Rosy of cheek and toothy of grin, the three Yankees burst through the automatic doors of the Super Wal-Mart in McMinnville, Tennessee. River water that had parking-lot flash-frozen on their waders melted again in the relative warmth of the store and their Vibram soles squeaked offensively on the tile.
They were in town to find and document a Tennessee musky; the polar vortex was in town to set records. These three hardened winter steelhead anglers from Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan had come farther south than ever before in their lives only to fish in the coldest temperatures of their lives: six degrees above zero, Fahrenheit, was the high that afternoon. And they had moved muskies. They had coaxed the outboard motor to life, cursed at iced rod guides and flies that stuck to every metal surface, and stomped frozen wooden feet – but they drew muskies from deep within the steaming and impossibly green water.
And that afternoon, in the actual last hour of light, they had caught a fish. Not a monstrous fish, but an eleventh-hour keystone musky that sanctioned their suffering and prevented them from having to say “we didn’t get the shot, but it was still a good trip,” yet again to their families and friends – and editor.
The cold had the town shut down, except for the Super Wal-Mart. Enter the heroes, now, seeking a bottle of real Tennessee whiskey with which to properly toast the fish, the trip, their hosts, and anything else within range.
“You guys carry whiskey here?” they asked of the first cashier they came upon, a girl likely not of drinking age, who was too startled by their waterproof bib overalls and ice-beards to answer immediately.
But the crone at the next register was ready. She had seen their kind before. Her small eyes twinkled with joy, but she did not smile as she croaked:
“This here’s a dry county.”