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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Stripers in Vegas

I feel like a man who’s been away for a year.  I just awoke from 10 hours of sleep in my own bed and I still feel tired.  The last month of travelling has been hectic.  New York City for three days, California for four days, and I just capped it off with a three day trip to Las Vegas.  In the past four weeks I think I’ve been in 12 airplanes, 6 airports, 5 hotels, 2 homes of friends, rental cars, cabs, and a conference hall…oh yeah…and I leave again tomorrow morning on another plane for more rental cars, hotels, and conference halls.

So here I am, sitting on my couch, steadily drinking coffee and trying to piece together every moment of the past 24 hours.  I just returned from my first ever trip to Las Vegas.  Before you start thinking of the cliché “Vegas trip” of a booze-laden outing that consists of crawling from one bar to the next, let me point you in the right direction.  This was a trip designed to abruptly transition from business to fishing.  There was no drinking or gambling in the schedule.  The adventure we were looking for was far away from the bright flashing lights of “The Strip.”  Our biggest gambling losses would be the money we spent on gas and bait…and even if we caught nothing I could hardly think of those as “losses”.  No matter how this trip ended I’d have spent a good bit of time on a new lake with an old friend…I was winning no matter what the fish did.

Before we go any further let me rewind the tape to give you an idea of how this came together.  A few weeks ago my good friend Tony told me that he would be attending the conference in Vegas.   As soon as he registered for the conference he called and told me that he thought he could line up a fishing trip for us on Lake Mead.  “Great” I thought…I was scheduled to speak at the conference but this now became the main reason for going. 

Tony is one of my Monday morning redneck e-mail pals.  Every Monday the e-mails start flying asking “how’d you do this weekend?”  Everyone exchanges tales and pictures of adventure if they have them.  It’s a fun way to stay in touch.  Tony is the author of some of the most adventurous tales on the Monday morning circuit.  He’s up for anything, and I have yet to learn of an obstacle that can stop the man from hunting or fishing.  The only time I know that he has had to cancel a trip is when his canoe tipped over and dumped him and his gear into an icy river.  He said he had to call the trip off so he didn’t die of hypothermia but I suspect he would have risked it if he still had his gun…it went to the bottom of the river when the canoe tipped over. 

He tells of days when he has had to break ice at the boat ramp to get on to the lake.  There are stories of pulling his boat on church trips “just in case” he gets a chance to slip away to a lake that he knows is nearby.  And after watching Tony this weekend not even bat an eye in the face of a 25-30 MPH wind forecast I realized that he is like a black lab or a retriever…if there is water nearby…he will be there…and he’s not coming off until he’s dead tired or someone literally drags him away.  He might be the ultimate fisherman. 

So Tony is the man who set up this trip.  He has a good friend just south of Vegas who has fished Lake Mead for 20 years or so.  The striped bass population is supposed to be very robust.  Our goal is to leave the conference at the Mirage Casino, head down to Henderson Nevada, and do some fishing.  Our plans have been a little vague as so how much fishing we’d be doing.  We’d basically have 17 hours before I have to leave for the airport.  Plan A was to fish just Saturday morning…meaning we’d rise at 0230, on the lake by 0300, and fish til 0900).  Shortly after Plan A was formulated, someone hatched Plan B…which was to fish Friday afternoon, head back to the house around 11 PM to catch a few hours of sleep, then head back out at 0230 to implement the aforementioned “Plan A”.  I don’t know what you really call that….a hybrid plan?  I guess it doesn’t really matter because before long another plan was created…this one had us hitting the lake Friday afternoon and spending the night on the boat…then we could fish until I had to leave for the airport.  The planning process reminded me of a group of 9-year olds planning something.  The plan started with something great and just kept getting more outrageous every time there was a chance to make a change.

I had no idea which of the plans would be executed but I was excited and along for the ride.  When we got to Johns house he gave us some bad news.  The wind was forecast to be at 25 MPH for most of the day and late into the night.  My heart kind of sank.  I have the same size boat that John has and when I see winds over 15 MPH I cancel my trip…no questions asked.  I figured our afternoon plans were sunk.  When I glanced to my left I saw that Tony’s expression hadn’t changed a bit…he was totally down with hitting the lake in 25 MPH winds.  I don’t think he cared at all…he wanted to go fishing and if we died in the process I guess he was cool with that…this was tenacity like I’ve not seen in a fisherman before.  I’ve never been striper fishing before but I started thinking that this must be some kind of great fishing if we are really talkin’ about taking at 18.5 foot boat out onto a big lake with high winds. 

After running down some essentials like fuel, ice, drinks and snacks we hit the lake.  We hadn’t solidified our plans…we still had no idea how long we’d be out.  In typical 9-year old fashion…we’d just figure it out once we got on the lake. 

Lake Mead

For those of you who have not been to Lake Mead let me take a moment to tell you about this place.  The lake is situated just a few miles outside of Las Vegas but it might as well be in a different world.  It is a deep and clear lake that sits in the middle of a rugged and mountainous desert landscape.  I fish in the south so I’m used to seeing lots of trees on the shoreline and covering the rolling hills that surround my local lakes.  Lake Mead has no trees.  It’s nothing but rocks and mountains, and craggy gullies literally as far as you can see.  There are the occasional clumps of trees around a homestead or campground but for the most part it is barren of plant life. The colors here are all various shades of tan and black right up to where they meet the blue sky.  It is a stunning landscape…beautiful in its rugged simplicity.

Waiting for my first Lake Mead striper

In the middle of this dramatic moonscape sits Lake Mead.  It is a very deep lake by my standards…in many places our depth finder was reading over 200 feet of water below us.  In my part of the world 50 feet is deep…and you never fish in the few areas that go down to 90 feet.  I’d be lost fishing this lake by myself.   Luckily for us we had Tony’s good friend John as our guide.

Captain John

John is one of those guys who when you meet him you like him immediately.  If you’re an outdoorsman you’re going to feel like you’ve known him half your life.  He’s an easy going guy with a ton of great stories, a terrific sense of humor, and a depth of knowledge on local history that was enough to answer every question we could throw at him.  To give you an idea of how great a guy he is…the local high school named their gymnasium after him…and it wasn’t one of those deals like at a college where the name goes to the guy with the most money.  He’s just a great guy, and he has volunteered to take us out and show us his lake and we couldn’t be any more excited. 

First strike

We hit the water late Friday afternoon with a plan to hit a spawning flat in 50 feet of water where John had caught a few fish earlier in the day.  We pulled up on a place just off Boulder Beach, tossed out our anchor, and John started chumming the water with a mixture of corn, anchovies, and shad.  If we got stranded I guess we could survive a few days on the chum alone if we really had to.  The fishing was slow starting out…and for a change the weathermen were correct…it blew every bit of 25 MPH while we were there.  It blew hard enough that our anchor lost its grip and we kept drifting off our spot. 

I could see the concern on Johns face.  He really wanted to put us on some fish and he was working really hard to make it happen but it just wasn’t looking good.  We kept reassuring him that we were having fun regardless….but the stress was obvious…he wanted to catch fish. 

Second strike

After a short while of being blown around like a paper sack in the wind John made a call to run down the lake to a more protected spot where they had laid into some catfish that morning.  With the wind at our stern it was easy going and we made good speed over deep water.  Along the way he pointed out local landmarks on the lake like Black Island, Battleship, and Sand Island.   There was also a big pumping station that pulled water for the city that looked basically like a tall oil rig.  It was about 100 yards high and perhaps 150 yards offshore with a bridge leading back to the top of a tall cliff where the pipeline started.  We ran past the pumping station, weaved our way between a few tall islands that jutted up from the depths, then turned left and made our way down past Sand Island and into a place called the Vegas wash.  The terminology was a little different than what I was used to.  They called it a “wash” but it looked like a “creek” to me…a creek with no trees and surrounded by a moonscape but still…a creek.

We set up again and John chummed the water with our emergency food supply of anchovies, shad, and corn while Tony and I waited dutifully with our bottom bouncing rigs.  We were essentially tight-lining shad and anchovies with an egg sinker in 50 feet of water.  We’d see schools of fish cross the depth-finder, with occasional swarms of fish so thick that you’d think it impossible to not catch something…but nothing hit.  We got a hit here or there but nothing was happening.  Just before sunset Tony’s rod bent, he snapped it up, and he had our first fish of the day.   It was fun to watch him battle our first striper to the surface…we were no longer getting skunked.  Success was now on our boat. 

Over the next hour or so we watched a perfect sunset turn the sky to dusky hues of orange and gold.  It simultaneously turned the western horizon into a gorgeous jagged-silhouette of a desert sundown and set the slopes of the mountains to our east awash in a soft golden glow as their peaks fell from great heights along sharp cliffs and ridge-lines that ultimately slipped away into the depths of Lake Mead. 

With sunsets like this, who cares if the fish are biting?

As we watch the sun set it became obvious that most of the fish were stacked up on Tony’s side of the boat.  We’d catch one here and one there but almost all of the bites were on the port side of the boat.  It’s one of those things that make you think the guy was just born to fish.  We are sitting side-by-side…literally one foot apart…and the few fish we are catching are on his hook like a dog on a bone.  Ultimately we caught maybe 8 fish in that spot.  From his demeanor you could tell it was far fewer than John was expecting.  

It was now dark and the little blip in the action that we enjoyed at sunset had abruptly stopped.  We’d had no action in a long time and John began to ponder our plan.  He was weighing two big issues that were staring us in the face.  The first was that the fish simply weren’t biting.  The second was that the wind hadn’t died down at all.  This was a tough set of factors to sort out because on the one hand it made a great deal of sense to call it a night, head back to the house and get some sleep.  But on the other hand we had the weather, which was going to serve as a huge obstacle to getting home. 

The wind was supposed to have died down by now…but it hadn’t dropped a bit.  It had now been blowing at 25 MPH down that lake for hours…which turned the surface of Lake Mead into an angry, heaving mess.  It was also pitch black because the moon hadn’t come up, we had big rollers to deal with, and the stretch we had to cover is one that the locals call “cape fear” due to the way it behaves in the wind. 

I looked alternately at John, who sincerely thought that leaving was the best option, and Tony, who it generally takes a hurricane to dislodge from a lake.  I was a guest so I was up for anything.  Ultimately John decided we’d head for the boat ramp. 

The trip back was an interesting one.  The wind was high, the waves were high, and the going was slow.  A lot of water came over the front of the boat and in a way it was like a slow motion shower on a roller coaster.  John took the brunt of it as he was piloting the boat and didn’t have the luxury of hiding behind the windshield like I did.  Every 30 seconds or so it was like someone took a 5-gallon bucket of water and just threw it in his face.  To his credit…that wind-whipped water lashing at him from the dark never seemed to dampen his spirits…he just chugged along with a smile on his face…I wish I had one-tenth of that guys patience.  After a while we made it around the “cape fear” area, we saw the water pumping station that made such a great landmark, and calmer water made high speeds possible.  We jumped on the gas and headed for home. 

You'd never know the boat was about to sink from looking at Tony

I don’t know what time we got back to the house but I think it got in the bed around 11:45 with a wake up time of 3:30 AM.   If I was lucky I’d get just over three and a half hours of sleep.  This fishing-pace was making our Las Vega casino-pace look like an old folk’s convention.  At the casino our lives were never in danger and we were getting at least six hours of sleep…this fishing was an adventure.

Wake up

3:30 came very early. It was made earlier still because of the cultural differences between Nevada and Tennessee.  In Tennessee if someone wakes up at 3:30 in the morning the first thing they do is make coffee…there are no exceptions to this rule.  You make enough coffee to last until you get to your fishing spot, or until you can reach the first gas station….where you get more coffee.

Today there was no coffee…and nobody mentioned coffee…so like a redneck, kung-fu, zen-master I made like water and just went with the flow.

Third strike?

In no time at all we were back on the water.  Our plan was to head back to the beach we started at yesterday afternoon.  The wind was calm and John was able to put us right on a spot he thought would work.  It was getting light out and the pending sunrise was turning the desert landscape from shades of shadow and grey to lighter colors that allowed us to slowly make out details on the shore. 

Fishing buddies always look wise when set against a sunrise.

Soon enough John was chumming and Tony and I sat monitoring our two rods for any sign of activity.  The first 15 minutes saw our enthusiasm cool a bit.  We saw a few fish on the graph but there was no activity.  After sitting for 20 minutes with no activity John again showed signs of stress…he really wanted to put us on some fish. 

Even when viewed through the fog of sleep deprivation the backdrop was just as beautiful as it was the night before.  The sun was rising over the eastern peaks and there were a few signs of life on the shore.  Suddenly one of Tony’s lines bent over.  It was a deep bend in the rod that caused him to instinctively set the hook.  The first fight of the day was on.  A minute or two later he landed a beautiful striper that might have weighed three pounds.  The timing was perfect, our confidence had just begun to get shaky and John had just begun talking about moving to our secondary spot when Tony got hit. 

A few minutes later another rod bent over…this one in a rod holder at the front of the boat.  BAM!  It jerked down hard.  It’s funny to watch the process.  The rod bends over hard and the guy on that side of the boat has a lag time between recognizing that a fish is hitting, then he has to get to his feet, then he has to sprint 10 feet or so across a crowded boat to get to the rod.  By then you have to hope the fish is still on.  Tony made it in time and caught another fish.  Two fish in just a few minutes was a good start. 

It started to look like it was going to be another day when Tony’s side of the boat got all the action when my line got hit heavy.  I lifted the rod tip and I felt the weight of the fish and started reeling hard…then it went slack…he spit it out.  Tony was still in the lead.  I lost a few fish that way over the course of the morning but we were starting to get some real action. 

As I was explaining how the fish spit the bait out Tony got hit again.  He quickly landed our third or fourth fish of the morning.   The graph showed a near constant procession of fish crossing underneath us.  It was very promising.  John kept chumming the water and handing us rods when they got hit at the front of the boat.  It kind of crept up on us but before long it was a running-riot on that boat. 

There were times when we had three or four fish hooked at a time with lines crossed and three guys handing fish to each other over-and-under the others lines as we tried to untangle them.  It was like a redneck jigsaw puzzle. 

Bam, another fish.  BAM!  Another one.  Rods were deeply bent, drags were screaming, we no longer had time to ask “you got one?”  It was a crazy pace.   Gone were the comments about how pretty the sunrise was or how great the mountains looked this time of day…there was no time for it.  Now it was all business…it was fast and it was furious.  John had summoned a violent gang of fish to gather under our boat and they were absolutely crushing everything we threw at them.  We’d unhook them, throw them in the cooler, and re-bait as fast as we could.  It was moving so fast that we hardly stopped to take any pictures. 

At one point we had a moment that to me seemed like a scene out of a war movie when someone announces that they are out of ammo and everyone stops in the midst of the chaos, looks at each other, and tries to come to terms with the significance of what they’ve just heard.  Tony turned to us and announced “’we’re almost out of room in the cooler.”  Everyone stopped and looked at each other.  Someone mentioned using the live-well, it was a great idea…and we all went back to hammering the stripers. 


What happened next surprised us…John began openly contemplating leaving early.  He was deeply conflicted about pulling us off a bite like this.  First of all, he’s not the kind of guy that would ever pull off a bite like this…it just doesn’t happen every day.  Secondly I thought that maybe he feared a mutiny if he tried it…maybe not so much from me as I was just a guest…but I don’t know how Tony might react to such an idea.  He’s a laid back guy but crazy things happen in a feeding frenzy like this.  

At one point I had just put a fish in the cooler, John was reeling one in at the front of the boat, and I looked at Tony on my right and he was holding two bent-over rods.  He had two stripers on and no way to bring either of them in.  He handed me a rod and we both began fighting these fish to the boat.  I looked over at him with a smile and a look of disbelief and he was looking back with the same expression.  Here we were on Lake Mead absolutely hammering dozens of stripers.  His plan had come together in a major way. 

At some point John said let’s give it five more minutes.  That would give us time to clean the fish and get me to the airport in time for my flight.  I can’t recall how many more fish we caught in that five minutes but it was enough to convince me that we could have continued catching them all day at that rate.  Picturing it from a side-view it was a frenzy on top of a frenzy.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of fish were schooling frantically below us…and 50 feet above them floated a boat with three sleep-deprived rednecks working rods and reels as fast as they could while the action lasted.  We boated 43 stripers in two hours that morning...that combined with the eight fish from the night before put us over fifty fish our first time on Lake Mead.  It was an unbelievable day on the water. 


To John and Tony I say “thanks”.  Thanks for introducing me to Lake Mead and to striper fishing.  After our trip to the cleaning station the guys tried to force some filets on me that I could take home.  The logistics of flying with fresh fish weren’t going to work for me that day but I assured them that there is no amount of fish they could put in my carry-on luggage that would equal the amount John had already given me by teaching me how to fish for stripers. 

If you ever get to Vegas, leave the strippers in town and make a trip to Lake Mead for stripers you’ll never forget.

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