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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Lit up after dark

Last Friday I took off from work so I could fish that afternoon.  After a 2 hour drive over to Pickwick lake I was subjected to 6 hours of the most unproductive fishing that you could imagine. 

Yesterday I took off half a day and was determined to erase the memory of last weeks failure.  I was going to hit the lake and catch a few fish.

I left work, loaded the truck, headed east, and two hours later I had the boat in the water.  My plan was the same as last week: to hit offshore ledges and humps to see if the bass had moved to their summer pattern.  I’d work my way from the middle of Bear Creek toward the main lake along their migration route.  It seemed like a logical plan.

After thirty minutes of idling sonar runs, I saw a big rain shower moving in behind me.  The few boats that were on the water were all running for cover.  There was no lightning, and after my last few experiences with storms I had brought a new secret weapon to deal with this situation...a rain jacket.  I continued fishing in my goretex, impervious to the wet stuff that had chased everyone away.  Ten minutes later the showers were gone.

At this point I was using my sonar to examine a place I call “the Hog-pen” due to it’s propensity to cough up 5 lb. bass.  This is one of my favorite places on the lake but lately it’s shut off.  I thought that maybe my sonar could unlock the secrets of the Hog-pen but I was disappointed...I learned nothing.

Hour-after-hour I spent idling.  I’d check on this hump, speed to that channel to survey it, rocket over to that point to see if there was bait...nothing worked.  All I saw were scattered and suspended fish everywhere.  

I was about to say nothing would bite, but then I remembered I caught a very small hybrid stripe and a tiny smallmouth bass on a bluegill crank bait.  These fish were essentially consolation prizes, the equivalent of the cheap water bottle they give away at events all around the country.  It’s the old “you lost, but thanks for showing up.”  At least I’d be able to say I didn’t get skunked.

I have found that on Pickwick, if you take a bluegill crank bait and grind it along a gravelly will typically get destroyed.  I always have one tied on.  I used to have only one on the boat, but one day I lost it...and I about had a panic attack.  I felt a mouse at a hawk convention.  After that day I always have backups of my favorite lures.  Sadly it just didn’t work today.

I didn’t know what to do, nothing was working.  At one point I actually grumbled out loud “I don’t know what to do...I have no confidence in anything.”  I sat back, nursed a cold Gatorade and studied my options.  I liked my original plan, so I decided to stick to it.  The sun was getting low at this point and I could see the writing on the wall.  I figured I’d get a bit more sonar practice and then head home.

One or two more stops for idling sonar runs and I was packing up.  My exact thought was “I’d rather be driving home than wasting time on this lake.”  I reeled in, pulled up my trolling motor, then headed for the ramp...defeated.

I’m a sucker most fishermen.  Even as we are being defeated there is that glimmer of instinctive optimism that’s buried deep down inside our brains that says “one more cast” or “That spot looks really good, I’ll just stop for a minute”.

I had to cross right over the Hog-pen on the way to the ramp and I thought “why not?”  I had about 15 minutes of light left, and there were a few other boats that were going to have the ramp tied up, so I’d probably be better off fishing until dark.  

The Hog-pen is a gravel bar that juts out into the lake from a square block of land that juts out into the river.  The creek takes a 90 degree turn here to run north.  Right where the 90 degree turn sticks out into the river there is a gravel bar that drops from dry land into the lake.  It’s more of a gravel “ridge” as there is a well defined top that drops off on both sides as it takes a long sloping descent from dry land into 20 feet of water perhaps 60 yards away from the bank. 

As I watched a few boats running to the ramp trying to beat the fading light, I picked up my old friend...the bluegill crank bait.  It’s an 11 foot diving crank, and I was throwing it into water that was about 6 feet deep on the other side of the gravel bar.  The bait would  dive until it found gravel, and then it would just grind it’s way up the back slope, over the top, and then back down my side.  

Even if I didn’t catch anything, its still nice to feel that plastic bill grinding gravel.  Its like talking with an old friend, or how Hellen Keller must have felt reading her favorite book in brail...she could feel the words come to’s just a good, comfortable feeling.  

So my little crank bait was doing it’s thing as the day ended.  On my second cast I was dragging it up the other side of the gravel bar and the rod got heavy...but just for a moment.  I swept back and started reeling and it felt light, like I had missed it, then it got heavy again and the fight was on!

This fish felt good.  It wasn’t fighting much but it was heavy, and it was taking an awkward path in the water...kind of like when you snag a rock or a stick and it wallows back and forth as you retrieve it.  As I got it near the boat I saw the reason.  There were TWO BASS on one treble hook!  One of them shook off next to the boat but I landed the other, a nice 2.5 lb. fish.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw both of those greedy bass stuck on the same crank bait...I know it’s just never happened to me.

At this point I was happy.  My day was ending with a nice fish from one of my favorite spots.  I took a picture to send to a buddy in Idaho who was on his own fishing trip.  Then I got back to work.  Just for grins I kept throwing until dark.  I threw out deeper along the gravel bar.  As I mindlessly reeled and twitched my bait along the gravel bar, I was pondering this location and how the bass relate to it.  I distinctly recall thinking “I have no idea where the bass that use this place come from” and BAM!!! My spinning rod bowed under the weight of a big fish.  

This was a good fish.  In the fading light of a miserable day I was witnessing a murder.  A hog of a largemouth slammed that bluegill crank bait like a freight train.  It was a good fight.  He’d dive and run anytime I got him near the boat.  Time no longer mattered, the amount of light left in the day no longer mattered.  This fight was one of those moments when life is so pure, so perfect, that you want to remain in it forever.  A giant octopus could have ripped the motor off the boat and thrown it to the Alabama side of the river and I don’t think I would have noticed...I was that focused on this fish.  As the fight left him he made a final dive under the boat.  At that point I could hear my crank bait slapping off the hull as he continued to thrash.  I knew I had him then, he no longer had the strength to steal line from my drag.

I took another picture and shot it to my buddy...I couldn’t believe I had caught those fish so quickly.  That was two nice fish in three casts.  

I caught nothing else as the light faded toward the edge of darkness.  I was a little confused as to why I got two bites so fast and then they shut off.  My only guess was that it was due to darkness encroaching.  That thought gave me a another idea...maybe I should switch to a darker lure.  

I know that theoretically you should use darker colors at night, but I’ve never had the theory work out for me.  Just to be thorough I grabbed a big, heavy, football head jig with a fat 5 inch tube bait trailer, and launched it into the darkening sky.  

This is a brown bait with some red flecks in does a pretty good crawdad imitation.  I slowly dragged it up the backside of the...BAM!!! I got smashed.  I heaved back on the rod and the fight was on.  A few seconds later I landed my third nice fish out of the Hog-pen.  I was actually worked.  

I always hear about switching to darker colors at night but this is the first time I’ve ever really had it work for me.  It was now officially night time.  The fish were biting and I had nowhere to be so I figured I’d keep fishing and see if I could catch another one.  

I tossed the jig again and felt that big football head grind it’s way over every tan pebble and chunk rock on the gravel bar.  Suddenly I felt like the hunter.  I was now confident that what I was doing would work.  With confidence came patience...and with patience one usually finds success.  

I stood upright and alone on the front deck in the moonlit darkness holding a 7 foot rod with it’s tip pointed straight up.  I must have looked like the human version of an Egret...that tall slender bird that hunts these same points and shallow gravel bars...always stalking...motionless until it strikes. 

The moon was almost full and was doing an admirable job of holding back the darkness.  In this light the world looked like a silky picture.  The moonlight had turned the water and the cloudless sky gunmetal grey.  Water and sky were separated by long inky black stretches of land that ran through the middle of the scene.  Land was a jagged black profile with flat grey above, and shimmery shiny grey below. 

The wind had died down a lot and the only noise to be heard was the deafening chorus of frogs from the bank. Thousands of frogs were calling to each other with their high, shrill, barks, chirps and drawn out warbling notes.  This high pitched song was backed by a regular series of ridiculously low baritone and bass-notes from bullfrogs that I have to imagine must have been the size of cinder blocks.  The frogs called, I cast in the moonlight, and the fish ate. It was beautiful.  

Last night was a great lesson in jig fishing for me.  I couldn’t see my line so everything was done by feel.  I think this helped me concentrate...all I had to do was stare at the distant dark shoreline and concentrate on feeling the other end of my line.  

There were three distinct types of bites I had on the jig.  The first was the classic feel him hit it, you set the hook, and the fight is on.

The second type of bite surprised me.  This is where I thought I felt a hit but when I set the hook nothing was there...the jig just flew up off the bottom.  The surprise on this bite was that after I falsely snatched it up off the bottom and realized I had nothing on...the jig would get HAMMERED as it fell back toward the bottom.  In my mind the process went “! fish...OH FISH!”  I was accidentally using the “hop retrieve” that I occasionally use in other situations...and it was working really well.  

The third type of bite was the “where did it go?” bite.   It’s dark so I can’t see my line at all.  I would slowly drag the jig back to me, maintaining contact with it the whole way.  The only time I wasn’t in contact was when I’d drop the rod tip to reel in some slack and start dragging again.  

Sometimes after reeling in the slack I’d pull back on the rod and my jig just wasn’t weight at all.  Maybe it slid down the slope toward me a little, maybe it fell off a rock and put some slack in the line...I’d reel a little more and it still wasn’t there.  Then the lightbulb went on...something is running with the ball!  

The reason I couldn’t feel my jig is because some greedy bass had picked it up and was swimming toward me with it.  It’s a funny feeling to go through that thought process in real’s like catching a thief.  Then you drop that rod tip, reel as fast as you can to catch up, and sweep back like a pro.  BOOM!  FISH ON!
Those bass would come up tail-walking in the moonlight as they tried to shake the hook.  Every time they breached they’d surprise me.  The calm dark surface of the water exploded as a bass violently thrashed it.  The moonlight turned that thrashing water silvery-white against the black backdrop, creating a stunning effect that looked like tinted glass shattering into thousands of diamonds.  Then the fish would crash back into the water and run, then breach and thrash, then crash and run.  Every single cast held huge potential...and every other cast was getting hit.  Many of those fish destroyed the tranquility of this place with the most violent outbursts you could imagine.  Bass fishing doesn’t get much more exciting this.

The action at the Hog-pen went on like that for 30 or 40 minutes.  I was catching fish every other cast.  I had to break out my head lamp to unhook fish as I caught them.  It was really neat to turn on that light and be looking at bucket-mouth after bucket-mouth with that big craw-colored jig hanging out of it’s mouth.  I have never experienced a jig bite like fact I’ve never caught that many bass on anything in such a short period of time.  Almost all of them were between 2.5 and 4.5 pounds.  I caught only two fish that weighed less than 2 lbs.  For a short period of time I felt like I was on a Bassmaster highlight reel.  

I had endured five hours of frustrating boredom and then had a head on collision with a large, violent school of fish that was hard-bent on killing and eating everything that crossed it’s path.  It was like fighting an aquatic motorcycle gang armed only with a graphite rod.

Once the frenzy slowed, I put my rod down and sat at the helm.  I wanted to take a few minutes and let this experience soak in.  I didn’t want to just catch a bunch of fish and leave the minute they quit biting...I’d feel like I was missing something if I did that.

The moon was high in a clear sky, the water calm and silky, the frogs were singing their songs, a light dew was falling, and behind the curtain of this stage I could hear a trains horn as he rumbled his way past somewhere in the distance.  It was serene.  

Far off in the distance I could see the lights of vacation homes that dotted the hills surrounding the lake.  Everyone was inside, lights on, TV’s going, air conditioners humming...but nobody was on the lake.  I couldn’t believe that I had this entire experience to myself.  

If fishermen had a bible it would undoubtedly include the phrase “Spare the rod, spoil the fish.”  I can tell you that I did not spoil the fish last night, I took the rod to them in a relentless fashion...because I don’t want them to be undisciplined.

At this point I’m really hoping that reincarnation doesn’t exist...because if it does, I’m sure God will send me back this way as a crawfish or a bluegill based on what I did here tonight.

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