Memories of clever red eyes and their larval Achilles heel

Jeff Bobo • Jan 25, 2017 at 12:58 PM

When I first moved to Kingsport in the late 1990s, I tried my hand at fishing the Holston River, mainly at Laurel Run Park, Derrick Park in Church Hill, and around the area where the North Fork flows into the river below the Netherland Inn Road bridge.

Never caught a single fish here.

Lifetime I’m 0-for-Tennessee when it comes to fishing.

But it didn’t bother me too much because I knew there was a place about 80 miles from here where I could catch all the fish I want.

You probably wouldn’t want to eat too many them due to their proximity to some sketchy coal mines upstream known for slurry pond spills.

But if you know the secrets of Greasy Creek, you can definitely catch fish by the bucketload.

My grandfather, the late Henry Miniard, taught me the secrets of Greasy Creek.

In the late 1980s, he built a small cabin for my mother on the banks of Greasy Creek in what used to be the community of Napier, Kentucky, on Route 2008 in Leslie County, just a stone’s throw from the Harlan County line.

The idea was to create a reason for his children and grandchildren in northern Illinois to come visit him more often, and for most of two decades it worked.

It’s an area that was settled by my ancestors more than 200 years ago, and that specific property is where my mother was raised.

For outdoor sportsmen, it’s located pretty much smack dab in the middle of paradise.

The hills above the property were strip-mined in the 1970s, and by the mid-1990s they had been reclaimed by vegetation and wildlife.

The strip mine property is accessible by old logging roads. Folks who know the area, and feel welcome or brave enough to venture up those old logging roads, will find some of the best turkey and deer hunting anywhere.

It’s also a place where people turn their horses loose to graze when they can’t afford to take care of them anymore. Directly above the cabin lives a herd of tame horses roaming wild and free.

Most of them are friendly, and they’ll come up to you looking for a snack or some attention.

Some of them will let you jump on their back and go for a ride. Some of them won’t — as I discovered one day when I got bucked and landed on my head.

I enjoy target shooting on the strip mine, but I’ve never been attracted to hunting.

Fishing was my game, and my grandfather taught me everything I needed to know about fishing Greasy Creek.

Pound for pound, the strongest fish on Earth has got to be the red eye, also known as rock bass.

If you hook one with a minnow, you’ll think you’ve got a whale on the end of your line by the fight it puts up.

Red eyes are also very tasty when deep fried in lard and corn meal with wild onions.

But red eyes are clever fish, and it takes a lot more than a minnow or a nightcrawler to pique their interest. I’ve never known a stranger to be able to catch one in Greasy Creek without receiving a few hints from local experts.

The main thing is, you’ve got to know their Achilles heel — or Achilles gill, if you will.

My grandfather called it a “grampus.”

Technically it’s called a hellgrammite, which is the larval form of the dobsonfly.

It’s a scary black bug with tough hide and big pinchers that WILL bite the fire out of you.

It’s also like crack cocaine to red eyes.

The prelude to any Greasy Creek fishing expedition is catching grampus.

Find a shallow, swift part of the creek. There happens to be a perfect place on our cabin property. Set up your seine, kick over some rocks upstream, and hopefully a few grampus will wash into your net.

If you’re only fishing for lunch, all you need is two grampus. The general rule of thumb is that you’ll catch three red eye per grampus.

It’s pretty chewed up by that third catch, though. It’s good sport to let that third red eye have that mangled grampus, rather then let it go to waste — especially if you’re playing catch and release.

As I said, red eyes are clever fish.

They’ll be in the water a few feet away staring at you with that creepy red eye. They know you’re up to no good.

If you throw them a nightcrawler or a minnow, they’ll just keep on staring.

But throw them a grampus and they’ll literally jump out of the water and fight each other to get on your hook.

Our cabin is located on the creek about an eighth of a mile from where a little trickle of water called Dollar Branch drains out of a hollow into Greasy Creek.

Between the cabin and Dollar Branch there are about a half-dozen really good holes where the red eye nest.

If there are three red eyes in a hole, you’ll generally hook three fish on your first three casts if you’re using grampus.

If you go two or three casts without a bite, move on to the next hole. This one is fished out.

As I said, my mother’s ancestors settled Greasy Creek about 200 years ago, and to this day I’m still related to about 90 percent of the people who live there.

Every Memorial Day weekend for about 20 years we had a huge reunion at the cabin. The whole yard was filled with tents with cousins from Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the beer drinkers had their big time, but Sunday was a day of redemption.

We all attended church services at a family cemetery presided over by my guitar playing preacher cousin Gene.

The sinners from the two previous beer drinking nights were usually so moved by Gene’s sermon, every year there was a mass baptism.

There’s no telling how many sins were washed away by the waters in front of that cabin on those Sunday afternoons in late May.

But by Sunday night, a lot of the newly saved were popping the beer cans open again. Only saved for about four hours, but always willing to try it again next year.

The reunions started dying out in the mid-2000s when my cousin Vera passed away. She was the glue that held together a faction of cousins living in Savannah, Ga., and when she died, that group stopped coming.

Then my grandmother’s health prevented her from making the trip from Illinois, and the cousins from Ohio and Indiana stopped coming because they really just came to see her. Without my grandmother there to hold court, the reunion died out.

My parents and closer family members also usually visited the cabin every October to see the beautiful foliage. That’s also the best time for fishing because the creek is down and the fish are trapped in the holes and very hungry.

But eventually my parents stopped coming in October, and I lost interest in the cabin in 2012 when my grandfather passed away. I haven’t been to the cabin since his funeral, and then it was just to make sure it hadn’t been burned down.

Recently a couple from Somerset, Kentucky, were exploring the area and stopped to check the property out. They met a cousin on the road who gave them my mother’s number.

She had considered selling the cabin to some cousins a few years back because they wanted to use it for a hunting lodge, but they couldn’t come up with the money.

Earlier this month the couple from Somerset made her an offer, and she accepted. They want to use the cabin for the same purpose that my grandfather built it — as a location for their family to come together.

I have mixed feeling about the sale. On the one hand, I have no right to ask her not to sell it because I don’t go there anymore, and since my grandfather passed away, I don’t really have any desire to go there.

The property is a liability and is constantly being broken into.

On the other hand, it’s not common to own property in a place where your family has lived for 200 years. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

I hope that the couple from Somerset enjoy it as much as we did and that it brings their family together the way it did ours.

The cabin is just four walls and a roof next to a creek. What made it special was the people who spent time there.

It’s no fun catching a bucket full of red eyes if there’s no one there to see it.

I’m not going to tell the Somerset couple about the grampus or the secrets of the creek. That’s between me and my grandfather, and they’ll have to figure it out for themselves.

Another thing they’ll have to figure out for themselves is the fact that that entire area around the cabin is haunted. But that’s a story for another time.