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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The good days are great

Last minute trip

I ran to the lake yesterday afternoon to see if I could catch a few fish before Hurricane Isaac brought rain to the entire region.  I was hoping that it would be better fishing than this past weekend.  Last weekend was a brutal grind…it was exceptionally slow and emotionally I wasn’t ready for another trip like that.

Around 3 PM I pointed my truck east and started my trip to the lake.  I had 100 miles of ground to cover on gently rolling highway that makes a straight line through the farmland of north Mississippi and southwest Tennessee.  In that 100 miles I passed through six or seven speed traps, got stuck in traffic due to an accident on the highway, was hit by a downpour of rain, and found out that the fuel dock at my marina was closed.  I took all of it in stride.  I stopped at an auto parts store and bought a gas can along my route, found a detour around the accident, and bought some non-ethanol gas for the boat right before I go to the marina.  Now all I needed was for the fish to bite.

The weather was partly cloudy and windy…and the parts that had clouds were big dark clouds.  I was also worried that the wind might have the lake chopped up with heaving rollers which would severely limit my options and likely my success as well.

I backed the boat out of its stall and eased around the other boats resting in their slips.  When I got around the end I could see the rock wall jetty that separates the marina from the main lake.  The wind was fairly strong but due to its direction it couldn’t really chop the lake up…another good sign.  I idled over to a large rock wall that forms one edge of the marina and planned to fish my way along it with a spinner-bait to see if I could get some action before I left the marina. 

I put my trolling motor on autopilot and pointed it parallel to the wall and started pitching a white and chartreuse spinner bait.  I made perhaps 20 casts with no action before I got to the mouth of the marina.  The wind was a lot stronger here as it blasted through the opening between the high rocky point on my left and the long rock-pile on my right.  I was now sitting right in the middle of the entrance to the marina…a gap maybe 60 yards wide and the fish finder was going nuts. 

Frenzy in the gap

With the fish finder going crazy I figured I better investigate the area thoroughly before moving on.  I had just cast my spinner-bait out toward the rock-pile jetty and was walking back to look at the sonar when I got hung on something.  “Dang” I thought…”I’m hung up on something deep”.  The wind was blowing, the water was moving, I was walking, and the boat was slipping backward in the water a bit so it was tough to tell exactly what was going on.  I pulled harder on my line trying to free it and it looked like the line was moving…but so many things were moving at the moment that it was tough to tell. 

I reeled against the line and it appeared to be coming in…but it was still heavy and still deep…and then the line really started moving.   It took off to the right, straight toward the “no wake” buoy in the middle of the entrance channel.  I wasn’t even out of the marina yet and I had a fish on the line!  That first fish fought like a champ…ultimately he was fighting way above his weight class.  He was only a 2.5 lb. largemouth but I’ve had bigger fish fight less.  It was a nice start to the evening trip.

Now I was really curious about this spot.  I had the lake entirely to myself at this point. One or two fishing boats had come in off the water but there was nobody left.  The parking lot was empty and the only company I had were these fish and about 60 boats lying empty in their slips. 

It was late afternoon, it was quiet, not too hot, and the wind removed any hint of humidity that might have been there.  Amidst this solitude the circus began.  I could now see schooling fish rising from the depths and racing each other to hit smaller fish on top.  The sonar was still going crazy with beeps indicating fish in the area and there were sporadic top-water strikes all around me. 

I saw a feeding frenzy on top not 15 feet from my boat so I put the spinner bait down and I grabbed a spinning reel rigged with a green Senko.  A Senko is the most plain-Jane lure ever created.  It is a stick of rubber designed to look like a Bic ball point pen…very unremarkable.  But the action of the lure turns out to be wonderful.  It floats horizontally, and if you give it a twitch it darts one way of the other and then resumes its horizontal float.  This makes it a very tempting target for a predator like a bass.  It’s long and skinny and helpless looking and it makes a huge tactical mistake every time it moves.  It bolts quickly which gets everyone’s attention (Look at me!  Look at me!) …and then it stops…which makes it ridiculously easy to kill.  This thing is about as tempting and vulnerable as bacon on an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Everyone likes to eat it and it can’t get away.

So I toss my Senko into the fray.  I was amazed to sit there and watch these powerful green fish racing alongside each other as they competed to see who ate first.  This was the food chain in action...survival of the fittest in real-time.  I watched as the four-fish group quickly hammered their target and then broke away from each other in different directions.  Once the crime had been committed they scattered…and one was moving directly toward my Senko.   He was making a gradual descent into the green depths as he approached my boat and when I thought the timing was right I twitched the Senko once…then twice…then BOOM.  He had it.  Fish on!  This was a smaller fish and I caught it just a few feet from the boat so there wasn’t much of a fight but it was fun and I had clearly stumbled onto something here.  I had just caught two fish on two different lures at the mouth of the marina. 

OK…that was cool.  But can I catch another one from this area?  This time I started casting toward the outside of the rock jetty.   I wanted to see how much of an area these fish were occupying.  After a few casts I hooked up with another hard fighting bass.  This was crazy.  I enjoyed the fight, the weather, the solitude, and the surroundings.   After landing him I quickly tossed him back started to think.

What was the deal?  Why was the fishing good right here, right now?  What are the conditions that are driving this feeding frenzy?  A quick survey of my surroundings gave me some clues.  The wind was pushing hard straight into the mouth of the marina.   This could be causing some current that is forcing bait fish into the area where the predators are stacked up and waiting on them.  As much as it’s a success story about bass fishing it could alternately be written as a shad’s worst nightmare…a strong current pushing you down an alley full of murderers bent on your destruction.  Yeah…that’s a small fish’s nightmare for sure but today it was a dream come true for me.

After giving some quick thought to the conditions that might be creating this frenzy I had to get back to fishing.  I picked up a rod loaded with a chatter-bait and I tossed it toward the cliff that formed the left side of the marina entrance.  The chatter-bait vibrates like a small jack-hammer as you wind it back to you.  It wobbles and vibrates and puts off some commotion that makes it easier for a bass to track it.  It feels kind of like you’re holding an electric toothbrush when you’re working it…until something hits it…which happened at that moment with a hard thud.  The small vibrating retrieve disappeared with a heavy thump and my line started cutting toward deeper water just outside the marina.  It was a good fight but this fish wasn’t getting away.  It was destined to see the inside of my boat just as the others had.  The fight grew a lot harder as I drew the fish toward the boat…which made me think it might be a smallmouth.  Closer and closer it came diving deep each time I got near it.  Ultimately I pulled a bronze colored smallmouth bass from the water.  Now I had another fact to ponder.  The largemouth were all caught to my right where the deep water meets the man-made rock-pile jetty.  This smallmouth was to my left where a natural cliff/rock wall fell to the water line leaving a scattering of small boulders lying about before descending to deeper water.   I filed that info and got back to work. 

Moving on

I wanted to see if I could catch some more smallmouths so I eased out of the marina and worked the natural shoreline to the left because it was the same boulder strewn landscape where I caught that last fish.  I worked methodically for the next 50 yards but I came up empty.  Now the plan was to go back and work the other direction…along the man-made rock-pile jetty.  

I figured I’d ease my way down 50 yards of that structure and then move on.  There were several other places I wanted to try out while the fish seemed to be in the biting mood.  I hated to leave a big school of biting fish but I really wanted to try some other places and techniques while the conditions seemed optimal. 

I got one strike as I moved down the rock-pile to the right of the entrance.  It wasn’t a really committed strike and nothing came from it.  After 50 yards I pulled up the trolling motor, sat down, fired up the big motor and started to idle away…but then I saw something on the sonar.  It looked like a big ball of baitfish sitting on the bottom with some other larger fish around them.  A fleeting thought turned into a plan and then into action as I killed the big motor and grabbed a rod holding a heavy jig.  Out of sheer curiosity I wondered if I could put a big jig down there in the middle of that action and draw a strike.  Normally I wouldn’t waste my time with such a move…after all I had just fished along the length of it with no luck.  But today I was brimming with confidence…I was on a roll.  Why not try it?  I pitched the huge jig with a tube trailer straight toward the rock-pile that was perhaps 40 feet behind me. 

After it hit the bottom I heaved it up twice and let if fall back down…nothing.  I heaved it up twice again and let it fall…BAM!  Before it hit the bottom something smacked it.  I heaved back on the rod and felt it load up heavy…something was on the other end now.   I was laughing as I brought this fish up.  It was clearly another largemouth bass and I could see my orange/brown lure in his mouth when he breached the surface trying to shake loose. I wanted to tell him that it was a waste of time fighting…today was my day and there was nothing he could do about it.

In just over half an hour I had used five different lures to catch five bass.  This was so easy it was like I was the king of these fish…I was ruling them…everything was working.  I was catching fish at will with any lure I chose to use.  At this point I felt as if I could just slam my hand down into the water grizzly-bear-style and snatch a fish up.   It was ridiculously good fishing.  It was the type of day that keeps you coming back for the rest of your life.  I was putting a bona-fide MMA type beat down on these fish.  I was dropping elbows on them, putting them in rear-choke-holds…heck I even put a fish in a Kimora…and that’s tough to do because fish don’t have arms.

After catching the fifth fish I sat down at the console of my boat with a huge smile on my face and I surveyed my surroundings.  Here I was on the Pickwick Lake, surrounded by high forested hills and bountiful waters.   A huge lumbering barge slowly churned its way toward me in the distance.  It was the only other boat on the water and it was perhaps 4 miles away.  The sight of that barge set against the tree-topped rocky cliffs behind it was a sight I could have sat and watched for an hour.  It’s serene.  I fish a lot of places and see a lot of things on the water…but when I see a barge pushing through the river channel with those hills behind it I know I’m home.  Sitting here alone catching fish, with no traffic, no phone, no e-mail…no stress. 

Decision Time

Now I had a decision to make.  Do I stay here at the marina and keep pounding these fish?  Or do I try to take advantage of these conditions by seeing where else I can catch them (and learning more lessons in the process)? 

Ultimately I decided that this was the perfect time to move on.  I’d caught a limit in a hurry which meant that as long as I didn’t get hit by the only other boat on the lake (the barge) the day was a complete success no matter what I did next.  I decided it was time to do some learning.  My next stop was a hump out in the main river channel.  The idea was to throw a heavy jig, wait for it to hit the bottom, and then hop it back to me along the bottom.

The first part of the plan went great.  I heaved that big jig down river toward the barge in the distance and then I watched my spool.  I watch the spool so I can tell when the jig has hit the bottom.  It will give line continuously and then stop when the jig makes contact with the lake floor.   Then I start my retrieve. 

I was casting into maybe 30 foot of water so I knew about how long it should take before I’d see the spool stop.  I’m looking straight down at my reel the whole time.  After about 10 or 15 seconds the spool is still going.   “Hmmm…maybe I’m stronger than I realize and I tossed it way out into deeper water.”

The spool continued.  I watched as the spool got to “new line”.  This was line buried so deep in spool that it had never seen the water on a normal cast.  I was shocked that this much line was leaving my reel.   What on earth could be going on?  I looked up more to make sure my trolling motor was holding my on my spot than anything else when I realized my line wasn’t where I cast it.  It was now far off to the right of my boat.  Could a fish have hit it on the way down?  No way…but I’d better set the hook just in case.  I yanked back hard on the rod but he jig just came toward me with no resistance. 

I was confused…so I figured I’d start over.  Again I cast downriver toward the barge and again the reel gave waaaaaay too much line. Then it dawned on me…this is current…a very strong current.  Pickwick is a power generating lake with a hydro-electric dam at each end.  When they let water out they can use one or more generators…the more they open the more water they “pull” from the lake.   This was more current than I had ever seen on the lake.  I’ve got a heavy jig with a tube trailer on my line and it simply cannot reach the bottom in this current.  It is being swept sideways and past me on every cast.

Now a light has really gone off in my head.   The fishing has been so good today because all of this current.  The combination of the wind and the current is changing the playing field.  Now I just need to read the landscape to find places where the baitfish will be pushed…and I’ll find the bass. 

With the puzzle finally solved I set out in search of places “like” the marina entrance.  I wanted places creek mouths with deep water nearby and potential “slack water” areas where fish could stage...and the wind had to be pushing into the creek mouth.   Basically every creek mouth for the next four miles should work…I just had to hit them to see if the fish were home. 

All good things…

It was getting late and the sun had just dropped behind a huge cloud bank on the western horizon.   As it did so it set the edges of the cloud ablaze with a fiery orange fringe that made the cloud itself seem impossible grey.  I had to work faster than the sun was dropping if I was going to get to all the places I wanted to hit.   The only bad feeling I had on this trip was when the sun started getting low.  It was a timer that couldn’t be slowed and it was reminding me in the starkest terms than my great fishing day would soon be over. 

I hit the gas and went to my next spot.  Despite the wind, the water was still pretty smooth and I flew up river with the water rushing by and new sights coming into view and just the most unbelievably comfortable weather you could ask for.   Spot after spot I checked with not much success.  The final spot I had picked out was just covered up with fish.  The sonar was beeping like a terrorist going through a metal detector and I was really excited that the plan was working.  Before I could make many casts it was dark.  I have no problem fishing after dark but I had told the wife I’d be home to hang out with her by 9:30 and I had to leave now to make that happen.

I left with a big smile on my face and nobody around to see it.   I had a short 2 mile run back to the marina but I could see 6 miles downriver.  I saw no one.  It seemed as though I had the entire 50 mile long lake entirely to myself.    I flew along in complete peace making only one stop right there at the mouth of the marina for “one more cast”.  I pitched a few more times for good measure but nobody wanted to play. 

I put the boat back in its slip, jumped in the truck and drove home victorious.  This morning the wife asked me how I slept and I said that I slept great…unlike the fish who slept with shame and fear and embarrassment if they slept at all.  Oh yeah…and sore mouths.  The trash talk really never stops when you’re having a good day. 

In fishing, as in life itself, you don’t get too many days like this so you just have to sit back and enjoy them when you can.  Tomorrow it will be the fish’s turn to gloat but today…today it’s mine.