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.