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Back On The Water!

It’s been much too long since last posting material on my blog but there’s a reasonably good excuse for it. In February 2016, I had rotator-cuff surgery on my right shoulder for the second time. The same surgeon who repaired my shoulder in 2011 told me to expect about an 85% recovery, meaning use of my right arm. He also assured me that fishing as in the past would not be part of my future. Serious limitations would have to be set and accepted. After that prognosis, learning to fish left-handed was added to my to-do list.

From late 2015 until my scheduled surgery date in mid-February, boredom ruled an endless series of days that revolved around resting my shoulder; the goal to minimize inflammation of tissue before surgery. That’s easier said than done because I don’t do “coach potato” well at all. While pacing the floor twelve days before surgery, a pause in turn 6 found me staring out a window. It was a beautiful sunny day with a light breeze and temperatures well above normal. Claustrophobic and depressed, a beam of sunlight suddenly struck me and the idea of running to a local river to practice left-handed casting came to mind. A quick analysis of pros and cons confirmed that learning to fish left-handed was an important part of my recovery plan and something that could begin before surgery. Also, free time was available in profusion. So, with an upbeat attitude, away I went. In hindsight, more thought should have been given to the cons.

After arriving at a river full of smallmouth bass and tying on a Texas-rigged soft plastic, casting practice began. The first few attempts were at weeds and sticks on open ground away from trees; a wise starting point. It’s shocking how difficult it is for a righty to make a simple left-handed lob-cast. But with practice my lure was soon hitting the river, and at times close to the intended spot. In perhaps a dozen casts, I felt a light tap through the line, reeled down and set the hook. The force of the hook-set, an equally awkward movement left-handed, pulled a nice smallmouth to the surface where it immediately threw the lure. In response, I turned and stepped in a muskrat hole all the way to my left knee-cap. While falling in slow-motion, all concern shifted to my shoulder so rather than trying to catch myself, I attempted rolling toward my good shoulder. The next morning after draining 70 cc’s of blood off my left knee, an x-ray showed no visible breaks or tears so an elastic knee brace was added to my post-op equipment list.

After two months of recovery from surgery and plenty of physical therapy, my routine at home had returned to staring at the walls and laps through the house. Soon lap times were approaching those before surgery, except a few of the more hazardous turns where I didn’t want to press the damaged knee. After consulting my best fishing buddy, we decided it was time for me to get out on the water but with some serious restrictions. We agreed that trolling for brown and rainbow trout was a good choice because I could sit and stare as easily as at home and would get some fresh air and sunshine in the process. My attitude improved after discovering I could operate the landing net left-handed with little difficulty. After a fish or two, it was game on!

My first trip afield, two months after surgery. Couldn’t operate the boat or a fishing rod but enjoyed netting some nice brown and rainbow trout.

We caught some beautiful trout that day up to twenty-three inches long and the therapeutic value was beyond measure. On a follow-up trip, several attempts at casting with ultralight tackle confirmed it was too much movement, even casting left-handed, so the decision was made to do only what my body would comfortably permit; with patience, careful patience.

Four months after surgery, progress permitted me to use light-weight spinning tackle for short periods. Over time, growing confidence pressed me to search for fish that would test my strength; time to try some night-fishing for reservoir smallmouth bass. During a couple short trips, the number of casts was low but several nice smallies accepted my offering and fought like champions. Landing them boosted my confidence but again made me realize it was still a long way to full recovery. A month later, an MRI was ordered to see why the knee was still bothering me. My surgeon, obviously bug-eyed with disbelief, slowly walked into the room staring at my MRI results, which had been delivered by yours truly minutes before. “About that knee, we have a fracture,” he announced after a long pause. His review described a hairline fracture across the largest bone in my knee that had not shown up on the post-accident X-ray. Yep, I had broken it. He closed by telling me no further treatment of the knee would be necessary, other than some simple exercises, because it was healing nicely. He closed in saying, “This is a testament to how tough you are.” He must have said that because of my work schedule at Bass Pro Shop in the months before my MRI. Who would have guessed?

The arrival of fall found me much more active. My right shoulder was still weak and tender with limited range-of-motion but casting left-handed had become almost routine. Days after beginning some new stretching exercises, the broken knee was forgotten. I was strong and mobile enough that launching the boat was no problem and could fish for about an hour before having to rest my right arm. After a cool snap brought the first freezing temps of the season, a search for schooling striped and hybrid bass began. Fishing for surface-schooling fish is a mixture of much driving around, setting and watching for fish breaking and casting for short periods; an almost perfect match considering my limitations. With a selection of rods rigged with favorite fall striper/hybrid lures, the adventure began one sunny afternoon. Surface water temperature was ideal, in the mid-60’s, and confidence was high. After a long search, clouds of baitfish began appearing on the depth finder in a long narrow cove that ran inland off the main lake. The narrow strip of water didn’t look like much when driving by but an expanded search found it full of baitfish with water depths exceeding forty-feet along much of its surprising length. After confirming it was full of striper food, I moved back where I could see the main lake and much of the cove. It was time to drop the trolling motor, set back and wait.

An hour later the water erupted on the main lake close to the mouth of the cove. Big fish were smashing schools of baitfish not more than a hundred yards away so I moved quickly toward them. Soon there were fish smashing the surface in every direction. Then a jointed Storm ThunderStick landed among the explosions and began making a V-wake along the surface, then a seven-inch Cordell Red Fin, then a large swimbait fluttered along a few feet beneath the surface, all without so much as a bump. Round two with the ThunderStick included variations in speed until, finally, a boil rose beneath the plug. But that was my only strike after more than an hour of casting to feeding fish. Minutes later the water went flat and calm; the party was over and the fish were gone. My mind was sorting through possible reasons for the lack of success when a crippled minnow fluttered by along the surface. The minnow’s size surprised me because it was much smaller than expected. After slowly approaching several schools of surfacing minnows for further size checks, my suspicions were confirmed. My lure choices were too large.

The next day found me waiting in the same spot but with smaller lures rigged. My primary rod held a modified version of the plug that had produced the boil; a Storm ThunderStick. The modified version had the rear section removed with the split ring and hook reattached to the front. With this simple change, the lure’s length was reduced from more than five-inches to four with no change in the plug’s action. Back up combos included a smaller swimbait and a Rat-L-Trap. Soon after arriving a good fish boiled the surface close by, then another. Suddenly, an area the size of a parking lot was filled with watery explosions.

My first striped bass caught left-handed.

Almost immediately a fish attacked my modified ThunderStick and after a brief battle, a three-pound hybrid was in the net. After a quick release, the ThunderStick again sailed into the melee. On the next cast a big fish crushed the plug and pulled a deep bend in my rod. There was no question it was a much larger fish because it ripped line freely from the reel and forced me into a defensive squat. After several line-stripping runs, the fish finally surfaced close to the boat; a striped bass in the mid-teens. At boat-side, a firm grip on the fish’s jaw was shaken off as if attempted by a child. I could grab the fish well enough but any attempt to lift made me realize how weak my arm was. The idea of shifting the rod to my right hand was rejected quickly after the fish surged; there was no way my right arm could take that. After remembering a gaff stowed in the rear of the boat, the fish was safely landed and released unharmed, save a small hole in its lower lip. In the time taken to land the fish, snap a couple pictures and release it, the surrounding school of feeding fish disappeared and the water became still. It felt like the end of a standing ovation as the last few tail slaps subsided in the background; a rewarding afternoon. In the best of moods, a decision was made to add a new Boga Grip to my fishing tool box.

Work and book signings kept me busy through the Holidays but by mid-January fishing fever returned. Thoughts of visiting a highland reservoir for bass crossed my mind but required a significant investment of time and exposure to some very cold conditions. So, brief trips to pitch soft-plastics from shore to river smallies moved to the top of my schedule. But one day, a friend and coworker at Bass Pro Shop told me about a pattern for catching big walleyes during the coldest period of winter. Walleyes spawn in late winter/very early spring in the south and many instinctively migrate into moving water as the time to drop eggs approaches. Areas with increased current attract pre-spawn walleyes and those that hold abundant prey such as alewives, shad, even trout, may attract many of the largest walleyes in the system. The pattern my friend described required fishing a local reservoir from shore at night during the coldest part of winter when the lake water level was at its lowest. The low water period lasted but a brief time, while at winter pool, and wasn’t about how many fish you could catch but how big the fish were. I had to sign up for some of that.

My first trip to fish at night for winter walleyes was more about exploration than serious fishing. Learning details like water depth, temperature, bottom contour and structure present would help me decide which lures would work best. Casting hazards and required distance would dictate the rod and reel combo needed for precise presentations. After exploring and casting for an hour I decided an adjustment in equipment would permit me to fish the area well with a large swimbait, one of the lure’s my friend recommended. Several days later we returned with a third fishing buddy and spread along a sand-covered shoreline that gradually sloped from the water’s edge to a meandering creek channel. In many places, a long cast would reach the channel’s edge. In some spots, there were trees lying across the barren shore with their tops partially submerged in shallow water. Soon we were spread along several hundred yards of shoreline, casting from parallel to shore, out to along the edge of the channel break. In fewer than thirty-minutes, as my swimbait tapped along bottom in the shallows, the water boiled and my line became tight with a heavy, head-shaking fish. Minutes later the glowing eyes of a big walleye surfaced against shore as one of my fishing buds arrived carrying another fish. A break to check size revealed his walleye weighed four-pounds; a nice fish and average size for the lake we were fishing. Mine was a hog weighing eight-and-three-quarter-pounds and stretching twenty-seven-and-a-half inches. A week or so later another trip rewarded me with a twenty-seven-and-three-quarter inch walleye that looked a little fatter, though I didn’t take time to weigh her before release. Soon after, spring rains arrived much too early and the lake began rising quickly. I’ll be back to visit those fish again after the next Christmas Holiday passes.

So, I have finally returned to the fold, so to speak. Fishing and writing are again part of my routine though use of my right arm is still limited. In support of my continuing recovery, trolling will be included in much of my future fishing; rainbow trout, crappie, walleye and others come to mind. Another angling method I’ll employ frequently is presenting live or dead baits on set lines. Big carp, striped bass and catfish are suckers for the right baits presented on bottom. Both approaches will permit me to fish with limited stress on my shoulder while I strengthen it further. However, occasional trips to enjoy long-standing-favorites such as night fishing for summer smallmouths and the fall topwater blitz will be made; left handed of course. Visit me here to read updates on my progress and angling adventures, including new things I learn.

In closing, it is with great sadness that I bring readers news from R&S Bait Company. In late May of 2015, our sport lost a rising star when Rodney Williams, owner of R&S Baits, lost his battle with cancer. Now, his family has no plans to continue operation of the company and the R&S Web site has been closed. Such a loss; a dear friend and talented contributor to our sport. To provide some history about my friendship with Rodney Williams, there’s a story in my book about fishing small jigs for summer smallmouths at night using black lights, though at the time my book was published I didn’t know R&S Bait Company manufactured the jigs described. A story posted on this Blog about meeting and becoming friends with Rodney Williams attracts a lot of traffic and many readers inquire about availability of R&S Baits’ products. If you’d like to read the story behind the story of how we met and became friends, find the Archives button at the top right of this page, click Select Category, then select Announcements and you’ll find a story called “From My Friends at R&S Bait Company”. To read a story about night fishing with R&S Baits Arky Smallmouth Jigs, select Summer Fishing and scroll down to a story called “Day and Night Summer Smallmouth Bass”. To see the side bar photos from each story, click Enlarged Side Bar Photos at the top and select the story title.

It’s good to be back. Be safe and good fishing!

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The Summer Transition to Fall Fishing

Header - Twenty pound river striped bass

It’s been a hot, beautiful summer across much of the south. Temperatures ran above average with rainfall well below; ideal weather for most outdoor activities. Limited rain early in the season baked my lawn, reduced mowing time and provided more free time for fishing but that’s where the good news ended. 2014 was one of the toughest years for summer fishing I can remember. Lack of rain held water generation rates down on the upper-TVA system and free-flowing rivers became crystal clear and shallow, encouraging dense aquatic weed growth. Both provided good conditions for anglers who wade and fish for trout, smallmouth bass and others, but created impassable conditions in most places for those with jet-drive outboards. Several trips to check various sections of my favorite smallmouth river produced disappointing results. When we caught respectable numbers of fish the average size was below normal, partly because we were limited on where we could fish. The river sections that normally produce our largest smallmouth bass of the season were inaccessible this year by jet-drive because of reduced flow and heavy weed growth. Even my favorite section of big carp water was so filled with weeds it was unfishable. This was the summer I wished I owned a Kayak. Night-fishing on reservoirs for smallmouth bass was equally challenging. Local highland reservoirs eventually reached full pool but hot weather drove surface water temperatures to well above normal. We adjusted and fished deeper to catch many bass but our catch rate of big fish, those pushing or above four pounds, was less than normal. So when September brought the first cool night air, falling surface water temperatures and increased generation to drop reservoirs to winter pool, I was eager to find improved fishing and some larger fish.

Soon after water generation increased, tail-water fishing began to improve. The flow of cooler water drew fish into shallow, fast water and on our first trip to check my favorite local tail-water we caught a nine-pound hybrid and several trout. On our second trip, on our first drift in the fast water, a big brown trout smashed my minnow lure so hard it almost jerked the rod from my hand. I looked back in time to see the angry fish clear Twenty five plus tail-water brownthe water by two-feet and the battle was on. It was one of the hardest fighting browns I can remember with multiple water-clearing cartwheels and line-stripping runs. When we finally netted the twenty-five-inch-plus beauty I was trembling like a shy teenager on a first date. Fishing improved so quickly, I talked my wife Tammie into making a short trip after work one evening to try catching some fast-water trout. True to her reputation, she soon caught a beautiful male rainbow, as if it were no big deal. If you’ve not read my book, there’s a story in the last chapter that recounts how Tammie learned to fish and eventually earned the nickname, “Big Fish Woman”, emphasis on “Fish”, not “Big” as she always explains. Our success in that tail-water soon had me wondering when the exciting fall topwater fishing on area lakes would begin so I decided to visit a favorite reservoir and begin the search under the next major moon phase. My goal was to find some surface-schooling striped bass or hybrids.

A week later, on a mild, partly cloudy afternoon two days after a new moon, a friend and I launched his boat in the headwaters of a local reservoir. Surface water temperature at the ramp was in the low-seventies; not as low as we had hoped but close enough I thought we might find some surface feeding black bass or hybrids. We ran down the narrow lake arm until we found a broad, open section with a large cove, a place that should attract some shad and schooling predators. As we idled across open water, the depth finder showed clouds of baitfish close to the surface and an impressive concentration of larger fish below them. There was no question this area was going to provide some good fishing when the feeding blitz began. However, the temperature had increased since we’d left the ramp. In my experience, the best surface feeding action in fall begins as the water temperature falls through seventy degrees into the mid- and upper-sixties. We sat and watched for breaking fish for more than thirty minutes and covered one point with casts where we saw some smaller fish feeding. But soon we decided to move on. Further down lake the temperature increased further and though we found many schools of baitfish dimpling the surface, they were very small and the larger fish we expected to see below them were absent. It was time to change strategies.

After discussing our options, we decided to move back up the lake into the headwaters to a place where my friend and his wife had seen surface schooling shad the previous week and we had found some striped bass during late-summer last year. It was shallow and hazardous, more river-like than lake, but the shad were still there and my confidence increased when I noticed the water temperature had dropped below seventy degrees. So we slowed and moved ahead, though the waning daylight was beginning to make navigation even more hazardous. Soon, it became so shallow we turned off the big motor and cautiously moved forward with the trolling motor. We decided to continue as far as depth would allow, then cast our way back out toward deeper water. By the time darkness fell, we were in water less than three-feet deep in a river little more than two casts wide so we slowed the trolling motor to a crawl, grabbed our rods and prepared to start casting. My friend grabbed a long spinning combo rigged with a five-and-a-half-inch Storm Jointed ThunderStick and I a heavy baitcasting combo with a seven-inch Cordell Red Fin. If there were stripers or hybrids present, one of these lures retrieved slowly along the surface should elicit a response. Expectations were high when we made our first casts but we didn’t expect what was about to happen.

Striper on a Jointed ThunderstickSeveral casts into our adventure, the water exploded under my friends ThunderStick and “Fish on!” echoed through the darkness. But after a brief, thorough thrashing of the water, the big fish pulled free. Two casts later, a big boil rose beneath my Red Fin, but the fish didn’t touch the lure. Whether they were stripers or hybrids, I knew they could be very size-selective and quickly exchanged my baitcaster for a heavy spinning combo loaded with the same Storm ThunderStick. In minutes my rod bent under the weight of a fish, a small striper between three and four pounds. Soon after my friend landed another; a hybrid between five and six pounds. In the next few hours, the topwater action we experienced was nothing short of incredible and the stripers got larger as the night progressed. We moved slowly upstream and later learned we were in the last hundred yards or so of water deep enough to float the boat, or hold fish. So when we finally reached the farthest point, we turned the trolling motor off and quietly drifted back downstream. Several times, large wakes streaked across the shallows in the dim starlight and we could see baitfish leaping clear of the water to escape. We had several more hits and misses but landed four striped bass between eleven and eighteen pounds. The most impressive event of the evening occurred around midnight while drifting silently downstream. We cast simultaneously toward the far shoreline and our lures landed not more than thirty-feet apart. After a short retrieve, both lures exploded as if on timers. We’d already caught several good stripers but quickly realized these must be older relatives, perhaps grandparents. My fish turned and headed down the river so fast I had no time to react. In seconds, it stripped off thirty feet of line as if my reel had no drag and then pulled free. My partner’s fish decided it wanted to play first. After a few energetic wallows, short screaming runs and an explosion or two, the giant simply spit the lure back at him at boat side. That’s little exaggeration because there wasn’t much left of the hooks on the plug; just fragments of twisted metal. And the split ring mounting loop on the front of the plug was bent at a forty-five degree angle. I was surprised the split rings weren’t straightened and gone. It was an impressive display of power by two huge striped bass.

Several nights later, we returned for a rematch. This time we brought two boats; my friend with his wife, and I in my boat with frequent fishing partner Andy Barnes. Both our passengers had limited experience fishing for striped bass but were about to be fully initiated. In the next several hours, we collectively boated thirteen stripers up to fifteen pounds. I had another mid-teen fish pull free at boat side while Andy stood ready to net it. I waved it off as a victory because the fish had fought to near exhaustion. After quickly checking the hooks for damage, the topwater minnow again sailed into the darkness; no time to pout over a lost fish when the next cast might produce another. We all had more blowups and a few fish were lost but it was one of the most memorable trips I’ve had fishing for striped bass. This trip was made most special because we introduced newcomers to the exciting topwater fishing these powerful game fish offer. And the occasional shrill screams of a female voice echoing through the darkness made me chuckle every time. Later, as our companions drifted by us to leave, my friend’s wife started describing all the things she’d experienced. Her dialog began before we could hear her well, continued as fast as she could talk while they drifted slowly by, and finally dimmed into a series of high-pitched notes as they disappeared into the darkness. It was hilarious to hear that level of excitement in a grown woman’s voice. I was happy for her and proud of what she had achieved.

Many days of rain and high winds kept us from returning to our newly found striper honey-hole though we were impatient for one last visit before draw down of the lake erased the possibility. I was also concerned the cooling weather would drop the water temperature low enough the stripers would disperse back into the lake. So one calm, overcast evening when Andy called and said he could spring free for a few hours, we scrambled to pack the boat and leave for the lake. What we found was disappointing. The lake had already dropped so low that our previous fishing area was no Insert 3 - Andy's pic of striper 2longer accessible. After repeated attempts to find a channel deep enough to reach our hotspot, we decided to start fishing as far upstream as possible and fish what we could. We had a few boils on our topwater minnows but landed only two stripers. But to end on a high note, Andy caught his largest striped bass ever; a long, slender fish that pulled the scales to more than twenty pounds. To reinforce his memory of these powerful fish, he hooked another not long before we had to leave. It was another giant that easily ripped line from his reel as it streaked toward the main lake, then pulled free. It was an impressive way to end a late-summer encounter with one of our most powerful freshwater game fish.

So my focus has again returned to the great fall fishing that is about to occur on reservoirs across the south. It’s time to renew the search for surface feeding stripers, hybrids and black bass. And very soon, shallow water fishing for largemouth bass will rival the great fishing of spring, minus the heavy fishing pressure and recreational traffic. However, I’m sure it will be some time before our thoughts and conversations drift away from the incredible striped bass fishing we experienced as summer passed to early fall. If you’d like to learn more about finding and catching striped bass in small rivers throughout summer, refer to the “Hunting for Trophies” chapter in my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing. And if you need help finding some great fall fishing on your home waters, the information you need to get started is there as well. Be safe, have fun and great fall fishing!