From two lakes to one couple

| November 03, 2005

Scott and Debbie Alexander (and Tobey) are more than just team drivers for U.S. Xpress – they’re fishing buddies and sometimes that means competitive fishiing duels.

He grew up fishing, mostly for catfish, on Lake Havasu in Arizona with his grandfather. She grew up fishing, mostly for salmon, on Lake Michigan with her father. Today they share a passion for fishing, a beagle named Tobey and a U.S. Xpress 2005 Freightliner Century running the lower 48.

Scott Alexander, 37, has been driving for 10 years now, the last three as a team driver with his wife Debra. Both say fishing is still a passion, but these days for Scott it’s much, much more.

“I love it. If I have a spare few minutes, I’ll be looking for somewhere to fish. I read everything I can get my hands on, and I keep trying to be a better fisherman and win tournaments,” says Scott. “As soon as I get home from the road I get out the pickup, hitch up the boat and I’m off to the lake. When I’m on the water, the cell phone is off and all I’m thinking about is fishing. The road doesn’t even enter my head.”

Born in California, Scott was raised in Arizona. “Fishing came to me from my grandfather. He was an avid, avid fisherman, and we were on Lake Havasu every weekend and most weekday evenings in the summer. Mostly it was catfish, sometimes bass. I really loved spending time on the water with my grandfather. But back then fishing was just passing time; I’d just drop a line in, nothing fancy.

“If I couldn’t be out on the boat, two of my friends and I would go fish from piers or docks or just from the shore. It wasn’t until we moved to live in southern Illinois that I got serious about fishing. Really serious. Debbie’s father really was the one who got me into large mouth bass fishing.”

When Scott got out of the Navy, he went to work in the security business in San Diego. But after rising to the rank of general manager, he discovered there were no more rungs on the ladder of advancement in the industry unless he opened his own company, and he didn’t want to do that. He looked around and decided that trucking gave him the chance to both earn money and be his own boss. He drove locally in San Diego, but then moved to Wisconsin and began hauling milk tankers. After stints at CR England and Dawes Transport, Alexander settled down at U.S. Xpress.

He met Debra, says Scott, when they were both driving for Dawes. “We decided to get together to drive team so we could make more money,” he says, “and it was after we started driving together that we fell in love.”

Ironically, fishing wasn’t something that went into the chemistry of their original attraction. “It wasn’t something we talked about before we were together,” says Scott. “I brought it up after we were together, I guess, and she was kind of nonchalant about it. She said something like ‘oh, yeah, I like to fish,’ and I didn’t think much more about it.

“Then one day I was talking to her father, Howard, and I mentioned what she’d said and he told me all about how she had done some serious fishing when she was a girl. He told me how she’d be up at 5 in the morning every weekend ready and waiting to go fishing out on Lake Michigan with him, rain or shine, and how she was really good at it.”

So why didn’t Debra tell Scott the whole story? “Well,” she says, “it’s not a woman thing; most women who fish don’t brag about it.”

But Debra is accomplished with rod and reel, able to beat both her husband and her father on occasion.

“I grew up fishing with my dad, and salmon was what we mainly looked for,” she says. “Lake Michigan wasn’t really a bad place all the time, but you had to be prepared in case it turned bad quickly. We had the right boat and safety equipment for it; we were always safe. But I have been out there when storms came in too quickly and we’d be in waves higher than the boat.”

Howard Higginbotham took Scott out onto the lakes around the town where they both live, Pinckneyville, Ill. “Most of the lakes are old strip coal mines that have filled with water,” says Scott. But there are a lot of them. For example in nearby 3,178-acre Pyramid State Park there are more than 350 acres of water. Higginbotham taught him what Scott calls “power fishing.” “We’re constantly casting and reeling in, hundreds of times in an afternoon. It’s not like dropping a line with a float on it into the lake like I did as a kid.

“I got very serious in a hurry about it. I got hold of every book on bass fishing I could find, and I got all the bass magazines there were. I watch about every fishing show I can get on television. I bought a bass boat and started to collect rods and reels and lures. The more I learned, the more I went out and tried new lines or lures. I’ve been learning ever since. I know a lot, but I have so much more to learn and that’s part of the grip it has on me – I want to keep finding out more about how to find and catch bass under any conditions.”

Scott fishes from a 1996, 285 pro XL Stratos bass boat with a 150-horsepower Johnson outboard.

“I know drivers that think that fishing is boring, but when you start to learn the strategy of bass fishing, it’s never boring any more,” he says. “And when you ride at 65 miles an hour across a lake, it’s not boring.

“When it comes to competition, everybody starts out even. It’s the extra knowledge you learn as you go that gives you the advantage over some other competitors. But sometimes even the best in the world come back with nothing, and that can be a little reassuring. Makes you see you’re not the only one fooled by conditions. But it can drive you insane to fish one place one day and get 5- and 6-pounders and go back the next day in exactly the same conditions at exactly the same time and fish with the same setup and get nothing.

“It’s a mental game as much as anything,” says Alexander. “You have to educate yourself about how to fish different conditions. What do you do if the water is cloudy or muddy, or if the water temperature rises or drops or even if the barometric pressure changes?
Different lures, different baits, different lines or different casting techniques all play a part.

“It’s like a huge puzzle, and you have to find the pieces, then try and put them together if you are going to be any good at it. I love it.”

Alexander has also discovered that instinct, the “hunch,” has come into his fishing repertoire. “I guess it’s a combination of experience and knowledge and you start to think unconsciously about what you’re doing. I went out Labor Day weekend and saw some reeds. I stopped, I don’t know why. I hadn’t even used the depth finder, but it looked like a sort of “fishy” place to me. There was a stick, a solitary stick poking out of the water, and something told me to cast a buzzbait, something that stayed on top of the water, right near it and bang! – a 3-pounder. It seems there was a brush pile under the water. I got another 2-pounder and a 1 1/2-pounder at the same spot.”

Scott and Higginbotham, usually competitors trying to beat each other when they fish together, joined as a team to enter their first pro tournament earlier this year. They won. “It was April, and it was really cold and overcast mostly, with some rain. It was just plain miserable. We fished hard and had a great time and came in with some big bass and big smiles. It was a great time and winning, with a $1,000 prize each, got me even more hooked on this sport.

“We’re lucky we’re working for U.S Xpress,” says Scott. “I put in for my home time, and they’re great about it. They don’t hesitate; I get home when I want to. So I’m home for a tournament or even for a weekend of fishing with Howard or Debra if I want to.”

Debra still loves to fish but says she does it solely for relaxation these days. “I don’t compete with Scott or my dad, but I have beaten them a time or two,” she says. “If I don’t have something that has to be done, I’ll go fishing with Scott, and it’s a blast. I really enjoy it; we have great times on the water.”

The Alexanders take rods and reels in their tractor out on the road. “If we stop somewhere and there’s a pond, I’ll go ask the farmer if I can fish it,” Scott says. “Mostly they’re pretty nice people.” But Scott does more shopping than fishing on the road. “If we’re anywhere near a store that carries fishing equipment, I’ll go there,” he says.

“One of the advantages of driving a truck is that I can find lures in different parts of the country that I can’t find at home, and that can give me a little bit of an edge sometimes.”


America’s Islands
As you look out your windshield and see the signs of winter beginning to descend on us, thoughts of sand, surf and palm trees may wander into your mind. And why not?

Here’s an idea. Instead of heading to one of the big, over-popular beach oases that might be far out of your way, consider some interesting smaller surf and sand places, spread out enough that some might come tantalizingly close to your routes.

Stretching along our eastern and southern coastline from Maryland to Texas is a series of sandy barrier islands, places awash with history and mystery. And they’re fragile, as this season’s hurricanes have shown. Over the centuries they have changed as the elements battered, and winds, tides and currents pushed and pulled at them. Man has come and tried to keep these flat islands from being overwhelmed by nature, so in some places dunes and other features on the islands are man-made. Despite man and his machines, they will continue to evolve.

A visit might take you to a place that will never be the same again. You can enjoy the heady mix of salt sea air and the smell of the open marshes where salt and fresh water mix into a brackish soup, the crowded flights of a wide range of sea birds, the nearness of the ocean with nothing to stop it overwhelming you if nature decides to attack, and a look at life as it must have been lived on these islands in pioneer days.

Some of North Carolina’s barrier islands are notable for being further off the mainland than most. On these “outer banks” you can visit Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills. Winter winds pounding in from the northeast push the sand into high dunes (although summer winds try to push them back), and it was the combination of winds and dunes that attracted Orville and Wilbur Wright to this place to show the world how to fly in December 1903.

At Ocracoke Island you can run into a pirate story to make your blood run cold. It was here, near the little village of Ocracoke in November 1718, that the British Royal Navy’s Captain Robert Maynard found the notorious Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, at anchor. In the ensuing battle, Blackbeard and his crew boarded Maynard’s sloop and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Another British sailor slashed open the ferocious Blackbeard’s neck with a saber, but he refused to fall until finally Maynard shot him several times. When he died, his head was severed and hung from a mast, and more than 30 wounds were found in the body, which was unceremoniously tossed overboard.

Off the coasts of Virginia and Maryland lie Assateague Island, the Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague Island and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Like so many of our barrier islands, they are home to huge flocks of birds. But perhaps the islands are best known for the herds of wild horses that freely roam among the plants and native animals that have adapted to a life of sand, salt and wind. Once a year, the Chincoteague ponies are rounded up, a spectacle highlighted by the horses swimming a channel they were once ferried across. Legend says the horses came from a sunken Spanish galleon carrying horses, with a few survivors making it to shore. The horses are more likely descendants of horses originally owned by British settlers.

In South Carolina you can visit perhaps America’s most famous barrier island. Actually, it was a barrier sandbar at the mouth of Charleston harbor when, after the war of 1812, federal authorities decided to fortify it. Work began in 1829, and by 1860 the fort was ready. In 1861, Fort Sumter became the flashpoint for the Civil War, with Confederate guns in Charleston blasting it into surrender on April 10, 1861.

Southern South Carolina is home to perhaps the fanciest, shmanciest of the country’s barrier islands, Hilton Head, home to assorted millionaires and site of one of the most famous tournaments on the Professional Golf Association Tour. But some of the islands around Hilton Head are distinctly different. I recommend Pat Conroy’s wonderful semi-autobiographical 1972 novel The Water is Wide for a look at barrier island life in this part of the world not too long ago.

Georgia’s coast boasts some wonderful islands, from the developed St. Simon’s and Jekyll islands to relatively untouched, and protected, Ossabaw Island, Sapelo Island and Cumberland Island National Seashore, which offers camping possibilities. You could also visit Savannah’s Tybee Island for some rest and relaxation. This island was once a pirate haunt and was one of the first places settled by the British as they came to Georgia.

In the southern South Carolina barrier islands and the northern Georgia islands, and nowhere else, you can find the Gullah culture and language. Gullah is a Creole form of English which began as a language used by the first West African slaves brought to the area. It became a language in its own right with the first generation of slaves born in the area. Local culture, such as sea grass weaving, casting net fishing and local food dishes are still distinctly Gullah.

America’s rocket ship base, Cape Canaveral on the east coast of Florida, feels like, but is not really, a small island. Even with no shuttle flights planned, it is an amazing destination for Americans, a place to see and touch some of our most modern history.

Canaveral is actually part of the narrow strip of land that becomes the flimsy barrier to the east of the Intracoastal Waterway as it runs down the coast to arrive at the state’s most famous islands, the Florida Keys. For more than 100 miles the Keys protrude from the southern mainland tip of the state, and if you go all the way, you’ll be in storied Key West. While they are more crowded, and expensive, than they’ve ever been, the Florida Keys are still a magical place where you can find hideaways, hotels and restaurants that make you feel you are escaping to the Caribbean.

Moving northwest from the keys and up the west coast of Florida you will find the Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove islands where the “river of grass,” the Everglades, drain into Florida Bay. These still-remote islands can take you back centuries. They border the massive and fascinating Everglades National Park. Here is a part of our country that looks much as it must have when the first European settlers saw it.

A little to the north and you can find Sanibel Island, an island that stands out among barrier islands because it lies east-west instead of north-south as the other barriers do, as they hug the coastline. By thrusting out into the coastal currents, Sanibel has become known as one of the finest places in the country to find rare seashells.

If you go to Alabama’s Gulf Coast, or for that matter anywhere from Alabama to Texas, you will have to contend with the after-effects of hurricanes. Check before visiting, but not all is devastation. Alabama’s Dauphin Island at the mouth of Mobile Bay was first discovered by Europeans when Spanish explorer Alonzo Pineda anchored there in 1519.

The island was taken by the British in 1766 and retaken by the Spanish in 1780 during the American Revolutionary War and finally taken from the Spaniards by the United States during the War of 1812 to stop the British from using it. Dauphin was occupied by Confederate forces in 1861 and captured by Federal troops during the Battle of Mobile Bay. The phrase, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” was spoken by U. S. Admiral David Farragut just a few hundred yards from the island’s shore.

The city of Galveston, Texas, is actually on Galveston Island, linked to the mainland by a causeway, a toll bridge and a ferry. In the 19th century it was one of the richest cities in the south and the country’s biggest cotton exporting port. The city’s famous seven-mile seawall was built after the devastating hurricane of 1900 killed somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people.

Two big, long islands protect the Texas coast south of Galveston. Matagorda still has some trenches left from the Civil War, but there has been little development in the past hundred years. Today Matagorda is becoming known as an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, a place to camp or tramp or just watch clouds of seabirds.

Padre Island begins where Matagorda ends, a narrow (nowhere more than three miles wide) 130-mile-long island that runs down to the Mexican border. Imposing sand dunes 25 to 40 feet high run along the Gulf side of the island. While Texas became independent in 1836 and a state in 1847, Padre Island did not become part of the state until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War of 1846-8. The island is today known for a wondrous array of flora and fauna, with some plants found nowhere else and huge flocks of birds.

Some of these islands are obviously expensive resorts. Others are almost as they were a hundred years or more ago. Take the time to use the Internet to check them out if you are going to be running near enough to visit. Access to some can be limited, if not by season then by local regulations, which may, for example, let you camp but not drive.

But these islands are such a distinct part of America that they might just give you a view of the nation you haven’t seen before.

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