By Jeff Little
Visual images of big smallmouth caught on previous trips to the same part of the river flooded my mind. A snow squall blew through the trees at the end of the island that marked the productive ledge trench. I felt the distinct pluck of line followed by my rod loading up on one big brown bass after another. But those were the memories, not the reality of the day at hand.
Being in the same spot at the same time of year, and even throwing the same lure provides a confidence that allows for the kind of patient “let it sit” presentations that river smallmouth seem to prefer. But as hours pass with unfulfilled hope, that confidence gives way to nagging doubt. “Is someone else sore lipping these fish?” I wondered while monitoring a taught but unmoving line.
Six winters ago, a friend and I discovered this particular winter pool. Some wintering quarters are huge, well known and hold thousands of fish of all sizes. Others, like this one are harder to locate, hold fewer bass, but have giants. Getting a hit in a pool like this is sort of like breaking a pitcher’s no hitter in the bottom of the ninth of a scoreless game. It feels as good as it gets, but you’ve got to have the faith that it will happen.
I pulled my phone out and slowly typed out a text to a buddy who had drifted past to explore downstream. Cold wet fingers failed to select the right letters on a touch screen, and auto correct muddled the message further. My lure, a 2 inch long hand dipped tube was still resting at the bottom of an 8 foot deep hole. I continued to type, wiped the screen clean of almost icy water droplets and then drie my fingers on the hood of my fleece sweatshirt to get them to effectively text.
Somewhere in the middle of typing that text, hope’s promise was answered. The rod loaded up without the “feels so good” signature thump. I glanced up from my phone at the slightly bent rod tip, wondering if I had snagged. After a quick snap set, I still wasn’t sure. There was a heavy hovering weight that wasn’t moving discernably. But it wasn’t stuck on the bottom. I guessed that the fine wire hook had embedded in a large stick, but hoped for something more.
Four long seconds into guessing, I had an answer in the form of a wide swinging head shake. The phone slid off my thigh, hitting the bottom of the kayak with a drum like thud. A smile pushed wide across my cold face and an adrenaline fueled rush of warmth rose through my torso like a well built campfire catching the first spark to ignite.
As good as that felt, twenty seconds into the fight I started to notice some discrepancies between the fight I was currently in, and the familiar bulldog and headshake moves of a river smallmouth. There were inexplicable pauses mid-surge where I couldn’t move the fish. The fish was neither advancing nor retreating. Then the fish would explode out into deeper water with a speed that was uncharacteristic of Mr. Micropterus dolomieu.
As it neared the kayak, I stared down into the clear, green water to see if my suspicions were correct. I guessed, “Is this a big walleye?” A year earlier, I had brought in a 31-inch northern pike a mile downstream. Maybe that was the fish on the other end of my line. A long slender green and silver barred body with orange-red fins shot under the kayak, curling the rod tip down into the water with it. Drag sang again, and within a moment I had the Boga Grip’s jaws locked down on the toothy jaw of a musky.
I picked up the phone, wiped off the screen, erased the previously scribed message to type out, “Can you come up for a photo – I’ve got a musky!” With the long predator on a leash under my kayak, I tossed out another cast while waiting for my buddy to paddle up. Before he reached me, I had what I hoped for: a big brown river smallmouth.
Holding both up for the camera, I wondered, “Is it the expected result that we crave, or is the fact that the unexpected always seems to happen on the river what keeps us coming back?” Hope feels good. So does that adrenaline surge. Being surprised by an unexpected catch isn’t too bad either. Whatever the case, I’m grateful for the experience and the time shared with friends on the water.