If I live another 50 years I’ll never forget a bass I met mid-May. It made my reel’s drag squeal like a loose fan belt and had a mouth as large as an open paint can. Though we met for a minute at most, the sights and sounds of this mega-fish are seared deeply in my mind.
It was more than just another “big one that got away” experience for me. That’s happened hundreds of times over the last half century. This will be the one that haunts me until I meet the fish again. I plan on that happening.
Special day, special place
We anglers are the ultimate in optimism. Every time we step to the water we know it could be our best day of fishing. Even on slow days there’s the hope the next cast could be the fish of a lifetime.
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I found such quantity and quality at a friend’s 20 acre lake where the fishing rivals the scenery in the steep, timbered valley.
Several Septembers ago, my first time at the lake, I caught five nice fish, nice crappie and bass, in my first seven fly-casts. About an hour into the outing I asked my 12-year-old fishing partner, Jake, what was the most bass he’d ever caught in a day.
“About 20 minutes ago,” he answered.
The fishing was probably better on the recent trip. I wasn’t even my canoe’s length from shore when I caught a bass pushing three pounds and a 12-inch crappie.
All was so perfect.
I fished maybe 150 yards of shoreline for about two hours, but caught more fish than many anglers will in two years. Thirteen was my lucky number because that’s how many consecutive casts I once counted when I hooked fish.
At least a dozen times fish hooked themselves when the fly was dangling only a yard or two from the canoe as I put bluegill or crappie in a pouch, or measured a bass on a measuring tape on the gunnel. It was like a fishing show on fast forward.
And most were very nice fish.
The male bluegill went to nine-inches with chests such a vibrant orange they could have been stamped “Sunkist.” The crappie were the size of $25 ribeyes, and would later be as tasty.
Mostly I alternated between one fly-rod with a thumb-sized chartreuse streamer for bass and crappie. The other rod, which was smaller and lighter, had a tiny marabou fly about as big as a bundle of eye lashes. It was intended for bluegill, but bass and crappie liked it as well.
The nylon bag attached to the side of the canoe filled quickly as I added bluegill, crappie and a few bass between 12 and 14 inches.
In the clear water several times I watched a bass or big crappie follow the streamer well into sight before it nailed the fly. Repeatedly a missed hook set sent a fly flying several yards through the air before hitting water, and another fish was on before I could get it to the boat.
Even an abrupt change in the wind direction, usually the breath of death for fishing, barely slowed the bite.
Big bass, bigger bass
Following two hours of fishing solo, Richard and his fly rod climbed into the bow and we headed to a section of shoreline I’d yet to fish. There, a slight tap came on one of my casts and the lithe rod bowed deeply when I set the hook.
“Probably a two or three pound bass,” I said seconds before a large splash showered us with water.
“I think he took issue with that,” Richard said, recognizing the size of the splash.
Using the fly rod’s length for leverage, I directed the bass away from some weeds and kept its head down so it couldn’t jump. Line slipped through my fingers when the bass made runs. I expected the tiny hook to slip free at any second.
“I just want a good look at it, then I don’t care,” I said to Richard.
My first thought when I got that initial clear look as it tired, was, “…six pounds.” I tried to convince myself it was bigger from then on, but it wasn’t. We had no scale in the boat but the bass taped an even 22 inches. Excessively fat, Richard and I felt confident with the six pound statement.
As we continued catching a steady amount of all three species, Richard and I discussed what I call a “gutometer measurement.” That’s gut feeling I get the instant I first see a fish as per its size. Nearly always, Richard agreed, that first impression is right, even it it’s before we get a really good look at the animal. A high-ranking official with Boone & Crockett, he said it’s often so with him when he first sees antlers on a hunt.
After about an hour we’d fished around the lake and my bag was bulging and my shoulder was sore from casting. I picked up a spinning rod with a three-inch swim bait and mostly just plunked it underhand while Richard caught fish on his sinking fly.
We were back at one of the better bluegill sections of shoreline, when the lure stopped and the rod bowed into an inverted U.
“Uh-oh, here we got again,” I said to Richard.
At first the fish moved slowly, making me think I’d maybe hooked a channel cat. But when the line passed my end of the canoe, headed for open water, the fish turned from a slow steady pull into the flat-out speed that spun the reel’s spool and made the drag sing.
As well as out, the line angled up towards the surface, where a head that looked like it belonged on a tarpon split the water, then the rest of the body followed up and up.
My gutometer was dinging “11 pounds.”
My reaction was shock. The word out of my mouth was not, ...but close enough.
Silence came when the fish shook the hook free. I’d had a good look, and I cared deeply that it had gotten away.
I could not see how deep the bass was from back to belly, but it was thick across the back and much longer than the big bass I’d just boated and released, much. It may be the biggest bass I’ve seen in the wild.
Several times I have caught and weighed bass to nine pounds and change (the biggest in Florida) and another Kansas bass added up to a tad more than 10 pounds on a formula figured with length and girth. I swear that bass at Richard’s was bigger.
Skeptical? I don’t blame you.
No, I wouldn’t believe me either. Yes, I know the state record is 11.8 pounds, and true ten pounders are as rare as Democrats in office or calm days in Kansas. Even if my gutometer was off 20 percent, which it never has been on a big bass, it was a heck of a fish.
I sat in silence for several seconds after it was gone, while Richard untangled the line and lure that had landed around him.
“Well,” he said, breaking the silence, “the good news is that he’s still in here and he’s obviously very healthy…you may get a chance at him again.”
And that will be my main angling goal until I get the fish caught. Of course the odds are long, and I’ll make them even longer by committing to the goal of catching the bass of 10-plus pounds on a fly rod. I look forward to when it happens.
Like I said, we anglers are the masters of optimism.