By John P. Lee
In the morning before school we walk down and check the pond. The pond is close to our house, a 50-second walk, cutting through a corner of our neighbor’s property. The boy looks into the pond. He is interested in ice. We do this almost daily, father and son. The water is very clear, I tell him that all the algae, the zoo- and phytoplankton have died. The water is clear because it has no life in it. He both listens and doesn’t. My words to him are meant to be osmotic—I want him to absorb things. Things that I have learned. I have no idea how I’m doing with this. Is my life—all 48-years of it—being properly downloaded onto his processor? Normally when we come to the dock there is always a fish, a small finger-sized largemouth or a sunfish. He looks hard, an ‘I spy’ game. But the fish are gone, slid out off the bank and into deep water. “When is the ice coming?” he asks. He wants to crush the ice in the shallows with his feet, the sound of cracking glass. He wants to stomp and throw rocks out and across, listen for that sound, the reverberation. I tell him soon. There is mist on the pond. We watch the mist. He asks about it, ‘why is it there?’ I tell him the pond is losing its heat, the air, colder than the water, is pulling the heat away.
We don’t know who our children will become and we don’t know if we will be here to see it. As a parent I too look for fish, I too look for ice, independently of him. But I want him to be this and that. Already in my mind he has become something which today he is not. We often lean too far into the future, warped inside the parent prediction machine. We walk back up the hill. The leaves on all the trees, including the big oak, are down. It feels like winter. “The ice will be here soon?” he asks. “Yes,” I tell him. “Tomorrow I bet, if tonight gets cold enough and the wind dies out.”
By Dave Anderson
In my life as a stay-at-home dad, it is customary for my daughter and I to make regular drives to the ocean. Sometimes we get out and hunt for hermit crabs; or sea glass. We might make a few casts. Or, sometimes, we just sit in the car and watch the waves. We often drive from spot to spot, (usually in the late-fall or winter) and just look—taking in the view and absorbing the rejuvenating aura of the sea. This is hard to explain to those that don’t know how to receive it. Lila definitely gets it, sometimes she forgets what it does to her and I’ll have to—almost—drag her to the car. However, when we pull up to the shore and look out upon the vast, expansive wilderness that is the ocean, I can see her little face relax; reflective of just how I feel. And then the perma-smile begins.
She might be freezing cold- with a half-cup of water pooling in each boot, but she will beg me to stay. Her pockets stuffed with shells and interesting rocks, soaked to the knee, she points out birds and every dead organism washed up on the shore. Examining everything at a Rainman level.
My pride cannot be measured.
Unfortunately, riding from ocean view to ocean view puts us in danger of crossing paths with…well, assholes. I know I’ve written about this before, but the idea that a person owns all that he can see from his yard really irks me. I am (usually) not trespassing, especially when I’m with Lila. I also like to think I’m a reasonably nice person. I mean, I also have a 4-year old child with me; it should be clear that my intentions are benign.
But, some of these entitled lowlifes just have to stick their nose where it doesn’t need to be sniffing.
Just the other day I was out with Lila; again, just part of our routine. It was a particularly cold and breezy day, the wind howling, the ocean lashing the rocky shore. We had no intentions of getting out of the car. We stopped at a boat ramp, then a long jetty with a wide ocean view, then the end of a dead end street with a nice high overlook .
Then, we turned down a street that leads to a beach that is private in the summertime. Now, mind you, there is no gate, no key card, no armed guard and virtually everyone is gone for the season. There’s a great view at the bend. So, we drove down , looked at the waves for, literally, two minutes and then headed toward home. There is a fork in the road to turn around at, and as we drove the 200 yards to the fork, we noticed a red car coming the opposite direction. The road is narrow so one of us had to move over; I would have, but the other driver did first. As I drove by I offered up a friendly wave; what I got back in return was the icy stare of a man that appeared to be fighting age-induced dementia.
Children can be so intuitive and Lila did not let the moment go unexamined. She piped right up, “Who was that daddy?”
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly, “but he didn’t seem too friendly…”
I swung the car around at the fork (like I have done hundreds of times) and headed out the way I came. I saw Mr. Wonderful’s car waiting at the end of the road, but it turned as we rounded the bend, I assumed he turned when he saw me coming back out. I guess I just looked out of place, I'm far from a millionaire, my car looks like the car you’d expect a fishing junkie to drive—it’s dirty, a little rusty, racks on top, but why assume the worst?
As I pulled out of the end of the road and swung to the right, I saw the old man again, waiting. He had to be pushing 80; out of shape, decrepit, and wearing a scowl that broadcast a clear message of pure, unwarranted, hate. He made sure to look into my eyes as we passed him; but I wasn’t going give in and stoop to his level. I just gave a short, ‘hi there!’ nod and kept driving.
I made it about a mile down the quiet road before this guy came speeding up behind me—and I’m talking like 65 in a 35. Now, suddenly, he’s riding six feet off my bumper. Remember, I have my child in the car. My blood was starting to boil. But I couldn’t jam on the brakes, so I signaled a right turn down a side road. He signaled too! So, I made the snap decision to stay straight. He stayed straight too!
Now my adrenalin and anger were combining; I’m seething, almost hyperventilating. I NEVER get like this. I’m trying to laugh it off, for Lila’s sake, but now I feel like I want confrontation.
I’m riding a mile ahead of myself on the mental map in my head, trying to decide how I will ditch this dumbass. Then I get the idea to just pull over, no signal, no brakes, no slowdown, just jerk the car over and stop. Without any more thought, I do it. Mr. hollow-headed-geriatric-moron does the same thing! However, my maneuver prevents him from getting all the way over, forcing him to pass.
He puttered by at the speed of an idling golf cart. I gave him THE dirtiest, scariest, hate-filled glare you can imagine. Like I wanted to tear his head off, reach down his sputtering neck hole and rip out his heart and then eat it, raw, as it reflexively beat out its last quivering attempts at sustaining this worthless excuse for a human being.
Because that’s exactly how I felt.
He went by, but pulled over in front of me and put his car in park. Then he just sat there, tilting his head back, eyeing me in the rearview. I so badly wanted to get out of the car and confront him, veins were erupting out of my forehead, my hands were clenched into involuntary fists, teeth gritting… then…
Quietly, almost a squeak, “Daddy…? Daddy?! Why are we stopping?”
I closed my eyes, pressed my lips together and sighed through my nose. Opening my eyes, I gestured to my brainless adversary, throwing both hands up as if to say, “What are we doing now?” He answered with the same gesture. So, against all of the urges in my soul, and the catcalls from the devil on my shoulder, I threw the car in reverse, backed into the nearest driveway and sped back in the direction I had come from.
I’d like to think that Jonny Alzheimer’s in the red car had a moment of clarity just then, and realized that this could not end well for him if we were to step out of the vehicles. Not because I am such a tough guy, but because he was probably 40 years older than me, with the physical stature of a decaying snake skin. Whatever the reason, as his taillights faded behind me, I saw him gun it from the side of the road and head off in the other direction, at a very high rate of speed—this told me he didn’t want us to follow him. I was happy to oblige.
I took the longest route home I could think of. I needed the long, slow drive to cool myself down. Lila started to complain about a belly ache and I knew that her senses had pieced together the anxiety hanging in the air, despite the fact that she couldn’t understand it. By the time we made it home, she was fine. But I was still deeply angered. After hearing the story, even my wife, the picture of calm and grace, asked me, “Are you going to go back to his house?” As much as I would have liked to go back and, at least discussed the ordeal with Mr. Wonderful, I have since decided that nothing good could come from that. All of the scenarios I play in my head end with me in handcuffs.
So I guess I’m just going to let it drop, at least until next time.
What would you do?
By Jerry Audet
Standing at the trail head, I know I look foolish. There’s a middle-aged woman in a full-length down jacket trying (unsuccessfully) to usher her muddy and joyous black lab into the back of her Honda Pilot. She pauses, staring at me, looking confused. My running shoes and short-shorts clash with the sling pack over my shoulder and the 6-foot fly rod in my hand. I pretend not to notice as she attempts to catch my eye; her mouth is slightly agape, as if she’s about to ask me something. I whistle a little, acting like all this is totally normal, as if everyone jogs with a fly rod. I move faster as another car pulls up, rushing to get on the trail- have to keep my spots secret.
It won’t take long to reach the first spot. I plod along at first trying to get warmed up, shifting my rod from one hand to the other attempting to find a comfortable carrying position. I notice a couple of juncos hopping along a berm, they are harbingers of winter; castaways of the Arctic, this is their south. It’s another sign that I’m probably wasting my time. Most would say that brook trout season is over, I refuse to believe it.
I know I probably should have just focused on running. Last spring I attempted to train for my first 100 mile trail foot race. I’ve done a few 30-plus mile races, but the “100-miler” remains elusive. Last spring I fell during a late season back-country skiing trip and hurt my back and leg, which halted my training for months, and precluded me from even toeing the start line. If it’s going to happen this year, I’m going to have to focus.
But, on this particular day, I couldn’t make up my mind on what I wanted to do. I was stressed out from trying to be an active, productive member of society. I just wanted to escape making any more decisions. To be present. Still, the pull between passions, is a constant for me. When you want to do ten things at once, time constricts; can feel suffocating. The question I have to ask myself is, ‘can I really do both?’” Or rather, can I really do it all?
After only a half mile of rocky single track trail, I arrive at a steep ridge, this is my first stop. As I shuffle down the bank, I notice immediately how high the water is. Turbid and tannic, it looks more like road runoff than an iconic, gin-clear, babbling trout stream.
I found this body of water using a State info-graphic about wild trout distribution in Massachusetts. It’s the ideal spot for me: under-fished, hard to access, even harder to fish. It can only be reached through a confusing labyrinth of trails; you can’t just park the car and wet a line. However, many times, I don’t even bring a rod, I just go and run and try to spot the little trout as they torpedo away from the bank and my thudding footfalls. I know I can catch them, which often, is enough for me. I don’t have to hold them.
But today, I find myself slipping and sliding down the bank trying to do exactly that. I get my line caught in a tree. After untangling, I start to creep down to the shore, knowing that my blaze-orange safety vest is a liability; but then again, I don’t really feel like being shot by a careless hunter either. I bend low and try to put my feet down lightly. Even though this is all likely a waste of time, I still take it seriously. I can’t help it. To be a fisherman is to be a persistent and relentless optimist.
Practically on my knees now, I deliver a bow-and-arrow cast across the small, swollen stream. I squeeze the tiny hook between my fingers, pulling the rod into an arc. When I let go, it shoots the fly across the stream, plunking down silently into the riffle. The simple casting technique avoids the tree limbs and brush on the banks. I watch, suddenly in rapture, as the miniscule black fly spins and swirls with the micro-eddies. I’m holding my breath and I don’t even realize it. Focus is complete. I mend my line once to keep the fly moving naturally with the drift, but it’s quickly out of the current and against the bank. I cast again. Nothing.
This fast little rivulet feeds a large pool where the brook takes a hard right turn. It’s an ideal ambush point, and actually a pretty complicated little hole. There’s the fast water and the break points as it enters the pool. Then there’s the slow, gently spinning eddy and cut bank. Several trees have fallen into the water here, excellent structure. As the stream leaves the pool, the outflow undercuts a log large enough to walk across, and changes dramatically in depth, inducing a rapid increase in water speed. Today, that portion is raging with the affects of the last couple day’s rain. I grimace, knowing intellectually this is never going to work, but emotionally denying it.
I make a few casts, but I’m probably fishing too quickly. I can’t make up my mind where the best lie is, and rush to try them all. This is one of my shortcomings as an angler who is also a runner- I want to do it all, right now. And in the back of my mind I am already thinking about the next spot on my afternoon route.
I don’t bother changing flies today, the greedy and aggressive brook trout is seldom fussy, and even less so this time of year. I just keep trying different presentations. I cast to as many spots-within-spots-within-spots as I can. I spend enough time at this location to start to get cold. I start to shiver. It reminds me I’m supposed to be running; supposed to have set a timer so I could also keep moving and get a workout. I never set that timer.
But, the tug of the trail does start to pull at me. The final straw comes when my line snags in a bush and I stumble into the water trying to retrieve it. It won’t stop my running, but I take it as a sign that it is time to move on. I scramble back up the bank, feet sloshing in my shoes, and continue on. I decide to put in a mile before I fish again; there is a good crossing about that far from where I am now.
As the clouds darken courtesy of an impending Nor’Easter, I pick up the pace. I’m gliding along now, catching my stride. A gang of blue Jays cackles and screams at me as I burst around a corner and flush one from the ground. I pause for a moment to try and apologize, but they only seem more perturbed by my human speech, rather than appeased by it. I spring away, leaving them to their chatter.
I bound along the trail, stepping up the pace, enjoying the closest feeling I’ll probably ever have to those flying Jays. I jump along rocks, and dodge downed trees. I’m seven years old again. I’m running from my neighbors barking dog, because it spotted me catching frogs behind their house. I feel now, as I did then, the same burning in my lungs and movement of air across my face. Grounded, connected to myself, present and past… free.
It’s not long before I reach the crossing, less than 15 minutes. It’s a raging, boiling mess, as it plunges over the rocky bed and pours over its eroded bank. It’s clearly angry, and I want no part of its wrath on this day. Onward.
I run on, covering more ground quickly. I decide to try a small bridge another half mile away. I bushwack a little instead of following the trail. I want to see if a particular log is still in the brook. Running in the deep leaves and soft ground is difficult. But, I find it after only a few minutes, still intact after a full year of flood and drought. That could hold good fish in the spring.
I get back on the trail, locking back into a solid pace. One more stop.
As I feared, the bridge is unfishable too. I stand, frustrated, panting slightly. I watch the water churn and tumble on its way to the sea. I’m several miles from the car now. Not far, but I’ve spent more time fishing than I anticipated, and it’s getting dark. It’s time to break down the fly rod, and head home.
I run back the easy way, on the fastest trail. I don’t scorch the earth with my pace, but rather try and keep my head up and enjoy the fading day. Soon, that brook will be covered in ice, devoid of fish. I reflect on my fishing-run. I’ve covered fewer miles than I hoped; and caught zero fish. A wasted trip. I start to get in my head, “I could have done…” or “I should have gone…” or the most persistent “I could have run further”. A waste.
“No,” I say under my breath. I realize that the stresses that sent me here have fallen away. This afternoon was anything but a waste. I lengthen my stride, and race the failing sunlight back to my car.
The little brook will still be there tomorrow.
By Dave Anderson
Jerry showed up at my house around 8 p.m. and we headed to a shallow bar that has a long history of late-season stripers. The fishing was decent, but far from spectacular, Jerry had the hotter hand, we topped out around 16 pounds, I don’t think we landed more than six fish. The night was quiet and calm, and as the tide receded, we inched out until we were more than 150 yards from dry land. We had camera gear set up on the shore, out of sight and mind, we never used it. We were getting cold.
This bar is a high confidence spot for me and it’s hard to leave, even when it’s been slow. I was trying to will one more fish out of the flat, black ocean when an unsteady whistle snaked through the periphery of my hearing like a faint whiff of smoke, the dark eye of my mind focused on a point along the blackened shore. “Dude,” I half whispered to Jerry, “did you hear that whistle?”
“No,” he said quietly.
Then the wavering call pierced the darkness again, I looked over at Jerry, “Listen,” I said, “Did you hear it that time?”
Jerry was silent, his silhouette bent slightly at the hip, leaning in toward shore, as if trying to hear it. And the whistle meandered again through the same spooky melody, uneven, seemingly blown through dry lips.
“I heard it that time, could it be a bird?” Jerry wondered out loud.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “I’ve never heard a bird like that in my life.”
We laughed and then I whistled back, doing my best to mimic the haunting song. The shadowy shoreline whistled back and I responded again—after two or three volleys, the whistling ceased, but I could swear I heard clumsy feet on the bank. I squinted at the two-dimensional ribbon of stubborn blackness, sandwiched between the pewter water and the deep glow of the new moon sky—I got nothing. I blamed it on the waves.
The fish had been fickle all night, taking a needlefish, then a large glidebait, then a few on a Danny—then nothing on the Danny, nothing on the needle, nothing on a Red Fin, nothing on an Atom Junior, then they were back on the Danny again. It had been close to an hour since our last hit. The whistle was still haunting me, I was worried about the gear. I just knew it wasn’t animal. We stuck it out for a while longer, but the cold was taking its toll, the inconsistent bite removing any hope for an adrenalin-fueled warmup. We made our final casts and made the long, cold wade back to shore.
The gear was still there, but the large flashlight I left on top of my camera case was now beside it; my senses told me that someone had messed with it, but I tried to brush it off as a coincidence. We gathered our gear and headed up the shore. I was trying to keep the pace pretty brisk, get some blood flowing. Jerry, a long distance runner, was unfazed.
Then a voice came seemingly from nowhere. “Were you guys SWIMMING?” It asked.
We stopped dead in our tracks, our eyes scanning the scene for the source of the sound. “Yeah,” I said with a chuckle, “we just swam back from Block Island!”
“COOL!” the voice called back; clearly this guy wasn’t getting the joke.
“Nah man,” I said, “We were just fishing, Block Island is like 15 miles from here!”
In that moment, I saw him. It was a long-haired dude, slightly overweight, kind of lounging against a driftwood log—not exactly a common sight at 1 a.m. on a Thursday in November. For the next five minutes the man on the log lead us on a dodgy ride through a wide array of subjects. He just kept switching gears. He talked about fishing, then spear fishing, then some shop in New Bedford. On a dime he changed to tautog and the fact that he didn’t believe the fish ever migrated—he figured people just stopped fishing when it got too cold and proclaimed that he was going to be fishing through the winter. (Good luck with that!) It was weird enough that he was even out there at that hour, but the fact that this guy seemed to have some general knowledge about several local fisheries seemed even weirder.
He didn’t have a rod with him and he seemed a little nervous, fidgety, and taken by surprise, as if he really wasn’t prepared to have to hold a conversation. Maybe a little messed up, a lot like people I’ve known or met by chance that were having a hard time staying within the lines after a dose of LSD. Think of it like being on a rollercoaster that you wish you weren’t on, using some Zen technique to keep from freaking out—holding onto reality, but only through intense effort. And, let’s be honest, some solo dude, sitting on a log in the middle of the November night looking at the stars and blabbering on about anything that comes to mind? He was clearly uncomfortable inside his own skin and miles from the nearest road. He very well may have been pulling back from the deafening drone of reality, channeling his inner Timothy Leary and running to the ocean to remove the weight of real life from the pressure points of his chemically-altered mind. I suppose it’s just as likely that he was a social outcast, who was really only 100% comfortable when he was alone. I didn’t ask and I’ll never know but, his tone rang with the shape of a constant smile, tainted with wonder and a general overtone of giddiness, spelled with varying hues of twisted happiness and sudden nervousness.
Then he asked, “Hey, was that your stuff over there?”
We both replied in unison, “Yup.”
“Oh man,” he said, “I saw that stuff and was like, ‘oh my god, what did I just find?’ At first I thought someone had forgotten it, but then I could tell it was, like, legitimately set up for something, you know? Don’t worry, I didn’t touch it… well, I did touch it, but I didn’t, you know, mess it up. It really looked like some badass equipment! Was that thing in the box, night vision?”
I laughed flatly, “Yup,” I said—now knowing that he had more than touched it, he would have had to actually open the box and take the camera out of the case to even have an idea that it was a night vision camera.
“WOW!!” he was gushing almost at the top of his lungs, “That’s SOOO COOOL! Night vision, man? Man, I knew it! That’s just too cool man! I knew I couldn’t just take that stuff, I knew it was set up, I knew you… someone, would be coming back for it!”
Jerry laughed in a tone that made it clear he was rolling his eyes, “Well, hey man, thanks for not stealing our stuff!” (We were more than a little lucky that he didn’t!)
“Was that you whistling?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “I was just trying to, you know, see if anyone was around.”
The guy went on for a few more minutes, he almost seemed proud of himself for knowing not to steal someone else’s shit! I really think he wanted us to acknowledge this good deed he had done by… doing what any normal person would do if they found $2500 in camera equipment on the shoreline—leaving it there.
We were finally able to bust free from the conversation and head back toward the cars. But his repeated and enthusiastic interest in the equipment made me feel just a little uneasy. He certainly seemed like a nice enough guy and seemed to be channeling some seriously positive vibes (man). But there was just this little sense in the back of my head that made me check behind us now and then until we were off the beach. He didn’t follow.
As surf fishermen, we run during the hours of misfits, lowlifes, lovers and coyotes. And these encounters, however rare on a remote beach, are always memorable. We see the edge of the land and sea as the place where our passion plays out, but in the darkness many others see it as their only shot at escaping to a world untainted. The night ocean is mysterious, it’s the edge of the last great wilderness, it’s unknown to nearly 100% of the Earth’s population. It has that special ability to erase civilization and remind us how small we are, and how individual we are and how insignificant our problems are—shore, ocean, horizon and sky. We are alive either way, but, at times, it takes something bigger than what our eyes can see or our minds can comprehend to actually believe it.
By Dave Anderson
I don’t know why, but I feel… almost embarrassed when I pile my family into the car for a week’s vacation and everyone has to sacrifice space and comfort for my fishing rods. My daughter is constantly grabbing the rods in the backseat which, as Newton’s Third Law dictates, has an equal and opposite reaction in the form of someone taking a rod to the face up front. A few times I have ‘taken a vacation’ from fishing too, but the last couple years we’ve changed our destinations from ocean areas to lake houses. I really don’t mind taking a break from striper fishing for a week, but fishing for largemouths and smallmouths kind of feels like a vacation from surf fishing… well, that’s how I rationalize it.
I’m the only person in my nuclear family that fishes. So we’re not touching down in a float plane, we’re hitting lakes in upstate New York and Downeast Maine, places that offer a definite feeling of being ‘in the woods’ but the shorelines are dotted with docks and houses and all manner of watercraft, powered and not, crisscross the lake constantly all day long. I’ve heard people say that the fish get used to this constant summertime traffic, but I don’t buy it.
I’m no touring B.A.S.S. pro, but I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on fish behavior. And even though my instincts tell me not to, I start the way we all do—it’s knee jerk, it’s a result of watching Jimmy Houston and Bill Dance every weekend for nearly 20 years of my life; the pads, the inflowing stream, jigs under docks—I catch a few, but nothing noteworthy and without a tangible pattern.
My best results always come from uncomfortable surroundings—for the angler, not the fish. On my trip to Maine this year, I found the most consistent action in a back cove where it felt like I was fishing with an audience, docks were well attended with wine tipping locals, kids and dogs swimming around… I felt like an intruder. It was also a major deviation from the rest of the lake; the cove was shallow, muddy and choked with grass and weed, protected by branches. I watched other people fishing and they all turned well short of that spot. I honestly think it was ignored because it didn’t fit the profile of how people were “supposed” to fish that lake. My other attempts, all over that lake, were slow at best—I was averaging about 1 hit per hour. But I still had one more trick up my sleeve.
We finally had a calm night toward the end of the week, the house we were staying in had a pool table in the basement so I was up late with my two younger brothers and my dad shooting pool. Everyone was getting tired so they headed to bed; I walked down to the dock to test my theory. I had taken a few bass off the dock, including a pretty nice one teetering around the 4-pound mark during the day. It was late, so I wasn’t planning to go all in, I just wanted to see what might happen. I hooked a feisty 2-pounder on my first cast in the darkness. Then nothing after that, but I had the confirmation I was looking for.
My belief in the night bite on these high-traffic waterways started last summer on a trip to a small lake in upstate New York. My daytime attempts were pretty weak, some small largemouths, two smallies in the 2-pound range. My night score was almost all bronzebacks with all but one of them going north of 3 pounds—one of them was a real corker, I wished I’d brought a scale. The thinking here is that when the boat traffic subsides the fish that have been hanging deep or buried in cover come out to hunt in the quiet of the night. And while night fishing for bass is far from a new concept, the percentage of anglers that actually do it has to be in the single digits—in fact I have never seen another boat out on a pond at night in my entire life.
My assessment of the lake in Maine was that there just weren’t high numbers of fish in the lake. I spent countless hours swimming, kayaking and walking the shores of this place and I only spotted a few small largies—no sunfish, no perch—and all of the bass I had taken were heavy for their size; sparsely populated lakes tend to produce bigger fish; a side effect of less competition. Another thing I noted was the loons were patrolling pretty heavily and eating bass that appeared to be as large as a pound. This only served to strengthen my belief in the night bite. Darkness offers cover, quiet and safety; no boat traffic and no fishing pressure—I’m always looking for plays that others aren’t running and ways to flip the script, favoring the comfort and attitude of the fish over my own.
As luck would have it, the next night brought more flat-calm conditions. I skipped the pool table and headed out right after Lila (my daughter) went to bed. I loaded my gear into the tandem sit-inside ‘yak that was provided with the house rental. Not exactly pimped for fishing, but it was my only option. I had already mapped out the intricate system of channels between the many islands on the pond and with a half-moon hanging high in the sky, I paddled away quietly into the dark.
The hardest part about night bass fishing is waiting for that first hit and on this night it took me a good 30 minutes to get it. I wasted little time in getting to the first spot I believed to be prime for night frogging. It was a broad and relatively deep (five feet or so) flat, stippled with lily pads and rimmed with reeds. I like these deeper flats because I feel they offer some comfort to bigger fish. I have always believed that bigger fish prefer to retreat to deep water rather than burying themselves in cover, and the openness of a deeper flat with cover offers a more direct route to the sanctuary of deeper water.
As I drifted through the lilies on that flat I found myself scratching my head, I had covered more than half of this 500 foot long flat without even a swirl. A light breeze came up from the SW and I found myself drifting into the water I wanted to fish. With my frog still floating 100 feet away, I held the rod with my right hand and paddled with my left trying to stem the breeze. What do you think happened next? That’s right, BOOM, my frog was assaulted and I had to perform a one-handed and blind hookset. It didn’t feel like a solid set, but the fish was heavy and actually made a decent run. The run wheeled the kayak 180 degrees while I tried to keep the line tight. I had her coming in good and then she jumped, I heard the gills flare, head shaking, she landed and the hook popped out a second or two later. I wanted to yell, but I just mumbled a sharp “NO!” reeled up, squeezed the frog and then fished the rest of the flat with no other takers.
I could go through the blow by blow of each fish I caught that night but I think that might be a painful read. What I was able to derive from that night is that the fish all came from three types of spots. Either moonlit grass flats, tree shadows cast by the moon or dimly lit docks. The concept of fishing shadows is a derivative of surfcasting and it works for freshwater bass too. The predator fish wait on the dark side of the shadow and look out into the light, when they see something they are able to ambush it more easily because the baitfish can’t see into the dark.
After putting a handful of bass in the 3-plus pound class in the boat, the moon—sinking low on the horizon—had changed from shimmering white to an amber slice of orange. I came around the point of a small island with a single house built on the east side. An L-shaped dock reaching past the arrowhead leaves and pads, anchored in the deep water of the channel where two tiny lights pierced the black surface. I pitched my little, yellow Boo-Yah Popping Frog tight to one of the pilings and inched it out incrementally, gurgling with each movement. The hit was not violent, it was just a sharp slurp—I set immediately and hard. The fish dove, peeling drag as she went, it felt big and I was determined not to let another one come unbuttoned. As far as freshwater battles go, this was one of the best I’ve had, she did everything, two deep runs, two angry leaps, switching sides… it was awesome. I finally lipped the heavy largemouth and felt the same feeling I felt the year before, “Man, I wish I brought a scale!”
By John P. Lee
For those without electronics, the lost art of manual depth finding…
The more I know about depth the better I feel about things. I don’t like to stab in the dark and stand in my boat and announce, often to myself, “This point here looks deep” or “This bay opening looks shallow.” I want to know as close as I can. In saltwater, when I’m out on the boat, my eyes are using the machines, the plotter, the fish finder, and I expect to know, quickly, what depth I’m in. I want the same things in freshwater, but the boats I use don’t have electronics, so I rely on old-school dead reckoning skills to chart the ponds I fish.
Sure, no doubt, an awful lot can be gathered about a place by simply looking at it. A steep bank down into water often does mean a drop off, and conversely, a gradual, mellow, slope of shoreline often does mean a shallow slope under water. The presence or absence of weeds is another indicator. But not always. The bay we thought was deep was shallow and we fished it all wrong. And the deep drop was only 12 feet not the 30 feet a fishing friend said it was. And so we fished that wrong too. And so on for cast after cast, place after place. Depth matters and the closer to exact we are the better. Depth controls temperature and fish become the temperature they choose to hang out in. If your kid in the heat of summer dives off the dock and swims down to the bottom and then comes up screaming—“It’s freezing down there! Freeeeezing.” That should makes us think: what temperature does a largemouth want to live in? There are likely way more temperature stratifications in a small bass pond than most of us think and a bass has a preference—a comfort zone—and it knows it. It’s hard for us to think this way. We stay close to our body temps regardless of the air temperature. A fish changes and this requires energy and metabolism. So depth matters.
The ponds I fish tend not to have the topographical charts that the larger more common ponds and lakes have. I like ponds—everyday ponds, everywhere ponds, farm ponds, kettle ponds, boyhood ponds—and often these ponds don’t have a lot of data attached to them. You need to get it. And I don’t mean every move you make becomes a data point, or that the whole trip is quantified. But I shoot for a general sense of awareness.
My tip—and it isn’t really a tip—but more of a way of life to higher levels of learning: anchor your ass off. Use the anchor as a sounding tool. This week, for example, I fished a pond near where I live, a pond that I’m learning. I fished three days in a row, from deep dusk to full dark. I must’ve anchored 45 times. I actually got a small blister on my hand from hauling and setting. Not every time I dropped the anchor did I fish that much. Actually, on one of the days I brought my young boy out and he just loved to set the small anchor, watched the line peel through his hands, and then haul, thinking he was the strongest boy on the planet. So with him aboard we made a lot of drops and I graphed (in my head) a whole run of water between two prominent points of land.
It’s fool proof easy: I know the amount of anchor line, 24 feet. And he’d let it down and I’d watch for the line to go slack on bottom. An even better way (and faster) would be to rig a 10-ounce bank sinker on a thin rope with marks every five feet, a true sounding lead. Back in the days of sail, they used a sounding lead to figure out not only bottom composition, mud, silt, clay, but also if they were gaining or losing depth. A vessel was said to be “on soundings” when it was nearing land and “off soundings” when it was offshore, off the edge of the continental shelf and over deep ocean water. We had fun with this: “Let’s take another sounding,” I’d shout, in my saltiest voice, and he, grinning like a pirate, would let the anchor fly.
And I would inspect the bottom contents. Am I in mud? Does the anchor come up with plants on it? What kind of plants? How dense are they? Is it sand? How does the anchor feel when it hits bottom? A soft touch or hard. Again, it’s not perfect. But it’s better than simply guessing. Every time I take a sounding I look at the bank—my distance from it and what the shape of the shore looks like as it runs into the water. Does my depth make sense? A picture begins to form in my head about the typography of the place. The picture becomes clearer the more I’ve charted the pond. Anchoring five times tells me something, but dropping anchor 100 tells me a lot more. I see a lot of largemouth fishermen not bothering to anchor at all. They fish quickly down the bank—cast, move; cast move. Looking for bites. It’s the way the tournament pros do it. I suppose that method has rubbed off on the rest of us. I like to find water that I think holds fish or find the depth that the fish are in, drop the anchor and start casting.
By Dave Anderson
What is the fascination with fire? Man’s quiet companion. The cure for solitude, the draw of warmth, a feeling of welcome. It can’t be something we learned to love; children are drawn to the sounds and movements of the campfire from their first step. The glowing faces, the relaxed mood, the warning: hot. Is it the unchained wildness of fire and that we have learned to contain it? Or could it be the juxtaposition of giving warmth, preserving life and leaving cold, smoldering black in its wake, taking life and livelihood as it leaps from grasses to trees to homes? We learn to make a fire, keep a fire, respect a fire and that it is the key to life if one is lost. We associate fires with good times, a night on the beach, camping with grampa, breakfast by the woodstove.
It might be safe to say that fire has been our most loyal supporter, the one thing we could not have survived as a species without; its very existence paving the way to life as we know it. I have walked a secluded beach where the hearthstones of millennia-old fires can still be seen at low water, the spirits of these people, l feel them, they live on in all of us. An instinctual respect. A deep vote of gratitude, hardwired to the flame that we all keep within us. Our soul, the electricity of life, kept, tended and protected like a campfire in a January storm. We will all awaken to find it crackling, just a glowing ember racing on the edge of a leaf, we will spring into action to save it, nurture it, feed it. Holding the tinder close—careful breaths huffed into cupped hands—and from the ashes and woven ringlets of rising smoke will come a flame and relief.
The fascination with fire is something more than we can fathom. It’s tied to us, it has sustained us and all of those who came before us. Just as the herring follows its instinctual compass back to its natal stream, we are drawn to the flame for reasons lost to time. Our lives could not exist without it. It was once the single most important component of survival—it was warmth, it was food, it was entertainment, it was family, it was protection, it was the first sight of home and the last sigh before sleep.
By Dave Anderson
It was cold last night. And two days of easterlies dropped the water temps too. A hard west made casting a breeze from the east-facing rock, but also made me thankful for the neoprene jacket I’d pulled over my wetsuit as a last minute decision. Stepping into the cool ocean water was not the comfort that it often is after an extended hike in late-July, it was more like a firewalk or succumbing to peer pressure—something you make yourself do despite not really wanting to, something you do so you won’t have to endure hours of self-flagellation later. I waded deeper until my feet could no longer reach bottom and began the 70-yard swim to a large offshore boulder.
Midnight had already passed when my feet found the submerged reef, I rested there in the water, catching my breath, the ocean was cold, but I knew the hard wind and 48 degree air temps would be worse. I stood and turned my back to the wind, as a gallon of sea water drained from my plug bag. I had tied an eel leader on before leaving the house and so the plugs would have to wait. I swung the eel bag around and pulled a 15-incher from the writhing pile of shiny black, hooked it and hastily lobbed it into the water, in an effort to keep it from balling up in my leader.
I made three casts, reeling slowly, methodically pausing every few cranks, allowing the eel to settle deeper. About halfway through my fourth cast, I felt like something wasn’t right with my connection to the eel, maybe it was weeded up, maybe I had allowed too much of a belly in the line. Whatever it was, I burned the eel in to investigate and as the bait approached the wash of waves in front of me, I felt a deep thump and slow pressure peeling away, pulling the rod down. I struck back with a deep thump of my own, driving the hook home and sending what felt like a solid striper on a hard run seaward. A few minutes later I slid a fish in the low 20s onto the rock beside me.
After a few more casts a very similar thing happened; the eel entered the wash, hung up and when I shook it free, boom, a fish crushed it, found the hook and then came unbuttoned. Looking back this morning, I feel like I want to dope-slap myself for not recognizing the very obvious pattern here. I stuck with the eels for another hour, fishing them the same old way with very little action before my mind wandered enough to put it together. And it’s not like last night was the first time I’ve come to this realization, there are times when the fish are keyed in on a reactionary bite and playing the cat-and-mouse game is often the key.
The water in this spot is quite deep for a surf spot, so I tied on a deep-running metal lip and fished it in a vigorous stop and go fashion. I hooked up right away to a fish that looked to be a touch under 20 pounds. All of a sudden I was getting a hit or a hookup every second or third cast, but sadly, the tide window was closing. Soon the modest rip would dissipate and, history had proved that, the bite would go with it. A few more teen fish took the swimmer before I hooked one with some shoulders. The fish held its ground, never ran, she just held deep and kept shaking her head and banging the rocks. I leaned on the fish and lifted her off the bottom. She turned to make a move and straightened the forward treble on the swimmer. That would be my last hit of the night.
I have always been a big believer in matching the attitude of the fish. This is why a Magic Swimmer reeled at light speed can be so effective in a blitz, it’s playing into the jacked-up nature of a pack of competitive fish. The same could be said for dead-sticking a dead eel on a bright moon night. The bass are often very cautious under the moon, especially with calm seas. It’s these times when the fish give us all the clues and we still fail to connect the dots that serve the dual purpose of mind-numbing frustration and experience gained, a hard lesson learned—not soon to be forgotten.
All that, and I still had to swim back.
By Dave Anderson
Standing at the edge of the stream, full dark, fogged in. I heard the approaching sloshing footsteps of my fishing partner’s boots treading the marsh, no rods… still March. He stopped a few feet away and we listened. The wind came up from the northwest, driving the cool fog down the neck of my jacket, I hunched over and leaned away from the wind, I listened harder. The tiny freshwater brook ran through a series of riffles, humming a consistent pitch—babbling a constant rhythm. Then we heard what we were listening for; the splashy bursts of herring tails beating hard against the current, preparing to run the shallow riffle ahead. It’s a sound that’s as indicative of the spring season as Christmas carols are to the holidays; at least for me. This shallow run is imprinted on the instinctive DNA of every herring born in this waterway; I know this because the fish only run at night here; they’re too vulnerable in daylight and they know this. It makes this stream unique.
I’d heard it hundreds of times before, but this time the sounds of those herring powering upstream, sparked an epiphany—well, let’s call it a potential epiphany. The beats of those tails and the fish’s unwavering devotion to completing their spawning tasks sent my mind into a silent dialogue about instinctual drive, predatory behavior and the way we all typically fish a herring run.
These herring are born in the pond, then spend a good portion of their lives offshore in vast schools, their instincts call them back to the stream to spawn. Impressive doesn’t even begin to describe that drive to procreate. If there was a way to translate these instincts into human thought, it would probably be something more intense than anything we have felt. This, it occurred to me, should weigh heavily in how we fish a herring run.
When we are fishing near the mouth of a run, those herring are in the home stretch, after hundreds of miles and a whole year or more at sea, being pestered by untold numbers of predatory fish, diving birds, nets, seals… they run riffles and climb fish ladders, they surge through flood waters and leap obstacles and here we are throwing a lazy Danny plug. In a rush of inspired thought—admittedly augmented by the sudden exercising of the fishing part of my brain—I saw the light on fishing the runs.
I have always been one to fish away from the run itself, favoring a deep cut or prominent obstacle in the shoreline nearby, my reasoning was that predator fish could use these things as an ambush and they also forced the herring, which often run in very shallow water, to swim over or around an area that made them vulnerable to predation. It worked, but it never worked great. Then I thought back to a full moon night in early May, standing at the mouth of a run, making a few obligatory casts before moving to one of my more classic locales. I heard bass blowing up on herring—I clipped on a Danny—nothing, as usual. One of my casts was fouled with weed and I burned the plug in, about 8 feet off the tip a fish blew up on the skittering Danny, but missed. I tied on a 2-ounce Pencil Popper and worked it wildly in the waning current sent seaward by the herring stream. I hooked up on my first cast with a smallish bass, right around keeper size. I had a couple other hits, but passed it off as a full moon anomaly.
My herring run epiphany has since told me otherwise. The instincts of a spawning fish put that task above all other things and when they’re nearing the sanctuary of their natal stream, you can bet that they are going to run that predatory gauntlet hard and fast. Every cautious swirl I’d ever had while fishing near a run flashed across the screen in my mind’s eye. I always chalked it up to there simply being too much bait, but I have seen the light. Now I feel that it’s more likely that the bass were confused by atypical behavior. In a lifetime of hunting herring in the runs every spring, a slow, lazy herring just didn’t seem right. And so, they followed, but ultimately ignored it. In all aspects of my plug fishing I have long felt that mimicking the attitude of the bait was a key to success, somehow I had missed the boat here.
As we prepare to enter the herring season—in some places it’s already begun—my focus for this exciting time of year is going to be on plugs I can fish fast. Tops on my list will be the Sebile Magic Swimmer. Instead of trying to mimic some battered herring on its last leg, I’m going to be trying to channel that instinctual drive to climb the stream and get it on. Casting that swimmer out there and burning it in, throwing a big wake and daring any bass in the area to pass up on the chance to take it down. I think it’s going to work.
What do you think?
By John P. Lee
During this last coastal storm, while the rest of us were worrying about power outages and downed trees, John was out on the Sound earning a buck...