Sunday, June 3, 2012

Catching Good Size Largemouth Bass among Pine Barrens Flooded Timber and Grassy Shallows: Plastic Worms and Topwater Plugs

Boy Scouts of America is one of the national organizations that not only provides excellent fellowship for boys and involved parents alike, but opportunities for outings available no other way. Boy Scout Camps exist for whole ranges of activities, including fishing in waters that get no other pressure. Arrangements are made between troops and other organizations for outings, and special places like Bass Lake on the Lakehurst Naval Base become available on occasion for those who participate and contribute.

Last year, I caught a bass on my second cast from shore. We hadn't arranged to get kyacks, canoes, and a 16-foot jonboat as we did this year since the main focus involved fluke fishing from a headboat. Nonetheless, the boys and myself managed to catch well over a dozen bass right along the accessible shoreline near the campground without much cover for bass, one of these good-sized at 19 inches, caught by Anderson Matinho.

So I knew good-sized bass lurk in the lake, and my fantasies before getting here this weekend blazed vividly surreal with a number of three-pound plus bass lipped back in the flooded timber. I get just like a kid sometimes with visions welling up into my mind.

But sunlight struck hard on the water, and the breeze bore down pretty hard. With some time to fish from the banks before boats arrived, more than a dozen of us, including some parents besides me this time, fished hard for over an hour for one 14-inch bass caught by one of the boys. It wasn't a sinking feeling I had, but a complete shut-out. My world goes from vivid expectation to a sudden turn towards considering something else. Once again--I was sure of it--my visions had deceived me. Not that they always do, and perhaps they never do. Maybe I just get distracted sometimes.

The boats came, the boys and parents loaded in unhindered, and although one canoe remained unoccupied and a friend of mine hadn't gone out, I had no motive, was tired. I went to my car, put back the seat, and fell asleep. More than hour later I awoke and considered I might go home early to get much needed writing done, my son could ride home with friends. But I strolled over to the lake and it just happened that Peter Kemp, photographed at the top of the page, tied into the largest bass of his life, a nice fish about 18 inches, right out in the deepest, open water. I hung around with mildly improved interest, just casually tracking events, and after how long I don't remember, the jonboat became available.

I loaded my gear and invited Paul Matinho along; a young Scout also came with us. No sooner had we anchored in the timber, I caught a small bass on Senko-type worm with inset hook. Word came pretty soon that fishing merit badge counselor Fred Matero and Alex Rundella, the latter an older Scout highly skilled at fishing, had done very well. Of course then I felt the wolf rise, not envy, not even competition so much as the necessity to join the pack.

The jonboat felt more than clumsy without oarlocks. It had oar rings, but the oars slid precariously and a lot of noise scared off bass I'm sure. This didn't irritate me, but next year I'm bringing my Minn-Kota electric. We came in for dinner, my having caught four bass and Paul having lost one. I wanted Paul to connect, but he certainly had connected even without boating a bass or less common pickerel. A good time. Awesome news from Fred--he had caught 11, one four pounds, another close to five, and he swore he had hooked a seven-pounder. I then went to Alex who told me he, too, had caught 11, one of them very good-sized. All 22 of their bass and my four we caught on plastic worms, but not necessarily in the timber. This situation had caught Fred's interest, "The biggest bass, besides Alex's, were not back in the timber but near the grass in a foot-and-a-half of water." This in broad daylight no less. Although the lake has the typical Pine Barrens tannic stain, the water is fairly clear.

Just before dinner, I got out in a canoe and nabbed another small bass. Then after dinner, Alex and I headed out in kayaks well after sundown. Fred was not far behind. Alex and I put worms aside. He had a Bill Dance popper; I had tied on my favorite Hedden Baby Torpedo, which is a fairly good-sized plug. The wind died.

Alex's first cast yielded a 16 1/2-inch or so bass. The full moon came up as darkness fell, and action seemed to roar steadily back in the trees. I felt amazed at how well my casting played out, never getting snagged. I remember once a good bass exploded on my plug between two trunks with about half a foot of space between. Another time I saw a great head and open mouth erupt just as I began to lift the plug for the next cast, the bass almost slamming into the kayak. The best of five bass I caught doused me all over hitting the plug next to the kayak and racing back and forth with its broad back completely exposed, this fish at least 18 1/2 inches. Alex and Fred, who caught another five or more bass, can attest to hearing a howl when this bass got hooked.

The way I got so many surface strikes after dark required that I became myself a part of nature so I could impart an artistic version of fright into my Heddon Torpedo. I got several chase/whomping/ pounding strikes by cadenced retrieves on the manic side made haywire in very subtle ways, not simply pulling the lure fast in a complacent, I'm-in-control way, but by really being in control, which meant having an actual vision of what it could be for such a surface creature as a plug to be totally frightened, skipping slightly as I pulled it quick, sort of danced it by a trance of pretend terror. And this actually got bass to rush from yards away. I saw the wakes in the dark for as long as eight feet closing in so rapidly the bass exploded on the plug and then into the air.

I got up well before dawn and out before anyone else came out of a tent, except one older Scout who magically appeared bankside as I pushed off in a kayak. Six hits on the Torpedo broke dead calm before Fred showed up. He effortlessly tossed a black worm towards the grass I mentioned, both of us in the back of these 15 or 20 acres, and tied into a very good bass he estimated at four pounds, lost in standing grass. Back to worm throwing, I quickly missed two hits that surprised me, they came so fast, then boated a chunky 18-inch or so bass, quickly releasing it and pressing on. Having missed another hit or two, I moved further back in water six inches to a foot-and-a-half deep, drawn by the sound of opened largemouth maws that actually produced deep popping sounds by catching air as they closed upon whatever forage scurried right up in the grass. There was a miniature point, a 45-degree turn in the grass edge, and I lobbed my worm in close, water I later discovered measured about 10 inches deep.

When I set the hook, I couldn't actually see the bass in the dim light, but the form became immediately apparent, water bulging over a back it could barely cover. I estimated the length at 20 or 21 inches. I kept kicking myself for this loss, if mostly to put the excitement aside to continue my exploration. I hooked and lost a nice bass in a little canal five feet wide, then entered this canal to find a foot of weedy water with lots of small fish forage. I soon caught a bass of about 16 1/2-inches where this back cove and series of canals and miniature coves opened upon the main lake, and soon afterward paddled in hard for breakfast with Fred, who had scored a single bass. 

Both of us completed an outing we'll remember and we want to explore these waters more in-depth another time.

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