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Remembering Merle Haggard

By John Higley
04/11/16 -- The story attached to this column is not new but, sadly, it is timely. It is about country singer and song writing legend Merle Haggard, who passed away on his birthday, April 6 at age 79. I know his age because Merle, who lived in Palo Cedro, as I do, was two days younger than me.

Merle Haggard with fish from Shasta Lake by John Higley

Many local folks recall their meetings with the man at special events. To meet him informally at the Holiday Market in Palo Cedro, Lulu’s Restaurant in Redding or other local establishments was not unusual. His concerts were always a must attend for those of us who appreciated his brand of country music.

I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but somehow I was picked to interview Merle in March, 1982 for a story that later appeared in Western Bass Magazine. The occasion was the annual bass tournament held in his name on Lake Shasta. I got to ride along with him for several hours and take photos while he fished. I can not say that Haggard and I became buddies, although we chatted many times over the years, but I do think I saw a side of him that few outsiders were privy to. I never forgot his grin when he displayed the bass he caught for the camera as it was genuine delight.

His passing leaves a void that will never be filled and rightly so. Merle was one of a kind, a talented bigger-than-life individual whose unique spin on country music will outlast all of us. That said, here’s the story I wrote about Merle Haggard after being with him on Lake Shasta on that day long ago.


Merle Haggard Fisherman

By John Higley
The man was obviously proficient at this. Watching the shoreline intently, he angled the Ranger bass boat into position with the humming electric motor. A sidearm cast sent the white jig fluttering toward the rocky bank. It splashed neatly into the quiet water a few inches from the gently sloping drop-off. The man took the line back slowly, bottom bouncing the jig into deeper water.

I watched his eyes, and he watched the line. One moment he looked weary, the next he was alert. Suddenly he paused and leaned forward, extending the 5 ½-foot boron rod as far as possible. Then he struck, and the sturdy stick bent like a bow at full draw, shook crazily and went straight. A smile lit the man's face like a sudden glint of sun between broken clouds. "That was a damn nice fish," he said, obviously respectful of his adversary.

I thought of the words to a popular country song—I can almost see that bobber dancin'—and I wondered if they were self-descriptive. You see, the bass angler in the bow seat was the singer of that song. Merle Haggard, one of the best known, most honored, country western artists in the business. For a moment, though, his music was in the background. Haggard's main concern was trying to fool a few bass. It wasn't an easy chore on this blustery day in March on Lake Shasta in northern California, but it was obviously a welcome challenge.

Merle Haggard, the singer, performs for common folks, astronauts and dignitaries. A week before we met he entertained for President Reagan. His songs are sprinkled across the country charts like pepper on a salad. His voice emanated from a nearby houseboat as he fished. He isn't listening. We're talking fishing, one subject, other than music, that seems close to the man's soul.

"I guess I started playing the guitar and fishing for bass at about the same time," he says. "I was raised near Bakersfield and spent a lot of time at Lake Isabella, but I really liked the Kern River. Caught my first smallmouths there."

"Do you have a favorite bass?" I inquired.

"Smallmouths," he replied without hesitation, but I like largemouths, too."

This guy just likes to fish. That's something you know for sure after watching him in action for a while. It was cloudy this day, and windy and cold, but the casts kept coming. Bass are number one with him, but he doesn't turn trout down. Catfish get a warm nod, as well.

"It's just that bass are a little harder to figure out than the others, " he says. "There's always something new to learn."

It's no accident that I caught up with Haggard at Shasta. He likes the place so well that he even invested in a resort there—Silverthorn on the Pit Arm. Not only that, he moved into the area a few months ago so he could be closer when he has time off from road tours. And he fishes Western Bass tournaments there.

"Turn me loose—set me free—somewhere in the middle of Montana." I thought of those words from another of his songs as he fished. Substitute Lake Shasta for Montana, and the message is true to life.

"What's the biggest bass you ever caught?" I inquired.

"A 7 ½ pound largemouth. But I've caught a smallmouth better than 5 pounds. That's a real fish, too," he grinned.

It was mid-afternoon. Four distant bass boats skimmed across the Pit Arm, geysers of water trailing behind. Merle, a methodical fisherman, laughed. "Look at those guys. I bet it's tough for a fish to catch up with their lures when they troll so fast."

In reality, their haste was Merle's fault, and he delighted in knowing it. Those anglers were participating in Haggard's own bass tournament, hosted at Silverthorn yearly. In 1982, 92 entrants vied for prizes that included a fully equipped Ranger bass boat and cash. No wonder they were in a hurry to make a few more casts before weigh-in time.

It's not easy to know the real Merle Haggard, and there's no use pretending otherwise. On shore he's usually surrounded by an entourage of associates. He's cooperative enough if you want an autograph, but he answers questions rather bluntly, and moves on.

Out on the water the smile comes easily, the pace is more relaxed. It doesn't seem to matter if he catches a fish or not, as long as the chance is there. On the water the conversation is filled with thoughts of bass, and where and how to catch them at different times. Tales of fish long remembered come to the surface as if they were caught yesterday.

Gradually you forget that the rods are custom made, that the Ranger 375-V you're sitting in is a far cry from the vee bottom aluminum craft you're used to. For the moment you see only a man at home on the water, and you know he's doing something he really loves and has throughout his life—fishing.

Merle Haggard, the singer, sings about a winter vacation on Lake Shasta in a song about the favorite memories of all. Merle Haggard, the man, seems to believe that.

Author and writer John Higley is a resident of Palo Cedro. His articles have appeared in outdoor magazines hundreds of times and his columns appear regularly at Higley has written four books the latest of which “Successful Turkey Hunting” was published in May, 2014 by Skyhorse Publishing in New York. This hard cover, full color book is being sold at Barnes and Noble Book Stores and on Amazon. Autographed copies are available direct from John Higley, P.O. Box 120, Palo Cedro, CA 96073. Cost is $28.95 postage paid.


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