side-by-side.

Rimes, 65, is in his fifth term as Pike County Southern District justice court judge and is Osyka municipal judge as well; his wife Sharon works for veteran Magnolia attorney Wayne Dowdy. Rimes also ran Rimes Nursery at Progress for 30 years until he sold it to spend more time at the lake.

Harrell, 77, served two terms as Osyka mayor, including during Hurricane Katrina, when he and Bob Wall had to make a heroic run to Oklahoma City to buy a generator to run the town water system — a memorable there-and-back ride. Before that he worked all over the United States on natural gas pipelines, meeting his wife Diane in Kentucky; she later worked at the bank in Magnolia for years.

Both men have fished at Lake Mary off and on since childhood. Rimes bought his camp after the flood of 2011. The building stood on posts 13 feet off the ground but flooded anyway, so Rimes added a whole new section six feet higher.

From the top deck to the ground is 20 feet. From the ground down to the river is another 20.

After Reid left, we walked down flights of wooden stairs to the dock where Harrell’s blue boat and Rimes’ green one were tethered. We climbed into the green one, Rimes cranked the motor, I untied us, and we puttered up the Old Homochitto.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Harrell warned me playfully.

I had assumed we were going to fish in the lake, so news that we were going up the Old Homochitto gave me a frisson of delight. And a second clue for liking Lake Mary: the opportunity to explore.

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“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.” — Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”

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The Old Homochitto is intriguing and mysterious. It used to be that the Homochitto River, located north of here, swung southwest and emptied into Lake Mary. But the Corps of Engineers channelized it straight into the Mississippi River in the 1930s, leaving the old channel unconnected except in high water.

The Old Homochitto had dropped five feet in the past week. You could see the pale mud ring around tree trunks.

We passed open fields of Lake Mary Planting Co. on our left and a smattering of camps on the right, then entered the forest.

“It’s nothing but woods from here to Natchez,” the Judge opined.

A look at Google Earth aerial photos bears that out, a few farm fields excepted.

There’s also nothing but woods east to Woodville, south to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and even west across the Mississippi River to Marksville, La. Within that radius are two national wildlife refuges (St. Catherine Creek, Lake Ophelia), a Mississippi state natural area (Clark Creek) and four Louisiana wildlife management areas (Red River, Grassy Lake, Three Rivers, Tunica Hills).

“Keep an eye out for Bigfoot,” Harrell said.

“If Bigfoot’s not here, he’s missing a good opportunity,” I said.

The morning air was mild and green-sweet as we rounded bend after bend, spooking small flocks of white egrets and random herons. A pair of fallen-in camps lent a desolate air.

An alligator swirled the water and went under. Gar splashed around us as the boat moved forward.

The soft air, the smells, the woods, the water all make up a major part of the lure of Lake Mary.

The river, which had been angling to the north, gradually narrowed until it split into west and east prongs.

We turned left up the west and meandered through tall forest. What looked like the rear end of a logging trailer leaned against a tree with two knobby tires on top.

“Looks like a redneck deer stand,” Rimes said.

We pondered whether high water could have placed it there.

“Whatever it is, it’s got a story behind it,” I said.

We puttered on until we saw a sprawling hunting lodge on the right.

“That’s Buck Island Hunting Camp,” Rimes said. “Not many eyes have seen that.”

Around the next bend, a fallen tree blocked our way.

“I should have brought my chainsaw,” Rimes said. “It’s sitting right back there at the camp.”

The Mayor poked fun at the Judge for falling down on the job, and the Judge threatened to drop the Mayor off at a nursing home on the way back to Pike County. The Mayor took another dip of tobacco and shook his head.

We returned to the forks and headed up the east prong, passing under a primitive bridge leading to Buck Island. As the river narrowed, the trees got bigger, especially cypress with their giant flaring buttresses, but also lowland oaks, sycamore, hog pecan and locust. The ground was swept clean from floods and aglow with short, green growth which would flourish until the next high water.

Fine sawdust ringed the trunk of a locust tree.

“Wonder what did that?” Rimes said.

“You could make cornbread with that,” Harrell said.

I looked it up later and discovered something called a locust borer may have been responsible. We only saw one tree like that.

Water roared in a side channel and we turned up it to find a big culvert with current gushing through. The Judge said it came from a ditch linking the prongs, channeling the flow from west to the east.

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“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.” — Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”

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Back on the river, we passed under another, even more primitive bridge. Rimes was hoping to reach an old sunken steam engine, but getting there is always dicey. If the river is too low, logs block the way. If too deep, the engine is submerged.

We reached a logjam that would be tricky for a canoe, a narrow zigzag route between a pair of downed trees with a swift current. I figured it would stop the Judge’s 15-foot flatbottom aluminum boat, but he was game to try. Being out on a river brings the boy out even in white-grizzled men.

Kneeling in the bow, I broke off a couple branches while Rimes finessed the motor and Howell pushed off from the side. I used a paddle to jog the boat sideways and we crooked our way through.

“Should have brought that saw,” the Judge repeated.

We crept on upriver, toward the elusive sunken engine, like Marlowe seeking the mysterious Colonel Kurtz in the quintessential river novel, “Heart of Darkness.” I half expected arrows to come flying out of the woodland gloom.

In high water, the Judge said, you could make it all the way to the Homochitto River. However, there was another bridge and a giant logjam between here and there.

We came to another fallen tree that completely blocked the river. And without a saw, there was no getting through.

Exploring time was over. The Judge turned the boat around as we headed downstream to check the trotlines.

We had a new quest now.

Moby-Cat.

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Next week: Running lines.

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