The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Mechanical Bass Of Mule Mountain Lake

By Steven Hess © 1987

Issue: April, 1987

Uncle Johnny was a fisherman, year after year, catching the biggest bass of the season out of Mule Mountain Lake where he lives. He was a lucky fisherman. You know the kind, the kind about which other fisherman talk and say, "Some guys have all the luck." Uncle Johnny has an advantage over most fisherman as he lived there even before they dammed Mule Creek and formed the lake, so he knows every inch of the place. His secret hole for the big ones, hardly a hole, but that's what he calls it, is a narrow submerged gully that ends just off shore against a rocky shallow that looks so rocky and shallow that nobody fishes there.

Poor Uncle Johnny, Poor? The envy of every fisherman on Mule Mountain Lake, yes, poor. The poor guy spends days fishing the fishless parts of the lake because everyone follows him trying to find his secret spots.

I, sworn to secrecy, often fished with my Uncle Johnny. Sometimes, when being followed, we'd take the boat up to the west arm, the shallow end of the lake. We'd cut off the old Johnson outboard; tilt it up, row in as close as we could before scraping the rocky bottom. From there we'd climb out and walk the boat through the shallows for a hundred yards, climb back aboard and fish in three inch deep water. Forty boats would follow and fish the same place from dawn till dusk without a nibble.

At sundown, we'd slide the boat up the shore and walk up the road that led to my Uncle's cabin. We'd listen to the fisherman talk among themselves.

"Any luck today?" one would ask another.

Another would say, "No, came real close though. That's really a great spot. Has to be some big ones in that three inch deep water."

Fishing's not a kid's game. It's hard work, and it's tough to keep ahead of the game.

Some days, Uncle Johnny and I played another game; actually I played the game while Uncle caught the fish. Now that I look at it, I did the work while he played. I'd take the boat out with an Uncle Johnny made out of straw and stuff, a dummy uncle with one of Johnny's old faded blue tennis hats and an old plaid shirt like he wore all the time. We'd stick one of his old pipes in the dummy's mouth, and I'd take the boat around in circles all day with everyone following me. Sometimes fifty or sixty boats would go around in circles with me. We'd all fall flat on our faces when we came ashore. Uncle, during this time, dressed as a city slicker, would fish his favorite spots from a little inflatable boat. Nobody went near him and he'd haul in some big bass.

Again, he'd bore his followers by fishing the worst places, then fish for real when they gave up and went home. Other times, just to wear them down, he'd carry a big bass around and lift it out with a net every so often just to make them feel so bad. Still, word started getting around that he was catching some of his biggest big mouths on the south shore below his cabin.

And that's when Uncle Johnny went to his workshop and invented Bonnie, his mechanical bass.

A brief background should be presented at this point. Uncle Johnny wasn't just a fisherman, he was also an inventor. He'd spent many years working at the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in the desert of eastern Kern County in California. He'd invent unbeatable weapons; he'd turn around and beat them with better ones. After becoming bored with nothing to show for his work, but craters in the sand, he turned his attention to toys. He specializes in making those toys, the kind that came complete with easy to assemble instructions, the ones that no adult can master, the kind that you give up on as hopeless after a few weeks only to have a nine year old snap it together in five minutes. Uncle loved that work and still fiddles around with toys and computers in his retirement.

Anyway, he went to his workshop and invented Bonnie, the mechanical bass. She was a real achievement of engineering and computer technology!

It was a warm day in early September when Uncle Johnny, after a few test runs, after working out a few bugs, set Bonnie loose on the lake. She was computer controlled from a main terminal that set in front of the den window that looked out over the whole lake. He had a portable hand carried control box too. But Bonnie didn't need much controlling, as she was programmed to handle most any situation that could come along. We watched as Bonnie swam out of sight. Soon, the fisherman spotted her too.

The mechanical bass, reported by expert witnesses to weigh twenty six pounds, six and three quarter ounces, in reality weighted a bit over eight, looked quite realistic in the water. Out of the water she was just a machine, built much like a blimp. Bonnie was a real workhorse! She proved well worth the work and money that went into her.

When fishermen would encroach on his favorite hole, Bonnie would glide in from the depths, splash water twenty feet in the air and lure the invaders away. She'd role on the surface and take off with a string of boats in pursuit. They'd cast plug after plug at her trying to get her to bite, some trying (unsportsmanlike) to snag her. She'd snap their heavy lines. She was strong. Seven hundred pounds of pulling power was packed into her hull!

The mechanical bass was snagged, netted, gaffed, and finally rammed by a heavy wooden boat. She was never landed and suffered only minor damage. The damage was costly in parts and in time, so Uncle Johnny had no time left for fishing anymore. It was time for drastic action. Back to the workshop. At least he didn't have to worry about his fishing spots now. Now that Bonnie wasn't cavorting around the lake, the locals said, "No sense in fishing now. If Uncle Johnny's not out, nothing's biting."

Johnny armed Bonnie with little torpedoes capable of sinking any boat on the lake and most boats that weren't on the lake too. He rigged her with little shiny missiles that could knock out tackle boxes on the shore without causing harm to their owners, they simply melted the contents of the boxes.

Now, he went back to fishing.

After the mechanical bass sunk twenty three boats, including six brand new bass boats with armor plated hull, and knocked out thirty some tackle boxes along the bank, the U.S. Coast Guard swung into action.

Frogmen combed every inch of the lake and never found the mechanical bass, as Uncle Johnny, shortly before their arrival, dressed Bonnie in a frogman's wet suit and gave her a man's voice too. Every morning, Bonnie would swim over to the frogmen and say, "Maybe we'll get him today boys."

Finally, the Coast Guard gave up. They'd thought they'd had her once, but it turned out to be a big channel cat instead. They ended up putting up a sign saying "DANGEROUS WATERS".

Fishing is better than ever now and quieter too. Last Monday Johnny got a string of five weighing 98 pounds.

Bonnie still haunts the depths, still fully armed and ready to maintain the peace and tranquility of Mule Mountain Lake.