After months of stress with no down time I called a time out. I made the decision that everyone in the world could live without me for a day and a half while I escaped to the lake. It’s spring, the weather forecast looked perfect for fishing and camping, and I needed to go see my old friend...the green fish.
The plan was to fish Thursday afternoon, camp at dark, and fish all day Friday. It would be a day and a half of some of the best spring time bass fishing one could imagine. I had just read my latest Bassmaster magazine and they said to use square bill crankbaits, spinnerbaits, buzz baits, and swim jigs. Perfect, that’s the plan I’ll use the whole trip.
A day of omens
I had a short 5-mile run to my first spot after launching the boat. I idled halfway back in the creek before cutting the outboard and deploying the trolling motor. Quietly I glided toward the highly anticipated first spot of the trip. In my right hand was a spinning reel tipped with a 3/8’s ounce white/chartreuse spinner bait. This would be my primary bait for the trip. Plan A was to throw this thing until my arm fell off.
With no hesitation I picked a spot where the point of a secondary creek met my path, snapped my rod forward, and POW! My line broke and sent my best spinnerbait flying untethered through the air and into the lake. The report was sharp, like a .22 rifle crack. I was dumbfounded...the line just broke on the first cast of this trip. It did not feel good.
Luckily though, I’m a very accurate caster, and the spinnerbait travelled to the exact spot where I had been aiming. It landed on a flat black shelf in about two feet of water. Even from here I could see it shining like Gollums ring. I eased up with the trolling motor, reached into the water, and easily recovered “my precious”.
With that very unnerving start out of the way, it was time to get down to business. I had a day and a half to fish, and I was going to put a beat down on some spring time spawning bass. I retied with a stout Palomar knot, and cast across the mouth of the feeder creek. Two or three casts in I felt something, I pulled...and my line came up with no spinner bait! The line had either broken again, or I had simply forgotten how to tie a knot. This was perhaps my first big omen that this trip was not going to go well for me. I wasn’t even 10 minutes into fishing and I had lost the primary lure I intended to use for the entire trip.
Less than 100 yards down the bank I saw my next omen. There was a heron at the waters edge and it looked like it was hung up in something. I eased closer to see if I could help get the great bird untangled, but when I got close I realized it wasn’t stuck...it was choking on a fish. “Isn’t that just perfect” I thought, ”we’re both choking out here.”
I worked that creek from 10 feet of water back to a foot or less and I never found a fish. I saw no beds, I saw no fish, nothing. It was like a ghost town. I couldn’t believe it. This is spring time bass fishing! The water temp is in the low 60’s, it’s overcast, slight breeze...it’s perfect conditions and I can’t get bit to save my life.
This was only one creek though, and I had other options. Soon I jumped up on plane for a 3 mile run to a really fishy looking place that just flooded. When I got there I was astounded at how beautiful it was. It was a wide expanse of shallow water with an endless series of weeds, grasses, bushes and trees sticking up. Picture the African savannah...but for fish...it’s like that. You expect to see great herds of fish migrating across this thing, and lounging in the shade of the vegetation that dots the landscape. If buzz baits could dream...this is what they would dream about. All I could see in my mind was huge sows blowing up on my buzz bait as I buzz-buzz-buzzzzed it past their isolated cover. BAM! POW! SPLASH! I was seeing broken rods and trophy photo’s...this was going to be epic.
Cast after cast along weed lines and bushes built the tension to almost unbearable levels. Then it happened. On a long cast parallel to the tree line in 2 feet of water...my buzz bait got hung in a tree. I know, it’s not what you wanted to hear, but it’s what happened. The next two minutes of cursing and grumbling saw the skirt blow into a million pieces, and the bare metal of the bait return to the boat. I was not happy. It wasn’t so much that I had travelled a long way to get here, it’s that the DREAM of this place was now confirmed dead. It wasn’t the aquatic paradise it looked to be, it was simply a flooded area devoid of fish...which is what a lot of places turn into when I show up with a rod.
Ultimately I tried one or two other spots but nothing worked. I was ending the first day with my confidence badly shaken. What I thought had been perfect, was in fact awful. I lost two of my primary lures, caught no fish, and was left wondering what I could possibly try next. Normally I fish until dark, then find a place to camp, but tonight my spirits were so beat down that I quit with enough light that I could see to set up camp.
I’d have a fire, eat dinner, think about the next day, and start again in the morning.
That night I camped on a gravel bar that forms the mouth of a protected cove nestled between some steep, rocky, forested hills along the Tennessee River. The gravel bar is a spur that comes off the base of a big ridge and is basically a small peninsula. My campsite was surrounded by water on three sides. Here on this gravelly point I’d make camp, have a fire, eat dinner, and plot the next mornings trip. I decided that in the morning I’d head south to Bear Creek. It’s a body of water that I know very well and I have plenty of history of catching fish there.
The fire cast a warm flickering-orange glow, the frogs chattered late into the night, a barge lumbered by in the dark, and the whole time the Tennessee River rolled on to where ever it goes when it leaves here. Tomorrow will be a better day.
As I watched the last of the coals shimmering in the cool air I took one last look up to the sky. The clouds above the ridge had broken, and the moon was out. Maybe that was a sign my luck was changing. I crawled into my tent with high hopes for the morning. As I drifted off to sleep I could hear fish jumping all around me in the dark. Yes sir, tomorrow will be a better day.
At 6 AM I awoke to the sound of waves lapping the shore. The wind was shaking the tent, and the sound outside was like breaking surf. I couldn’t wait to open the flap and see what the day had brought.
The wind forecast had called for 5 to 10 MPH from the east, but at 6 AM it was already at least 10 MPH. There was a foot and a half of chop with whitecaps as far as I could see in the direction I needed to go.
The morning began with a rough 5 mile run to my first spot. It was a big cove halfway down a large creek. I spent the first 30 minutes of the day working the shallows with a crankbait and a swimbait. Spawning bass should be shallow...they should be in the backs of coves and on flats, they should relate to cover...this should be the easiest fishing OF THE YEAR.
The wind made things a little difficult but it wasn’t a deal killer...there were just no fish here. OK...not that big of a deal. I’ll just move. I hear that’s the key...cover water. Jump from one spot to the next and use lures like crankbaits and spinnerbaits to cover as much water as possible.
So I moved. The next big cove down produced the same thing...zero. A big goose egg. I saw no fish, I had no hits. I jumped on the big motor again, screaming across the creek to the far back of a big wide shallow cove. I recall reading KVD saying that he wants as big a spawning flat as he can find...so with that in mind I went to one.
I saw exactly three gar. No bass, no beds, nothing hit me or bumped me. I decided to move out to the first break...maybe they’re holding deeper there. About this time I’d been “running and gunning” for about 2.5 hours. It felt like an exercise in futility. I was running all over the lake throwing at empty water. I realized that I was now adrift. I had no plan, and was just hastily going through random motions that I thought might work. I was seriously contemplating heading to the truck at this point. I was tired, hungry, frustrated, and deeply disappointed.
I sat there in the boat, frustrated, beat up by the wind and the waves, not knowing what to do. The only thing I could think of that would end this pain would be to leave. I looked the map on my sonar unit, and I convinced myself to stop at two or three small coves on the way back to the truck, just to make sure I’d tried everything.
I also took a moment to tie on a Texas rigged lizard. It would be a dramatic departure from what I had been doing, but it felt like maybe I should try going back to the basics before quitting.
I got up on plane and rode the jolting waves, and had water thrown in my face, and got beat up the whole way to my next spot. I forced myself to pull into my next target rather than run for the shelter of my truck. What I saw when I got there was amazing. I left the absolute bone jarring, wind beaten, lead-grey sky of the main lake, and entered a small feeder creek that looked like the land that time forgot. Nothing here was grey and windy...it was spring time back in here. Everything was a shade of green, and it was all serenely calm.
When I looked back over my shoulder at the main lake I could see the angry current and wave action waiting for me. It looked as if it had been simply locked out of this place. This little creek wasn’t 30 yards wide, and maybe 150 yards long. It’s placid green water was reflecting the bright green foliage that hung above it, and it’s edges were lined with slick black rocks covered in thick green moss. It was absolutely tranquil and beautiful back here.
I looked down this creek, and thought “If I can catch one fish here...just one...I will have figured something out today.” I stood and cast my newly-tied lizard to a black shelf sitting in 6 inches of water. What lay below the shelf I didn’t know...it just dropped off into darkness...I’d send the lizard to figure that part out.
With a twitch or two the lizard slid over the edge. I watched it’s arms and tail wiggle as it dove, then saw the line go dead when it hit the bottom. I paused, then twitched the tip...but the lizard didn’t come up...and it was way heavier than when I sent it down there. PULL! I pulled hard upward on the rod and heard my line tightening around the spool...tink tink tink! The rod bowed and got heavy, and the first fight of the trip was finally on.
There in that emerald cathedral, protected by hardwood hills on both sides, with the wind held back by the narrow mouth of the creek, I fought that bass from along the sheer rock drop out to the middle of the creek. The line sliced and darted, and the rod stayed heavy. This was sooooo...much...fun!
In 30 seconds I had in my hand the fish I had worked so hard to find. The first largemouth bass of my trip. I quickly released him and looked around. What just happened? That was my first cast in this spot with this lure. I had literally fished for 8 hours previously without a single bump. Eight, long, bitter, frustrating, fruitless hours. Then on my first cast here I got nailed.
For the first time in two days I was smiling. Something had gone right. I reeled in my lizard, and eagerly cast to a spot on the opposite side of the creek where three logs were laid down in the water. I felt nothing on the first cast. The bottom of the creek felt absolutely smooth.
The next cast was a little further, a little closer to the logs. At this point I am still in absolute awe of this place. It is the greenest place I’ve seen in a long time. It’s full of forest green, emerald green, and most importantly...largemouth green. I twitched my line and felt a small bump. I watched the line intently and saw that it was slowly moving to the right. Something hit the lizard and was running to the middle of the creek with it. Sweep back, “tink tink...tink” as the spinning reel loaded up...another fish ON!
Back and forth the bass cut across the creek, staying deep with the lizard. The surface of this water remained perfectly calm despite the fight going on above it and below it. This was the total opposite of the main lake whose surface was furious despite no fight taking place at all. In short order I had my second bass in hand. It was an interesting fish with a solid black upper lip, not much green to him, and a single black patch on his side. Again I released the fish, and again I stood and pondered...eight hours with no fish, then two fish in two minutes. That’s quite a reversal.
This creek felt like it was a hundred miles long, and every bit of it calm and green, lined with slate rock, and full of gently sloping timber. All my previous frantic fishing with flashy/crashy lures had run me ragged for nothing, and when I finally slowed down I heard what the fish wanted. I don’t know how many fish I caught in that creek, but it was enough to make me forget about all the frustration that had built up on this trip. In fact it made me forget about all the frustration that caused me to come on the trip to begin with. In a world of hurt, this creek had become an oasis. I don’t know how long I stayed, but I know I was angry when I arrived, and totally relaxed when I got to the back. Eventually the creek ended in a jumble of downed trees and shallow water. Sadly the time had come to turn around.
I turned the boat around and began to slowly fish my way back out. To my surprise the wind shifted again and had filled the front half of the creek with choppy water. It was already losing it’s serene feel. The mouth of the creek was filled with such contorted violent water that it looked like a giant garbage disposal was turning it. The creek offered me a lesson, a glimpse of how an alternate fishing trip could be. I didn’t have to “run and gun” and try to force my original plan on the lake. If I could find another place like this creek...maybe the lizard could again work it’s magic.
I reentered the main lake with more purpose than at any other time on this trip. I now knew what to do. About 4 miles away, just a bit from where I camped the night before, was a perfect spot where I could find shelter from the wind. It was time to run there and try the lizard.
The water was so rough that I needed full rain gear to stay dry. My sonar cables got knocked out of both units, and I think I broke a mounting bolt for my trolling motor, but I got to the next spot in due time. I came off plane at the rocky mouth of a creek that fed into the main river. With a hard wind chasing me I ducked behind a big hill that fortified one side of the creek mouth. As soon as I passed behind it, the crashing waves were left on the rocks behind me, and I entered into an eery calm that was reminiscent of the creek from earlier.
I jumped from my seat and was casting within 10 seconds. My first cast hit some floating sticks near the bank and in instinctively jerked to keep from getting hung up. As soon as I jerked, the lizard slammed under. BAM! A bass hammered my first lizard cast on this spot as well. WOOOOHOOOO! This was unbelievable. This lure is magic...I’m going to start calling it the Lizard of Oz.
Cast after cast I made down that sheltered bank and I caught bass after bass. It was ridiculous how easy it was to catch them. I was laughing out loud all by myself at the absurdity of how much my luck had changed since I tied on the Lizard of Oz. One little shift in technique...slowing down...changed everything for me. I could have been my hard-headed self and fished the rest of the day with the crankbait, wildly and blindly flailing at the water...and I’d have been miserable all day. Heck I’d have been miserable until the next trip because I would have surely been skunked. But by listening to what the fish wanted (or what they didn’t want...a lizard in their bed) my luck had changed.
My plan had been to fish all day Friday, but by noon I was so happy with what I had accomplished that I headed home early to get more time with the family. For me the take away is that I need to be a lot more adaptable on the water. You always have to have a plan, and I always go to the lake with an idea of what the fish should be doing. However, I need to get a lot better at finding out what the fish are really doing, rather than what I think they should be doing.
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