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Sunday, June 19, 2016

The highs and lows of spring time fishing



A recent trip to the lake was going to be a welcome getaway.  I booked a cabin for three days and my only plan was to fish.  It’s springtime and the bass should be shallow and on the beds.  I had visions of sight fishing in two to three feet of water and casting lizards and buzz baits at bedded hogs.  Springtime fishing has a reputation for being the easiest time of year to catch bass, and to catch big ones at that.  It is with that very optimistic mindset that I left for the lake.  I was rigged up and ready to rumble.

I’ll save you, the reader, a lot of time at this point.  Nothing went as planned.  The weather turned into a high pressure system with clear blue skies, and the wind always blowing stronger than forecast, and from the wrong direction.  The fishing was difficult to say the least, but it forced me to do some learning.  I changed tactics, I used my electronics to find grass beds, I threw finesse baits, I did a lot of things I didn’t plan on doing.  

My three day trip to the lake can be boiled down to a “tail” of two fish.  These two individual fish represent the highs and lows of bass fishing...BOTH of which drive me to continue coming back for more.  

Fish 1

My first morning on the water, the air temperature was 55 degrees.  I awoke to gorgeous sunrise on the Tennessee River, pointed my boat toward the gold rimmed eastern skyline, and dropped the hammer.  15 minutes later I was pulling into my first spot of the day, a beautiful cove that transitions from sheer ledges at the mouth, to steep gravel bars lining it’s sides, and finally a mud/grass/timber section in the back that’s wide and shallow.  This cove has everything a bass could ask for...everything.  It has everything an angler could ask for as well...it’s like a match made in heaven. 

I entered the cove as the sun crested the hills behind me, and the early morning light revealed wispy, swirling sheets of vapor rising from the water like ghosts.  Under this thin veil of fog I could occasionally see fish hitting on top.  This ghostly hollow is where the day would begin.







The tough part was figuring out where to start.  I idled to the back of the cove and began throwing my favorite lure...the Lizard of Oz...at obvious structure.  The ghosts swirled around the boat as I cast to a spot where the point of a small pocket hit the main cove.  The water grew darker as it entered the forested pocket.  Branches overhung the muddy, grassy bank, and my lizard plopped into the water just inches from dry ground. 

In between drags on my lizard I studied the area.  The back of the cove was maybe two feet deep, with bright green weeds and brilliant yellow flowers that gave way to sparse clumps of vegetation in the water.  I eased the lizard another few inches toward me.  A trio of Canadian geese flew into the cove, honking as they lowered themselves into the mist and glided toward the shallow yellow flowers in the back.  I dragged the lizard again.  I heard the geese splash down and go silent.  The air was cold enough to make you ball your fists trying to keep your fingers warm.  Nothing was touching the lizard here.

I eased across to the other side of the cove, taking a quick glance to the east, praying the sun would climb faster and warm me up.  As I crossed the cove I retired the Lizard of Oz for the moment and picked up a swim-bait.  It was a compact, heavy lure that I could throw a long way, and that would help me cover water. 

This side the cove was a long gravel bank, overhung by the forest that grew downhill right to the edge of the water.  The long tan ribbon of gravel offered a very small bit of shallow water before dropping off to 12, and then 20 feet.  This is a scary place for a swim-bait...ANYTHING could be down there.  I’ve caught largemouth, smallmouth, catfish and drum on sections like this.  There is literally nowhere for a swim-bait to hide on this gravel bar.

I threw a long cast to a half submerged log, overhung by willows 40 yards up the bank.  When my swim-bait hit the water my plan was to hop it twice then reel in the slack.  Hop, hop, reel.  Hop hop, reel.  That was the pattern I’d use as I searched for active fish.  

The cast was perfect, it hit within 6 inches of the log.  Hop, hop, BAM!!!  I got hit hard on the second hop.  I waited for a moment, and with the rising sun to my front-left I could easily see my line shining as it cut to deeper water.

I reeled in the slack and dropped the hammer on him.  The rod loaded up but the fish darted toward me, taking all the tension off the line.  I reeled at about 9,000 RPM trying to catch up with him.  When I got tension back on him he began to fight.  He wasn’t coming any closer to this boat on his own.

The line ran sideways in the orange glow of sunrise with wispy ghosts flowing around it.  He ran for deeper water but there would be no safety there today.  I cranked on him hard now, and the line began to rise...he was making a run for the top.  

I pushed my rod tip down into the water in an attempt to keep him from breaching.  The last thing I wanted was for him to shake the hook.  My efforts were futile, he breached in a spectacular display of largemouth behavior.  That fish launched itself two feet into the air as it tried to shake the hook.

What I saw in that perfect orange glow of sunrise was a picture of nature in all it’s beauty.  A big aggressive predator launched from the depths, shattering the peaceful calm that existed in this otherwise silent cove.  When he breached he came out sideways, and quickly went upside down, thrashing violently through his entire flight.  Backlit by the sunrise, the water it threw off it’s glistening white and green body looked like diamonds shattering into millions of orange and white crystals that fell back into the lake.  

I was almost stunned when he re-entered the water.  I couldn’t believe what I had just seen.  

It was surely only in the air for a moment, but from my point of view it seemed like he was in the air for an eternity.  It reminded me of the scene from ET where he and the kid flew the bike in front of the moon.  It was just like that except it was a bass going in front of the rising sun.  My morning had gone from a very slow, quiet search, to a full on drag race.  

Now he’s back in the water, he played his first set of cards but it didn’t work out.  His next move is to go deep and fight.  Sideways he went, trying to pull the rod from me the whole time.  I had good tension, the drag wasn’t slipping, I was confident I’d land this fish. 

After 30 seconds or so I had him along side the boat, and calm enough to get a hand on him.  I plucked him from the water with my semi-frozen hands, unhooked him, and admired him for what he was...a predator.  He hunts, kills, and eats...that’s it.  He was a stout, dark-green assassin, and he was now in my boat.  

As I looked at him and wondered at the hard charging, acrobatic fight he had put up, a thought hit me; the only thing that could make a breaching thrashing largemouth any more spectacular would be if he bugled like an elk while he did it.  Can you imagine hearing that elk bugle starting out, getting louder and louder, and then peaking right when the bass bursts through the surface, flies through the air and spits the hook out at you?  It would be unbelievable. 

So that one fish condensed everything I could ever want from a bass into one fight.  It was one of those fights that captures the essence of what a largemouth bass is, they hit hard, they run, they breach with stunning acrobatics, they fight some more, and they do it all with some of natures most beautiful backdrops.  If it was the only fish I caught the entire trip, I could find a way to be happy with it.

Fish 2 

This was my last full day.  With a high pressure system wearing on me and the fish both, I decided a change of venue was in order.  I abandoned the beautiful ledges and coves of the past two days, and decided to look for thicker cover where a bass might try to hide.  I needed to find some weeds.

I found a smaller creek that fed into the main lake and decided to try it out.  After half an hour of finding no fish in the shallows, I pulled back a little deeper hoping to find signs of  aquatic life.  Using my sonar I pushed deeper into the creek, which was a few hundred yards wide.  I found a pocket near the rear that had a deep bowl dropping to 15 feet right next to a huge flat that was only 3 feet deep.  It looked like a nice transition area on the map, and a sonar run was in order.  When I got there I started seeing something “cloudy” on my Side Imaging.  “Hmmmm” I thought...”that looks like it might be weeds”.  

I turned the boat to investigate and what I saw gave me a very good feeling about this place.  As I turned toward the area I wanted to investigate, my Side Imaging showed a ditch running from the bank toward the deep water....and in that ditch were a few fish.  
Next, my Down Imaging began showing long orange lines stretching up from the bottom; coontail was growing all over in this deep water pocket.  It was just the type of cover that a bass would bury himself in on a blue sky day.

My sonar had just shown me a lot of clues.  This spot held enough promise that I vowed to fish it thoroughly.  I broke out the Lizard of Oz, rigged on a spinning reel, and began my investigation.

The centerpiece of this area was the tip of a dead tree that stuck up about a foot above the water.  I’d use this as a reference point, driving circles around it with the trolling motor and casting into the center of the weeds.  

It took a few minutes with the Texas rigged lizard to get a feel for the bottom.  There are times when you hit that grass and you could talk yourself into thinking you got bit...especially since the bites in this weather had been so light to begin with.

After casting around for 15 minutes I had a pretty good feel for where the underwater obstacles were.  I was convinced that if I dragged this lizard through the weeds long enough...that I’d catch something.  

Eventually, it happened.  I was dragging the Lizard of Oz through the weeds when I felt a bump.  It wasn’t a strong hit at all...but there was definitely something down there determined to beat up my lizard...and NOBODY beats up my lizard.  

I swept back hard to start the fight.  When I set the hook I felt the drag slip a little bit.  I didn’t think much of it at the time because I felt another hit...this one bigger.  Then I saw the line coming up toward the top.  I had to keep tension on this line...I could NOT let him shake this hook.  I lowered my rod tip, pulled back, and cranked on the reel.  The line was picking up speed like a rocket...it was going to breach.  

To my absolute HORROR, the more I cranked the more the drag slipped.  If I swept the rod, the drag slipped, if I tried to crank on him, it slipped.  It was like living a nightmare.  This fish was heading to the surface like a Saturn 5 rocket and I had no way to keep things under control.  Then it happened.  

When this fish came out of the water I thought it might be a dragon...it was that big.  The  only reason I don’t believe it was a dragon is that it didn’t have wings...other than that it was just the type of giant, green, scaly vision you get when you think of a one.

I could not believe how big this fish was.  The great beasts belly was toward me, flashing white with red gills and the giant unmistakable shape of a largemouths head.  It’s mouth was wide open as it flailed, quickly sending my wide gap hook on a return flight to my boat.  It’s mouth was so big it looked like a carnival game where I was supposed to throw a basketball at it.  But in this case, there was plenty of room for the ball to go in.  

CRASH!!!! The beast was gone.  I stood alone on the deck of my boat, mouth agape, brain trying to figure out what went wrong.  How in the world had the drag been set so light on my reel?  As the awe wore off I was left with the bitter reality...it was entirely my fault.  My gear wasn’t squared away and I had just cost myself what would likely have been the best fish of my season.  

Determined to make up for my failure I cranked the drag down, checked it by pulling some line, and fired the lizard back into action.  I fought the urge to work it quickly, knowing that the great beast had hit me on a slow retrieve earlier.  Would he hit the lizard again?  Should I try a different lure as a follow up?  On the next cast BAM!  Fish on.  This fish was smaller, and he was the unfortunate recipient of my over zealous drive to make up for my prior mistake.  With the drag tightened down I horsed that bass out of the grass so fast that he probably forgot where he was.  

Small consolation prize, a 2 lb. bass.  I released him quickly and got back to the hunt.  I switched to a spinnerbait, no luck.  Back to the lizard, nothing.  I sliced that area to pieces with my casts, but the big one appeared to be gone.  ‘Nonsense’ I thought...‘It’s not gone...it’s probably still within 100 yards of this very spot.’

I cast like a man possessed, the light faded, and the handwriting began to appear on the wall.  I was all alone, but I thought I could hear the fat lady singing.  It was over.  This lunker gave me one shot and I had blown it.  I fished until it was pitch dark, and vowed to be back before the sun.





Although I made a lot of jokes about crying myself to sleep, or not sleeping at all, the reality was just the opposite.  I’d sleep well that night because now I KNEW without a doubt in the world, where at least one big fish lived.  I’d get a good nights sleep, hit the water early, and be ready to fight.  I told my nephew that night “I hope that fish sleeps well tonight, because when the sun comes up, I’m gonna punch it right in the mouth.”

I get an “A+” for trash talk, but the fish won again in the morning.  I fished hard for three hours in that area, but caught only a single bass for my efforts.  

Conclusions

As much as the first bass in the story represents all that is great about a bass, this fish that got away represents all the potential that fishing for bass holds...all that COULD BE.  The hope of great fish to come is one of the things that keeps us coming back, it’s what makes the struggles worth it.  We fish in the heat, in the cold, the wind, the rain, sometimes we even fish longer than we should near lightning.  Why?  Why would anyone get up early and stay out late, casting hundreds of times with no results?  We grind ourselves down with lack of sleep and exposure to the elements.  We feel the stress of failure when things aren’t going right, but still we keep coming back.  Why?  It’s partly because of the first  fish in the story, and partly because of the second.  The joy of accomplishment, along with the emotional roller coaster of missing the big one combine to keep us hooked.


I missed the big one this weekend, I failed, it was all my fault.  I was beat up, tired and frustrated at times...but I can’t wait to get back out there and try it again.  This is what bass fishing is all about.   

Plans Change



After months of stress with no down time I called a time out.  I made the decision that everyone in the world could live without me for a day and a half while I escaped to the lake.  It’s spring, the weather forecast looked perfect for fishing and camping, and I needed to go see my old friend...the green fish.  

The plan was to fish Thursday afternoon, camp at dark, and fish all day Friday.  It would be a day and a half of some of the best spring time bass fishing one could imagine.  I had just read my latest Bassmaster magazine and they said to use square bill crankbaits, spinnerbaits, buzz baits, and swim jigs.  Perfect, that’s the plan I’ll use the whole trip.  

A day of omens

I had a short 5-mile run to my first spot after launching the boat.  I idled halfway back in the creek before cutting the outboard and deploying the trolling motor.  Quietly I glided toward the highly anticipated first spot of the trip.  In my right hand was a spinning reel tipped with a 3/8’s ounce white/chartreuse spinner bait.  This would be my primary bait for the trip.  Plan A was to throw this thing until my arm fell off.  

With no hesitation I picked a spot where the point of a secondary creek met my path, snapped my rod forward, and POW!  My line broke and sent my best spinnerbait flying untethered through the air and into the lake.  The report was sharp, like a .22 rifle crack.  I was dumbfounded...the line just broke on the first cast of this trip.  It did not feel good.

Luckily though, I’m a very accurate caster, and the spinnerbait travelled to the exact spot where I had been aiming.  It landed on a flat black shelf in about two feet of water.  Even from here I could see it shining like Gollums ring.  I eased up with the trolling motor, reached into the water, and easily recovered “my precious”.

With that very unnerving start out of the way, it was time to get down to business.  I had a day and a half to fish, and I was going to put a beat down on some spring time spawning bass.  I retied with a stout Palomar knot, and cast across the mouth of the feeder creek.  Two or three casts in I felt something, I pulled...and my line came up with no spinner bait!   The line had either broken again, or I had simply forgotten how to tie a knot.  This was perhaps my first big omen that this trip was not going to go well for me.  I wasn’t even 10 minutes into fishing and I had lost the primary lure I intended to use for the entire trip. 

Less than 100 yards down the bank I saw my next omen.  There was a heron at the waters edge and it looked like it was hung up in something.  I eased closer to see if I could help get the great bird untangled, but when I got close I realized it wasn’t stuck...it was choking on a fish.  “Isn’t that just perfect” I thought, ”we’re both choking out here.”

I worked that creek from 10 feet of water back to a foot or less and I never found a fish.  I saw no beds, I saw no fish, nothing.  It was like a ghost town. I couldn’t believe it.  This is spring time bass fishing!  The water temp is in the low 60’s, it’s overcast, slight breeze...it’s perfect conditions and I can’t get bit to save my life.  

This was only one creek though, and I had other options.  Soon I jumped up on plane for a 3 mile run to a really fishy looking place that just flooded.  When I got there I was astounded at how beautiful it was.  It was a wide expanse of shallow water with an endless series of weeds, grasses, bushes and trees sticking up.  Picture the African savannah...but for fish...it’s like that.  You expect to see great  herds of fish migrating across this thing, and lounging in the shade of the vegetation that dots the landscape.  If buzz baits could dream...this is what they would dream about.  All I could see in my mind was huge sows blowing up on my buzz bait as I buzz-buzz-buzzzzed it past their isolated cover.  BAM!  POW!  SPLASH!  I was seeing broken rods and trophy photo’s...this was going to be epic.

Cast after cast along weed lines and bushes built the tension to almost unbearable levels.  Then it happened.  On a long cast parallel to the tree line in 2 feet of water...my buzz bait got hung in a tree.  I know, it’s not what you wanted to hear, but it’s what happened.  The next two minutes of cursing and grumbling saw the skirt blow into a million pieces, and the bare metal of the bait return to the boat.  I was not happy.  It wasn’t so much that I had travelled a long way to get here, it’s that the DREAM of this  place was now confirmed dead.  It wasn’t the aquatic paradise it looked to be, it was simply a flooded area devoid of fish...which is what a lot of places turn into when I show up with a rod.

Ultimately I tried one or two other spots but nothing worked.  I was ending the first day with my confidence badly shaken.  What I thought had been perfect, was in fact awful.  I lost two of my primary lures, caught no fish, and was left wondering what I could possibly try next.  Normally I fish until dark, then find a place to camp, but tonight my spirits were so beat down that I quit with enough light that I could see to set up camp. 

I’d have a fire, eat dinner, think about the next day, and start again in the morning.  

Fish camp

That night I camped on a gravel bar that forms the mouth of a protected cove nestled between some steep, rocky, forested hills along the Tennessee River.  The gravel bar is a spur that comes off the base of a big ridge and is basically a small peninsula.  My campsite was surrounded by water on three sides.  Here on this gravelly point I’d make camp, have a fire, eat dinner, and plot the next mornings trip.  I decided that in the morning I’d head south to Bear Creek.  It’s a body of water that I know very well and I have plenty of history of catching fish there.  

The fire cast a warm flickering-orange glow, the frogs chattered late into the night, a barge lumbered by in the dark, and the whole time the Tennessee River rolled on to where ever it goes when it leaves here.  Tomorrow will be a better day.

As I watched the last of the coals shimmering in the cool air I took one last look up to the sky.  The clouds above the ridge had broken, and the moon was out.  Maybe that was a sign my luck was changing.  I crawled into my tent with high hopes for the morning.  As I drifted off to sleep I could hear fish jumping all around me in the dark.  Yes sir, tomorrow will be a better day.  





Wind, waves

At 6 AM I awoke to the sound of waves lapping the shore.  The wind was shaking the tent, and the sound outside was like breaking surf.  I couldn’t wait to open the flap and see what the day had brought.

The wind forecast had called for 5 to 10 MPH from the east, but at 6 AM it was already at least 10 MPH.  There was a foot and a half of chop with whitecaps as far as I could see in the direction I needed to go.

The morning began with a rough 5 mile run to my first spot.  It was a big cove halfway down a large creek.  I spent the first 30 minutes of the day working the shallows with a crankbait and a swimbait.  Spawning bass should be shallow...they should be in the backs of coves and on flats, they should relate to cover...this should be the easiest fishing OF THE YEAR.  

The wind made things a little difficult but it wasn’t a deal killer...there were just no fish here.  OK...not that big of a deal.  I’ll just move.  I hear that’s the key...cover water.  Jump from one spot to the next and use lures like crankbaits and spinnerbaits to cover as much water as possible.     

So I moved.  The next big cove down produced the same thing...zero.  A big goose egg.  I saw no fish, I had no hits.  I jumped on the big motor again, screaming across the creek to the far back of a big wide shallow cove.  I recall reading KVD saying that he wants as big a spawning flat as he can find...so with that in mind I went to one.  

I saw exactly three gar.  No bass, no beds, nothing hit me or bumped me.  I decided to move out to the first break...maybe they’re holding deeper there.  About this time I’d been “running and gunning” for about 2.5 hours.  It felt like an exercise in futility.  I was running all over the lake throwing at empty water.  I realized that I was now adrift.  I had no plan, and was just hastily going through random motions that I thought might work.  I was seriously contemplating heading to the truck at this point.  I was tired, hungry, frustrated, and deeply disappointed. 

I sat there in the boat, frustrated, beat up by the wind and the waves, not knowing what to do.  The only thing I could think of that would end this pain would be to leave.  I looked the map on my sonar unit, and I convinced myself to stop at two or three small coves on the way back to the truck, just to make sure I’d tried everything.  

I also took a moment to tie on a Texas rigged lizard.  It would be a dramatic departure from what I had been doing, but it felt like maybe I should try going back to the basics before quitting.

I got up on plane and rode the jolting waves, and had water thrown in my face, and got beat up the whole way to my next spot.  I forced myself to pull into my next target rather than run for the shelter of my truck.  What I saw when I got there was amazing.  I left the absolute bone jarring, wind beaten, lead-grey sky of the main lake, and entered a small feeder creek that looked like the land that time forgot.  Nothing here was grey and windy...it was spring time back in here.  Everything was a shade of green, and it was all serenely calm.




When I looked back over my shoulder at the main lake I could see the angry current and wave action waiting for me.  It looked as if it had been simply locked out of this place.  This little creek wasn’t 30 yards wide, and maybe 150 yards  long.  It’s placid green water was reflecting the bright green foliage that hung above it, and it’s edges were lined with slick black rocks covered in thick green moss.  It was absolutely tranquil and beautiful back here.

I looked down this creek, and thought “If I can catch one fish here...just one...I will have figured something out today.”  I stood and cast my newly-tied lizard to a black shelf sitting in 6 inches of water.  What lay below the shelf I didn’t know...it just dropped off into darkness...I’d send the lizard to figure that part out.




With a twitch or two the lizard slid over the edge.  I watched it’s arms and tail wiggle as it dove, then saw the line go dead when it hit the bottom.  I paused, then twitched the tip...but the lizard didn’t come up...and it was way heavier than when I sent it down there.  PULL!  I pulled hard upward on the rod and heard my line tightening around the spool...tink tink tink!  The rod bowed and got heavy, and the first fight of the trip was finally on.  

There in that emerald cathedral, protected by hardwood hills on both sides, with the wind held back by the narrow mouth of the creek, I fought that bass from along the sheer rock drop out to the middle of the creek.  The line sliced and darted, and the rod stayed heavy.  This was sooooo...much...fun!

In 30 seconds I had in my hand the fish I had worked so hard to find.  The first largemouth bass of my trip.  I quickly released him and looked around.  What just happened?  That was my first cast in this spot with this lure.  I had literally fished for 8 hours previously without a single bump.  Eight, long, bitter, frustrating, fruitless hours.  Then on my first cast here I got nailed.  

For the first time in two days I was smiling.  Something had gone right.  I reeled in my lizard, and eagerly cast to a spot on the opposite side of the creek where three logs were laid down in the water.  I felt nothing on the first cast.  The bottom of the creek felt absolutely smooth.  





The next cast was a little further, a little closer to the logs.  At this point I am still in absolute awe of this place.  It is the greenest place I’ve seen in a long time.  It’s full of forest green, emerald green, and most importantly...largemouth green.  I twitched my line and felt a small bump.  I watched the line intently and saw that it was slowly moving to the right.  Something hit the lizard and was running to the middle of the creek with it.  Sweep back, “tink tink...tink” as the spinning reel loaded up...another fish ON!  

Back and forth the bass cut across the creek, staying deep with the lizard.  The surface of this water remained perfectly calm despite the fight going on above it and below it.  This was the total opposite of the main lake whose surface was furious despite no fight taking place at all.  In short order I had my second bass in hand.  It was an interesting fish with a solid black upper lip, not much green to him, and a single black patch on his side.  Again I released the fish, and again I stood and pondered...eight hours with no fish, then two fish in two minutes.  That’s quite a reversal.  

This creek felt like it was a hundred miles long, and every bit of it calm and green, lined with slate rock, and full of gently sloping timber.  All my previous frantic fishing with flashy/crashy lures had run me ragged for nothing, and when I finally slowed down I heard what the fish wanted.  I don’t know how many fish I caught in that creek, but it was enough to make me forget about all the frustration that had built up on this trip.  In fact it made me forget about all the frustration that caused me to come on the trip to begin with.  In a world of hurt, this creek had become an oasis.  I don’t know how long I stayed, but I know I was angry when I arrived, and totally relaxed when I got to the back.  Eventually the creek ended in a jumble of downed trees and shallow water.  Sadly the time had come to turn around.  

I turned the boat around and began to slowly fish my way back out.  To my surprise the wind shifted again and had filled the front half of the creek with choppy water.  It was already losing it’s serene feel.  The mouth of the creek was filled with such contorted violent water that it looked like a giant garbage disposal was turning it.  The creek offered me a lesson, a glimpse of how an alternate fishing trip could be.  I didn’t have to “run and gun” and try to force my original plan on the lake.  If I could find another place like this creek...maybe the lizard could again work it’s magic.

I reentered the main lake with more purpose than at any other time on this trip.  I now knew what to do.  About 4 miles away, just a bit from where I camped the night before, was a perfect spot where I could find shelter from the wind.  It was time to run there and try the lizard.

The water was so rough that I needed full rain gear to stay dry.  My sonar cables got knocked out of both units, and I think I broke a mounting bolt for my trolling motor, but I got to the next spot in due time.  I came off plane at the rocky mouth of a creek that fed into the main river.  With a hard wind chasing me I ducked behind a big hill that fortified one side of the creek mouth.  As soon as I passed behind it, the crashing waves were left on the rocks behind me, and I entered into an eery calm that was reminiscent of the creek from earlier.  

I jumped from my seat and was casting within 10 seconds.  My first cast hit some floating sticks near the bank and in instinctively jerked to keep from getting hung up.  As soon as I jerked, the lizard slammed under.  BAM!  A bass hammered my first lizard cast on this spot as well.  WOOOOHOOOO!  This was unbelievable.  This lure is magic...I’m going to start calling it the Lizard of Oz.  



Cast after cast I made down that sheltered bank and I caught bass after bass.  It was ridiculous how easy it was to catch them.  I was laughing out loud all by myself at the absurdity of how much my luck had changed since I tied on the Lizard of Oz.  One little shift in technique...slowing down...changed everything for me.  I could have been my hard-headed self and fished the rest of the day with the crankbait, wildly and blindly flailing at the water...and I’d have been miserable all day.  Heck I’d have been miserable until the next trip because I would have surely been skunked.  But by listening to what the fish wanted (or what they didn’t want...a lizard in their bed) my luck had changed.

My plan had been to fish all day Friday, but by noon I was so happy with what I had accomplished that I headed home early to get more time with the family.  For me the take away is that I need to be a lot more adaptable on the water.  You always have to have a plan, and I always go to the lake with an idea of what the fish should be doing.  However, I need to get a lot better at finding out what the fish are really doing, rather than what I think they should be doing.  


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Special Forces Fishing? The United States Military is the finest military on the planet. Most Americans are familiar to some degree with our military’s special forces. The Marines have Force Recon, the Navy has SEALs, the Army has Rangers, Green Beret’s, and Delta Force, and the Air Force has it’s Para Jumpers.
Special Forces Fishing

Special Forces Fishing

These institutions have long, illustrious histories showing us who and what they are. They are known for being tough, dedicated men who will give everything they have to accomplish their mission. It is nothing short of astounding to hear their stories of sacrifice and success.
I bring this up to ask you the following: How badly do you want to fish? When your mission is fishin’, how far are you willing to go to accomplish it?
At this point I need to let you know that this story is not about me. It’s about my good friend Tony. He is by far the most dedicated (addicted?) outdoorsman I know. On the exterior you will find a quiet, humble, extremely likable dude. I’ve never X-rayed him, but I imagine on the inside it’s just a strong laser beam focused on hunting and fishing. The guy simply does not know when to quit. I could give you lots of examples defining his determination, but a recent one highlights many of the differences between Tony and the rest of us.
Tony lives in Idaho and it seems like every day for the past month Tony has sent me fishing pictures. Keep in mind that 5 out of the 6 days are work days (he doesn’t fish on Sunday). He rises early, hooks the boat to the truck, drives to the lake, fishes, and is in the office on time later that morning. Most of the days were cold, some had snow, some had sleet, they all had wind, and they all started long before the sun came up…but he went anyway. The line between a special forces mission and one of Tony’s fishin missions should now be starting to blur. While their target species is different, there is no amount of bad weather or early start times that will dissuade either group.
Special Forces Fishing
On this particular fishin’ mission, Tony would have to tow his boat with his Buick sedan because his pickup truck was in the shop. Some of you might stop and re-read this last sentence. Yes, he has a backup plan and it’s to use the Buick as a tow vehicle. Having your primary vehicle go down is no excuse for mission failure. Fishing WILL occur.
So at 0530 in the crisp, cold darkness of southern Idaho, we find our man Tony silently backing the Buick up to the boat. He’s done this a million times before. No neighbors will hear him, there will be no trace that he was ever here. However, when he gets out to hook up he realizes he left the ball hitch on his truck. The same truck he dropped off at the garage to get worked on yesterday.
I need to interrupt the story at this point to let you know I would have immediately put the car in park, then cussed and grumbled my way back to the front door. I’d have quietly let myself in, leaving the cold and the darkness outside, and crawled back into a warm bed with my wife. Case closed. However, Tony is on a fishin’ mission, and he doesn’t quit.
Standing there in the dark, his breath hanging before him in frozen clouds as he exhales, Tony immediately knows what he has to do. Go to bed? No. He jumps in the Buick and races downtown to the garage where he left his truck. It’s a fairly small town so there’s no traffic at this hour. There are perhaps 20 vehicles being worked on so it won’t take any time at all to grab his hitch, run back to the house, and hook up. This will be a minor delay.
He drives through town with silence and darkness as his only companions. He passes home after home whose occupants are sleeping warmly in their beds. They are all dreaming of something while they sleep, but Tony is wide awake and dreaming of fishing.
In short order he finds the lot and quickly pulls off the quiet street leading him here. He parks, jumps out, and begins a hasty search in the dark for the item he’s come to snatch. Even in the pitch black he can tell somethings wrong, his truck isn’t here. He runs through the shadows to the big rolling doors of the garage, and then he sees it. Of the twenty or so vehicles there, his is the ONLY ONE locked inside for the night! He can see his truck 18 inches away, on the other side of this door, but there is no way he can get to it. It would appear the game is over. The mission is a bust. I would have gone home, cursing and grumbling under my breath. I might have slammed the door behind me, then plopped down out of frustration and tried to get some sleep.
Not Tony though. Remember, this guy has the dedication of a Tier 1 spec ops fisherman. Like a Green Beret creeping through Baghdad trying to infiltrate Sadam’s castle, Tony knows there’s a way; he just has to find it.
As his hopes of reclaiming his hitch go up in smoke, he immediately switches to the next best option for mission success. Across the street is a junkyard owned by a friend of his; surely one of those vehicles will have a hitch he can borrow. While the town continues to slumber, Tony dashes across the street. An astute observer might have noticed something moving from one dark shadow to the next. At this time of night, dashing through the shadows with a wild eyed “need to go fishing look” he might have even been mistaken for an enormous raccoon. When he gets to the junkyard he creeps over and around the skeleton of every dead and wrecked vehicle on the lot hoping to find a hitch. The clock is still ticking, there is still time to fish, there is still time to complete the mission, if he can only find a hitch.
Murphy’s Law is alive and well at this early hour. There is no hitch in site. What are the odds that this many junkyard trucks and SUV’s in Idaho wouldn’t have a ball hitch on them?!?! The mission is a bust. At this point I’d have driven home, cursing loudly, running stop signs, and trying to run over possums as I went. But not Tony…his fishin’ mission is still on. No matter how bad the odds are stacked against him, he doesn’t quit. His mindset never leaves the “positive” setting where all things are possible. I don’t think his brain even has a “negative” setting. There is no part of his thought process that says “this can’t be done.’ He just keeps going, and going, and going, until it gets done or it fails. He always sees a path to victory.
Special Forces Fishing
At this point his truck is inaccessible, the junkyard has nothing for him, and the clock is still ticking. The earth is turning, the sun will be rising, and the fish WILL be biting…he must get to the lake. Now Tony recalls his buddy Ron has a hitch on his Suburban. Obviously Ron won’t mind if he borrows it for the morning, so he jumps in the Buick again and sprints across town. The house is dark, and everyone is asleep. Ugh! The Suburban isn’t there!!
With the sun soon rising, this Suburban is Tony’s last hope. He MUST find this vehicle for mission success. Where could it be? Ron has been remodeling a house nearby, surely the Suburban is there! He hits the gas and zips across to the other side of town. As his headlights sweep the driveway it’s obvious that this is another dry hole, the Suburban isn’t here. At this point I’d speed home, blowing through every stop sign in my way, burn my boat when I got there, slam the door, and just watch a fishing show because I’d be way too angry to sleep.
But not Tony. His mind is focused like a laser on this mission. Find the Suburban and you get to fish. This Suburban is now being chased harder than Osama Bin Laden. There is no place it can hide. Suddenly he remembers that Ron has a building lot for a new house not far from here. On the gas again. Sun rising, fish getting active, Tony is in a desperate race against natures clock. Not once since this cascade of problems began has he considered quitting. His only focus is on fishing. Find a hitch, you get to fish; so he continues his quest.
When he arrives at the building site, his fourth target of the morning, he scores. The Suburban is here and hooked up to a trailer!! It took him a few minutes to get everything unhooked, but once he did he was on his way! He blasted back to the house, installed the hitch in the Buick, backed up, and discovered it was the wrong size. This is where the story gets ugly. In Tony’s words, “All these early mornings are killing my ability to think these things through properly.”
There isn’t enough foul language in all the languages combined that would satisfy my requirements in this situation. I’d cuss until the steel melted the hitch right off the boat, then I’d walk to the lake, wade in, and begin punching fish in the face. It would be an ugly, ugly scene. But not Tony. He’s the type of guy who will look at it quietly, and after careful consideration say something like “Aw man…that’s not good. I guess we’ll just get ‘em tomorrow.”
After he realized all of his efforts were for naught, he simply drove back to Ron’s place and returned the gear to its prior place and status. Most of us would have gone home to get some well needed rest. As you’ve learned though, Tony sees things differently. Despite all the setbacks, the fishin’ mission was still possible. He went to work a few hours before normal so he could justify leaving early and fishing before the sun set.
This is a dedicated fisherman my friends. As they say here in my part of the world “He’s eat up with it.”
So when I say someone is on a “fishin’ mission”, that’s what it looks like. He pursues it like a wolf chases a rabbit. It’s not going to stop. You’d have to kill the wolf to keep it from chasing the rabbit, and there are days I’d swear nature would have to kill Tony to keep him off the lake or the mountain.
How dedicated are you my friends?
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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Stalking the bull



If you were trying to find one animal that best embodies the grace, power, and majesty of the rugged American West...a mature bull elk would be it. He is 800+ pounds of muscle, speed, and power. He is all antler and anger, and uses brute force to drive his competition into retreat, or into the ground. This year I was lucky enough to draw an elk tag, and with a friend as my guide, we'd pursue elk in the mountains of southeastern Idaho.


After months of planning, hiking, and shooting I had arrived in Idaho to hunt elk with a good friend. I've hunted for close to 20 years, but I've never hunted elk. My friend invited me to stay with him, and basically offered to be my guide to show me the ropes and make sure I had a good time. I arrived late in the day on Thursday so we had just enough time to compare notes and make a plan for the morning before getting some sleep.

The first night there I had a dream of a black wolf stalking the valley floor below me. I hadn’t yet stepped foot on the mountain, but even when sleeping in it’s shadow, it’s power was pulling my every thought toward it. It was this simple, but powerful vision of a predator that marked the subtle shift of mindset from being “home” to being “here”. In my mind, the hunt had already begun.  

Our first day on the mountain was a long and difficult one (for me, because I live at sea level...for Tony it was just another day in the mountains). We hiked across miles of rock, sagebrush, scree slopes, and game trails in search of elk. What we found along the way surprised us in ways we didn’t expect. We saw mule deer, moose, and cougar, but no elk.

Untitled by scarfam, on Flickr




Tony had previously told me of a huge bull that had been seen down lower in some rolling fields below the foothills and we decided that tomorrow morning we’d check out that rumor.


Saturday morning found us lying in the weeds waiting for daylight to show us if we had drawn a good set of cards, or if this would be another busted hand. Daylight built up behind the mountain until some of it had to spill over into our valley. When it did, we were shocked.


A lone bull elk stood on a knob below us in the half-dark just before sunrise. Even from a long distance he was impossibly large. He is an animal so massive that it takes the mountains around him to fully put him into perspective. His gigantic light-brown body, bulging massively at the shoulders and hind-quarters, barely tapers as it transitions to a thick, shaggy, dark-brown neck which in turn leads to a massive head that looks surprisingly stubby in comparison to everything else. Atop this monster sits over 300 inches of antlers that are designed to handle the force of two such beasts smashing, shoving, and stabbing each other with tons of force. A bull elk is far from a quaint character in a Disney movie. It is a heavy, muscular, giant of an animal who during the rut will rage, and fight to the death for the right to breed. It is an animal designed to dominate a herd of other large animals...by force.


Below us on the knob he craned his neck out, and we watched his massive rack turn in unison with his head as he bugled and screamed from his hilltop perch. It is a call and a challenge at the same time. It says “ladies here I am” and at the same time it says “come at me bro.” He is literally the king of all he surveys, and he is prepared to fight to keep it that way.


As more light spilled over the ridge, we watched in awe as this mature 6x6 bull elk dominated that high knob exactly 500 yards from us. Our excitement was tempered by the fact that the property line was exactly 490 yards from us. A low, four-strand barbed wire fence marked the property line and at the moment the bull was on the other side. Right now all we could do was watch...he might as well have been on another planet.


That bull stood atop the knob like a king. He could survey huge swaths of low ground and green fields below him, and he stood guard there like he didn’t have a care in world. 500 yards away we worked rangefinders and binoculars, marking and mapping every landmark between us, so that when the moment came, we’d know exactly how far he was from our bullet.
Untitled by scarfam, on Flickr




After a few minutes of feeding and looking around, he made his way toward our fence. He walked along it just long enough to build up some concern that he might not cross it, and then he turned right for it. That monster of a bull walked right up to the fence...and stopped. There he stood for what seemed an eternity. To our collective horror he turned and walked back a few steps, then bedded down on the other side. Over the next hour he teased us a few more times, then crushed us by disappearing over the ridge. We were shocked and excited at the same time, and made plans to return that evening.


Saturday afternoon was a cold, windy, rainy affair that offered ample opportunity to suffer, and none to score. We saw neither hide nor hair of that big bull.


On Sunday, Tony had other obligations so I hunted alone. Much to my surprise the big bull again emerged from the darkness at the bottom of that bowl and marched up to the ridge. After 30 or 40 minutes atop the ridge, eating and thrashing bushes with his gigantic rack, he retreated downhill to a patch of sage brush on a hillside that faced me around 1,200 yards distant.


I had nowhere else to be, so I decided to stay and watch him as long as I could. As the sun came up so did the temperatures. I tucked in tight to cover trying to stay in the shade, and settled in for a long day of recon. I kept a close eye on him, looking at him every two or three minutes to make sure he hadn’t moved. I laid there watching him for the next 11 hours. To my surprise he moved only 3 times all day. Sunday ended with no shot, but a very good idea of where he might be in the morning.


Visions of him bugling on that knob, and running up that draw, flickered in jumpy, black-and-white frames throughout my dreams all night, keeping me from resting; and confirming that once a bull like that is in your mind, he will never be fully out of it. The hunt was far from over but the dread of leaving without him was already welling up in the back of my mind. To come so close, to have had so much patience, to have done everything right, and still fail, was a real possibility...and one that I struggled to keep out of my mind.


Monday morning ushered in a cool front that found our bull charging up that draw to the knob. A friend of Tony’s volunteered to come out in the cold rain to try to call the bull across the line. His expert calls pierced a 500 yard sheet of cold windy rain and enraged the bull. At the first cow call his head snapped up and he began his charge. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I realized “this is it.” My mind was in overdrive trying to plot out all the possible courses he could take and recall the yardages to all the landmarks. If he comes straight in I’ll wait until he’s at 250 yards before engaging. It he runs the ridge on my left I’ll take him at 310 yards.


As his charge carried that huge frame toward the fence I braced myself for the sight we’d been so patiently waiting for...he was going to jump that fence. As his charge began...something happened...he stopped. Once again he didn’t jump the fence, this time he broke three hearts instead of just two. Huddled in the rain, out of sight behind the hill, we drew up a plan for the afternoon and vowed to try again.




Miracle time


On the drive home, my friend Tony decided he’d call the guy who owned the ground where the huge bull had holed up. It was a long shot, this landowner is known far-and-wide as someone who flatly refuses to let anyone step foot on his ground. But with so much hanging in the balance, Tony figured that the worst he could say was “no.”


A word about Tony is in order here. I frequently refer to him as the “Ambassador of the Outdoors”. He does so much, to help so many people that you could write a book about him. He invited me out to elk hunt, and even though he has never shot a bull himself (he’s taken plenty of cows), he wanted me to shoot this monster. He also leads the local scout troop and has done untold amounts of good through that program. There is also no telling how many kids have taken their first deer due to his help...just this week I can think of three kids he has helped tag out...and he got me on that bull. He is just the best all around guy you’re going to meet.


All of his good deeds over the years paid off on that one phone call. The landowner who allows no one on his property, ever, for any reason said that Tony had done so much for him over the years, that he could go onto the property and kill that bull.


Tony hung up the phone and we bolted out the door. I wanted to wait until the morning and catch him during his routine, but even though the wind wasn’t perfect, Tony wanted to strike quickly. Tipping the odds in our favor was that we knew right where the monster had bedded.


When we got back to the area we noticed his bed was empty. A quick search located him a few yards up the hill. He was on his feet and feeding his way around the hill. Hasty plans were made on the fly. We’d sneak up the opposite side of the hill, hope the hill pushed our scent over his head, then circle back behind him. We were at the 3 o’clock position on the hill, and the bull was at 9 o’clock. We had to sneak our way around the hill from the 3 o’clock position, until we were sneaking up behind and above him in a counter-clockwise fashion...from 12, then 11, then 10 o’clock positions.


Both guns were loaded and we dialed our scopes down to low power for the stalk. The odds were that if we got any shot at all, it would be close and fast. It was all business at this point. There was no looking at the scenery or congratulating ourselves on our good luck...it was pure business...we were here to stalk it and kill it. It’s something we had both done countless times before.


As we crouch-walked our way across the top of the hill the bull winded us. He came bolting from cover behind us. I saw Tony whirl around and I followed suit. Time moved slower now. I could see Tony dropping to one knee and as he dropped I could see the bull 150 yards away crashing out of the sage brush and pounding his way across this grassy hilltop.


This was the first elk I had ever seen, and it was the biggest, most awe inspiring, thunderous, charging spectacle I could imagine. I don’t remember getting to one knee, but I recall getting my sight picture. The crosshairs splayed across the most western scene one could imagine...a mature bull elk on a dead sprint across a high prairie with mountains in the background. I don’t know how much time passed but I remember losing focus, I distinctly recall thinking “man...look at those mountains...” It was the worst possible time for sightseeing, and I snapped out of it quickly.


I waited for Tony to fire, but he didn’t (he was surely waiting for me to fire) so I acquired a good sight picture, and sent him one. BOOM! On he ran...I needed to adjust my lead. Crosshairs lower, a little closer...BOOM! WHACK...the bullet hit home. Tony’s 7 mag barked now..BOOM! WHACK! I cycled the bolt effortlessly and with the right lead now in mind I got ahead of the great bull again...BOOM! WHACK!!! On he ran.


He had been hit solidly three times and he charged on as if nothing had happened. He was quartering away from us and running with great speed when he began to move down the back of the hill. I rose to my feet, amazed that he was still running, cycling the bolt as I stood. I brought the gun up as I watched him begin to descend the hill toward safety. Standing now, and shooting offhand, I had to acquire the back of a running bulls neck as he descended a hill almost 200 yards away. He could not be allowed off this hill. I don't know if I've ever been presented with a shot that held so much in the balance.


My breathing was fine, I was calm, I remember finding my sight picture and starting to take up what little trigger slack is in the gun...as I added more pressure and focused on my sights I saw the huge bull begin to shake. The top of his rack came out of alignment with the horizon as the wheels began to come off the bus. Quickly and in a very jerking fashion his giant rack began to shudder and fall over to the right. It shuddered and fell, then shuddered and fell until the great beast plowed into the earth. I never fired the fourth shot.


I stood there, dumbfounded. Did that really just happen? I was trying to make sense out of it all. How many times had I fired? How many times had I hit? How could that creature continue running unhindered while being pounded with a .30-06 and a 7 mag?


A quick walk over the crown of the hill and down the back side through the knee-high grass rewarded us with a sight we’d been longing to see for days. Months of planning, miles of hiking, and hours of watching, had all brought us to this point. We were now standing over the monster bull. I remember the color of the grass, the mountains in the background, the deep brown bases of his antlers and the polished white tips. This magnificent creature we had come to know through the binoculars over the past few days was now at our feet. There was no adrenaline, no high fiving, it was just a feeling of satisfaction. We had worked hard, and what we had accomplished was far beyond any hopes we had coming into this hunt.


Now the starlit morning hikes into the mountains were over, as were the long days of wandering carelessly around the sage-covered hills and aspen ridges of southeastern Idaho. Now all we had to look forward to was two full days of processing to get this beast in the freezer and ready for my trip home. Like we always say, it's all fun and games until you pull the trigger...then the work starts.
Untitled by scarfam, on Flickr


elk by scarfam, on Flickr

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Lit up after dark



Last Friday I took off from work so I could fish that afternoon.  After a 2 hour drive over to Pickwick lake I was subjected to 6 hours of the most unproductive fishing that you could imagine. 

Yesterday I took off half a day and was determined to erase the memory of last weeks failure.  I was going to hit the lake and catch a few fish.

I left work, loaded the truck, headed east, and two hours later I had the boat in the water.  My plan was the same as last week: to hit offshore ledges and humps to see if the bass had moved to their summer pattern.  I’d work my way from the middle of Bear Creek toward the main lake along their migration route.  It seemed like a logical plan.

After thirty minutes of idling sonar runs, I saw a big rain shower moving in behind me.  The few boats that were on the water were all running for cover.  There was no lightning, and after my last few experiences with storms I had brought a new secret weapon to deal with this situation...a rain jacket.  I continued fishing in my goretex, impervious to the wet stuff that had chased everyone away.  Ten minutes later the showers were gone.

At this point I was using my sonar to examine a place I call “the Hog-pen” due to it’s propensity to cough up 5 lb. bass.  This is one of my favorite places on the lake but lately it’s shut off.  I thought that maybe my sonar could unlock the secrets of the Hog-pen but I was disappointed...I learned nothing.

Hour-after-hour I spent idling.  I’d check on this hump, speed to that channel to survey it, rocket over to that point to see if there was bait...nothing worked.  All I saw were scattered and suspended fish everywhere.  

I was about to say nothing would bite, but then I remembered I caught a very small hybrid stripe and a tiny smallmouth bass on a bluegill crank bait.  These fish were essentially consolation prizes, the equivalent of the cheap water bottle they give away at events all around the country.  It’s the old “you lost, but thanks for showing up.”  At least I’d be able to say I didn’t get skunked.

I have found that on Pickwick, if you take a bluegill crank bait and grind it along a gravelly point...it will typically get destroyed.  I always have one tied on.  I used to have only one on the boat, but one day I lost it...and I about had a panic attack.  I felt defenseless...like a mouse at a hawk convention.  After that day I always have backups of my favorite lures.  Sadly it just didn’t work today.

I didn’t know what to do, nothing was working.  At one point I actually grumbled out loud “I don’t know what to do...I have no confidence in anything.”  I sat back, nursed a cold Gatorade and studied my options.  I liked my original plan, so I decided to stick to it.  The sun was getting low at this point and I could see the writing on the wall.  I figured I’d get a bit more sonar practice and then head home.

One or two more stops for idling sonar runs and I was packing up.  My exact thought was “I’d rather be driving home than wasting time on this lake.”  I reeled in, pulled up my trolling motor, then headed for the ramp...defeated.

I’m a sucker though...like most fishermen.  Even as we are being defeated there is that glimmer of instinctive optimism that’s buried deep down inside our brains that says “one more cast” or “That spot looks really good, I’ll just stop for a minute”.

I had to cross right over the Hog-pen on the way to the ramp and I thought “why not?”  I had about 15 minutes of light left, and there were a few other boats that were going to have the ramp tied up, so I’d probably be better off fishing until dark.  

The Hog-pen is a gravel bar that juts out into the lake from a square block of land that juts out into the river.  The creek takes a 90 degree turn here to run north.  Right where the 90 degree turn sticks out into the river there is a gravel bar that drops from dry land into the lake.  It’s more of a gravel “ridge” as there is a well defined top that drops off on both sides as it takes a long sloping descent from dry land into 20 feet of water perhaps 60 yards away from the bank. 



As I watched a few boats running to the ramp trying to beat the fading light, I picked up my old friend...the bluegill crank bait.  It’s an 11 foot diving crank, and I was throwing it into water that was about 6 feet deep on the other side of the gravel bar.  The bait would  dive until it found gravel, and then it would just grind it’s way up the back slope, over the top, and then back down my side.  

Even if I didn’t catch anything, its still nice to feel that plastic bill grinding gravel.  Its like talking with an old friend, or how Hellen Keller must have felt reading her favorite book in brail...she could feel the words come to life...it’s just a good, comfortable feeling.  

So my little crank bait was doing it’s thing as the day ended.  On my second cast I was dragging it up the other side of the gravel bar and the rod got heavy...but just for a moment.  I swept back and started reeling and it felt light, like I had missed it, then it got heavy again and the fight was on!

This fish felt good.  It wasn’t fighting much but it was heavy, and it was taking an awkward path in the water...kind of like when you snag a rock or a stick and it wallows back and forth as you retrieve it.  As I got it near the boat I saw the reason.  There were TWO BASS on one treble hook!  One of them shook off next to the boat but I landed the other, a nice 2.5 lb. fish.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw both of those greedy bass stuck on the same crank bait...I know it happens...it’s just never happened to me.

At this point I was happy.  My day was ending with a nice fish from one of my favorite spots.  I took a picture to send to a buddy in Idaho who was on his own fishing trip.  Then I got back to work.  Just for grins I kept throwing until dark.  I threw out deeper along the gravel bar.  As I mindlessly reeled and twitched my bait along the gravel bar, I was pondering this location and how the bass relate to it.  I distinctly recall thinking “I have no idea where the bass that use this place come from” and BAM!!! My spinning rod bowed under the weight of a big fish.  

This was a good fish.  In the fading light of a miserable day I was witnessing a murder.  A hog of a largemouth slammed that bluegill crank bait like a freight train.  It was a good fight.  He’d dive and run anytime I got him near the boat.  Time no longer mattered, the amount of light left in the day no longer mattered.  This fight was one of those moments when life is so pure, so perfect, that you want to remain in it forever.  A giant octopus could have ripped the motor off the boat and thrown it to the Alabama side of the river and I don’t think I would have noticed...I was that focused on this fish.  As the fight left him he made a final dive under the boat.  At that point I could hear my crank bait slapping off the hull as he continued to thrash.  I knew I had him then, he no longer had the strength to steal line from my drag.



I took another picture and shot it to my buddy...I couldn’t believe I had caught those fish so quickly.  That was two nice fish in three casts.  

I caught nothing else as the light faded toward the edge of darkness.  I was a little confused as to why I got two bites so fast and then they shut off.  My only guess was that it was due to darkness encroaching.  That thought gave me a another idea...maybe I should switch to a darker lure.  

I know that theoretically you should use darker colors at night, but I’ve never had the theory work out for me.  Just to be thorough I grabbed a big, heavy, football head jig with a fat 5 inch tube bait trailer, and launched it into the darkening sky.  

This is a brown bait with some red flecks in it...it does a pretty good crawdad imitation.  I slowly dragged it up the backside of the...BAM!!! I got smashed.  I heaved back on the rod and the fight was on.  A few seconds later I landed my third nice fish out of the Hog-pen.  I was astonished...it actually worked.  



 
I always hear about switching to darker colors at night but this is the first time I’ve ever really had it work for me.  It was now officially night time.  The fish were biting and I had nowhere to be so I figured I’d keep fishing and see if I could catch another one.  

I tossed the jig again and felt that big football head grind it’s way over every tan pebble and chunk rock on the gravel bar.  Suddenly I felt like the hunter.  I was now confident that what I was doing would work.  With confidence came patience...and with patience one usually finds success.  

I stood upright and alone on the front deck in the moonlit darkness holding a 7 foot rod with it’s tip pointed straight up.  I must have looked like the human version of an Egret...that tall slender bird that hunts these same points and shallow gravel bars...always stalking...motionless until it strikes. 

The moon was almost full and was doing an admirable job of holding back the darkness.  In this light the world looked like a silky picture.  The moonlight had turned the water and the cloudless sky gunmetal grey.  Water and sky were separated by long inky black stretches of land that ran through the middle of the scene.  Land was a jagged black profile with flat grey above, and shimmery shiny grey below. 

The wind had died down a lot and the only noise to be heard was the deafening chorus of frogs from the bank. Thousands of frogs were calling to each other with their high, shrill, barks, chirps and drawn out warbling notes.  This high pitched song was backed by a regular series of ridiculously low baritone and bass-notes from bullfrogs that I have to imagine must have been the size of cinder blocks.  The frogs called, I cast in the moonlight, and the fish ate. It was beautiful.  

Last night was a great lesson in jig fishing for me.  I couldn’t see my line so everything was done by feel.  I think this helped me concentrate...all I had to do was stare at the distant dark shoreline and concentrate on feeling the other end of my line.  

There were three distinct types of bites I had on the jig.  The first was the classic bite...you feel him hit it, you set the hook, and the fight is on.

The second type of bite surprised me.  This is where I thought I felt a hit but when I set the hook nothing was there...the jig just flew up off the bottom.  The surprise on this bite was that after I falsely snatched it up off the bottom and realized I had nothing on...the jig would get HAMMERED as it fell back toward the bottom.  In my mind the process went “Oh...fish!  Wait...ahhh...no fish...OH FISH!”  I was accidentally using the “hop retrieve” that I occasionally use in other situations...and it was working really well.  

The third type of bite was the “where did it go?” bite.   It’s dark so I can’t see my line at all.  I would slowly drag the jig back to me, maintaining contact with it the whole way.  The only time I wasn’t in contact was when I’d drop the rod tip to reel in some slack and start dragging again.  

Sometimes after reeling in the slack I’d pull back on the rod and my jig just wasn’t there...no weight at all.  Maybe it slid down the slope toward me a little, maybe it fell off a rock and put some slack in the line...I’d reel a little more and it still wasn’t there.  Then the lightbulb went on...something is running with the ball!  

The reason I couldn’t feel my jig is because some greedy bass had picked it up and was swimming toward me with it.  It’s a funny feeling to go through that thought process in real time...it’s like catching a thief.  Then you drop that rod tip, reel as fast as you can to catch up, and sweep back like a pro.  BOOM!  FISH ON!
 
Those bass would come up tail-walking in the moonlight as they tried to shake the hook.  Every time they breached they’d surprise me.  The calm dark surface of the water exploded as a bass violently thrashed it.  The moonlight turned that thrashing water silvery-white against the black backdrop, creating a stunning effect that looked like tinted glass shattering into thousands of diamonds.  Then the fish would crash back into the water and run, then breach and thrash, then crash and run.  Every single cast held huge potential...and every other cast was getting hit.  Many of those fish destroyed the tranquility of this place with the most violent outbursts you could imagine.  Bass fishing doesn’t get much more exciting this.

The action at the Hog-pen went on like that for 30 or 40 minutes.  I was catching fish every other cast.  I had to break out my head lamp to unhook fish as I caught them.  It was really neat to turn on that light and be looking at bucket-mouth after bucket-mouth with that big craw-colored jig hanging out of it’s mouth.  I have never experienced a jig bite like that...in fact I’ve never caught that many bass on anything in such a short period of time.  Almost all of them were between 2.5 and 4.5 pounds.  I caught only two fish that weighed less than 2 lbs.  For a short period of time I felt like I was on a Bassmaster highlight reel.  

I had endured five hours of frustrating boredom and then had a head on collision with a large, violent school of fish that was hard-bent on killing and eating everything that crossed it’s path.  It was like fighting an aquatic motorcycle gang armed only with a graphite rod.

Once the frenzy slowed, I put my rod down and sat at the helm.  I wanted to take a few minutes and let this experience soak in.  I didn’t want to just catch a bunch of fish and leave the minute they quit biting...I’d feel like I was missing something if I did that.

The moon was high in a clear sky, the water calm and silky, the frogs were singing their songs, a light dew was falling, and behind the curtain of this stage I could hear a trains horn as he rumbled his way past somewhere in the distance.  It was serene.  

Far off in the distance I could see the lights of vacation homes that dotted the hills surrounding the lake.  Everyone was inside, lights on, TV’s going, air conditioners humming...but nobody was on the lake.  I couldn’t believe that I had this entire experience to myself.  

If fishermen had a bible it would undoubtedly include the phrase “Spare the rod, spoil the fish.”  I can tell you that I did not spoil the fish last night, I took the rod to them in a relentless fashion...because I don’t want them to be undisciplined.

At this point I’m really hoping that reincarnation doesn’t exist...because if it does, I’m sure God will send me back this way as a crawfish or a bluegill based on what I did here tonight.