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Saturday, May 31, 2014

A trip to remember...

  Three days two nights scheduled for a trip down the river and the radios giving flood warnings.  Again. I'd already put off last weeks trip because of high water. I checked the web. Raining like the dickens in Cincy. But it had stopped north of Hamilton county. Hmm... River Level??? Not bad. Okay its a go. I called the guy where I park at. "Are you sure?"  The radio says.... Then  a text from Dan, "\There's flood warning out"... Yeah well I'm going anyways dammit! Sometimes you just have to go and see what happens. Well, a miracle happened, the rain quit on the drive to the river. And never rained another drop the whole time.
  Knowing the smallmouth were probably in a bit of spawning funk and with two nights to fish I stopped and loaded up on nightcrawlers. It's the magic time of year for catfish. And that's pretty much how it worked out. I caught maybe 15 smallmouth in three days of hard fishing. Including this guy who looked like he had healed up from a run in with a great blue heron.

I also caught a pretty saugfish on a grub.

All the first evening I kept catching more catfish than bass on lures. It was looking like something special was going on with the catfish. That evening I fished with nightcrawlers as I enjoyed the campfire. At times small channels were hitting the worms almost like bluegills. Most were the size of those little guys you get on a plate fried whole down south at the all you can eat places. But a few were really nice. I also caught a great big carp on the crawlers.

  The next day I would catch an even bigger carp that I didn't get a photo of. Wading, fishing the head of a riffle casting a hair jig I hooked into a freight train. What is this I thought. It's spooling me that's what it is. I waded after it as fast as I can. Down the riffle it went. The line went under a tree and thru the weeds. Somehow the line held. I began to run. Splat! flat on my face in six inches of water. And the line held. When I landed it I was a hundred yards away from my pack that held the camera. And way to whipped to get it for a photo.
  That second day I began fishing hair jigs tipped with a bit of nightcrawler. I'd tied a couple hundred of these over the winter to smallie fish with but the catfish couldn't stay off them. I'm not going to put a number on how many catfish I caught on the jig and crawler combo because I don't want to be branded a liar but it was a lot. Mostly channel cats but over the three days I caught ten shovelheads also. It just goes to show how complicated the river is and how little we know. It seems ever catfish in the river was doing it's best to wear out my tackle
  I find if I camp for any length of time on the river I begin to see just how little we know about how things really are. Safe at home, it's easy to make broad statements and know it all. Things like. "Well there's crayfish in the river and smallmouth eat crayfish so fish crayfish imitations". But in real life, out in the real world, I find my mind filled with unanswered questions. What are those bugs hovering over the stream in a cloud? What are those dimples midstream? Are they chubs or shiners or something else? And those tiny mud colored commas, are they tadpoles? Camped along the river I find first a dozen things that might affect the fishing. Then a hundred, then my mind reels under the realization there might be thousands.
  I know that two different energy sources mostly feed the web of life found in my river, terrestrial plant detritus (dead leaves, bits of wood, associated fungi washed into the river from the land) and algae attached to the rocks in the river. I read once there are over a thousand types of algae in the Little Miami alone. That energy thru a gazzilion different pathways ends up becoming  smallmouth bass and catfish. If I ever find myself hot and tired and just a little bored along the river I try to slow down and picture this process. Maybe turn over a few rocks or look closely at the stems of some underwater plants and just look at all the things we see everyday and take for granted. Almost every single thing along the river is amazing if we take the time to contemplate it's hows and whys.
  If camping on the river shows us how little we know it also inserts into that world, at least for a while. For a few days our little fire ring becomes a capital for our new found kingdom. Camp is our Pequod from which we lower away each day to chase our own personal white whales. Every morning we sally forth to new adventure and retreat to the safety of firelight every night.
  But the longer I stay at a place the less strange the night. As I fish thru twilight into darkness the landscape becomes less imposing and more familiar after a few days. Indeed after a couple days of spending all day every day at one camp and one stretch of river, it becomes at least temporarily a home of sorts. Then the night, so daunting just a day or so before becomes a new adventure. Big fish stir. Shallow pools, vacant of life during the day, fill with life. I jump, scared silly, as huge fish spook out of the shallows at my approach.
  I begin to know the river in a way the day fisherman never will. The small tent, the fire ring, the log that serves as both table and chair, all stake a more serious claim to the river. Till finally, stinking
of mud and fish, I stagger home sunburned, happy, and bugbit. Only to find my own bed feels a little strange at first.
  Camped, I begin to realize this one place is many. Like any beautiful woman the river is full of mystery and changes moment to moment. The lovely clarity of morning light gives way to the glaring mid day sun. Which in turn then softens into the sensual forgiving light of a long evening. All to then be covered by the blanket of night. Sound, like the light, changes. The refrain of bird noise that greets the sunrise ends mid morning without our somehow noticing. Till we hear the first calls of evening followed by the trills of frogs as the shadows of night come slipping thru the trees.
  If I'm there. On the river a while, more than a day, I find myself doing what the other animals do, spending a lot of time sitting and watching. Seeing things as they really are before we change them simply by blundering thru oblivious.
  Then after catching a fine fish this way somehow it means more. You have insinuated yourself at least partially into the environment. And catching something using wit and reason rather than just pounding the fish into submission with cast after cast. Or at least I like to think so. After catching a couple good fish you begin to feel you are a crafty bastard. Sometimes it's even true.
   Camped, I find the earliest religions, the Druids and the Native Americans concept of us all being part of a greater whole in nature makes sense. Out here more than our modern religions do. I once described a section of a small river I like to a friend. And then added that about a half mile wade upstream is where God lives. I was only half kidding.
 I do not often keep fish. But once or twice a year while camped on the river I will. Evening will be approaching and the fish god will offer a channel catfish or a good saugeye. Fishing is at it's essence a predatory act. Only recently have we had the luxury of turning fish loose. Those few fish baked by the fire make the circle of life a reality and not just an intellectual exercise. I find myself looking into the darkness and unselfconsciously thanking the river.
  When it comes to the actual camping while out fishing I'll admit I'm not much of a camper. I have a backpacking water filter and a ziplock bag with a little firestarting kit stowed in my pack. If the weathers going to cooperate I'm likely to spend the night out with just that and a bit of something to eat. I have a harmless habit of being okay wherever I am. So if no rain is on the horizon, a bit of soft ground, a jacket to lie on, and a small fire are all the shelter I need. I know for a lot of people having the right equipment is all part of the enjoyment. For me too much equipment becomes an anchor weighing me down. If it's going to rain a ultralight tent made for backpacking is often all I'll use. I think it's called a bivy to differentiate it from a real tent.

 “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”   
 Socrates 469 BC

The last morning after packing the yak back up and making sure I was leaving the place cleaner than I found it I decided to use up the leftover crawlers. I tied on a baitholder hook and crimped on some splitshot a few inches up the line. Wading I'd throw the nightcrawler up in the head of the pools and let the current sweep the bait down the run into the pool. Again more catfish magic. I also took this photo of a turtle hauled out looking for a place to lay eggs I'm guessing. The day before I'd disturbed another that was also quite a ways from the water too.

 Finally wore out and smelling like roadkill I reluctantly left.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


With the river muddy from last nights rain it seemed like a good time to hit a pond. I decided to air out one of the old fly rods. A Montague Rapidan made sometime in the 1940's. The Rapidan is famous as "the poor man's bamboo". It casts well but doesn't have the sticker shock that puts bamboo out of reach of guys like me. Montague made rods of all price ranges and the cheaper models frankly just don't perform all that well. The Rapidan is the exception. Even some of the guys that can afford the Phillipsons and Paynes that cost more than my old truck have a Rapidan that they take fishing while there expensive wood stays safe in the display case. The average decent Rapidan is valued somewhere between $150 and $200. Mine was an E-bay find years ago that was less than half that. But it's in perfect shape even down to having the original tube, original labels and hardware and an extra tip.

I tied on a sponge spider to start and caught a few small bass in the ten inch range and some ok sized bluegill. But I knew this pond had some big bluegill so I began to tinker. I tied on a beadhead nymph with some gold wire.

It sank fast and provided a bit of flash in the clear water of the pond. That was the ticket. I began to hook up much more frequently. Even the small bass were nailing the little size beadhead. Having grew up on fast action graphite fly rods I had to keep reminding myself to slow down. I'd catch little shock waves rolling down my loop as I cast. When I'd take a long breath and relax the rod cast beautifully. Not a distance cannon like my modern fast action rods but very serviceable at reasonable fishing distances. Then a slow retrieve and the slower the better. Almost every good cast and retrieve then began to pay off. The line would stop or just imperceptibly twitch backward and I'd raise the rod into a fish. Really pretty gills too in the 7 to 8 inch range.

I began to tinker again since the fish were biting so well it was easy to tell what worked and what didn't. Well the ticket turned out to be a big beadhead nymph. More of a smallmouth or trout pattern. But it weeded out the smaller gills while the action was still fast and furious.

Again the slower the better on the retrieve. But now the gills averaged more like 8 to 9 inches long.

It was a fine time. I also took a loop thru a nearby woods hoping to find a few late morels. No such luck but I did find a beautiful little wild orchid and several ginseng plants. It's amazing how fast the woods is changing now. It seemingly looks different every day this time of year.

Bamboo, on the other hand, sets me calm and quiet, and I find that if I "feel" the rod and almost go along with what it wants to do with the particular rig that I have attached to the line at the moment, my efforts are more than rewarded."
from "Tactics on Trout" by Ray Ovington 1969

Friday, May 9, 2014

Trip to Bountiful

I beached the kayak and began unloading here that would be my home for the 24+ hours. It was easily the hottest day of the year so far and I had no idea how that would affect the fishing. It would also be the first trip wading wet so far this year. I also felt that the smallmouth might be spawning. But something like at least a third of the larger smallmouth don't spawn every year. So rather than go harass spawning fish I just keep fishing riffles and seams making do with a few less bass. But everything else is usually in high gear and biting at the same time so it really doesn't matter. Sure enough smallmouth were hard to come by. I'd fish good water for an hour between bites. But I was catching nice fish when I hooked up. All the fish came on a grub or an RR Striker swim bait. The swim bait is fast becoming my favorite smallie lure. At least for good fish.

I'm looking thinking if I just was over there on that side. The place I always cross is tricky. I never wade is without a stout stick to help me. But here a bit below I'd never tried. Maybe I'm missing out. I start across. So far so good I'm 75% of the way across. But water is now up to my crotch and moving fast. I inch a bit further on. Only 15 more feet. I take another step. Oh man, I'm starting to feel light on my feet as the water lifts me. Nope, no backing up, I'd be down for sure. Another step. Oh Oh I can feel me lift off the bottom. I turn on my back, feet downstream just the way your supposed to. But I only go my ten feet before I find bottom and traction. But plenty of time to get wet from head to toe. Thank goodness it is the warmest day of the year. The nylon hiking pants dry in minutes but it will take the campfire tonight to get my shirt completely dry.

But it was worth it. I catch a pretty smallmouth then two channel cat. All on the swim bait. I conk the bigger of the two cats on the head and find a stick to wade back across with. I clean the fish getting two pretty fillets. These are then sprinkled liberally with cajun spice, pepper and pinch of salt. I wrap them tightly in foil and stash in the yak for tonight.

I go back to fishing with maybe an hour of daylight left. All day carp have been raising cain spawning in the shallows. Now a huge bulge of splashing water is heading my way. I freeze and five or six sweep in around me, backs sticking out of the water as they chase. Another brings up the rear. He heads right at me then flushes as they all bolt for deeper water. Too cool. Back to fishing and thump something hits the swimbait hard and begins peeling line. Please please let this be a smallmouth. No it's too heavy and bulldogs even more line out. Finally up rolls a channel cat. A Fish Ohio Channel at that!

Dark is coming fast now. It's already hard to see back in the trees. I cast the swim bait at a fast bit of lively water and something nails it. A Fish Ohio saugeye. Fish Ohio fish back to back! Well the saugfish awards are probably the easiest of them all to get and this one just barely squeeks by but I'm not complaining. With last weeks big carp that puts me 3/4's of the way towards a master angler pin and a long summer to get lucky in.

I head to camp and start a fire. Once it burns down to hot coals Ill put the fish wrapped in foil on a flat rock surrounded by hot coals. It's warm and walk down riverside to watch night arrive. Overhead silhouetted against the sky a half dozen ducks fly hard upriver trying to get somewhere before nightfall. Back in camp I put on the fish and decide to fish a few minutes while it bakes. Whack a 15 or 16 inch fish nails my bait! I'm thinking it's on now but it turns out to be the only fish of the night. Gathering firewood, I found, like Tom Hanks in Castaway, a friend to share camp.

Morning finds me excited for a another day on the river. Right away I caught a small shovelhead on the jig. It would be the first of three I'd catch this day. Right now would be a good time to do some serious flathead fishing I think.

Today would prove to be a carbon copy of yesterday. With bass you had to work hard for plus a few catfish sprinkled in here and there. I worked my way across to the sweet spot, without a dunking this time. Here a bathtub sized patch of foam marks a dead still spot surrounded by swift currents. I cast my jig and swam it slowly into the quiet center. Thump and the line begins to go. Resigned to another channel I was honestly startled when a big smallmouth hurtled skyward. But he was hooked well and in a few minutes was in hand. 18.5 and solid muscle. A noble fish.

I work my way back to camp for lunch. After lunch I rest for a minute by the stream and I'm out like a light. When I awaken the wind has risen, the sky darkened and rain is in the air. I fish for a while reluctant to go, catching a couple more fish. The yak ride upstream is easy as a stiff breeze pushes me homeward...

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Seminar text smallmouth bass

I had a friend say after my seminar that he wished my seminar would be available online for some friends that couldn't make it Sat. So for what it's worth here it is...

I'd make to make a few points about smallmouth bass that you never hear. Trophy smallmouth in particular. But these will make a huge difference in your fishing if you keep them in mind.

1st off, smallmouth bass are not largemouths. Pretty obvious right?? But we all grew up fishing for largemouths and watching TV shows about them. This colors all our fishing if we are not careful. Take cover or structure for example. You know, we have all been taught to look for those downed trees that have largemouths backed up into them or a clump of lily pads with a largemouth skulking underneath. Well smallmouth bass are different. If, if they even related to cover at all it's mostly to the edges. Or even off the edge.
But if you look at both Largemouth and smallmouth bass you will see they are shaped almost exactly the same. They are both built for short burst of speed. In other words they are both ambush predators. So if smallmouth bass aren't ambushing their food from cover how are they doing it? Well current is their structure. If you find a feeding, active smallmouth it is near current. Even when they seemingly aren't they are, we will get to that in a moment. What smallmouth bass are built for is to set in a slower current and watch a faster current and ambush the critters in that one. Or set in a quiet eddy behind a rock and rush out and nail something being swept by in the current.
We have all seen the movie Predator. You know where the predator can change his vision to see in infra red or thermal? Well I believe using their lateral lines and just the waters pressure bearing down on them smallmouth bass see their entire world as a world of currents and flows. As real to them as a wall in this building or the road out front. Not the flat image of the river we see from above but a rich 3/D world of fast water, slower flows, eddies, vortices and seams.
So how do we as smallmouth bass fisherman use this to catch our quarry?

Well, one classic big fish place for me is a debris flow point jutting out into the river. Say sometime in the last hundred years a section of hillside receives that storm of the century rain. A normally dry wash is suddenly a raging torrent and tons and tons of rocky debris is dumped into the river. This constriction in the rivers channel makes the current speed up as it goes around the point. As you know a spot close to the center of a wheel is turning slower than a spot on the rim of a wheel. The water curving around the point also has to do the same so it digs out the bottom and far bank creating a hole off the end of the point. As the hole is eroded over time there is more pressure by the faster water on the outside side of any material dislodged. Also often a secondary current right on the bottom is often set up. These result in dislodged objects being moved slightly towards the point every time they are moved by high waters. In multiple high water events the bigger material is moved closer to the point while smaller material is swept away. Over the course of many many years this can sometimes result in a a lateral sort of the rocky material off the point. With the biggest stuff that has stayed on the point after repeated events being right at the tip of the point and steadily smaller and smaller stuff laid down in strips as you go farther from the point.
What's this got to do with fishing? Well crayfish and darters love rocks. Stuff the size of a grapefruit especially. So somewhere
along the width of our point and pool of sorted rocks is a strip of bottom that is ideally suited for them creating a mini city of smallie food while the outside side of the hole might be swept bare of bigger rocks and is just a layer of fine gravel deposited between big events. In other words NOT crayfish and darter cover. Now sometimes shiners will use this fast water pouring over bare gravel too so you do need to throw a cast or two there too.
But what happens is a guy comes along fishing beaches his yak or canoe and walks out to the end of the point. He then makes a nice average cast to the center of the hole and fishes his lure downstream thru the hole. He reels in repeats and does this a dozen times. If he doesn't catch a fish he moves on. Well he cast over top of the sweet spot and his lure was barely in in it. Sometimes we are reeling in and catch a fish seemingly right at our feet. When this happens make sure its not a lateral sort situation. Cover the holes off the ends of points laterally with each cast following a different path that the previous.
After scouring out the hole the river bottom comes back up in the form of a run to meet the normal river bottom. If the slope of the run is abrupt enough this can set up a secret big fish spot that almost no one but you will ever fish. The faster water coming thru the scour hole and run will go over top of slower water with the abrupt run acting like a ramp. Then you will get a situation where down below the run where you wouldn't normally fish a layer of faster water is riding over top of slower water. This is called laminar flow. Well our ambush predator can rest in this slow layer and ambush things traveling in the faster layer without expanding much energy. And you have it all to yourself. A situation tailor made for big fish.
Now our point might harbor the ultimate secret spot. First we have our first big event that creates the point. Everything happens over time just as we have laid out. Then here comes another huge event. The whole river is in a raging flood many times higher than normal floods. And the raging river knocks the end off our point. The very biggest material that isn't completely swept away is now directly downstream from the new tip of the point. So you now have a deep instead of gradual slope off the end of the point. This creates a really strong seam downstream sometimes for thirty or forty yards. And for extra good measure all kinds of really big rocks under the seam for bass to stage under and ambush stuff. Hole run seam point and cover rocks all together. This is your best chance in the entire river to catch a twenty inch smallmouth if the place also falls within our next big fish criteria.
That is the concept of boundary riffles. After spawning till late fall when they migrate to the holes they are going to winter in smallmouth bass become extreme homebodies. Mature smallmouth will spend all summer in just a few hundred yards of river. Smallmouth consider all the way across the river riffles to be boundary riffles and will not cross them all river. So the key to catching a good fish is to find two boundary riffles with no easy access in between. Find our busted off point with a big seam off the end too and your in the money. Another sneaky way of fishing underpressured fish is to find the sexist best looking stretch of water and fish just across the boundary riffle from it. Every single fisherman comes to that great looking piece of water and fishes it. Completely ignoring the fish across the boundary riffle. The great looking piece of stream might support many times the number of fish as the plainer water but personally I'd rather catch only three fish all day if one is 19 inches long than a dozen fish all under 12 or 13 inches long.
I'd also like to talk for a minute or two about how by our backgrounds in largemouth fish sometimes make us select for smaller smallmouth bass. We all know that a big jig and pig is a trophy bass lure. And we all know smallmouth love crayfish right? So we fish big plastic crayfish and jig and pigs or a big tube for smallmouth. Well several studies have shown that the very biggest smallmouth are the most picky fish about wanting to eat small crayfish. Somewhere around an inch and a half is their favorite. I'm not sure if its an experience thing and bigger older fish just know a small crayfish is a much more pleasant experience or not. And a bass eating a bigger crayfish sucks it in, blows it out, sucks it in, blows it out trying to kill it before eating it. Making them much harder to hook if they do hit your big crayfish imitation. Ever wonder why you have trouble sometimes hooking fish on those big tubes? I'm not saying don't use those jig n pigs and tubes or plastic crayfish, just downsize them as much as you can. But weirdly enough those same bigger smallmouth consistently select for bigger minnow. Lots of food with no more fight at play there, just the opposite of those crayfish and their nasty pincers. Big smallmouth like a 4 or 5 inch minnow best, not the littlest size rapalas we are used to throwing. Ok, Ok, I know you caught twenty five fish last weekend on a little rapala or on a big four inch texas rigged tube. Sounds like fun, but how many of them were 18, 19, or even 20 inch fish? These rules are especially true when fishing those sorted rocks off the ends of our points. I have a harder time fishing a small jig or tube in the current off the ends of these points. But if I fish a 4 inch swimbait on a jighead in the same places I have no trouble at all. Either would work one is just way eaiser and thus more practical.