By Dave Anderson
To follow up on Coleman’s Law, the next thing I wanted to talk about is what basically boils down to staying in practice. One of the reasons that I feel like I want to talk about this is that a couple weeks ago I caught myself, not staying in practice. I don’t mean that I wasn’t fishing enough (is there ever enough?) what I really mean is practicing the mindset of targeting big fish exclusively. I’m a big believer in the idea that you can’t do both, you can’t fish for numbers while also targeting a trophy fish; everything about those two practices is completely different. This doesn’t mean you won’t catch a big fish here and there when fishing for bites, you will, but those catches are purely coincidental, a random result of time spent fishing. If your goal is catching bigger fish consistently, then you have to make a change and focus on actually targeting bigger fish.
The other day, I caught myself leaning off the wagon. It’s April now and there’s no chance of catching a big striper in local waters, this is when I shift my focus to the ponds. I do this because bass are bass, the motions and thought processes and the way I’m looking at the shoreline and structure and even how I’m presenting to these things is largely the same. Also, I don’t want to wait and go into the prime of the season feeling rusty. I want to be in the mode. I want to have a good feel for presentation and have my head in the right place as far my expectations go. And this is where I faltered a few weeks back.
I went out with the sole intentions of just catching some fish—sue me, what a terrible idea, right? In truth it’s not such a terrible thing, as long as you don’t do it too much. If you do it too much though you can—unconsciously—ratchet your expectations in the wrong direction. I went out there, threw some jerkbaits, caught a handful of fish, all around the 2-pound mark. It did feel good to bend the rod, but when I was thinking about it later that night—I found myself scheming a way to get back there to catch more fish. I was starting myself off on the wrong foot, I was fishing for bites. Using these methods (jerkbaits, jigs) is a way that I feel I can guarantee some fish, but I’m just hoping that a big fish will show up and take my offering, it’s hoping not targeting. And this ‘hoping’ business undermines the mindset. So the next time I went out I brought only swimbaits, and I’m not talking about Keitechs, I’m talking 2- to 5-ounce baits, 6- and 8-inch Huddlestons, 8-1/2 inch Glidebaits… these are not the biggest baits on the market, I’m not throwing a 13-inch Hinkle Trout, but these baits are big for New England and they are large enough that 90% of the fish they swim past will not attempt to eat them—only the bigger fish will feel that they’re able to take them down. This is targeting bigger fish—these baits mimic alewives and trout and large yellow perch, the stuff that these weighty prespawn females will expend the energy to eat. And I left myself no fallback plan, I couldn’t wimp out and throw a jerkbait because I wasn’t hooking up, I only had big baits in the bag.
Then I proceeded to fish for an hour without a single hit. But there’s an electricity that comes with targeting big fish. It’s a vibration that keeps me alert and focused, I feel excited with every crank of the reel. This is being invested in the method; this is the stuff that I live for. I know that I’m giving up dozens of fish but I feel excitement in my chest, and I know that when that hit comes, it’s going to be a good fish, and if I do it enough, I will connect with a great fish.
Then I came upon an area where there was a change in the shoreline; I had an instinct that a good fish would be there. I know the spot well, it’s deep with a steeper incline than the rest of the shore around it, it’s also a noticeable change in the continuity of the bank—it’s more of a bump-out than a point but it’s different enough to draw predators. I threw that Hudd out there and felt so connected to it because I had been practicing for an hour, observing the bait in the water—seeing its reactions to different movements with the reel and rod. A Huddleston is a lot like a needlefish or a darter in that it doesn’t give much input back, you can’t feel it working, you just have to trust that it is.
So I whipped that Huddleston out there and I let it settle right to the bottom and I starting working it in slow lifts, swimming it five or six feet at a time and letting it settle back down. As the bait neared where I believed the rise to be, I lifted my tip a little and guided the bait up the embankment and—BAM—I hooked up with a decent fish. It wasn’t the biggest fish of my life, it was a 4-pounder—but it was a quality fish and bigger than anything I took on my last trip and it made the whole trip worth it. By the end of the day I had only one other hookup—another solid fish—that came off. But I felt great about the results because I stuck to my plan and the plan worked, I had willingly gone in knowing that I might only get one chance and I caught one solid fish instead of a handful of buck bass.
My whole reasoning for doing this is that I know it will carry over into the surf when it’s time. If I was going for numbers all spring long, my brain would be subconsciously programmed to expect a certain level of action and when you’re programmed to expect something and you don’t achieve it, your concentration suffers, you begin to question your methods, you start to zone out and look for shooting stars… or whatever else you might do to when your focus is compromised. Then you’re no longer fishing, you’re just casting, going through the motions, you’re not ready, you’re not invested, and it’s all because you, unknowingly, taught your brain to expect more action. By staying with the tougher methods that target the bigger fish you have lowered your action threshold and raised your patience level—both really good things if you’re serious about trying to ‘go large’. You’ve given yourself to the method and accepted the fact that your numbers will go down significantly, while also knowing (believing) that the end result will be more big fish and just maybe THE FISH you’ve been hoping for all these years you’ve been fishing the surf. This is the foundation on which the big fish mentality is built and it doesn’t come easy, but it’s totally worth it.
By Dave Anderson
The nights surrounding the August full moon are some of my favorites for largemouth fishing after dark. Unlike the surf, where darker nights seem to bring bigger fish and more consistent fishing, bright moon nights have been far more productive for me in the ponds. I am big on feel, I try to rely on instinct to tell me when and where to fish. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes my feelings are wrong. My belief is that we, as human beings, have undergone hundreds of years of un-training; we used to be much more instinctual creatures. Evidence surfaces when a random image of someone you haven’t seen in 10 years emerges from the back of your skull and the phone rings, guess who? Or when your kid gets into a bad spot and you are miraculously there to catch her as she falls. But one of the most common manifestations of our fading catalogue of natural instincts has to do with being watched. It’s almost mind-blowing how often we feel eyes on us and can then turn and immediately lock onto that set of offending eyes. Even the fact that we can lock eyes and feel that electric connection is something that I believe is left over from the instinctual creatures we once were. Try locking eyes with a deer and see what happens, as soon as that connection is made, she’s gone in a flash of brown and white. It’s an animal instinct, we can all feel it.
A few nights ago, I was on foot, stalking largemouths in a pond a few towns away from my house. Sunday nights are some of my favorites to fish in the surf because no one is fishing, but on this pond with a single road tracing the north bank, I came to realize that not only is no one fishing on a Sunday night, no one is doing ANYTHING on a Sunday night. Less than eight cars rolled by in the time I was there, during the daytime, that street would be alive with the perceived importance of daily life.
Wading softly through the calm water, the smell of stagnant silt and pond weed filled my nostrils and brought me back to my youth, growing up on a great bass pond in Westboro, Massachusetts. Fishing has that effect on me, when I’m in the mindset I feel as though I could be any age. I was fishing a large wakebait, one I made for myself, throwing an 8-1/2 inch bait in freshwater can be a lonely proposition—most of the bass in any given pond are only a few inches longer than the lure! The feeling of hunting something big makes it very engaging and enjoyable when the explosion comes.
But, for the first 45 minutes, I felt very much alone.
It had been a long day and I told myself I was only going to give it an hour, unless it was going off, clearly, it was not going off. Worst of all, I had hedged my bets by fishing the three best spots first, and they were dead. I walked back to where I started and looked back at my car. “Fifteen more minutes,” I said to myself and I walked past my entry point to a place where I had only caught three or four fish in all my times fishing there. It’s a shallow flat with a single and distinct rocky edge that drops down about 2 feet and then continues on as a long, gradually-sloping flat. The next 15 minutes would produce five fish—no big ones, but all nice ones in the 2 to 3-1/2 pound class. This was enough to get me to stay, at least until midnight.
There was a distinct pattern in the five fish that I caught on that flat, they were all relating to prominent changes in that edge, large rocks, bump-outs and small submerged points. And the pattern held for most of the night.
My last stop was a an area where a marshy river entered the pond, it’s a hard spot to cross, so I pretty much always end my nights there when I fish this pond. The incoming stream has carved out a wide cove, I can just barely reach the other side with a good cast. When I arrived on the small delta of debris the stream has pushed up over centuries, I could hear something rustling in the reeds across the cove. This was not something small like a raccoon, and it wasn’t a deer because I had made enough noise on the mussel shells and gravel that a deer would have been long gone. A carpet of clouds had filtered the moonlight, leaving me in a hazy shroud of almost darkness. I heard the rustling getting a little more intense, so I whistled to it, like a dog. It stopped.
I began casting and, within a few minutes, hooked up with what would be my last bass of the night, another solid fish, just over 3-1/2 pounds. After that, the fishing tapered off and the night seemed to reach a new level of quiet and dark. The rustling was back now, but moving along the opposite shore, slowly, like a child learning to tip-toe. It was moving in toward the stream. It took this animal 10 minutes to cover about 250 feet of shoreline—that’s pretty slow. Then I heard it quietly slipping through the reeds and then splashing—very softly—through the river, and then through the reeds on the other side.
In that moment my senses were firing like the processors on a supercomputer. I felt like I was seeing in 360 degrees as my ears aided my mind’s eye. This animal, which at this point I was pretty sure was actually two animals, was now right behind me. I am not the type to get spooked by wildlife, if I was fishing a stream in Wyoming, yeah, I’d have been reaching for the bear spray, but in Southern New England, I know where I sit on the food chain. But that didn’t stop my brain and body from reacting. I could feel the eyes on me and my body reacted with a chill on my back. Some people equate this to fear, but again, this is a warning sense, left over from the thousands of years ago when our ancestors hunted and fished out of necessity and these senses told them when danger was near. I’m sure you’ve seen a dog with its “hackles up” when it can sense danger or an intruder, that chill is the same thing.
I never saw my stalkers, but I heard them shadowing me for over 100 yards on the walk back to my parking spot. Coyotes have much sharper instincts than we do. Any time I’m with a friend that gets spooked by their howling, I remind them that we don’t smell like food to them, we smell like deodorant, and shampoo and danger. But they are curious and bold in the dark and they will stalk you; they step when you step – they stop when you stop. It’s eerie, but also fascinating—instinct is amazing, a sense taken for granted and ignored. When you feel the silent nudge of eyes on your back, or the wary zing of a chill up your spine, don’t shake it off, listen. These instincts are the last vestiges of your sixth sense, exercise them, keep them sharp and virile; be glad that your survivor instincts are still awake and functioning inside you, because this world and the lives we live are doing everything they can to take them away.