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Monday, September 12, 2011

Small mouth, big fight

Temperatures have dropped 10 to 15 degrees here in the last few days and it’s beginning to feel like fall.  Saturday morning was a beautiful morning on the lake.  I slipped away from the dock about 0530 into the cool foggy darkness well before any other boats arrived.  Shortly thereafter the sun began to rise and it turned the eastern horizon into one long streak of orange gold above the dark forested peaks that surround Pickwick Lake.   I took the time to stop what I was doing and watch as it crested the first peak…I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing that.  The bank on this part of the lake meanders back and forth from sheer rock wall dropping straight into 30 feet of water, to gravelly banks where a draw between the peaks empties into the lake.  This time of day the water is like glass and as you look down the bank you are awestruck by the beauty of it.  The rising sun is lighting up the cliff faces, and the mirror-like surface of the water is reflecting every boulder, branch, and cliff above it.  You essentially get the best view in the world…twice.

I was just easing my way down this bank  with my trolling motor and throwing a Rebel Pop R topwater plug.  Each time you tug on this lure it gives  “bloop” sound and spits some water…it basically acts like an injured baitfish on top.  For the first two hundred yards of this I kept catching bluegill.  They were nice sized bluegill but they were an annoyance at best.   Then I saw the shape of something more sinister in the water as I approached a gravel bar.  I threw the Pop R in there and let it sit.  I twitched it two or three times and it disappeared in a swirling motion and my line went tight.  The first decent fight of the day was now on.  A minute later I had a decent little smallmouth bass on board.  He fought hard, I thought for a moment that he only agreed to board my vessel so he could take some swings at me…there is no quit in this fish.  After a quick picture he went back to the gravel bar to pick on more injured fish, and I went back to easing down the bank. 

At the end of this particular section that I was working was a nice gravel bar at the mouth of a small creek.  It actually forms a really small harbor.  Its big enough that a lot of boats anchor behind the bar to hang out all day but if you get three big boats in there its getting kind of crowded.  The wind was beginning to blow but I’d been protected by the big cliffs and hills in front of me.  As I approached the gravel bar it was easy to see that the wind was blowing hard across it from behind, basically pushing a current out into the lake with the gravel bar forming a protected area on my side.  This should be perfect I figure.  The natural inclination is for the bass to push baitfish up on these bars in the morning and feed.  Now I have the added bonus of the wind making some current and pushing water out of the harbor behind it…this turns the gravel bar into a current break that can really stack some fish up as they wait to hammer bait coming by in the flow.

It looked like a good spot and I had nowhere to be so I started working it.  Working a topwater like this is really cool.  You get to see everything the bait is doing and when a fish hits it usually just swirls on the bait and it disappears, so you really have to focus on that lure.  As the sun rose behind me I tossed my Pop R into the water just off the gravel bar and began working it back to me.  Most of my strikes this morning had come within the first few feet of the retrieve so at some point I figure I’m in unproductive water and I reel it back in and cast again. 

After a few casts wasn't getting any action in the shallow water near the gravelly bank.  I decided to work the bait closer to the boat just to see if anything will hit in deeper water.  I popped the lure every few seconds, dragging it out into perhaps 12 feet of water.  "Hmmm.  Nothing."  My bait was about 10 feet from the boat and BAAAAMMMM!!!  The water in front of me exploded as if a bomb went off.  I could…not…believe it.  When the water quit raining down I could see that my Pop R was still on the water.  Whatever it was that had struck at my lure had missed it.  My brain was racing.  "DUDE!  How could anything produce a strike THAT violent and not get hooked by a lure that totes TWO treble hooks?!?!"

Now I’m thinking it might be a gar.  Gar are the ultimate trash fish…big with lots of sharp teeth but they don’t eat good and they waste a lot of time.  I decide to leave the lure in the water and just see if I can trick this gar into coming back for more.  I twitch the lure a time or two and try to make it look even more helpless.  After my third twitch the aggressor came back for the kill.  The lure disappeared in a big swirl and it was “game on”. 

This was a strong fish.  Much stronger than the last one.  This was a fish that was used to going wherever he decided to go…and it didn’t matter if there was a hook in his mouth.  After a minute of fighting I still hadn’t laid eyes on him so I figured I must have hooked a Drum.  They are notoriously hard fighters that love to go to the bottom.  A bass will normally come up top and breach and try to shake the hook…but I’ve seen nothing of the sort yet.  Shortly thereafter this fish drifts lazily toward the top and I get a good look at him as he cruises about six inches under the surface.  My first thought was “OMG…get the net…it’s a huge smallmouth!”  The next thought was that this was really a beautiful fish.  The war-paint like stripes on his face give way to a bronze colored body with dark tiger stripes that run top to bottom…and the red eyes complete the unique look of this predator.  It was a stunning view in the golden, early morning light…and it was the last thing I had expected to see.  I expected a big, goofy looking drum and instead I had one of the lake’s apex predators on the end of my line.

I think this fish only came up so shallow so he could get a look at the jack-wad who put a hook in his face.  He was sizing up the competition so he knew how much aggression to bring.  After he let me get a good look at him the fight really started.  Next I was fighting the fish with one hand and trying to get my net with the other.  This is an extendable type net which means that it’s basically useless when you need it.  You have to extend the long handle to deploy it, and that is a two hand job.  I must have looked as ridiculous as a one-man-band at that point as I was using my right foot to step on the net, my right hand to try to pull the handle out, and my left hand to hang on to the rod; plus I was hyperventilating and shaking like a 13 year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert.

Once the fish realized that he might be going for a boat ride he hit the afterburners and dove under my boat so hard that he turned my fishing rod into the shape of a horse-shoe.  He was absolutely stealing line from my drag.  Next I was concerned he'd wrap me around the prop, break the line, and that I might lose the biggest smallmouth I’ve ever hooked.  What a painful story that would be to tell.
What a rookie he’d make me look like…what’s worse is I know I’m a smallmouth rookie, so it would really be like him spiking the ball in my face.  I get the net extended and I gently try to turn this fish to get him out from under me without breaking the line.  He shot out like a dart, turned on a dime and steamed straight back at my hull like a torpedo.  I thought if I don’t net this fish now he’s going to break my boat in half when he hits me amidships.  Like a cross between Bill Dance and Michael Jordan it was “nothing but net”.  I had him. 

The fight was over and he was laying in the net on the deck.   I turned toward the helm to start my live-well pumps and when I looked back the hook was no longer in his mouth.  This fish was so loosely hooked that the lure fell out on its own when I put him on the deck.  While it is nowhere close to a record (he might have been just over 3 lbs) it is by far the biggest smallmouth bass I’ve ever caught.  My trip was a total success at that point.  Short of sinking the boat nothing could ruin this trip.

My normal procedure of taking pics with my iPhone wouldn’t work on this fish…I called the wife and asked her to meet me at the dock so she could take one for me.  So here it is…my best smallmouth yet…and the one that will likely go down in history as the one that got me addicted.

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