“I’m haunted by waters.”
–A River Runs Through It
by Norman Maclean
Not haunted by voices or by memories of loves lost and angling days gone by. But as an avid angler, we are full of what-ifs? To the degree of not catching bass like a pro bass fisherman, we somehow find our own masculinity or manhood shaken by our inability on a tough day to be a hunter or a gatherer.
What if I never catch another fish?
What if I had tried this bait or this other color?
What if I had backed out and fished 5 feet deeper?
The mind is a terrible thing to waste. I used to think that just meant I shouldn’t waste any time outside of learning to do things better. As I’ve grown older I think maybe that also means it’s a terrible thing to waste on what-ifs. The mind is a terrilbe thing to waste questioning what you didn’t do. Especially with our fishing.
I heard once as a kid, that every fish whispers something to you. You can hear it if you really pay attention on every catch. Being young, I kept waiting for a cartoon fish with Don Knotts voice to reveal the secrets of catching more bass, something in the early days that seemed more luck than will.
At the time this angler hadn’t yet learned to pay attention to the variables and conditions of every bite and every catch. How fast was the bait moving, how deep, what was the wind doing, was there current, was it near cover, did it ambush the bait or just nip at it?
Then I began to hear the whispers.
Feel the change in the bottom.
Anticipate the bite.
Don’t over work the lure.
And suddenly fishing seemed to be more like a puzzle and less like luck. The fact is there are cues around everywhere. But most importantly on every bite.
I hit a fishery I haven’t fished in 2 years this weekend in probably the worst conditions I’ve fished in 5 years. The air temperature actually dropped from 32 to 28 for a while before warming back up to 34 by the late afternoon. The wind blew, the sun was masked by clouds most of the day. The water temperature was a balmy 42 degrees.
Not your ideal conditions to figure out fish on a nostalgic fishery. But the fish would provide some clues.
First we tried fishing steep sloping banks. We fished rock, then old dead grass lines. Then laydown wood. Finally fishing points and small main lake pockets.
Then a bite. A nice chunky keeper bass in the boat.
How did it bite? Slow almost undetectable tick and then just a little less pressure on the line from the weight of the jig.
Where did it bite? In about 12 feet of water on a steep sloping point leading into a main lake pocket. Good water clarity for this lake.
What was around? Some rock, some dead grass. No wood. Fairly small gravel for bottom substrate.
So we fished down the stretch a bit further without another bite. We made a couple of moves and got to a new area with several points and small cuts with some old dead grass, gravel bottoms with some larger rock around. And a few larger stumps as well.
Another keeper bass.
So now we knew we needed to move the bait fairly slow. Crawling it along the bottom. Feeling gravel bottom.
Another keeper bass.
We experimented now in the right areas with different lure choices. We caught a few big drum in between. But even those unintended catches shouldn’t muffle the whispers. Just move past them. The bait looked alive, in the right area, but it just happened to fool the wrong fish.
The whispers come stronger as you start to hone in on a pattern. A pattern doesn’t always have to be a certain bait. To us a pattern is more about the mood of the fish, the surroundings where we get bit. The bait can sometimes trip anglers up and make them lose focus on the bigger task of finding fish. Figuring out how to make them bite best comes later.
By the end of the trip we had managed several keeper bass in brutal winter conditions on a lake neither of us had fished for 2 years. We figured out an area and the right kind of water. And honestly feel given another day would have heard more whispers and figured out how to make the fish bite even better or produced more fish from more distinct areas.
The challenge as anglers is to pay enough attention and don’t let the thrill of catching a fish ruin the opportunity to learn from the current moment. I fish for the thrill. I love to catch bass. 12 inches to 10 pounds. I just love to feel the bite, see the explosion, have the rod pulled out of my hands at times. But I love it more when it’s follwed by another. And then another.
That comes from time on the water, and paying very close attention to everything surrounding every bite.
Hear the whispers. Don’t be haunted by what ifs.