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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lunkers, rednecks and eels

Fall is here and with it comes some of the best fishing of the year.  If you can deal with the discomfort of being outdoors in volatile weather you will be rewarded with some of natures best scenery and action.  

This past fall I spent three days at the lake with the family one weekend.  The fishing could be described as fun,  painful, and weird in that exact order.  The following is a recap of that trip.

Arrival

Friday afternoon was full of hope as I hit the lake in the cool air of a late Fall afternoon. It was still fairly warm outside but recent cold fronts have been pulling the water temps down, inducing bass to feed, and shocking the trees into changing colors.  When I arrived I saw an acquaintance at the ramp who is a professional bass guide.  He said to fish SLOW if I wanted to catch any.  That’s not great news because it means the fishing wasn’t great...and I hate to fish slow.  

Armed with his report I picked up my trusty Senko worm...the one that was designed to look like a bic pen...it’s a pretty boring lure...but when the fish want to slow dance there are few things better in my tackle box.  

I had the entire lake to myself and I eased down the bank slowly tossing my Senko, letting it sink, and gently twitching it...hoping to get a bite.  The water underneath me was 25 feet deep, but rose quickly to the bank just 20 yards away where it emerged in a jumbled mess of broken rock and gravel that in turn rose steeply again along cliffs and draws into the forested hills above me.  

The sun had dropped behind the big hills but there was still perhaps an hour of light left to work with.  As I quietly made my way down the bank casting at “fishy” looking spots I heard a crack high in a tree to my right.  I looked up to see a large Bald Eagle leap from his perch and take to flight with powerful sweeps of it’s huge brown-wings.  

I stopped fishing and watched as he locked his wings out and just glided down the river, soared back over the trees to my south, and disappeared over into the setting sun.  Watching that gigantic bird of prey made my night...and it told me I was probably in a good fishing spot as he likely wasn’t hanging out right here for the conversation.  

A few seconds later I approached a spot where I had seen bass chasing baitfish earlier.  I threw my green bic pen into the fray and BAM!  I had the first fish of the night...a smallmouth bass.  As I tossed him back I thought I heard something behind me and turned to notice a boat a few hundred yards distant.  I wasn’t alone anymore but I still had nobody crowding me.  

Next cast...another fish...this one larger.  After a short struggle I landed a largemouth bass.  As I tossed him back I couldn’t help but kick back and take in just how awesome the surroundings were.  I’m plucking fish out of the lake one after another with bald eagles soaring, the leaves turning bright on their trees, the crickets chirping...and about this time I had another song in the air.  My bucolic setting was now being periodically interupted by shouts of “MOTHERF#@$!#” as the redneck in the boat behind me struggled with motor problems.  Every few casts I’d hear a motor turning and turning and desperately trying to start followed by loud staccato bursts of cursing.  Ahhh yes...the serenade of the redneck...how I do love the outdoors.  

Under the power of his trolling motor he slowly made his way over toward me...I could see this coming a mile away.  I’d help anyone...anytime...but I sure would hate to have to pull off a bite like this.  Don’t get me wrong, if it was a pontoon boat full orphaned kids that needed help I’d drop whatever I was doing...I’d cut the line on a 10 lb bass if someones life was in trouble.  But this was a redneck in a johnboat with a 50 year old 25 HP motor.  That guy KNOWS his motor is going to fail him frequently so he really should plan his day around it.  I kind of empathized with him...I’d probably be cussing like that too if my motor quit.  I figured that if he asked for help I’d tow him to the shore and tell him I’d be back to get him after sundown or he could come fish with me until it got dark.  The fish were biting and I wasn’t pulling off this bite just because he couldn’t take care of his motor...that’s his problem...not mine.  Thankfully he never asked for help.  He got it going enough that he could reach the edge of the lake and that’s the last I saw of him.  After catching two more fish I blasted off for another spot.  

I had put five fish in the boat so the night was a total success.  I caught nothing more that evening.  About half past sunset I turned the boat north and headed back to the cabin.  The water was smooth, the air cool, and the scent of distant fires filled each breath as I blasted into the deepening blackness that enveloped the lake.

Winters warning shot

Saturday was one of those days that makes you appreciate the little things in life...like not dying of hypothermia.  It was cold and grey and as soon as I stepped onto the boat it began raining.  My slip at the marina is covered and I took a moment to ponder the situation.  My hands were arleady getting so cold that it was difficult tying knots.  Deciding didn’t take long...I’d come to fish and despite not having the right gear I’d give it a shot.  The cabin was nearby so the odds were good I could get warm before hypothermia ruined the day.  

As the wind whipped me there at the dock I realized that I had to get warm.  All I had on was a gortex shell, jeans, and a short sleeve t-shirt.  It was raining, windy, and the forecast was for 41 degree wind chill.  I quickly dug into a compartment and pulled out my best improvised solution...a foam filled life jacket.  If you spend a lot of time fishing you are likely among a fairly small group of people in the world who have donnned a life jacket not because the boat was going down...but to keep from freezing to death.  The thick panels of foam trap body heat very efficiently and after I put my rain-jacket over it I was tolerably warm.  While I couldn’t laugh right in Hypothermias face I could now at least chuckle behind it’s back.  

With my ad-hoc solution in place I left the cover of the dock.  A quick run down the river had me at a spot that should contain a great number of bass.  I had spoken with a game warden earlier in the day that told me the place was loaded with fish.  If a game warden tells me a spot is loaded...it’s the best sign ever...it’s the equivalent of insider trading in the financial world.  Except it’s not illegal in fishing...so I went to the spot he told me about.  

With great patience I worked through every lure I could think of that might work on this  matted grass flat my warden buddy told me about.  Despite what I thought...nothing worked.  The wind was constant and it pushed a soft rain the entire time.  Shortly before sunset I watched a coyote work the edge of some distant woods and silently I hoped that his luck would be better than mine tonight...I also envied the thick fur coat he was wearing.   

With the fading light came a heavier rain that demanded attention.  It was a cold sideways rain; the type that could hurt you if you weren’t prepared for it...and I was only half-prepared for this.  After a few more “last casts” I sat down, zipped my jacket up to my face, put on a set of ski goggles , pulled on my hood, and pushed the throttle.  The  boat quickly got on plane and as I pushed into the wind at 30 MPH the rain beat my jacket loudly and the wind chill made me thankful I had a cabin nearby. 

The length of any ride in a boat is determined not by distance...but by conditions.  The colder, windier, and wetter the weather the longer the ride...and by those standards tonights ride was not going to be short.  The life jacket was doing an admirable job of warming the parts it was covering...but there were many parts it didn’t cover.  Hands and arms and legs were all exposed and suffering at this point.  I kept the throttle down because I subscribe to the philosophy of suffering a lot for a short time, rather than less pain for a longer time.  As I pulled into the shelter of my slip at the marina the high metal roof shielded me from the rain.  My hands were throbbing with cold from the rain and the wind-chill and I was glad to be under some cover.  I pulled off my goggles and stood there shivering and listening to the rain clattering on the roof...I’ve always liked that sound.  



Gratuitous action pic


Later that night, from the warmth of the cabin I reflected on the day.  I had gone out in the rain, caught no fish, and come back wet, cold to the core, and shivering.  Just about that time a blowing rain picked up again and I could hear it lashing the roof.  Right then I realized why I like the sound of rain on a roof...it’s because that is the sound of “warm-and-dry”.  If I’m hearing that sound it’s because there is a roof between me and the elements.

The last day

The last day I had high hopes.  I’d spent the afternoon lounging next to a wonderful campfire with the kids.  Around 4 PM it was time to go fishing and I needed to put out the fire before I left.  The kids excitedly sprang to life chattering about how they wanted to put the fire out.  They’ve apparently seen a lot of fires put out in the cartoons and they had a backlog of techniques they wanted to try.  Who am I to tell them no?  I watched with great amusement as they pulled out techniques I’d seen in Looney Tunes for years being properly executed here in real life.  With the fire safely doused I hit the lake.

My first stop of the day was only a few hundred yards from the cabin and as I looked back that way I could see the smoke from our recently doused campfire rising from the forest.  It was a nice reminder that I’d be back with the family in a few hours. 

My first stop of the day was also filled with hopes for retribution.  Two weeks earlier we were hastened off the lake by a late rain and on my last cast I hooked a nice 4 lb largemouth and got it all the way back to the boat when it shook the hook.  That fish was so close it could have licked my hull number if it had wanted to...and it had the indecency to get off before I could reach down and pluck it from the water.  I wasn’t terribly upset by it but it would be nice to score here today to make up for it.

With uncharacteristic patience I decided to work a KVD crankbait very slowly along a 100 yard stretch of this rocky point.  After covering perhaps 50 yards of gravelly bank punctuated by chunks of larger rock I found a small curve in the bank sheltered by a fallen log.  With laser guided precision I sent my tiny KVD 1.5 flying to the sheltered spot.  As I retrieved it I could feel every slow little wobble it made and about three feet after it started to move it got clobbered.  The rod loaded up heavily and I saw my line slicing through the water to the right...directly toward the downed limb.  Ugh...this will not do...I cant’ let that fish tie me up in that limb or this will be the second round I lose on this spot.  

The fish re-thought it’s options and abruptly turned left, choosing the sanctuary of deep water as more fitting than the fallen log.  This was a mistake of colossal proportions.  This would go down in his record book as the day his win streak ended...today he would see the inside of my boat.  I smiled broadly as he steamed for deeper water...I could fight him here.  And fight we did.  He launched from the water like a great white shark hammering a sea otter...well...like a really small great white shark anyway.  As it drew nearer to the boat I got a look at him...and he at me.  I’m guessing he recognized my hull number because when he got near it he dove hard and dang near straight down taking a fair amount of my line with him as the drag tried to slow his escape.  

Now I decided that I needed the net.  At this point I looked about as squared away as a one-man-band.  I’m fighting a fish with my right hand, grabbing the net with my left, and trying to use my left foot to extend the handle.  If the fish could have seen this he’d have spit the hook out with laughter.  I fought him back close to the surface and with a move that must be straight out of a Yoga book I squatted down, extended my left arm out one way, my right arm the other way to bring him close to the net, and I just barely got him in.  Bam...I now had a 4 lb largemouth on the deck of my boat.  I have no idea if it’s the same one that beat me last week, and I hate to stereotype things...but all of these 4 lb bass look alike...if it’s not him I imagine he knows the one I caught last week and when they compare hull numbers the truth will be known.  For now though I’ve got the picture so that makes me the winner of this round. 



The rest of the evening I was hitting main lake points, fishing them slowly and enjoying the sunset.  On the next gravelly point down from where I bagged the 4 pounder I got another hit right where the gravel bar drops off deep.  It felt solid.  I got the fish close to the boat and I could see it had something on it.  It looked like a huge worm was stuck to this fish.  The “worm” was almost as long as the two pound bass on my line.  I didn’t have time to look at it I just hoisted the both of them into the boat and figured I’d release them together...just like they were.

When I got the fish in the boat the worm/leach/alien predator thing detached, ran around my boat shrieking like a banshee (the noise might actually have been me), and tried to eat my face off before I shot it dead with a .44 mag.  

I’m exaggerating a little bit when I relay that story.  While it didn’t really go down just like that...it was really a crazy and weird deal.  

I’m not a squeemish guy by any means...but the look of that “worm” and the wound it had caused gave me a severe case of the heebee jeebees and I couldn’t wait to get that thing off my vessel.  

It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen on the water.  It flopped and writhed on the deck of the boat and for a moment I was at a loss as to  how to get rid of this thing.  Before I got rid of it though I had to document it...I had to find out what this thing was and a picture was the best way so I broke out the iPhone.  After getting photographic evidence of this aquatic monster my mind returned to the task at hand...how to get rid of it.  Having just seen the wound it left on the bass I really didn’t want this thing getting its mouth on me.  Ultimately I grabbed it by the tail with my multi-tool and tossed it overboard, the whole time making faces and sounds one would normally associate with a fifth grade girl who just had a booger flicked on her.  

After I got the sea monster off the boat I called it quits and went in search of answers.  In time I would discover that the alien worm I had encountered is called a Lamprey.  More disturbing than the initial encounter is the knowledge that in some cultures...they are considered...a delicacy.  One more reason to thank God I live in America...where nobody cooks up parasitic eels as a meal.  

So that wrapped up another fall fishing trip full of fun and adventure.  With a little more preparation and some luck the next trip will be long on fun and short on cold weather and parasitic eels.  Below are pics of the victim as well as the perpetratorbe thankful you are viewing this from the comfort of your computer chair.  Note that the wound on the bass is the same shape and size as the mouth of the Lamprey.  This is the reason you should always carry a sidearm when fishing…you might need to shoot a Lamprey.  




Victim - Green, 2.5 lbs, last seen 6 feet deep






Perp - armless and dangerous.  Approach with caution.