Saturday, June 1, 2013

Canoe or Kayak Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass Reflections


         Fred Matero and I eased his Mad River canoe down an embankment, balancing ourselves on boulders, and used the same as a platform to climb in. We paddled out a few yards and let slow current take us down a stretch of Raritan River immediately below the confluence of North and South branches. This recent evening would be the first time Fred has been skunked fishing this stretch, although we caught numerous smallmouth bass, having paddled well up the North Branch.

          Both branches of the river more and less have careened out of the Highlands—at least the South Branch certainly races through Ken Lockwood Gorge—to flatten and slow on the Piedmont Plain. Although plenty of rock remains for smallmouth bass habitat, more aquatic vegetation means more largemouth bass and Fred has caught plenty.

          We had lots of light penetrating the water before sundown, so Fred fished a chartreuse Senko-type worm. The idea behind bright light,/bright colors and vice versa for lure choices is to match environmental visibility, rather than do the opposite by trying to make a bright lure stand out to fish’s view in low light, or a black lure in clear water and sunlight. Fred caught bass. I used an eighth-ounce, unpainted jig with black Berkeley Gulp! Leeches on the hook, synthetic composition that is a cross between lure and bait. I caught bass.

          For all I know, some anglers have actually experimented at length with lure color, taking careful account. I have never cared to unlock the mystery because my idea has always been about lure and bait presentation—including wide experimentation with different lures and bait—what amounts to sensory grasp of the environment and where I cast. I don’t rely on color much; I tempt strikes by feel. And I approach possible takers by exact thinking, keeping a mental account of where I place casts and heeding spontaneous intuitions of where to approach next.

          Placing a cast is based on knowledge of the water’s overall structure, but I focus on the situation at hand, trying to relax as part of the environment, an aware part like the bass, uncomplicated and acute. 

          As we paddled off, I looked for bottom. Seeing none, I relied on judging the jig’s descent to tell depth. I had already observed the shoreline and aquatic vegetation along the edge—soft bottom.

          “Rocks upstream?” I said.

          “Some near the dam too,” Fred said.

           We drifted near and I anticipated a strike.

           Since I have fished nearly 50 years now, plying all sorts of places with lures and bait, I’ve observed plenty fishing situations while not failing to notice what I do with each cast. Even miserable times have got my attention. Mostly in my persistent teens, I cast a crankbait, for example, reeling it back at high speed, doing this over and over like a machine covering a wide range of lake acreage. The message slowly drove into me that fishing doesn’t have to be work.

          Everyone seems to know the classic definition of work as expended energy, whether work is human labor or done by machine, but fishing is best when energy expended results in energy gained, a relationship with the water making you feel good while you fish and afterward, not drained. So while knowledge of fish habitat is essential, getting fish out of the rocks, sticks, or weeds onto your hook actually involves a relationship with whatever waterway you approach: this is what I mean by feel.

          Whether South or North branches, or the Raritan conjoined from both, bass are there, and many. If you are fortunate to hook a few, pay close attention to the excitement the bass feel and ask yourself if possibly they feel no pain or fear but stimulation and whatever it is for a fish to feel challenge. And let each of them back into the river kindly. For hundreds of years anglers have reported deep wonders of contemplation on the water because the essence of angling is not the angler opposing himself to quarry, but encountering living species other than human, yet of the same natural world we inhabit.

          Angling may be a difficult way towards success in life; traditionally an angler leaves the beaten road, hustling marketplace, and war in the case of legendary angler Izaak Walton. But the more you understand why a bass takes an offering, the more likely it is that what you have to contribute to human society will, eventually, gain notice. Call it therapy if you want. I don't see the need to label it this way. What we do for recreation is re-creation, fundamental to the formal activities we pursue otherwise.     

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