A recent trip to the lake was going to be a welcome getaway. I booked a cabin for three days and my only plan was to fish. It’s springtime and the bass should be shallow and on the beds. I had visions of sight fishing in two to three feet of water and casting lizards and buzz baits at bedded hogs. Springtime fishing has a reputation for being the easiest time of year to catch bass, and to catch big ones at that. It is with that very optimistic mindset that I left for the lake. I was rigged up and ready to rumble.
I’ll save you, the reader, a lot of time at this point. Nothing went as planned. The weather turned into a high pressure system with clear blue skies, and the wind always blowing stronger than forecast, and from the wrong direction. The fishing was difficult to say the least, but it forced me to do some learning. I changed tactics, I used my electronics to find grass beds, I threw finesse baits, I did a lot of things I didn’t plan on doing.
My three day trip to the lake can be boiled down to a “tail” of two fish. These two individual fish represent the highs and lows of bass fishing...BOTH of which drive me to continue coming back for more.
My first morning on the water, the air temperature was 55 degrees. I awoke to gorgeous sunrise on the Tennessee River, pointed my boat toward the gold rimmed eastern skyline, and dropped the hammer. 15 minutes later I was pulling into my first spot of the day, a beautiful cove that transitions from sheer ledges at the mouth, to steep gravel bars lining it’s sides, and finally a mud/grass/timber section in the back that’s wide and shallow. This cove has everything a bass could ask for...everything. It has everything an angler could ask for as well...it’s like a match made in heaven.
I entered the cove as the sun crested the hills behind me, and the early morning light revealed wispy, swirling sheets of vapor rising from the water like ghosts. Under this thin veil of fog I could occasionally see fish hitting on top. This ghostly hollow is where the day would begin.
The tough part was figuring out where to start. I idled to the back of the cove and began throwing my favorite lure...the Lizard of Oz...at obvious structure. The ghosts swirled around the boat as I cast to a spot where the point of a small pocket hit the main cove. The water grew darker as it entered the forested pocket. Branches overhung the muddy, grassy bank, and my lizard plopped into the water just inches from dry ground.
In between drags on my lizard I studied the area. The back of the cove was maybe two feet deep, with bright green weeds and brilliant yellow flowers that gave way to sparse clumps of vegetation in the water. I eased the lizard another few inches toward me. A trio of Canadian geese flew into the cove, honking as they lowered themselves into the mist and glided toward the shallow yellow flowers in the back. I dragged the lizard again. I heard the geese splash down and go silent. The air was cold enough to make you ball your fists trying to keep your fingers warm. Nothing was touching the lizard here.
I eased across to the other side of the cove, taking a quick glance to the east, praying the sun would climb faster and warm me up. As I crossed the cove I retired the Lizard of Oz for the moment and picked up a swim-bait. It was a compact, heavy lure that I could throw a long way, and that would help me cover water.
This side the cove was a long gravel bank, overhung by the forest that grew downhill right to the edge of the water. The long tan ribbon of gravel offered a very small bit of shallow water before dropping off to 12, and then 20 feet. This is a scary place for a swim-bait...ANYTHING could be down there. I’ve caught largemouth, smallmouth, catfish and drum on sections like this. There is literally nowhere for a swim-bait to hide on this gravel bar.
I threw a long cast to a half submerged log, overhung by willows 40 yards up the bank. When my swim-bait hit the water my plan was to hop it twice then reel in the slack. Hop, hop, reel. Hop hop, reel. That was the pattern I’d use as I searched for active fish.
The cast was perfect, it hit within 6 inches of the log. Hop, hop, BAM!!! I got hit hard on the second hop. I waited for a moment, and with the rising sun to my front-left I could easily see my line shining as it cut to deeper water.
I reeled in the slack and dropped the hammer on him. The rod loaded up but the fish darted toward me, taking all the tension off the line. I reeled at about 9,000 RPM trying to catch up with him. When I got tension back on him he began to fight. He wasn’t coming any closer to this boat on his own.
The line ran sideways in the orange glow of sunrise with wispy ghosts flowing around it. He ran for deeper water but there would be no safety there today. I cranked on him hard now, and the line began to rise...he was making a run for the top.
I pushed my rod tip down into the water in an attempt to keep him from breaching. The last thing I wanted was for him to shake the hook. My efforts were futile, he breached in a spectacular display of largemouth behavior. That fish launched itself two feet into the air as it tried to shake the hook.
What I saw in that perfect orange glow of sunrise was a picture of nature in all it’s beauty. A big aggressive predator launched from the depths, shattering the peaceful calm that existed in this otherwise silent cove. When he breached he came out sideways, and quickly went upside down, thrashing violently through his entire flight. Backlit by the sunrise, the water it threw off it’s glistening white and green body looked like diamonds shattering into millions of orange and white crystals that fell back into the lake.
I was almost stunned when he re-entered the water. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen.
It was surely only in the air for a moment, but from my point of view it seemed like he was in the air for an eternity. It reminded me of the scene from ET where he and the kid flew the bike in front of the moon. It was just like that except it was a bass going in front of the rising sun. My morning had gone from a very slow, quiet search, to a full on drag race.
Now he’s back in the water, he played his first set of cards but it didn’t work out. His next move is to go deep and fight. Sideways he went, trying to pull the rod from me the whole time. I had good tension, the drag wasn’t slipping, I was confident I’d land this fish.
After 30 seconds or so I had him along side the boat, and calm enough to get a hand on him. I plucked him from the water with my semi-frozen hands, unhooked him, and admired him for what he was...a predator. He hunts, kills, and eats...that’s it. He was a stout, dark-green assassin, and he was now in my boat.
As I looked at him and wondered at the hard charging, acrobatic fight he had put up, a thought hit me; the only thing that could make a breaching thrashing largemouth any more spectacular would be if he bugled like an elk while he did it. Can you imagine hearing that elk bugle starting out, getting louder and louder, and then peaking right when the bass bursts through the surface, flies through the air and spits the hook out at you? It would be unbelievable.
So that one fish condensed everything I could ever want from a bass into one fight. It was one of those fights that captures the essence of what a largemouth bass is, they hit hard, they run, they breach with stunning acrobatics, they fight some more, and they do it all with some of natures most beautiful backdrops. If it was the only fish I caught the entire trip, I could find a way to be happy with it.
This was my last full day. With a high pressure system wearing on me and the fish both, I decided a change of venue was in order. I abandoned the beautiful ledges and coves of the past two days, and decided to look for thicker cover where a bass might try to hide. I needed to find some weeds.
I found a smaller creek that fed into the main lake and decided to try it out. After half an hour of finding no fish in the shallows, I pulled back a little deeper hoping to find signs of aquatic life. Using my sonar I pushed deeper into the creek, which was a few hundred yards wide. I found a pocket near the rear that had a deep bowl dropping to 15 feet right next to a huge flat that was only 3 feet deep. It looked like a nice transition area on the map, and a sonar run was in order. When I got there I started seeing something “cloudy” on my Side Imaging. “Hmmmm” I thought...”that looks like it might be weeds”.
I turned the boat to investigate and what I saw gave me a very good feeling about this place. As I turned toward the area I wanted to investigate, my Side Imaging showed a ditch running from the bank toward the deep water....and in that ditch were a few fish.
Next, my Down Imaging began showing long orange lines stretching up from the bottom; coontail was growing all over in this deep water pocket. It was just the type of cover that a bass would bury himself in on a blue sky day.
My sonar had just shown me a lot of clues. This spot held enough promise that I vowed to fish it thoroughly. I broke out the Lizard of Oz, rigged on a spinning reel, and began my investigation.
The centerpiece of this area was the tip of a dead tree that stuck up about a foot above the water. I’d use this as a reference point, driving circles around it with the trolling motor and casting into the center of the weeds.
It took a few minutes with the Texas rigged lizard to get a feel for the bottom. There are times when you hit that grass and you could talk yourself into thinking you got bit...especially since the bites in this weather had been so light to begin with.
After casting around for 15 minutes I had a pretty good feel for where the underwater obstacles were. I was convinced that if I dragged this lizard through the weeds long enough...that I’d catch something.
Eventually, it happened. I was dragging the Lizard of Oz through the weeds when I felt a bump. It wasn’t a strong hit at all...but there was definitely something down there determined to beat up my lizard...and NOBODY beats up my lizard.
I swept back hard to start the fight. When I set the hook I felt the drag slip a little bit. I didn’t think much of it at the time because I felt another hit...this one bigger. Then I saw the line coming up toward the top. I had to keep tension on this line...I could NOT let him shake this hook. I lowered my rod tip, pulled back, and cranked on the reel. The line was picking up speed like a rocket...it was going to breach.
To my absolute HORROR, the more I cranked the more the drag slipped. If I swept the rod, the drag slipped, if I tried to crank on him, it slipped. It was like living a nightmare. This fish was heading to the surface like a Saturn 5 rocket and I had no way to keep things under control. Then it happened.
When this fish came out of the water I thought it might be a dragon...it was that big. The only reason I don’t believe it was a dragon is that it didn’t have wings...other than that it was just the type of giant, green, scaly vision you get when you think of a one.
I could not believe how big this fish was. The great beasts belly was toward me, flashing white with red gills and the giant unmistakable shape of a largemouths head. It’s mouth was wide open as it flailed, quickly sending my wide gap hook on a return flight to my boat. It’s mouth was so big it looked like a carnival game where I was supposed to throw a basketball at it. But in this case, there was plenty of room for the ball to go in.
CRASH!!!! The beast was gone. I stood alone on the deck of my boat, mouth agape, brain trying to figure out what went wrong. How in the world had the drag been set so light on my reel? As the awe wore off I was left with the bitter reality...it was entirely my fault. My gear wasn’t squared away and I had just cost myself what would likely have been the best fish of my season.
Determined to make up for my failure I cranked the drag down, checked it by pulling some line, and fired the lizard back into action. I fought the urge to work it quickly, knowing that the great beast had hit me on a slow retrieve earlier. Would he hit the lizard again? Should I try a different lure as a follow up? On the next cast BAM! Fish on. This fish was smaller, and he was the unfortunate recipient of my over zealous drive to make up for my prior mistake. With the drag tightened down I horsed that bass out of the grass so fast that he probably forgot where he was.
Small consolation prize, a 2 lb. bass. I released him quickly and got back to the hunt. I switched to a spinnerbait, no luck. Back to the lizard, nothing. I sliced that area to pieces with my casts, but the big one appeared to be gone. ‘Nonsense’ I thought...‘It’s not gone...it’s probably still within 100 yards of this very spot.’
I cast like a man possessed, the light faded, and the handwriting began to appear on the wall. I was all alone, but I thought I could hear the fat lady singing. It was over. This lunker gave me one shot and I had blown it. I fished until it was pitch dark, and vowed to be back before the sun.
Although I made a lot of jokes about crying myself to sleep, or not sleeping at all, the reality was just the opposite. I’d sleep well that night because now I KNEW without a doubt in the world, where at least one big fish lived. I’d get a good nights sleep, hit the water early, and be ready to fight. I told my nephew that night “I hope that fish sleeps well tonight, because when the sun comes up, I’m gonna punch it right in the mouth.”
I get an “A+” for trash talk, but the fish won again in the morning. I fished hard for three hours in that area, but caught only a single bass for my efforts.
As much as the first bass in the story represents all that is great about a bass, this fish that got away represents all the potential that fishing for bass holds...all that COULD BE. The hope of great fish to come is one of the things that keeps us coming back, it’s what makes the struggles worth it. We fish in the heat, in the cold, the wind, the rain, sometimes we even fish longer than we should near lightning. Why? Why would anyone get up early and stay out late, casting hundreds of times with no results? We grind ourselves down with lack of sleep and exposure to the elements. We feel the stress of failure when things aren’t going right, but still we keep coming back. Why? It’s partly because of the first fish in the story, and partly because of the second. The joy of accomplishment, along with the emotional roller coaster of missing the big one combine to keep us hooked.
I missed the big one this weekend, I failed, it was all my fault. I was beat up, tired and frustrated at times...but I can’t wait to get back out there and try it again. This is what bass fishing is all about.