After a long terrible week, I needed a day to regroup. For me, nothing works better to clear my mind and improve my attitude than a day on the lake. Sunday was the day I could go, so I hooked up and went. When I hit the lake Sunday afternoon the water surface temp was in the low 90’s. It was a hot, hazy, humid day, and the last of the weekends pleasure boaters were pulling kids around on inner tubes. You could hear their screams of delight as they were slung through the heat mirage in fast circles behind their boats. They were enjoying the final fun days of summer before heading back to school in a few weeks and deep down I was happy for them.
I, however, wasn’t there for fun. I had much more serious business to attend. I was there to bass fish. This was not child’s play. While everyone else recreated and relaxed, I would do battle with the denizens of the deep. It was a battle with nature itself. I stood alone on the deck of my boat, a steely gaze penetrating the thick haze that hung across this furnace they call Pickwick Lake. Somewhere out there, under this near boiling water, was a green fish spoiling for a fight, and I aimed to give him one. He might be lurking on the shady side of a log, suspended in some grass, or cruising a gravel bank looking to murder some baitfish, but I’d find him. Armed with two sonars and the tenacity of a man whose next best option is cleaning the garage, this fish had no chance. (In reality, he had plenty of chance, they always do, but it makes me feel good to use that phrase.)
About half a mile from the marina I stopped to scan a long gravelly bank with my sonar. I pulled up about 80 feet from the bank and paralleled it at 5 MPH. As I idled down the bank I watched my side-scan sonar for signs of baitfish. They show up as clouds of fish, and when you find bait, you generally find bass. A cloud of baitfish is like natures version of an all-you-can-eat buffet. A bass just hangs out in the area, and when he’s hungry he slashes through the bait cloud eating everything he can fit in his large mouth. About two minutes into my first sonar run I saw a structure with a single large fish on it. No bait cloud, just a single large fish sitting just above the structure, hovering at 14 feet.
Normally I wouldn’t stop to throw at a single fish, but it had been a long, stressful week at work and I was just out there trying to relax, so I figured “why not?” I turned the boat around, scanned it once more to dial in the location, then positioned the boat to maximize the effectiveness of my attack. I planned on casting in a fan pattern to cover the entire area. My first cast was toward a single dock piling sticking up above the water. I’d start there and work my way left and right. I was throwing a 10-foot diving crankbait with the idea that I’d run it right over that fishes’ head and see if he’d be up for an easy meal. The first cast drew nothing, but that’s OK, I’ve always heard it’s bad luck to catch one on the first cast of the day. I’ve only done that once, but it was a 16 hour day and the ONLY fish I caught was the one I got on the first cast, so I’m kind of a believer.
With the first cast out of the way, I threw another. “Dang”. The second cast landed in the same exact spot as the first. So much for being efficient. I’d now have to ply the same water with my crankbait again. I retrieved the lure and fired a side-arm cast to a spot about 20 feet to the right of my previous throw. “UGH!” My third cast was drawn like a magnet to the same exact spot as my prior two casts!! This was turning into a clown show. My casting was rusty. Three casts into the day I noticed I was pouring sweat. I had to take my sunglasses off to wipe the INSIDE of the lenses. It was so humid you’d pour sweat if you didn’t keep the boat moving to create a breeze.
On my fourth cast I finally got control over my casting. I could picture the structure under the water and I wanted to cover it from every angle possible. I could feel that crankbait slowly wiggling its way back to me. With every turn of the reel, sweat would drop from my brow. It was going to be a long hot day in Mississippi–A real grind. No matter how bad it was though, it would be better than working in the yard, which is what my neighbors were doing when I left the house. I pictured Vince and Anne toiling away in their yard and suddenly I felt better about my situation. On my fifth cast I had just worked my way past the structure when I felt a heavy THUMP on my lure. The rod bent into a parabolic arch and I knew immediately that something heavy had just eaten my lure. I was sweating so much I think I was as wet as the fish was. I cranked on that reel and watched my line. When hooked, a bass will normally make a run for the surface, then breach in a wild aerobatic display. It will smash through the surface and arc through the air in a wild, violent fit of shaking as it tries to free itself of the hook. Water flies everywhere and it’s quite a show.
Whatever this fish was, it did nothing of the sort. This fish was heavy, but as I watched my line I could see it was staying deep. Could this be a catfish? Catfish sometimes eat a crankbait and they always bring a good fight and stay deep. Complicating the situation was this fish wasn’t really fighting. It was heavy, but sluggish. At that point, I had no clue what I was reeling to the boat. I’ve occasionally caught a rock that I was convinced was a nice fish, so there’s just no telling what it could be. A few seconds later I got a shock. Slowly surfacing from the shadowy green depths was the biggest largemouth bass I had seen in a long, long time. It looked like a slow green torpedo.
My mind instantly went into overdrive. I had brought my good camera with me and hoped to put it to use. I quickly netted the fish and removed the lure from his mouth. I didn’t want the fish out of the water a second longer than necessary so I put him back in the net and held it next to the boat. With this plan, I hoped to get some nice photos of him floating in his natural environment. I got two or three shots off but they were terrible due to the angle. I adjusted the net so it sat low to the water and just about the time it was all lining up for a good picture, that bass hit the throttle and jumped out of my net as easy as a horse could jump a curb. In a green flash, he was gone. I stood there in the boat, net in one hand, camera in the other, and a puzzled look on my face. Taking pictures of fish, while fishing alone is not something that’s easily done. I had a rod in my left hand, my camera in my right (and you can’t work a zoom lens with only one hand), and around my neck were my life vest, sunglasses strap, trolling motor remote, and camera strap. I looked like a one man band. I made a note to work on my procedures and smiled at my good fortune for having caught such a beast. It was a long, muscular, 7 lb. largemouth. A very respectable bass, and one I had not envisioned catching when I left the house.
I fished a few more places throughout the afternoon, picking up a small bass here or there on a Carolina rig. In one cove, I saw a wonderful picture of summer in America. A houseboat with two families on board had pushed up onto the gravel beach to spend their afternoon, and maybe the night. From 150 yards out, I had a nice view of the event. A willow tree drooped in an arch that allowed me a small glimpse into their day. A campfire was going, someone was cooking dinner, a strain of country music could be heard but not distinguished, a cool blue-gray smoke lifted 20 feet into the air before it flattened out and drifted sideways, just like it always does. I was close enough to witness it, but distant enough to not be able to make out any words, just the happy murmur and pitch of fun conversations on a late summer day. It made me smile, and made me miss my own family who couldn’t be with me that day.
After half an hour of fruitless casting I idled away from the houseboat cove. As I left I eased through the wonderful scent trail of that campfire. Summer time, bass fishing, and campfires…it was all just so relaxing. I realized at this point that my plan of getting a good sunset shot with the new camera was not going to happen. I had chased the fish too long and the sun was already below the hills. In addition, it was a clear sky, which didn’t make for a very dramatic sunset. I took one anyway, just to see.
My next and final stop on the way to the truck was a place I call the hog pen. The name comes from its propensity to cough up largemouth and smallmouth bass over 5 lbs. The hog pen is just a gravel finger that juts out into the creek right where the channel takes a sharp dog-leg turn. The gravel runs for maybe 60 or 70 yards and drops from dry land, right down into the channel.
All you should do here is get a crankbait deep enough to grind in that gravel. If you do that you’ll stir up more than debris, you’ll stir up a heap of trouble. These fish can…not…STAND seeing that. When it’s on at the hog pen, it’s a bona fide circus. I’ve had some of my best days ever on this spot. I was excited when I got there and nobody was on it. I had the place to myself.
My first few casts showed me that weeds had established a firm foothold on the gravel bar. I’d never seen them so thick. Every cast came back with a handful of vegetation. I simply couldn’t use my tried and true crankbait tactic here. I looked around and picked up the Carolina rig. I had grabbed a big Yum tube and as I put it on the hook I laughed at how big it was. I wondered if I could even get a good hook set with a bait that fat.
In the fading light, I began tossing the tube to the far side of the gravel bar. You could see where the water got shallow because it would ripple hard as it passed over the bar. You could read the water and tell where the structure got shallow.
The tube dropped down into a jungle of coontail. I’d feel it get hung and pop free over and over. Sometimes it felt like a strike, and once or twice I set the hook on a weed, but I was getting a feel for it. Soon enough a weed grabbed the tube and took it to the left. Wait a minute…a weed wouldn’t take my bait to the left! WHACK! I set the hook and in the last minutes of light on July 16th, a good fight was on.
I caught a few fish from the hog pen that night but after that small last smallmouth I called it quits. It had been a good day.
I got the boat hooked up, and began my two hour trip home across the rolling hills of north Mississippi. I pulled in around 10:30 PM to a thick summer air that had settled over the quiet streets and green lawns. As I slipped past the well-manicured yards I envisioned people peering out their windows from cool, air conditioned homes; curious about the black F150 creeping by pulling a boat at this time of night. Some of them silently expressed regrets about working in the yard all day.
I can work in the yard during the week, but on the weekend, adventure calls…and I must heed it.