For most of us who post on this forum, fishing is our outlet…our escape….our enjoyment. Sometimes, though, the frustrations of sustained lack of success or our personally perceived ineptitudes can rob us of the enjoyment that fishing, especially river fishing so wonderfully provides. I had recently allowed myself to slip into such a rut. Though I can’t remember the last time the skunk jumped in my yak for a day, I have found myself dissatisfied with “how well” I was fishing. The time constraints of daily life wound up resulting in rushed trips to the river without proper preparation. My changing vision and lack of manual dexterity resulted in slow knot tying and I seemed to take half an hour just to get started. Once on the water, my racing mind and failing confidence often fought against the enjoyment I should find through fishing. Clearly, I needed a turn for the better.
Tuesday afternoon, I arrived at the hotel after a long work day with just enough time to hit the nearby river for a couple of hours before dark. I only get to work up in this area about twice a year now, and while it is one of my favorite rivers, I can only get to it on those occasions, since it is four hours from my home in North Carolina. I rushed to tie a leader on the end of my braid, grabbed minimal gear and headed for the park where I would leave the car as I hiked to the river. The signs say the area closes at dark, so I walked the mile plus trail as quickly as possible, climbed down the steep bank to the river and began to tie on my lure. Twice, I cut the tag end too short and had to start over. I gave up on my leader and decided to tie a Little Tube directly to the braid. Daylight was short, so I had to make a quick decision, upstream or down. The water was up a foot from the level I had fished the river at before, so I knew wading would be tough. I always like to do the hard work first, so I headed upstream, knowing that deep water would end my access after a quarter of a mile, but also knowing that a wonderful pool awaited just below the falls that I couldn’t reach.
As I approached the long pool, I began throwing into the shoreline eddy on river left. I quickly picked up a dink largemouth. At least my rushed wade had resulted in a fish, and the higher water gave a new look to the already beautiful setting (even if it was spoiled a bit by previous, littering visitors). A few more casts and a little smallie came to hand. As I moved up the shallows bordering the deep pool, I could see that the distance I could cast the tiny tubes would be too limited, and the current in the depths would never allow the tube to reach bottom, so I tied on a slightly larger jig head and a three inch stick bait and cast as far as I could. I couldn’t resist the urge to work it frantically near the top in case there were some aggressive fish, and was a little surprised when a nice bass swiped and missed. That act was repeated a couple of times, so I switched up and tossed into a slow backwater that cuts in beside the main channel. A nice redbreast sunfish somehow got the hook in his mouth, but I couldn’t get the nicer bass that I could barely see in the dark water to hit.
Tossing back into the main pool, still working the lure aggressively, I saw a dark shape grab the lure and gave a quick snap to set the hook. The fight seemed a little weak for a bass that size, but I saw why when a fourteen inch crappie succumbed to my efforts. After continuing to work the area for aggressive bass, I finally had a nice one on, but a thrilling leap freed the largemouth, which had attacked in faster current that normally would be expected to hold smallies. Realizing that everything except those first two really small bass had hit near the top, I took off the jig head, tied on a finesse hook, and nose hooked my go to bait, a Jack’s Worm. A half hour of fishing on the slow side netted a thirteen inch and a fourteen inch largemouth, plus a warmouth.
Some aggressive working of the worm in a frantic, walk the dog method on the faster, deep side below the falls resulted in a couple of aggressive strikes, but they all escaped. Not knowing how much daylight was left, and remembering the wade, climb and hike that I had in front of me, I decided to head back, working the current at the tail of the pool on the way. It had been a good day. Three largemouth, a smallie, a redbreast, a warmouth and a nice crappie to go along with a beautiful mental picture of the river for a memory…I could live with that.
I made the turn to go back and after a few steps, made a long cast across the pool. One twitch of the lure and the water exploded. I don’t mean the little slash and splash smallies often make when they take a lure on top. I mean a violent “blam!”, like a big beaver slapping its tail on the water in warning. My line went tight, the rod bent, and a huge dark brown shape rocketed two feet out of the water. Almost black in color, I could tell at the distance that it was a bass, but being so big and so dark, I couldn’t tell for sure if it was a largemouth or a smallmouth. A few more seconds into the fight, and I had no doubt it was a smallie. A really big largemouth may rival a smallie for dogged power, but the frantic, determined, multidirectional efforts of this fish shouted pig smallie.
Between bursts of drag pulling runs, a second, somewhat closer leap confirmed what I knew…this was a smallmouth, and a special one, at that. There were no snags and no jagged rocks anywhere close, so I knew if the hook held, she was mine. I was suddenly very thankful that I had tied directly to the braid. A few more seconds, and I was able to slide her up onto the wet grass and pebbles at my feet. I had no camera and no measuring tape. I quickly laid my rod beside her and marked her length on it and remembered that my cell phone was in the dry bag I had clipped to my tackle pack. Measuring the importance of a cell phone picture that would require at least another minute out of the water by the time I accessed it and tried to remember how to use it, against the importance of releasing the precious behemoth unharmed, my decision was easy. I dipped her in the water, held her against the rod one more time to confirm the length and bade her adieu. She turned toward me for a second as if to look at the clod who had dared interrupt her feeding session, then reversed direction and quickly disappeared into the depths. I caught one more unremarkable smallie before reaching the end of the pool and picking up my impromptu wading staff ( a small log found on the trail) to keep me upright on the wade through the swift current back to the trail. As I looked back toward the falls one last time, an osprey suddenly soared downstream across them, screeching in a fast cadence that sounded for all the world like the Gieco pig screeching “wee-wee-wee”. Perhaps the osprey’s day had taken a turn for the better, like mine.
(When I got home the next day, measuring to where I had marked the rod revealed that the smallie was my personal best by over an inch, at 21.5 inches. I even allowed for the possibility that I had been just a tiny bit off, as it might have been even a little more. Since I’ll probably never catch one that big again, I might as well give myself some kind of chance to better my personal best, right? )