Reelfoot Lake is a great symbol of southern culture. Its bald cypress trees — the last standing in this Tennessee swamp — are hardy, just like so many of the people here and in Mississippi and Louisiana and throughout the rest of Dixie. The lake’s bottom is as sticky as Gulf Coast gumbo, and will suck you in, like the hospitality of a good southern mama.
But it is also wild. A place where giant blinds with satellite TV, kitchens and couches inside — all the amenities of home — can get burned to the ground if you mistakenly blow a call at your neighbor’s swing ducks. There are stories of men getting shot over mallards, and some still avoid taking young hunters to Reelfoot because you just never know when a local is going to lose his temper with a clueless weekender.
The experience is all very southern, from the niceties of the waitresses, fried hushpuppies and sweet tea at The Pier restaurant, to the exuberance of long-time duck and fishing guide Jackie Wayne Van Cleave.
“The more I come here, the more I fall in love and respect the south and people who live here,” said a fellow hunter in town for a few days of chasing fowl. “Sure, there are people here that are lazy and dishonest just like anyplace else. But you won’t find a larger concentration of folks who work this hard and take so much pride in what they do.”
Enter Jackie Wayne. He grew up in Samburg, on the banks of Reelfoot, wading near the shore, collecting turtles to sell. Now in his 60s, the man has made his entire financial existence off crappie and mallards, guiding clients since he was a teenager. He still has a lot of young man in him…still loves every morning of the 60-day season whether the ducks are in or not.
“The only thing Jackie knows is work,” said Banded/Avery PR man John Gordon. “This lake is how he has survived. If you took it away from him, he would die.”
Van Cleave, who is sponsored by Banded and Strike King fishing lures, was found by Tommy Akin, a man who has launched many careers in the outdoor industry, at a boat show in Indianapolis when Jackie wasn’t but 18 or 20 years old. He was working the show for a boat maker and ran out of fliers when Akin and fishing legend Bill Dance walked into his booth.
“We got to talkin’ and Tommy invited me out to dinner with Bill,” Jackie recalled. “It was a real swank joint and they ordered for me. When they brought out my meal, I said, ‘this is the biggest danged crawfish I had ever seen!’ ‘Course it was a lobster, and Tommy and Bill were rollin’ on the floor laughin’. Back then, I didn’t know a damn thing.”
But he knew Reelfoot, and still does. We white-knuckled morning boat rides in the dark through tight cypress breaks in shallow water, but Jackie just kept singing his favorite tune and gave the mud motor a lift out of the water if we were about to cruise over hidden stumps or bogs. For Jackie, Reelfoot truly is home.
“I would bet Jackie hasn’t spent more than 300 nights away from here,” said Akin. “He has kin in Nashville, but it’s hard to get him out of Samburg. It’s where he is most comfortable.”