Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Who Says There Aren't Big Bass Up North?

A million people said it.  I thought it.  Mary May even stressed over it.  Moving from North Carolina to western Massachusetts would be tough on my fishing lifestyle.  The Berkshires are known for top notch trout fishing - not some silly green fish that lives in warm water.  I admit, I fully expected to spend less time chasing bass and more time flinging flies at trout.  I expected to have to settle for days where 3-pounders would be the icing on the cake.  I was ready to pocket a few hundred bucks as I pared down my bass baits.  Oh how a month can change things.  This weekend was nothing short of, and I hesitate to use this drastically overused term, epic.  If these keeps up, western Massachusetts is going to be on the kayak bass fishing map.

This weekend Mary May and her gang of bridesmaids headed to Vermont to celebrate the end of her life as a single.  That meant that the dogs and I were home alone.  That meant I was going fishing.  It started slow, but it ended with a bang.

I spent the early portion of Friday evening at a BBQ, where I met so many of the fine folks that my soon to be mother-in-law, Johanna, had told me so much about.  It was great food and great company, but I couldn't stay too long.  The lake was calling my name.  Although I was shooting to get started a little before sunset, I didn't make it to the lake until well after dusk.  Being that I knew very little about the lake, that was a poor decision.  I found some weed lines and lily pad clumps and started fishing a variety of topwater baits.  But the fish were stingy.  I felt like I was doing all the right things, but getting no results.  Eventually, I did grind out a few fish in the 14"-15" range, but it was one of those instances where I should have taken my own advice.  Last year, in the Skills Issue of Kayak Angler Magazine, I wrote about the importance of scouting bodies of water in the day time before embarking on night fishing trips.  Sometimes, your excitement gets the best of you.  Lesson re-learned.

Abu Garcia Reels & Carolina Custom Rods - ready to put in some work!

However, I didn't let the poor evening bite get me down.  I got home, game planned for the morning, caught up on some emails and fell asleep shortly before 1 AM.  4:30 AM came way too soon.  Snooze - 4:40 AM.  Snooze - 4:50 AM.  I guess that extra 20 minutes helped, because I actually sprung out of bed fairly quickly when the alarm went off for the third time.  The dogs, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with getting up to go outside in the dark. 

I cruised down the road to a local lake I had fished once with Mary May.  It was actually one of the first lakes we explored after the move and fishing was pretty slow that day.  But, I knew we had caught the lake at a bad time.  The fish were in that late spawn to early post-spawn haze and on top of that, the lake's vegetation was minimal and needed a few weeks to properly emerge.  I launched around 6 AM and started throwing a mix of a black Jitterbug and Lucky Craft Gunfish.  It didn't take long for my first hook-up, probably 5 casts into the day.  It was a 15-incher with a gut and an attitude that clobbered the Gunfish near an isolated patch of weeds.  The Gunfish yielded a few more 12"-15" bass before I finally got my first Jitterbug bite.  Reeling the bait through a gap in some lily pads, I gave it a short pause, and slowly started reeling again.  BOOM.  The bait disappeared in a gaping swirl.  After pulling me around, the fish eventually ended up buried in a mess of weeds, or as I fondly call it - salad.  I wrangled him from the mess and was delighted to find a 17.25" fish amongst the greenery.  Now, if I could just keep it up!

The black Jitterbug jitter its way to another solid bass

My next few fish were all 12" or under when I came to a long, tapering point adjacent to a rock wall.  My first cast with the Gunfish was to the shallowest part of the point, in about a foot of water.  Suddenly a wake shot out of the deerp water and erupted on the bait.  The fish jumped once, then twice, then a third time.  The third time was the charm...for him.  My bait came flying back at me and the chunky bass, easily 18", vanished back into the deep.  The next hour or so was spent dissecting different types of vegetation with topwaters - mixing in a buzzbait and Rico Popper for good measure and a fluke as a follow-up bait.  I managed about a dozen between 10" and 16", lost a 4 lber, and was cursing the sun for finally starting to burn off the morning cloud cover.  But I had realized that most of my fish were hitting the Jitterbug.  Somehow, I remembered a bait I had buried in the bottom of my tackle box and had never used.  I had found two of them in a large lot on eBay for a fraction of their typical cost.  I scrounged out a white Deps Basirisky frog, which I later described to my buddy Bill as, "a Pokemon version of a Jitterbug".  For some reason I found that particularly funny, probably because I have no idea what Pokemon is other than some weird Asian cartoon animals that became a fad that I was a little too old for.  Anyway, it was a move that would pay off.

The Basirisky is a frog that has hard plastics legs on each side of the bait and a hard bottom.  However, the top of the bait is soft, like a normal hollow body frog.  When reeled, the legs swim up and down, similar to the movement of the Jitterbug.  All I know is, it drove those bass nuts.  On my third cast, I flung the bait under some overhanging pine limbs on the edge of a small lily pad patch.  I barely twitched it when the water erupted.  My adrenaline sky rocketed as the bucketmouth choked down my bait.  It was a heavy fish and he fought like he had every intention of stealing that frog from me.  Thankfully, I won that round, and was able to bring him to the boat.  The fish measured just under 19"and I would guess was right around 4 lbs.

My first bass on the Deps Basirisky - the start of something special

After that, I sold out on the frog.  Despite the sun now fully hitting the lake, I managed two more bites.  The first was what looked to be a 18" fish that blasted the bait, but didn't get hooked because I got a little too anxious.  The second was perfect.  I am talking as ideal as it gets.  There was a laydown, one of very few on the lake, with some blown down reeds parallel to it.  I threw the frog on top of the blown over reeds, twitched it 2-3 times until it hit the open water over the log, and then took about 3 cranks on the reel before the water exploded again.  The sound a big largemouth makes when it sucks in a frog is something almost unexplainable.  But I'm not sure any type of strike can match it.  Immediately I saw the fish flash and knew it was a good one.  The fish pulled drag as it drug me around.  I was downright giddy.  Seriously, for as often as I stress focus and execution when on the water, I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.  Thankfully, the hookset was a good one and the I lifted the fish from the water with a fish pump.  He went 20" on the tape and I decided that no crappy selfie would do him justice.  So I pulled over to the bank, set the camera on a log, and got a couple shots with the self timer before letting him go.  That would be my last fish of the day, as it was time to head over to the in-laws farm and spend the rest of the day bailing hay.  But I couldn't compain about a 20-25 fish morning with two over 4 lbs - one close to 5.  I knew I had to get up and do it again the next day.

This brute capped off a fine morning of bassing in western Mass

That may have been a little ambitious.  After 7 hours of haying, I spent the evening around a campfire until 11 PM.  It was around midnight before I finally did drift off.  4:30 AM, again, came way too soon.  8 hours of sleep over a weekend was way easier in my 20's.  This time I knew that touching the snooze would result in not rolling out of bed at all.  So I, literally, rolled out of bed and stumbled around with my eyes half shut looking for my fishing clothes.  The dogs, much like the morning before, gave me as a dirty a look as a dog possibly can.  Man's best friend was gumpier than man.  But I imagine they fell right back to sleep, while I jumped in the car and headed to another lake, this one up in the hills.

I launched right at 5:30 AM, a perfect time to watch the sun rise over the far end of the lake.  But the large ball of pink and orange quickly disappeared in a haze of clouds.  The morning prior had given me immense confidence in the Basirisky, so I started throwing it on a weedy bank.  Much like Saturday morning, it was only a few casts before I had a fish - a 16.5" chunk that crushed the frog.  I had two more blow ups within 10 minutes.  Something told me it was going to be a good day.  Then it started raining.  That was the sign I needed.  It was about to get silly.

The next hour resulted in about 15 blow-ups on the frog in areas I had never fished before.  Most came throwing it into heavy cover, working it out to the edge, and then fish would crush it as I reeled it in.  I batted around 50% - landing 7 and losing 8.  Patience is a virtue, right?  But the fish hitting the frog were big - none smaller than 16".  One of the fish I lost came totally out of the water with it and was pushing 5 lbs.  Unfortunately with the rain, my attempts at photos were rough.  Eventually I resorted to a cell phone selfie of a 18.75" largemouth.  It will not be shown here because, frankly, I look like a zombie.  Literally - a mouth agape, red eyed, half asleep looking zombie.  Yikes.

Then I moved off the shore onto a big flat with mixed vegetation below the surface.  That is when all heck broke loose.  It was like the LC Gunfish was a drug that they couldn't get enough of.  Cast after cast after cast they blasted the bait.  Pickerel and bass alike, I was catching them as fast as I could reel them in.  Most of the flat was only about a foot deep with other sections as deep as 3 feet.  Wakes would blast from the weeds and sky rocket with the bait.  By 8 AM, I had caught nearly 50 fish and my hand (not just my thumb, my entire hand) was torn up and tender.  My biggest came while making a long cast toward a small branch in the water.  I worked the bait side to side about 4 times before it was engulfed.  The fish jumped repeatedly and I thought for sure he would throw the hook.  He made a run to deep water, then an abrupt left and pulled me about 20 yards down the bank.  In a last ditch effort, he plunged into a clump of weeds and I fought to keep pressure on him.  Somehow, he stayed hooked up and I lifted the brute from the water.  He measured 20.5" and was every bit of 5+ lbs.  Again, no selfie would suffice, so I pulled up in the shallows and snapped a quick pic.  He swam off and I just shook my head.

I could get used to this!

I caught about 3 more fish before noticing that my Gunfish was acting oddly.  It wasn't floating right, so I reeled it in to inspect it.  Somehow, it was taking on water, which was causing it to sink and suspend.  One last fish was the nail in the coffin - at least for now.  I was half proud of having put a hole in a hard bait and half disappointed in having to fix it.  Needing repair, I decided to switch it out for an LC Sammy.  Although the Sammy produced - the bite slowed.  I wasn't sure if it was due to the rain stopping or the change in bait.  But just as I was ready to move to another part of the lake, I saw a wake about 75 yards away in about 6 inches of water.  A fish was exploding after a real frog and finally caught it.  It made me realize that maybe I should be fishing the frog super shallow as well.  So I paddled over to that area and started casting.  I started with the Sammy in open water, which resulted in a blow-up and miss, a 12 inch bass, and a small pickerel.  As I worked my way toward the bank, which was littered with weeds and lily pads, I started throwing the frog.  First cast - BOOM - 3 lber.  Then a 16-incher.  Then a 20" pickerel.  Then a Mack Truck.  A fish that acted like he was just sitting there waiting for some dumb frog to come snooping along...and he tanked my bait.  He ran for open water before doing an about face and charging into the weeds and under some pads as he pulled drag in the slop.  Eventually I wrangled him, put him on the tape, and snapped a photo.  Then I let the 19-incher swim off to find a real frog to chow on.

Frogs for hogs

The rest of the day was a roller coaster.  I landed 5 more bass on the frog and two pickerel on swimbaits, but had about 15 blow-ups on the frog.  I also had 2 bass that were both 5 lbs or more follow the Basirisky back to the boat without hitting it.   I couldn't get either of them to hit a follow-up bait, as I think they got spooked by the boat.  Some of the missed fish were pickerel, most of which couldn't fit the wide bodied frog into their mouths very well.  Of the 5 I did land, 3 were over 4 lbs and the other two were right around 17-inches.

Sometimes, you can do no wrong - big largemouths everywhere

Then to cap the day off, I had one last hurrah.  Not more than 30 yards from the launch, I was working the frog along some lily pads near where I had started the day.  I threw my frog into the thick stuff, worked it out, took a few cranks on the reel, and...nothing.  I thought for sure it would get crushed.  I continued to reel the bait back to the boat - another 40 feet or so.  Suddenly, not 10 feet from boatside, KASPLOOSH (is that a word?).  A giant inhaled the frog.  Fueled by adrenaline, I set the hook out of shear reactionary surprise.  The lure came flying out of the fishes mouth and she rolled as she headed back to the depths.  She was a monster - a legit 6+ lber.  I was pretty crushed, but I guess sometimes a little disappointment is a good thing.  I can't believe I just typed that.

I decided to hang it up after that.  Reflecting on the 60 fish I had landed over the course of the 5 hour trip, I paddled back, packed it up, and headed home.  Within 15 minutes, I was fast asleep - reliving strikes and dreaming of things to come.  Who says there isn't good bass fishing in the north?  Until next time, tight lines!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Banner Day on Lake Icanttellya - Big Bass and Trophy Pickerel

Lake Icanttellya - named after a famous Mohican Chief of the eastern Berkshires.  OK, not really.  It is just a small, public lake hidden up in the hills that is already fairly busy and doesn't need added pressure because they read about it on some guys blog.  So for the purpose of anonimity, the lake will remain nameless.  But I will tell you that it is a gorgeous lake with mixed vegetation, pockets of lily pads, and some tapering points.  It is a fairly shallow body of water and perfect size for a 3 hour paddle fishing trip.

Sunday was poised to be a prime fishing day.  It had been hot, humid, and sunny for 4 days straight, but storms were predicted to roll through in the late afternoon.  The pre-front conditions were cloudy, breezy, and...perfect.  Instead of having to dissect the thick vegetation in search of often scarce bites, I expected the fish to be out on weed edges feeding aggressively.  They were.

We started around 11 AM and made the paddle across the lake, figuring the wind would slowly blow us back to the launch.  The theory was great.  In reality, the wind switched directions multiple times and we constantly were adjusting our yaks.  But as easy as it could have been to curse the wind, we knew it would help the bite.

I pulled up in a small cove and started casting around some vegetation with a swimbait.  Mary May started a little deeper, throwing a 1/4 oz, white and chartreuse Premier Leagure Lures River Series Spinnerbait over a weed bed.  On my second cast I saw the swimbait disappear and set the hook into a 12" pickerel.  He wasn't much to look at, but it was a sign of things to come.  Shortly after I moved into deeper water as well and began throwing a swimbait and lipless crank.  The weeds were just too thick for the dual trebles of the lipless crank, so I tied on a topwater.  Shortly after, a cast to a long point yielded my first largemouth of the day - a nice 14" fish.  Seconds later, Mary May exclaimed that she was hooked up.  The fish nailed the bait on the fall and was pulling drag.  She eventually wrangled in the 15-incher and was all smiles.

                                                              Mary May gets on the board with a healthy bass

A few minutes later she was hooked up again.  The fish was bulldogging her through the weeds to deep water.  Then it started running at the boat and lept from the water.  As it did, the lure sailed helplessly through the air.  The fish was big - easily over 5 lbs.  We both let out a scream of angst.  "I feel like I am going to throw up", she said.  "Wait until it happens during a tournament", I responded.  The feeling of losing a giant is brutal.  It takes the breath from your chest and then punches you in the stomach.  It would have easily been her personal best largemouth.  But as I told her, you never know when you will get that redemption bite.

I made my way toward some blowdowns that reached into deeper water and quickly landed a 16" bass on a green pumpkin colored finesse worm.  The fish was gorgeous and put up a heck of a fight for a lake bass...not that I am biased to river fish or anything.
                                                           How perfect is that backdrop?

Then we began fishing around the outside edge of some weeds and with random patches of mini-lily pads poking through.  I landed a few bass and pickerel on my topwater bait - a Lucky Craft Gunfish.  Then Mary May let out a yell.  She was hooked up with what she thought was a solid fish, but it had run her into a massive clump of vegetation and would not come out.  After a short tug or war, she was able to leverage him from the grass and get him in the boat.  It was a healthy 3.5 lb bass, which tied her personal best largemouth from a kayak.  "You never know", I told her again, smiling from ear to ear.

                                                                        Beautiful girl, beautiful fish!

I continued to work weed edges and at this point was only throwing topwater.  The wind and cloud cover was perfect for the Gunfish, which I can walk, spit, and pop at different speeds.  I was landing fish fairly regularly, including a couple pickerel that pushed 20".  Then it happened.  I made a long cast over the deeper part of the weed bed and began twitching the bait back to the boat.  I regularly pause topwaters when I retrieve them and on this particular cast, I paused longer than normal about mid-way back to the boat.  Suddenly, on the dead stop, I saw a massive head and body of a pickerel come out of the water and suck down the bait.  I could tell the fish was big, but had no idea how big.  The fish thrashed and pulled drag as I kept pressure on him as best I could.  He made multiple attempts to run under the boat and bulldogged me for what seemed like a half hour.  Finally, he got close to the boat and I could see my bait lodged in its mouth.  My line, 12 lb Sufix Mono, was visibly rubbing against his teeth.  Thank goodness I had brought my lip grippers, which were in Mary May's boat.  She paddled them over to me and with a sigh, I lipped the giant.  It nearly spanned the width of my kayak and had a massive head.  I was in slight disbelief.  Carefully, I dislodged the lure from his mouth, noting the multiple cuts in the line.  Then we snapped a few pictures, took some measurements, and released the monster back into the lake.  He went 28" and roughly 6 lbs - my biggest chain pickerel by a long shot and big enough to qualify for a Massachusetts Trophy Fish Award.  That makes two trophy catches in as many months.  I was beyond stoked.

                                                                     The Leviathan

But the day wasn't done, in addition to about a dozen small pickerel that came unbuttoned for us at the boat, we found a few more solid bass to round out the day.  Our 5 fish limit was right at 17 lbs - a number I would have been happy with on many a tournament day.  My biggest fish was one of my last.  I stood in the Stealth in a pocket protected from the wind and made long casts with my finesse worm to holes in the patchy weed bed.  I threw the bait toward a particularly dark patch of weeds and felt a nearly immediate tap on my line.  I set the hook and the fish blasted toward deep water.  It pulled huge strips of drag from my spinning reel and kept making runs under my kayak.  Finally, I reached down and lipped her.  She was thick, heavy, and extra dark from living down in those weeds.  At 4 lbs, she was my biggest MA largemouth so far.  Vacationers at a lake house saw me catch her and started asking questions.  Before I knew it, there were 3 people bank fishing and 2 kayaks launching.  Combined with the other lake traffic, that was my cue to wrap it up.  I did land a couple more bass in the short distance between there and the launch, prompting one guy to run down the bank and ask the inevitable question of, "what are you using?".  I kindly obliged.

                                                   The south ain't got nothin' on northern largemouth like this!

By 3 PM we were back home and taking care of wedding chores.  It was one of those days that won't be forgotten any time soon - personal bests, quantity and quality, and the one that got away.  Now, I just have to wait for the weekend to come around again.  Until next time, tight lines!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Smallmouths, whitewater, and tractors

To say that we have been busy would be the understatement of the year.  It has been one thing after another - a mix of necessary evils, responsible evils, and fun trips.  Included in the list of things I had never done before was driving a tractor, haying, legit whitewater kayaking, and catching smallies in Massachusetts.  I have caught plenty of smallies in plenty of places, but had yet to wet a line in smallie waters here in the Bay State.  Sunday, I decided it was time to remedy that.

First time driving a tractor...didn't even hit anything
I wanted to fish the lower stretch of the Deerfield River near its confluence with the Connecticut River.  The stretch is a popular stretch for float tubers and rec kayakers and I'm sure sees plenty of fishermen too.  But kayak fishing isn't terribly popular here yet, so I also suspected that we could put together a 4-5 mile float and do quite well.  However, both the Deerfield and CT are heavily influenced by hydroelectric dams.  For kayak anglers, this means that the water needs to be in the "sweet spot".  If the level is too low, you are going to be doing a ton of dragging.  If too high, you aren't going to be able to slow down long enough to fish.  If just right, you lucked out, but you need to be very wary of the release schedule because your window of opportunity may be short. 

I pulled up info for the lowest dam on the Deerfield and it was releasing with the gauge below it reading around 1000 CFS.  It was expected to drop as the day went on, but still, fishing a small river at that flow can be tough.  So I decided to head over to the CT and scout a few sections of water there.  If nothing else, I knew there were a couple spots big eddies I found on the map that should produce even if the water was running.  We got to the first spot I wanted to check and found a small, public access.  It was about 50 yards from the pull-off to the water and as we made our way down a path to the river, it was evident that the water was not running and the area looked extremely fishy.  However, it also had obvious signs of being a public area - lots of footprints, fishing lines, worm containers, and other traces of humans.  Still, we figured we could paddle up or down river to get away from that, so we loaded the yaks and launched.

I gave Mary May a 3" Berkely Powerbait Grub to start - probably my favorite all time smallie catching bait.  I was switching between a crankbait, tube, and finesse worm.  We were fishing all the right places - shoals, isolated rocks, current seams, deep eddy pools, and pipe discharges, but we couldn't buy a bite.  Eventually, I had a fish chase and swipe at my crankbait, but I am fairly sure it was a shad that was still hanging around after the big spawning run occurred in the weeks/months prior.

Finally, I threw the finesse worm along a deep bank, let it sink, and BAM - I had a bite.  It isn't hard to tell when you hook a smallie.  They are probably the hardest drag peelers of any of the black bass species.  Although my first MA smallie wasn't a giant, he fought hard.  It turns out he was hanging out around a submerged log and couldn't resist the fall of my worm.

My first MA smallie and first smallie of 2014

As we continued on, I tried a few different lures and picked up a couple more short fish on the finesse worm and crankbait.  The wind was gusting fairly hard at times, making it difficult to see submerged targets.  Thankfully, it stopped long enough for me to stand and spot a ledge that dropped from about 6 to 15+ feet.  I made a long cast down the ledge with a Power Team Lures Food Chain Tube in the Susky Slayer color.  There was no denying the strike - a solid thud and immediate run to deep water.  The fish was pulling me toward him and swimming circles around the boat.  Every time I tried to sit he made another drag peeling spurt.  Mary May noted the awkward smile on my face, asking whether it was caused by the joy of hooking the fish or nervousness of landing him.  "Both", I exclaimed, with an even bigger smile.  Eventually I managed to make my way to the seat, but the fight continued.  The 7' Carolina Custom Rods Jig and Worm spinning rod was doubled over and taking the brunt of the battle.  Finally, I managed to wrangle her to the boat and scoop her into my lap.  I wiggled my thumb into her mouth and lipped her with a sigh of relief.  The FCT jighead was stuck squarely in her upper lip.  The fish was a thick, 3+ lb smallmouth, in the 18" range.  We snapped a few photos and sent her on her way.

Tubes - they always seem to get it done!

My day was made, but we fished a while longer.  I shook off a couple short fish before hearing a loud announcement over a PA system.  We coulnd't make out any of the words, but immediately I wondered if it was time to release.  Usually you get about 30 minutes between the time the horn sounds and the time the water is physcially released - per federal law.  Then about 10 minutes later we heard it again, then again.  We decided to turn back down river and fish toward the launch.  We heard one last announcement then nothing.  After another 10 minutes or so, I looked down river and noticed that what had previously been an exposed shoal was quickly going underwater.  Likewise, a small chute was turning into a true rapid.  It was time to head back to the launch, which thankfully wasn't far and the Malibu Stealths handled the flow with no problems.  By the time we got back, the water had risen about 2 feet.  It came up another 8"-10" by the time we stowed the gear and started hauling the boats back to the Escape.  It was actually very interesting to watch as the river transformed into something totally different from what we had found when we arrived.

After unloading the gear and loading the yaks onto the car we decided to go back and take another look.  Now the water was about 5 feet above where it had been when we started.  You could see almost no shoals and the flow had at least doubled.  We were glad we called it quits when we did.  Although I know we could have easily maneuvered back to the launch, even in the high, fast water, you can never be too careful.  It is another reason to always wear your PFD, be aware of river levels and release schedules, be attentive for sirens/horns when fishing below dams, and fish with a partner when possible - especially on new water.

The 3 hour trip was just what the doctor ordered - some solid smallie action and one awesome kicker.  During the BASS Slam a few years ago, I caught every species of black bass in the US.  The Suwannee bass, pound for pound, is pretty darn strong, the Shoal bass will seriously bend a rod, and AL Spots are absolute brutes.  But I think the smallmouth might be my favorite fighter of them all.  The mix of drag peeling brute strength, aerial acrobatics, and clever runs are nearly impossible to beat.  I'm more than ready to do it again!  Until next time, tight lines!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Sliming the Kayaks in Massachusetts!

My last blog talked about how much I love fishing new bodies of water - the scouting that goes in, the anticiptation, the adventure.  Well, since the beginning of June, I have had no choice - everything is now new.  After endless hours of packing, moving, unpacking, organizing, etc. we are finally settling in to our new home in western Mass.  So far, we couldn't be much happier.  Admist all the chaos, catching up on work, and MM taking her boards, we have managed to sneak out and slime the yaks.  Thankfully, we have a river in our backyard and 4-5 lakes within about 15 minutes.  I guess I am little spoiled.  To say that I was eagerly anticipating the first trip would be a major understatement.

Our first trip was short and sucessful.  We hit a small, shallow lake originally in search of bass.  But when we arrived, we were informed that there are only pickerel, perch, and panfish in the lake.  We didn't let that deter us and launched anyway.  We landed a bunch of pickerel, up to about 18", on swimbaits and topwater plugs.  It was a bunch of fun to see them slash out of nowhere and blast the topwaters.  He wasn't a giant, but the fish pictured below is my first MA pickerel and first MA fish from a yak.  I also caught a 10" pumpkinseed, which put up a heck of a fight and qualified for a MA Sportfish Award Citation.

My first MA fish from a kayak and first MA pickerel

Our second trip turned out to be even more sucessful.  Mary May's father, Jerry, had mentioned a lake not far from the house that was nestled in a small forested town way up in the hills.  Thankfully the weather cleared up after work on Tuesday and we snuck out for a couple of hours before dark.  It was Jerry's first trip ever in kayak, although he traveled many a mile via canoe back in the day.  The lake was shallow and had a mix of emerging vegetation.  The water temp was also warmer than I expected.  My first bite came throwing a plastic worm on a weed edge that extruded from a point.  A chunky bass inhaled the worm on the fall and put up a great fight before I could land him.  He represented another first - my first MA largemouth.

My first MA largemouth!

About 10 minutes later I had a big pickerel blow up a topwater bait as it came over a shallow log.  The fish crushed the bait as it went airborne.  It was one of the more acrobatic pickerel I have ever caught.  The fish was a picture worthy 22-incher, so we snapped a few shots and let him go.

A healthy MA pickerel the crushed a topwater

Then I had one of those light bulb moments.  My southern side wanted to throw a black buzzbait, but deep down, I knew it just wasn't time yet.  So, I listened to my northern side.  I cut off the buzzer and tied on a lipless crankbait.  I threw it toward deeper water and worked it through weed tops via a mix of yo-yoing, changing speeds, and ripping the bait.  BAM!  First cast - fish on!  It was another big pickerel - around 21" and thick across the back and stomach.  In the next 6 casts I caught 4 more pickerel.  So I paddled over and re-tied a lipless crank on Jerry's rod, while letting MM keep working her topwater.  I picked up a couple more small pickerel before hearing Jerry, very nonchalantly say, "this feels like a nice fish."  Considering it was his first fish in 15-20 years, I would have expected more yelling or something...but that's not his style.  He lifted a healthy pickerel from the water, we snapped a few pics, and sent him back to the depths.

Jerry's first ever kayak fish

About this time, Mary May had a monster blow up and the fish, a big pickerel, took the bait with him.  A different pickerel also managed to swim off with one of my lipless crankbaits later in the evening.  I had forgotten my metal leaders, which will not happen again.

We picked off some more pickerel and 1-2 lb largemouth before we heard Jerry's drag start to peel.  This time he was a little more excited and the fish was bulldogging him into deeper water.  The previous bass I had hooked all went airborne, so I figured it was another pickerel.  But sure enough, when he got it to he boat, it was a gorgeous 17+" bass.  The fish had whacked his lipless crank along a deep weed edge.  The picture did the fish, which looked to be a post-spawn bass, no justice.

A gorgeous western Mass. bass!

Then I began casting along another deep weed edge and got a good bite of my own.  My Carolina Custom Rods all-purpose set-up was bent in half, as the fished crushed my Spro Aruku Shad as I yo-yoed it into deeper water.  As I scooped the largemouth from the water, I could see that he was easily my biggest of the night.  He was somewhere in the 3-3.5 lb range and awfully fun to fight.  The bass also appeared to be a post-spawner, if I had to guess.

A beautiful bass from the vegetation

After that, we pretty much called it a night.  The temperature was dropping fast and we were worn out.  Hopefully this rainy spell blows away soon and we can revisit the lake with the sun as our guide.  Admittedly, I had forgotten how fun it can be to fish lakes with heavy vegetation.  Given a few more weeks of growth, the evening topwater bite is going to be crazy.

I'm not sure if our next trip will be back to the same lake, a new lake, a river smallie float or something out at the coast.  But I can say that I am loving the area and the exploration with MM, family and friends.  I even paddled a SUP for the first time ever the other night.  Although it was really fun and relaxing, I think I'll stick to the MK Stealth's for fishing purposes.  Until next time, tight lines!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Hard Work Pays Off - Piedmont Bassin'

I often get asked where I catch the fish I blog about, or with what baits, or what techniques.  And I always share the baits and techniques.  I'm not doing anything special.  But there aren't many people I share my fishing spots with.  I'm a firm believer in learning by scouting and exploring.  Laziness is not a trait befitting of my style of kayak fishing.  As any true river rat would oblige - you have to earn it.  Rarely do I come home from a day on the water without a few bumps, bruises, and scrapes, some missing plastic on my yak, maybe a little poison, and usually a raw thumb.  And the next morning I can count on needing to stretch the soreness from my body before I start my day.  So my answer to where I fish is typically, "off the beaten path, as far as I can get."  I suspect that the KBF Open, which took place in March on Santee Cooper, will be the only time all year that I use an actual boat launch.  So what is my point?  Well, a couple weekends ago, Bill and I hit the water for our last hurrah.  Based on our schedules, we knew it would be our last kayak fishing trip before I moved north.  For a while, we debated which "old favorite" we would hit.  However, as we talked, we both kept getting more excited about a stretch of water I had scouted on satellite imagery over the winter.  It had everything you could ask for, but access looked nearly impossible.  Our curiousity of the unknown was too great - we opted for the new river.  And the nearly impossible access lived up to the hype.  We did a lot of dragging, portaging, and trailblazing.  Multiple times I found myself questioning whether it was worth it.  But getting off the beaten path has rarely let us down.  That day was no different.

We arrived at the river around 7:30 AM.  The spot we wanted to launch from was posted as private property, no trespassing.  Option 2 - more of the same.  Option 3 was about 100 yards of nearly vertical boulders that would have probably put us both in casts.  But Option 4, although it was much further down river, was finally doable.  We loaded up, drug about 100 yards down to the water, and started our upstream paddle.  It didn't take long before I hooked up with a small largemouth on a balsa crank in a bluegill color.  And soon after we came to a gorgeous shoal where we caught about dozen largemouths up to 2.5 lbs on Premier League Lure spinnerbaits.  Then came the jam - a massive mess of an obstacle that would require a portage.  The only possible portage was cringeworthy, to say the least.  It was 100 yards of mixed boulders, brush, and branches - the first half of which was uphill.  Thankfully, we made it through without any major damage, other than some scrapes and, as we would find out the next day, poison oak.  Then we dropped back into the river down a steep, 4-foot clay bank and were on our merry way, mumbling, "what the *bleep* are we thinking" under our breathe. 

But only a few casts later, all was forgotten.  A 17" largemouth smoked a BBB Fighting Frog and we were back in business.  The river was littered with wood cover and overhanging bushes and vines.  We flipped and flipped and flipped with mixed results.  There was so much wood, and deep wood at that, that it was hard to pick it all apart properly.  But we were catching some fish, and also knew that a lot of fish were bedding and wouldn't eat unless we put our baits right in their face.  Granted, neither of us care much for catching bedders, and in the stained river, it would have been nearly impossible anyway.  Eventually, I picked up my spinning rod and began skipping a finesse worm way back under overhanging brush.  It didn't long before I saw my line swim sideways, set the hook, and heard the drag peel.  The fish fought like it was a giant, putting up one of the best fights I have had all year.  When I finally got him next to the boat, I was shocked to see that the brute was 'only' 4 lbs.   We snapped a few photos and let her go.

One hard fighting largemouth

We continued fishing up-river. Our goal was to get to a large shoal I had seen on the map, which had 2 or 3 very large eddies behind it.  We were catching solid fish with regularity - 2 and 3 lbers that all fought like freight trains.  We have tangled with some mean bass, but these might have been the meanest largemouths I have ever fought.  In fact, at one point during a fight, Bill exclaimed, "are there smallies in here?".

Finally we got to the shoal and immediately started hooking up.  I caught a couple on a rocky bank using a squarebill crankbait and Bill caught a few on a tube.  We worked our way around the eddies and rock ledges, picking off fish fairly regularly.  I had a big catfish hooked, momentarily, but never got a good hookset.  After catching about 20 bass at the shoal, we were beginning to think that no bigger fish existed.  Then I got a bite that started pulling my boat around.  Based on the fight, in any other river, it would have been well over 5 lbs.  In this river, it was a 3.5 heart sank a little.  Then Bill set the hook on a giant - a legit giant - flipping a tube along a deep portion of the shoal.  The fish came to the surface, spit the hook, and returned to the depths.  It was easily a 5.5-6 lb bass.  Another heartbreaker.

At that point, it was time to turn around and head back down river.  We weren't getting a ton of bites on the way back, but the bites we were getting were nearly all 3-4 lb fish.  The baits of the day were the Fighting Frog, Texas-rigged with a 4/0 hook and 3/8 oz weight, and finesse worm, fished weightless and wacky.  We caught a couple gorgeous fish right above the huge jam and then began mentally preparing for the portage.  At this point, we were fairly exhausted and pondering if we could just smash through it.  We couldn't.  But the portage went faster than before and gave us about 30 minutes to fish downstream from the launch.

The river was narrow and shallower in that stretch and the fish were spooky.  We spotted a few fish beginning to set-up on beds and other cruising the bank.  We only caught a couple, but we did see one bass that was around 5 lbs and a few more that were good size.  Maybe next time "we" will fish down-river instead.

The day kind of culminized Bill and I's kayak fishing trips over the years.  We've learned a ton from each other and became much better fishermen because of it.  He started as a bass boat convert, and since, we've fished together in 7+ states, battled flows over 6000 CFS, run class III rapids, completed the B.A.S.S. Slam, won the RiverBassin Team of the Year Title, and caught plenty of big bass in places others completely overlook because we put in the extra effort and go the extra mile.  Everyone defines an adventure differently, but as a kayak angler, the possibilities are endless for you to create your own adventures - and memories that last a lifetime.

We certainly walked away from the trip smiling.  We had taken on a new river and it proved to be one heck of a physical challenge.  We also caught about 60 of the meanest largemouths we had ever hooked.  Our best 5 went around 20 lbs and felt more like 40.  When that river turns on again after the spawn, it is going to be insanely good.  And on top of it all, we had 4 deer swim right in front of us, and saw a bald eagle, turkey, and multiple osprey and herons.  It was yet another great adventure with a great friend!

Until next time, tight lines.