Published on October 18th, 2016 | by Brittain Thompson0
Fossil Hunting with Eustace Winn
It was a brisk early autumn weekend. Walking out onto the porch in the morning to see Lake Ferguson, I felt free and light—as though I could re-invent myself. Rather than being overwhelmed with the possibilities of what I could do in this fantastic weather, I simply had faith that whatever I did would be right. After making a cup of Juan Valdéz Colombian coffee, I called my old buddy Eustace Winn to see what he had planned for the day. My wife was out of town, and I had fish on the brain. The weather was too nice to spend the entire day working.
I was sort of amazed that Eustace wasn’t working, but Ole Miss had beat Alabama the previous night, and he seemed to share the deep seated contentment that all Rebel fans felt that day.
I suggested that we take my new Land Cruiser on some off-road trail to fish along the Mississippi River off a rock dike for striped bass.
“Man, I’m glad you called! I left my boots out on a sandbar on the river. It’s a $200 pair of boots. We can put the Wild Rebel in the water and go fossil hunting this afternoon if you want to… I’ve got to go get my boots anyhow.”
I had been on the Wild Rebel before. It is a 21 foot long, green duck boat with an enclosed cabin. Not everybody in the Delta has a boat they boast as ready for travel in the Mississippi River, but everybody knows not to pass on an offer to board the Wild Rebel with Eustace at the helm. Eustace is a talented outdoorsman, his hand as steady on the wheel of his boat as it is on his rifle. He’s not the sort of friend who talks about getting out on the water to call back in an hour and say he can’t go. I don’t think there’s anywhere he’d rather be than the River.
The water had dropped from its record July highs down to near record lows in the quiet of late September. After lunch at the Benoit Outing Club, which we scarfed down heartily, we skipped down to the boat where our fishing poles, a few beers and certain adventure waited on us. Eustace made a comment about how happy he was.
“You were born happy,” I replied.
The anchor for the Wild Rebel is a steering wheel of an old car with about a three foot long shaft. It was wrapped around a steel column supporting the roof of the club’s boat dock. Making circles around the column, Eustace unbound the steering wheel, placing it into the bow of the boat ahead of the enclosed compartment.
“Do you mind pushing us off?” I pushed the boat off and back into Lake Whittington, ready to scare the strange, enormous Asian Carp to fly out of the water in our wake.
We made it to the man-made channel feeding into the Mississippi. It looked like some kind of exotic South American river that we were swerving through in a James Bond movie, the engine singing at 4500 RPM’s. Just before the channel reached the wide open arms of the Mississippi, it zigged and zagged. Without missing a beat, Eustace fishtailed the boat holding to the center of the channel and ripped it out into the wide open river water. We laughed hysterically, slapping a high five.
Nobody was out there except tow boats with their barges filled with rip rap, fertilizer and corn. It was so clear and cool and quiet, you could almost feel the world tilt on that day as it rotated on its axis moving towards a far reach of its elliptical orbit of the sun. We made landfall at a massive sandbar south of Catfish Point, where I jumped out and pulled the steering wheel out of the boat with me. I pulled it taught and hurled the make-shift anchor into the sand.
Eustace had given me a tutorial at his house showing off various items we would be looking for on the vast, open sand bars of the Mississippi. There was mastodon ivory, woolly mammoth tusks, dinosaur and human bone in addition to more common findings such as river brick and petrified Mississippi mud molded into all sorts of interesting shapes.
We brought back several sack-loads of rocks, brick, mud, and rusted steel, but we didn’t find anything worth taking to a paleontologist.
On the way back, we stopped at a rock dike to cast for a striped bass. Between the fast and slack water, on my third or fourth cast, I got snagged. As I walked backwards to try and unloosen my hook, I felt the familiar heavy tugging from the end of my rod. I had forgotten that striped bass like to take the bait straight down when they get hooked. It was too late, by then. The fish had shaken loose from my rooster tail bait.
“A friend of mine, who’s a really good fossil hunter, told me once that he found a sloth claw, and before he found it, he could hear it calling to him, man,” Eustace explained.
“Yeah, I guess some things want to be found and others don’t,” I replied.