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!