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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dam fishing

Last call
Winter is almost upon us and with its arrival comes the process of laying up the boat for the year.  It’s not that you can’t fish here in the winter…it’s just that I’m not going to.  I have no urge to float around on 40 degree water while the 34 degree air whips me at a constant 25 MPH as I try to keep from getting destroyed on the rocks just so I can try to catch the most sluggish bass of the year…I’d rather spend the winter in a room full of tarantulas. 
I thought we were done fishing for the year but the weather took a great turn this weekend.  Our choice was do we go sit in a deer stand and fight the heat and mosquitos, or do we head to the lake for a last chance at the bass?  It was an easy decision…the lake was screaming our names.  The plan was to put in below the Pickwick Dam.  I’ve never fished below the dam but I’ve heard its dynamite action.  You can catch all species in large numbers when the conditions are right. 
Dam fishing
A word about this dam is in order here.  Pickwick dam is a power generating dam…they let water through to both control flooding and generate electricity.   The dam itself rises up from the river like an impenetrable fortress…you rarely get to see this much concrete in one place…it is a monstrosity that rises over 10 stories high and is 1.5 miles wide.  This dam holds back roughly 43,000 surface acres of water and it generates power by selectively opening one or more of its 22 flood gates. 
The reason the fishing is so good below the dam is because of the water flow generated by the open flood gates.  Water falls down these huge concrete chutes as it comes through the dam and slams into the river over 100 feet below.  This water then flows down the river toward Kentucky Lake over 100 miles away.  A single flood-gate pouring water from the lake 113 feet above generates some water current when it slams into the placid waters of the river below.  As you open more gates you introduce more turbulence and current.    
The fish love it and the idea is that you drive the boat up close to the dam (not all the way) and then you cast a line out and you let the current push you back down the river as your bait bumps along where a hungry fish can make a meal of it.  It conjures up images of lazily floating down the river and enjoying some conversation while occasionally catching a fish.  It ought to be a very relaxing afternoon. 
I’d like to say that the dam is the first thing you notice as you approach…but it’s not.  When we get there we are greeted by some of the most violent water I’ve ever seen.   It’s like a 2 mile wide white-water river.  Usually when you see water like this there is a Coast Guard helicopter hovering above it trying to rescue people below who are desperately clinging to trees or the shattered remains of their homes.  This isn’t water you go into…its water that you’re lucky to be rescued from.  A sockeye salmon would find it tough to make it up this river today.  There is only one other boat trailer in the parking lot…it’s empty so we know he launched earlier in the day…and if he can do it - we can do it.  The thought never occurred to me that he might have been immediately swept away and destroyed on the rocks…such is the mindset of the fisherman…always an optimist.  We decided to park the truck and prepare our gear here in the parking lot.  Normally we’d rig up new baits in the boat but from what I can see we are really going to have our hands full just controlling the boat…there will be no opportunity to fool with the gear once we’re underway.
My buddy got done with his rigging first and walked the 50 yards or so over to the launch ramp to check it out.  He came back with a concerned look on his face.  The short version of what happened next is that the raging and rolling white-capped tsunami current coupled with the strong winds prompted us to change our plans.  There were far too many jokes about death and sinking the boat flying around to make us comfortable…so we decided to put in above the dam on the lake side. 
Lake side
We had a very short drive as we only had to go up a hill to the top of the dam, drive 2 miles across it, and then launch on the other side.  We had the boat wet less than 10 minutes after we started up the hill.  Our plan was to fish our way through a 1.5 mile “no wake” zone then work our way down the river hitting spots that held potential.
Our route took us through a large marina with row after row of large yachts on the right which gave way to older and unused docks, then to the main creek channel where we’d turn north and make our way to the lake.  We had to cover perhaps 500 yards before we got past all the yachts and docks. 
As we slipped along at idle speed I was focused on driving and picking our first spot.  Lowery was casting as we went to see if he could get lucky early.  My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by my fishing partner yanking back hard on his rod with a guttural “WHOA…BIGUN!!!”  I about leapt out of my seat to help him…only to find him doubled-over laughing at my reaction.  He had no fish on…he had no bite…what he had was a joke to play on his fishing partner by tricking me into thinking he had scored huge on his first cast just so he could see me jump out of my seat.  It worked well…and I briefly thought about hammering the throttle to send him from his doubled-over-laughing position to a “man overboard” position to put the joke momentum back in my favor.  It was a good joke…and he laughed and I muttered about it under my breath for the next 100 yards and then we got back to fishing.
About the time I had quit cussing my fishing partner, I noticed a bass boat up ahead.  Then I noticed another one.  These boats were just 5 yards apart and fishing the same spot…they likely knew each and were hanging out talking.  In their current positions they were kind of choking off the creek and we’d have to squeeze past them a little closer than I’d like.  I didn’t expect a crowd out here on a day like today…and the spot we wanted to fish was just past them by only 50 yard so this could get interesting.  I didn’t see either one of them catch anything as we approached so I guess it wouldn’t hurt anything…now we’d have three boats in the same area not catching any fish instead of just two.
They moved apart as we approached and we slipped by them to get to our spot.  We would be fishing an old boat ramp on the end of a small peninsula where the old state park lodge used to be.  It burned down years ago but the old concrete ramp is still there.  It’s a crumbling, run-down piece of work that you could hardly launch a canoe from.  The old ramp is covered in weeds and trees but the structure it provides to the fish as it descends into the water makes it a very nice place to start. 
I had caught a nice 5 lb. bass here the prior March and now I make it my first stop each time I launch from this area.  Today was no different…we’d stop at this nameless point to start our day.  The wind was blowing fairly hard which was making boat control a difficult.  I had to pay almost constant attention to steering the boat with the foot-controlled trolling motor rather than actually fishing.  I’d get us within casting distance and we’d throw up to the faded yellowing concrete and drag our lures back into the water and toward the boat.  Then I’d notice the wind had blown us out of range again and I’d have to turn up the trolling motor power and fight the wind all the way back toward the ramp until we were in casting distance again.  The whole time I’m trying to make sure the back of the boat is parallel to the bank so my partner has good casting angles…but the wind is just killing me.  I can’t keep the boat straight and I can’t keep it within casting distance.
I had been fighting the wind for maybe 5 minutes when I hear some muttering from the back of the boat accompanied by the quick lurching action of a hook set.
“You got one?” I asked.
Lowery responded by calmly stating “I think so…but it’s got to be a little one…it’s not pulling at all.”
He’s not arched back and muttering unintelligibly like I’d expect if he had a nice fish on…he’s just standing there reeling in a dink…from the looks of it this fish will likely be as small as the lure he used to catch it.
Unimpressed by either the bend in his rod or his reaction to the fish I keep working my reel as I watch him bring in our first tiny fish of the day.  I’m watching his line slice through the water and I’m waiting to see this small fish come drifting to the top like the small ones always do when a bass the size of a whale busts up to the top and rolls to the left.   I couldn’t…believe…my eyes.  He had a pig of a fish on his line.  The Loch Ness Monster breeching next to the boat could not have surprised me any more than this hog did. 
I’d like to say that my partner became a stuttering, muttering, bumbling mess at this point…but I couldn’t hear him over my own stuttering mumbling excited ramblings.  I dove for the net like a fat kid going for a girl-scout cookie…I HAD to get that net extended and into the water quickly.  If this fish got away it would be embarrassing…not due to our poor angling skills but because there would be two tough guys out here crying like babies in the middle of the lake. 
I came off the front deck looking at the fish instead of where I was going and I tripped…almost giving myself a concussion as I went for the net.  This paints a humorous picture in my head of my fishing partner stepping over my lifeless body as he maneuvers up and down the boat trying to land this fish.  I’d expect nothing less…a picture of a fat bass next to me lying on the deck unconscious would be the trophy of a lifetime.
I recovered from my fall with the grace and athleticism of a drunken rhinoceros and I grabbed the net.  Lowery was leading the fish toward me to make this an easy pluck from the water.  I extended the net…mesmerized by the fish…and as I went scoop him up…I missed and I banged him hard in the side with the metal rim of the net.  This was like watching a train wreck.  We have a very nice fish on the line…from our first spot of the day no less…and my actions seem to be helping the fish escape rather than helping my partner land him.  As I watched the rim of the net push the fish I could feel the strain on every component in the chain that connected us to him.  I felt his ribs flex, I felt him turning his mouth toward us, I felt the knot on the lure slipping microscopically, I felt the line stretch, I felt the rod bend, I felt the earth’s rotation slow, and I felt my heart breaking as I waited for what felt like an eternity to hear the line emit the super-sonic crack it makes when a line under pressure snaps.  I was about to cause us to lose this fish…it was a heart wrenching, slow motion moment.
But the line held!  And I was back in business.  I pushed the 5 foot long handle even deeper into the water this time to get fully under the fish, and with the skills of an ancient and sage angler Lowery steered the fish to a position where even a blind man could net him…which I did.  I was howling with laughter as I pulled this fat beast from the water.  My friend had just hooked and landed a very nice 5 lb. largemouth bass.  Making this even sweeter was that it was maybe his third cast of the day…and we were so close to our launch point that you could still see the truck.  What a start!

A fish’s point of view
On the drive home I had time to ponder a lot of things.  One of the thoughts was “can fish hear us when we pull them from the water?”
If so, then fish must think the world above them is entirely populated by shouting, laughing rednecks that smell like beef jerky and chewing tobacco.   I imagine the conversation that bass must have had when he returned to his underwater hideout.
Fish 1: Dude…where did you go?
Hog: I don’t know…I hammered a small shad that came by and it dragged me all the way up to where we run out of water.
Fish 1: What happened?
Hog: Some rednecks clobbered me with a net, then scooped me out with it, laughed, weighed me, ate some beef jerky, took some pictures, and threw me back.
Fish 1: Dude that’s crazy. 
Hog: No…I’ll tell you what’s crazy…the new iPhone apparently has a flash on it…I’m still half blind from it.
How a place gets a name
We’ve been going to Pickwick often enough that we’re figuring a few things out.  Over time you earn your experience and the places where you’ve been successful get burned into your memory.  This nameless point is beginning to get a reputation on my boat.  Last year I caught a five pounder here, and this weekend Lowery caught one of equal size.  The most logical name for this place now is Five-Pound Point.  Like success itself…these named places are few and far between.  Currently, I only have three or four places that are productive enough to have a name.  These are places like The Hog Pen, Baitfish Cove, and now Five Pound Point. 
The rest of our day was an exercise in boat control and anger management as the wind blew relentlessly and we caught nothing else.  Ultimately the day was a huge success…we came out under apparently difficult conditions, caught a very nice fish, and didn’t sink the boat in the tsunami below the dam.
The layup 
If this is the last time I put the boat away before winter then I’m doing it with great satisfaction.  We caught some good fish this year, right up to the last trip.  From mid-March to December 3rd that boat served as an escape from reality.  It’s too cold to fish now so I’ll lay the boat up for the next four months.  
Until then it will sit covered in the back yard, the cold air chilling its hull and the driving rain rolling off its cover.   Occasionally I’ll stare at the boat from inside the warm and dry shelter of my home as I slowly sip on a hot mug of coffee and remember the good times we’ve had on it.  A few more months and we’ll be at it again…a few more months. 

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed the story. Good luck in the upcomming year!