Thursday, September 22, 2011

Smallmouth Bass Escape on North Branch Raritan at Stahl Natural Area

Having shiners leftover from fishing the Delaware this past Sunday, I came home after a marvelous, 84 degree day to find three of the nine remaining dead. I decided on the spot that although I'm pressured tonight, I better go have my fun. I didn't make myself do it. I fully wanted to go try the stretch behind the Stahl Natural Area, North Branch Raritan, here in Bedminster.

In little over an hour's time I hardly began to explore what's back there. In the meantime, two more shiners rolled over, leaving me with two dead, four alive, and I knew well enough to keep the dead. I quickly caught a small bass, eight inches, in the first stretch I encountered, a fairly fast, fairly shallow run. The next shiner I prepared wriggled off the hook into the water before I could cast once. I've always been a fool like that--knowing that the shiner was not on the hook as well as it could be, yet not immediately acting to make correction. Curiosity gets the best of me. I actually wondered if the shiner would shake free, and instead of making sure it didn't, allowed it to happen.

That left me with two alive, two dead. So I put on a dead, not very stiff, shiner. The retrieve seemed so wacky in the clear water, water so cool (60's) and clean I was in love with it, really, as I waded above my knees, the fist-sized, rounded stones under my feet so clean with golden variations of brown coloration they seem to have been--to my memory of it now--like eggs pregnant with aeons of time, as if the millions of years of their existence were about to open with life. Quite an adventure just fell open for me after a day of work, the way music--great music--arises transcendentally, unexpectedly, from silence. A bass swirled upon that dead shiner, then dropped it. I never got it to hit again, and saved the live shiners for a better stretch.

Not far downstream I found a faster, shallower run that still looked like a possibility, and missed another bass on the first cast. Again, nothing more. I climbed the bank and followed a trail to the stretch I could see on down. This stretch, it turned out, is too lengthy for me to have even seen the end of it. Bass water. No doubt. But that live shiner provoked no interest anywhere for what time had passed over into mild frustration.

It's happened before, the habitat undeniably good. I figured the bass here were spread out, although I might come upon one. I had been fishing from up on the bank, and found water shallow enough to climb down and wade. I casted clear up against the opposite bank near a tree with roots exposed--possibly undercut. Immediately a bass took the shiner. When I set the hook, I pulled the hook and shiner out of its maw, then reeled very quickly to cast back. But the bass rushed after for at least ten yards, engulfed that shiner, and turned. I set the hook, felt the weight a second. The fish was gone.

I baited with my last shiner, cast it to the same spot, and took another immediate hit, missed it. Once again, the bass rushed--this time I caught a nine and a half inch smallmouth, with minnow still intact on the hook. Again, a hit, a miss, a rush--a 10 inch bass, shiner still usuable, but I knew I could not keep it on the hook any longer possibly, and when I casted, it flew off. The head was all but torn off, and the flesh I put the hook through soft.

So why not? I had no #9, or smaller, Rapala with me. Would my chrome Baby Torpedo topwater work? I doubted it almost completely. I tried awhile, but it just wasn't as subtle as a shiner, and in about 63 degree water the bass--despite their lightning swift rushes after top speed retrieved bait, and swirls at the surface--would not care to careen into a surface plug.

On a summer evening things might have been different.  

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