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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fall Fishing

Fall Fishing
It’s been a busy two months and I’ve not been able to fish as much as I normally would.  The last time I was fishing regularly was over the summer.  The air and water temperatures were both in the mid to upper 90’s then and it was not an easy time to be on the water.
Fishing in the summer down South is a difficult affair.  It’s not fun being outside in the south when its 98 degrees and the humidity threatens to kill you before the heat does.  The mornings and evenings are great because the water gets really calm and you have these beautiful sunsets and all the pleasure boaters and jet skis are absent.  You can usually catch some fish very early and very late…but in general summer time fishing is terrible.  The bass go deep and concentrate in small areas and they are difficult to find and even when you do it’s tough to get them to bite.  And the whole time you’re trying to find them and coax them into biting you have to deal with scorching heat, drenching humidity, and boat traffic that will rock you off your feet if you’re not paying attention. 
I honestly don’t know why I do it.  I don’t catch many fish…some days I feel that a blind guy could launch a boat and catch more fish than I could in the summer time.  No matter how much I study it and how hard I try…it rarely works.  I’ve resigned myself to considering these trips as just time away…regardless of whether I actually catch anything.
Now it’s different
But now it’s fall.  Now it’s supposed to be really good fishing as the bass fatten up for winter.  In contrast to summer there is almost no boat traffic now.  I might see four boats in four hours during the fall, and some days I don’t see anyone at all…I have an entire lake all to myself.  In the summer time you see, hear, and feel hundreds of boats a day…you are never out of sight (or out of the wake) of other boats. 
During fall the fish are supposed be moving back further into the creeks to chase the baitfish that keep them fed.  Creeks and coves are supposed to be packed with roaming hoards of murderous bass on the prowl and looking for a fight.  This is something to get excited about…a lake with no boats that is packed with fish that are actively feeding.  
The real bonus about fall fishing is the view.  The high forested hills that surround Pickwick Lake are now changing colors.   Gone are the greens and darker greens of summer that were cast in a gray haze of humidity.  Now the cooler weather has ushered in a new set of colors for these hills.  As you look out from the boat you are surrounded by the brilliant colors of fall.  Maples and Poplars are turning deep ruby red, Oaks are shifting from green to bright yellow, and all of the other brilliant and crisp colors of fall are scattered in between.  It is a beautiful array of colors that you really have to see to believe.  It would be worth the trip just to look at the trees. 
Now that the temps have dropped I’m no longer sweating through my shirt just on my walk from the truck to the dock.  Now there is coolness in the air even at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.  If you’re in the shade you’re going to need a jacket…in the sun it’s just on the cool side of comfortable.  It’s just about perfect.
Fishing partners
I was fishing on this most recent trip with a very good friend.  Well…he is either a very good friend or a die-hard fisherman…or both.  I say this because there is a common thread among some of the worst fishing trips I’ve ever had…it’s him…he has been on most of them (by contrast I have been on ALL of them so there is a greater correlation to show that I’m the cause more than he is but that causes some logic problems and it’s a story for another day).  He’s not the cause of the bad trips…but his timing has been such that on most of the bad trips I’ve had he happened to be there.  He was there for the absolute worst day ever…it was a scorching summer trip where the temps hit over 100 degrees and we spent 14 hours on the water with no breaks, getting beat by wakes and burned by the sun, and we caught exactly two fish…two very small fish.  We caught those fish at 6 AM and went the next 13 hours without catching a single thing.  THAT is dedication.  The fact that he ever stepped foot in my boat again tells me he is a friend.  I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had burned the boat in self-defense when we got back to the ramp…just to ensure he’d never be in that position again.
Today I hoped his luck would change…that maybe today would be one of the good ones.  We had great weather, no crowd, and if the fish acted right then we should be able to catch a few.
We war-gamed on the way to the lake getting our plan together.  The first item was to remember to find the pace the fish wanted.  I have a tendency to beat a piece of water to death with a fast moving search bait, and working one area far too long.  We needed to stay flexible and stay mobile.  If we don’t find fish on a spot then we need to move.  We know they’re here and that they should be feeding so we just need to find them.  Once we do we need to be methodical and work the area well.  That was the plan.
Starting out
We hit a few secondary points right off the bat trying to find some active fish.  We got no action, but one of these places I’ve begun calling “the hog pen” due to its propensity to deliver huge fish.  We got no action the first time we hit it but we made a mental note to be back at the hog pen at sunset…that was a high priority. 
After that we moved up to a series of coves and would work each of them until we saw some sign that things were happening.  As we worked our way into the first cove we hugged its left side and fought the wind as it tried it’s best to wreck the boat onto the bank we were fishing.  That’s another problem with fishing…Mother Nature loves a good ship wreck…and she tries to make them happen all the time.  In addition to fishing you have to try to control your boat…these are sometimes mutually exclusive tasks.  Today was turning into one of those days.
As we slowly troll our way into this cove there is one thing that jumps out at you...this place is a thing of beauty.  Huge hills covered in falls brightest foliage descend steeply right down to the banks of the lake in this cove.  Looking up from the water your eyes are treated to a beautiful leaf strewn forest floor covered with old burnt-orange and brown leaves.  Squirrels crisscross the hillside and run along fallen logs as you silently fish its banks.  With the sun beginning to set, half the cove is in shade and the other half is awash in the soft golden rays of late afternoon.  Looking into the back of the cove we can see the activity we’ve been waiting for.  Baitfish are leaping from the water as they run for their lives.   Bass are sometimes hammering on top water and other times just rolling up on the surface as they chase baitfish up to the roof of their world and then slurping them down when they run out of room.  Spurts of water are flying up in the air and splattering back down across the surface again as the violence rages and then subsides all up and down the length of the cove.  This is fall fishing.
The cove
This particular section of bank is a mix of sand and gravel with larger fist sized chunks of rocks scattered around…its perfect smallmouth bass country.  Despite the winds best efforts to frustrate us we still have a remarkable amount of patience remaining.  I’m throwing a heavy blue-black jig with a crawfish trailer.  With each cast I throw it up to the bank and then ease it back into deeper water through the gravel and chunk rock.  If a bass swims by and sees this it’s going to get violent.  Sure enough, halfway down the bank at a place where the wind begins to lose its angle on us I get a hit. 
It was a soft “pick up” more than a violent strike but I knew from the first turn of the reel that we’d need the net.  This bass had seen my crawfish calmly meandering along the lake floor minding his own crustacean-business and decided to assault him.  The nerve of this fish!  It was a crime he would pay for…he was about to find out that there is no free lunch in this world.  A few feet from the point of contact he came up top and busted out of the water.   I was trying to reel him in but my drag was set way too light and my reel handle was just spinning when I tried to apply pressure.  Now I’d have to sweep back with my rod then try to reel in the slack as I dipped the tip back toward the fish.  This left me very vulnerable to him shaking the hook out of his mouth the next time he jumped.  I really wanted to land this first fish of the day.  My buddy grabbed the net and was waiting for the first chance to scoop him up.  As I led this beast toward the waiting net my friend exclaimed “it’s a smallmouth!  And a nice one at that!” 
Sure enough it was a decent smallmouth.  After some laughing and high fives and a picture we broke out the scale to weigh him…it was an even three pounds…a very nice smallmouth.  My friend told me right then that he had never seen one in person.  He had mentioned in the past that he’d never caught one but I was happily surprised to hear that he had finally seen on in person.  He was now one step closer to his goal of landing one.
That first fish got us fired up.   Now we knew there were fish in the area and we had an idea of what they wanted to eat so we got right back to work.  A few minutes later on the same side of the cove I got hit again with that “soft pickup” kind of hit.  It’s the kind of hit where you’re not sure if it’s a rock or a stick so you don’t set the hook…you kind of pull on the line like you’re questioning it…if it pulls back it’s a fish.  The downside to this type of bite is that you often times don’t get a good hook set to start the fight.  Then when the fish does his first leap he usually shakes the hook out.  That is exactly what happened here…halfway back he spit the hook.  No big deal…it wasn’t huge but it was a largemouth and our second of the day.  We pressed on.
Five minutes later I hear the familiar ruckus from the other end of the boat that tells me something is on the hook.  It’s usually some hurried mumbling or some cursing under-the-breath kind of noises that indicate a fish has just been caught.  It’s like you want to say something but your brain is so overwhelmed by the fact that you have a fish on that you really can’t do much more than uttering incomplete sentences like “doh…shoot…hog…ah…net…oh yeah..good ‘un”.  That type of incoherent blabber tells me that my partner is on one and that he thinks it’s a good one and that we are going to need the net.  The next clue I get is his body language.  He is leaning back as far as you can lean and still stay upright and his rod is bent clean over and he’s grinning like a kid on his first roller coaster…it’s a mix of exhilaration and shock and fear…and he’s reeling as fast as he can.  I grab the net, scoop it up…and it’s a smallie.  His first smallmouth ever…from the same boat that brought him so much pain and misery back in July…now he catches his first smallmouth on a gorgeous fall afternoon.  It was a solid specimen of a smallmouth too…a red-eyed, bronze-backed fighter with the heart of a lion…and my friend was holding him with a grin that must have been bigger than the fish itself.  SNAP.  Another picture, another released fish, and we got back to work. 
BOOM…five minutes later he has another one on…this time a largemouth.  A few minutes later I hook up again.  This is turning into a nice afternoon.  It couldn’t stay great forever though.  Shortly thereafter I got hung on a log.   I trolled over to get close to the log and when I went to pull the trolling motor up so I wouldn’t run it aground…the rope handle snapped and sent me one way and the trolling motor back into the water…where it promptly ran aground.  Ugh.  Now my line is stuck, the trolling motor is stuck, the wind is blowing the back of the boat around, and my line gets wrapped around the trolling motor head.  I don’t recall the exact language that began to flow at that point but I’m pretty sure it would make a preacher faint. 
By the time I get this mess fixed and get us moving in the right direction at trolling speed I see the back of my boat…more specifically my expensive outboard motor…swinging around toward the rocks.  All I could see in my mind was my prop and lower unit getting wrecked and ripped from the boat.  I don’t know what I said but my friend leapt into action and made sure the motor didn’t get destroyed.
Whew…what a screwed up five minutes that was.  We went from catching fish like crazy to almost ruining BOTH motors in the blink of an eye.   Well we were out of there…the plan was to move up to the next cove and look for more fish.  My buddy turns to me and says “what did you do with my phone?”  I replied that I had given it back to him after we took those awesome pictures of the smallmouth.  He then began what I call the “old man Macarena” which is the deal where you look at the ground and touch every pocket on your body as you check for your wallet and keys and phone and God-knows-what-else and it looks like you’re doing a dance of some sort. 
He says “dude…I think my phone fell out when I went to keep us off the rocks.”  It was very matter of fact…he wasn’t freaking out or anything…but we had to run back to the scene of the crime and see if we could find it.  Perspective is important here.  This is his business phone…all of his contacts and passwords are on this device…losing it is not a small deal.  From my perspective though…all of our fish pictures were on that thing!  The only evidence we have of this being a great day is on that dang camera!  I don’t care if we have to hire Jacques Cousteau…we need to find that phone. 
Ultimately we had no luck finding the phone.   The fish turned off in that cove too…we caught no more of them after the “two motors and a phone” incident.  Around sunset I reminded him that we needed to be at the hog pen around sundown to fish the gravel bar.  He agreed and we motored a few miles down the lake taking in the sights and smells of fall.  These trips bring me some of life’s simplest pleasures.  It is beyond relaxing to be motoring across the glass like surface of the lake at sundown with a good chill in the air and the sweet and warm aroma of a campfire filling your senses.  To me it can’t be beat.  It’s one of this planets most enjoyable moments.   And this is what we had on the run back to the hog pen.
The Hog Pen
Once we got there I pointed out the gravel bar that juts out into the lake.  The ridge of the bar sits in two feet of water and it drops off to twelve or more in short order.  The trick here is the cast to the deeper water and run the bait up into the gravel.  I’m casting a top water bait that has served me well over the past few trips but I’m getting no action on it tonight.  
I’m on the front deck of the boat pondering some of life’s most important mysteries…like “why don’t the bass want a Pop R this week when it worked so well just a few days ago?” when I hear some urgent muttering from the back of the boat.  An outsider might have thought it sounded like an epileptic having a seizure…but a fisherman knows that this is the sound of a large fish being caught. 
“Oh…shoot…dang…ah…whoa…ha ha aha…dude…net… a good ‘un” and on it went.  I grabbed the net and waited as the battle unfolded in front of me.  The fisherman on the stern of the boat battled with bending rod against the lakes apex predator…a powerful largemouth bass.  This is a fish that is used to getting its way.  It kills and eats whatever it wants.  Well tonight it went to kill something on top and the roles got reversed. 
Now the fish was fighting for its life.  And fight it did…all the way back to the boat.  As I scooped it up in the net you could see the fight leave it.  It was like slow motion to me as the fish glided in and I looked up to see the biggest smile on my friends face as he took in the size of the beast.  The hog pen had delivered again.  A four pound largemouth was the end of the day prize. 
We took a picture of that fish with our remaining phone and slowly got back to fishing.  The sun was well below the horizon, we were surrounded by Egrets wading in the glassy shallows and fishing for their supper, and I think we were both just enjoying the solitude as day slipped away to night. 
A short time later we drifted into the marina through a low hanging haze of campfire smoke drifting across the lake.  We made quick work of loading the boat and headed for the drive-through burger joint to fuel up for the ride home.  Despite the lost phone I was happy that we’d finally put together a good trip.  I’d seen my friend have the worst fishing day of his life on my boat and now I’d seen him catch his first smallmouth.  This is what Fall fishing is all about…and I can’t wait to get back after them again next week.    

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