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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Largemouths and sonar

Yesterday I had a decision to make.  i could turn right and go to work, or i could turn left and go to the lake.  I hear that life is short, so I took a left.

I was on the water by 12:30 with no place to be and nothing to do but focus solely on fishing.  I wanted to really try to figure out where the bass were.  I've been catching a lot of small males on the beds recently and I planned to invest some time in discovering where the bigger fish were.

Ultimately I ended up at the spot below.   Last week I caught a few bass on the middle portion of the southern bank of this cove (north is up).  So I started there again this week.  i worked the area methodically with a carolina rig but I caught nothing.  I pulled back a little deeper and saw some fish hugging the bottom, I worked them methodically and patiently but drew no strikes.

I pulled further back toward the mouth of the cove and my screens lit up.  It looked like the county fair was underway on the point at the south end of the cove.  It was unbelievable how much bait was on the screen.  I could see huge clouds of baitfish with other bigger fish below them…my brain was screaming that this was my spot. I had plenty of time, and i still had an unusual amount of patience left so I decided to stay right there until I figured out how to catch them.

This is on Pickwick so the landscape is big forested hills that fall to the lake and become rocky cliffs and ledges about 10 feet before they hit the water.  It's chunk rock city and sheer ledges underwater in this spot.

A few casts in I caught a 2.5 lb largemouth up near the bank…it was the nicest fish I'd caught all day and it encourage me to stay.  The water here is a really nice clear green and on a beautiful blue-sky day like we had it just turned the water into something special to look at.  Occasionally I'd see some brownish clouds in the water but for the most part it was really clear.

After another 20 minutes or so with no bites I saw another discolored spot in the water between me and the bank 30 yards away.  WHOOOOOOOSSSSSHHHH!!!!!!  About 10,000 shad turned and pushed the water up as the top of the school breached the surface.  O…M…G.  The "brownish" stuff I had been seeing in the water was HUGE schools of shad the length of my hand.  They moved the water with such speed, and the sight and noise was so unexpected that I couldn't have been more surprised if an Orca breached next to the boat.  It was unreal.

It made perfect sense…I'd been watching them get murdered on live sonar for the past half hour…but to see them and hear them and really get some perspective on their size…that was an eye opener.  I could now connect the blips on my screen with the real live critters that made them.

Now I had an idea.  Last summer someone gave me some advice when I was struggling to catch fish with this much bait in the water.  They told me to get UNDER the baitfish…to mimic something that was dying and falling out of the school.

The next time that big school of shad came by I tossed a white/chartruesse spinner bait past the cloud, let it sink, then popped it up and let it fall.  I'd do this the whole way under the school…pop it up and let it fall away from the safety of the bait ball.

On perhaps my third pull I was waiting for the lure to hit the bottom and I got hit so hard that I was disoriented.  I couldn't believe how hard my bait just got hit.  It felt like a log had come downriver at about 40 MPH and slammed my bait.  Most times on a spinner bait there's a pop or a pop-pop that signifies the bait has been hit, then I lower my rod tip, reel up the slack, then set the hook.  Then after I set the hook it takes a second or two for the fight to develop to the point where i can tell if it's a decent fish or not.

There was none of that on this catch.  This catch went straight from relaxed with nothing happening, to red-line, katy-bar-the-door.  It was an IMMEDIATE crushing of the bait that instantly stressed every link in my tackle to the max.  From the nano-second it happened I knew I had a real issue on my hands.

At first I thought it was a catfish because it was so heavy and wouldn't come off the bottom.  Then I started to winching the beast to the surface and with the quick flash I saw I began to think it might be a drum…because it just would not come up.  Then my line drifted right…and I watched as that translucent thread sliced the emerald green water and began to rise…it was going to breach…it's a bass…my brain screamed "brace for impact!"

And breach it did.  It breached and arched and shook violently in a classic display of bass behavior.  It was REALLY pulling hard.  I was now worried about my line.  This is a rocky lake full of flat slabs of sharp edged shale…if you don't retie regularly you WILL get your heart broken on this lake.  I lightened my drag a little and watched as it came up and drifted lazily just under the surface, almost as if it just wanted to get a good look at me before we started Round 2.

This was a nice fish, it was way bigger than anything I'd caught on my last few trips, it had a huge head, broad shoulders, and colors and marks on it that made it look ancient.  About the time I came to the conclusion that this was a really nice bass, I started reaching for the net…I guess that signaled the start of Round 2 because that fish sounded the klaxon and dove hard.  I must have looked like a one man band, fighting a fish with my left hand, holding the net handle with my right, and trying to step on the rim of the net with my right foot so I could get the handle deployed.

Trying to keep pressure on the fish while bending down to get the net was difficult.  At one point I had enough slack in the line that I knew she'd get off…but my error only lasted a fraction of a second…not long enough for my aquatic adversary to exploit...and in the next few moments I had the fish next to the boat, then net going in….and I plucked it from the it's watery kingdom.

Perhaps the funniest part is that it's been so long since I caught a fish that I cared to weigh, that I had no idea where my scale was.  I wanted to get the fish back in the water as quickly as possible so I was rummaging through my box like a madman trying to to find the scale.  The scale showed 4.5 lbs, I took a pic, and released the fish so it could continue it's reign of terror on the shad.

It's not the biggest fish in the world, but it's the biggest fish of my season, and to a large degree I was only able to catch it because:

A - my electronics told me it was a good area, and

B - I had the patience to keep trying different techniques until something worked

Monday, April 14, 2014

Turkey in moonshine country

The morning of opening day of the Kentucky turkey season I was but a tiny speck on the dark side of the planet earth.  Our hunting spot was nestled deep within hills known as much for their moonshine as for their bird hunting, but two things were certain; the rotation of the earth meant that the sun would soon be visible, and therefore if we didn’t hurry up every bird in Christian County would see us sneaking to our spot on the edge of this 70 acre field.

This morning my partner and I would sneak deep into a part of this huge agricultural field that he calls “turkey cove”.  Sunrise was approaching faster than we had expected, so we stepped off the bean field and took a pair of seats against the first trees we came to.  There was nothing but a thin veil of brush between us and the field.  Now we would wait. 

We hadn’t been in our seats a minute before we heard the first gobble from a roosted bird on the other side of the field.  I’m new to turkey hunting and my first thought was that it was pretty neat to hear a gobble since I hadn’t heard one on my last three hunts.  I had no way of knowing that the first gobble we heard would be the opening lesson in what would become a masters level course in turkey behavior.

The sky was turning an early morning gray and within seconds of hearing that first gobble we heard hens yelping on the same ridge.  They were yelping to the left, down low, up high, over on the right then another outrageous gobble.  There were so many hens calling that I couldn’t keep up with them.  Some sounded raspy and textbook, and others sounded very plain like a rookie hunter with a turkey call.  We were on 927 acres of private land that sat along the Pond River and I knew there were no other hunters here...but I couldn’t believe a real turkey could sound so much like a bad box call.

Now the sky was getting brighter and we saw the first bird gliding down from the ridge.  It followed the slope of the tree tops until it cleared the field edge, and then touched down in an open spot about 200 yards from us.  Before we could really say much about it, another three birds pitched out and glided to the same spot.  “Sweet” one of us whispered to the other in a tone of hushed awe.  Now two more birds came in, then four flew down, on and on it went until there were almost thirty birds in the field. 

I was shocked.  I had never seen this many turkeys in front of me...and they weren’t done piling in.  Three hens busted out of the tree line across from us and ran down the field to join the others.  A few minutes later a pair of toms ran out the same way...when they turned to run toward the others I could see beards nearly dragging the ground.  From every hill and valley around us we could hear thunderous gobbles and hens yelping and purring and making every other type of sound a turkey could make.  At this point I felt pretty good about my calling abilities...I sounded way better than a lot of these birds!

So far we hadn’t made a sound.  We wanted to see how this would shape up.  Before long our spirits sank.  The hens led the group out to our right…way out into the middle of this field.  Toms were blowed up and strutting and hens acted like they were more interested in feeding than in paying attention to the boys.  Birds fought and kicked each other.  At times toms strutted three wide shoulder-to-shoulder all blowed up as if marching in formation.  At this early point in the morning we had no less than 35 birds on the field all stretched out as if in a parade that led to the middle of the field.  There were groups of hens being courted by smaller groups of toms...all along the parade route the gobblers were in various stages of being puffed up.  There were deer a few hundred yards beyond the turkeys and more blowed up toms a few hundred yards beyond them.  It was truly a postcard type picture.  The only noise that ever punctuated the non-stop talk of the turkeys was the sound of a hunter on some far away hill sending a gobbler to his grave.  BOOM went the sound of opening day success for some lucky hunter. 

With every boom our spirits got a little lower...other hunters were having success as our turkeys were slipping further and further away from danger.  The entire parade moved out into the middle of the field and then began to split up, moving in smaller groups to our right.  Some went into coves further down the field while a few eased into a cove of the field about 100 yards to our right.  At this point I asked my partner if we should pull back and try to get ahead of the parade.  He said "nah...let's just sit tight and see what happens". 

Meanwhile, a smaller group of hens that had been moving steadily toward our position directly to our front were getting very close,..uncomfortably close.  A group of three hens had fed all the way to our doorstep.  They were a scant 10 yards away and apparently had no intentions of leaving.  It was time to make like a statue.  We could not move a muscle with birds this close.

The main problem was that I was already in an uncomfortable position.  I had my knees propped up so I could rest my wrists on them and I was holding my gun.  My right leg was beyond merely being had gone from pins and needles, to burning, to almost numb.  My right leg was going to be a real problem...I thought I might really do some physical damage to it if I didn’t get circulation to it quickly.  I had visions of losing my leg to gangrene because of these birds...a tradeoff I might make for a huge gobbler but not for some hens. 

About the time I thought I was just going to have to risk moving it with no regard for blowing the birds out...the hens began moving to my left...and they kept on walking.  Oh thank goodness!  I’ll get to stretch my...wait...more birds...coming even closer.  I watched in horror as a fresh set of hens moved right up to the brush line in front of me.  I had hens at eye-level 6 yards from leg was killing me to the point where it was now a mental a claustrophobic being trapped in a coffin I had to struggle to remain in control.  It took every ounce of self control I had to not move.  Just one move would ease the pain, one small move would save me so much might even save my leg.  I knew my partner must have been dealing with the same issue.  There’s just no way to prepare for having this many birds this close for this long. 

These hens weren’t going anywhere though...they were intent on torturing us.  They were so close I could’ve strangled one.  Oh how they stayed...just looking around and eating.  There was never a time when they all had their heads down.  One of them was always up and peering into the woods.  They were almost in my lap and I had no idea how they couldn’t see me.  About the time I was convinced I would die if I didn’t move, my brain suggested that scaring these hens off might actually be a good thing.  There were no toms around and they were just cramping our style so why not move and scare them off?  About this time my partner whispered to me “hey...don’t move...gobblers behind us.  If I give you the signal wheel around and shoot them.”

He said it so matter of fact.  He said it like he was talking to a man who had full use of his arms and legs.  At this point that was not me...I had no ability to move my right leg and was rapidly losing the ability to move my left arm.  Asking me to “wheel around” would be akin to asking a guy with no legs to do a 40 yard dash. 

I eased my head to the right, looked over my shoulder and saw two big toms moving behind us.  They were all blowed up, wing tips dragging the ground, red and blue heads gliding silently over the forest floor with beards nearly touching the ground.  It was as impressive a display as one could encounter in the woods.  Now I had three hens 6 yards in front of me, and two big blowed up toms 10 yards behind me.  Still we sat.  I lost them when my eyeballs ran out of room to pivot right...but I could still hear them drumming.  Oh my legs. 

A few minutes later the toms disappeared deeper into the woods behind us.  Miraculously the hens to my front retreated on their own.  At this point I got the blessed relief I was looking for.  I put my gun down and used both hands to straighten my right leg so I could reposition to the other side of the tree.  The toms were behind us so that’s the way we’d hunt. 

In less than a minute we were both facing away from the field we had watched all morning and were looking back into the woods, my partner to my left and in front of me by about 2 or 3 yards.  He was looking to his left and announced that he saw something where the cove (now on our left) meets the woods.  He stroked the slate call and a thunderous gobble returned to us.  80 yards out he could see two gobblers.  I was looking straight ahead while he looked left.  Deep into the woods I saw a dark shape move between the “V” of a large split trunk oak.  “That’s not normal” I thought.  I got my binoculars up and saw another shape move past the same spot.  I scanned right and found a bird paralleling our position about 80 yards out...then another.  Two birds were moving left to right.  “Ugh” I thought “they’re not coming in…they’re just paralleling us and will disappear.”

I told my partner that I had “birds right”.  He kept looking left and said “I see them.”  I reiterated “no dude...look right...birds are on the right”.  Still he looked left.  I told him “look past that dead cedar tree...they are moving past it to the right.”  That was enough to get him on the birds. 

He hit the slate and another volley of gobbles came back to us.  I could see the birds turn toward us.  I whispered at him “Here they come.  You want to take the left one and I’ll take the right?”

“Cool” came the reply.  The downed cedar formed an obstacle that the birds had to go around.  Once they got to the end of it, the trail was the equivalent of a sidewalk that led more or less right to us.  We both had our guns up, and as the birds rounded the corner looking directly at us they were puffed up as big as they could be.  The moment they rounded that corner they were in my kill zone.  There was now nothing but 40 yards of empty space between me and my first turkey.   

I was waiting on my partner to confirm that he had a visual on the left bird.  The birds were at 40 yards. 

“I’ve got no shot” he said.  The birds slowly marched.

I waited, hoping that in a few more steps something might open up for him.

“If you have a shot at the left bird, take it” he whispered. 



36 yards.

“Do you have a shot?”


BOOM!  My sights had been on the tom since he rounded the corner and all it took was enough pressure to move the trigger a fraction of an inch, the sear tripped, the hammer fell, the firing pin lurched forward and sent 2 ounces of number 6 shot right into that birds face.  It folded like a lawn chair and began wildly and reflexively flapping it’s wings.

The trailing bird recoiled at the noise for just a fraction of a second, then loaded his legs and sprang on top of the first bird that was dying and started whooping his butt.  I mean he was laying it to him, doing the River Dance on the dying corpse of his buddy.  I was shocked.  I was in no way prepared for that reaction. 

The bird was so distracted by dishing out this beating that it enabled my partner to move far enough right to get a shot at him.  BOOM!  The shot knocked the bird off his pal and into the leaves behind him.  In a moment he was back on his feet and running.  BOOM!  A second shot was sent at the wounded but running bird.  When the second shot went off the bird took a turn that had him coming right at us.  At the last second he veered to our left and made for the field.  I still had a round in the chamber and quickly asked “do you want me to finish him?”  The bird was stopped with his head right in my sights as I waited for the answer. 

My partner looked to be fishing for another shell and I didn’t want to take a shot without confirmation.  The last thing I wanted was for him to not hear me and step into my line of fire so I waited for his answer.  “Yeah, finish him” came the response.  As soon as the words were uttered the bird took a step and put a tree between us.  It seemed like a year passed before he took another step that had him back in the kill zone...his head popped out...BOOM!  Game over. 

I had just taken my first ever turkey, and we had taken two in the span of perhaps 10 seconds.  What a fantastic day that was.  It had gone from promising, to hopeless, to a very tense and painful standoff, to opportunity and finally success.  This is the type of experience that gets people hooked on hunting.