Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Big New Jersey River Smallmouth Bass

Plan was to fish Jefferson Lake after the river. Our inflatable boat--not much better than a bean bag seat--in the trunk. I was ready to haul out the marine battery and 55-pound thrust Minn Kota. The sky appealed not much nor the weather forecast. It's awkward enough fishing from that boat in pleasant weather, even though we've enjoyed it. I decided we would just fish the river and maybe the lake on Thursday, well aware we had better fish the river today, heavy rain forecast tomorrow. I feared an en route downpour would muddy the river before we got there.

It struck. By the time we got to the river, fairly light rain dimpled the surface, the sudden storm having abated. Water low and clear, if not too low, I let Matt have first cast. He caught an average stream bass. By the time my shiner struggled in the stream, muddied water flowed into view along the bank. Within minutes, the river clouded fairly thick on our side, and my interest at the quick effects of a heavy rain shower now passed piqued. Matt caught another small bass, and a nice one of about 13 inches swooped upward out of the proverbial ort cloud for my shiner. I missed it.

"Matt, take a live shiner and go fish under the bridge." (That's where I expected a big one.)

"No, you go ahead. It's important."

He referred to my hope to beat my 16 consecutive outing streak record with numbers instead of zeroes in my handwritten log. (Panfish & the like don't count.) I refused to go all the way to the bridge and caught an average stream bass, so this made 15 outings unbroken by zeroes, with one more to go for the tie.

Fishing slow compared to last we were here in 2012, since I never have given the spot away to anyone, I wondered if others haven't discovered it on their own. Who knows. We caught some more bass, a 12-incher for me, an 11-incher for Matt... And then I saw her. What a bass! I was very sure of a five-pound smallmouth. Matt dangled bait downstream more than a hundred feet away. I had to attempt this fish.

Many--if not most--bass anglers shun live bait. You can even catch smallmouths in January water temperatures of 38 degrees by letting a tube jig rest on bottom, tentacles waving subtly in slow, very slow river current. Until the moment I approached now, my largest smallmouth was caught on a plastic worm. Fair enough. But what's wrong with live shiners--really--when they work and another approach catches nothing? I could just tell this bass was not going to be eager to hit even a live, frisky shiner cast perfectly six feet in front of its cruise downriver. The stretch a shallow exposure, this bass had to be wary.

A perfect cast. The bass checked the bait out, turned away, just as I expected. I twitched carefully, the bass turned back to the shiner and took it deliberately. Now I had to hook this fish. And then fight it. I felt nervous. I never have had a five-pound smallmouth on with all hell about to break loose. I set the hook. Heavy weight. It wasn't lightning, but the bass barnstormed that stretch. And didn't want to be lifted out of the river, no, but it didn't fight as hard as bass little more than two pounds in Maine towed our canoe, drag tearing like bluefish streaks. Or bluefish afraid of becoming steaks, if they could conceive at all of what happens.

Once I held the bass high, I knew it was no five-pounder but a four-pound bass at the least. I measured it at a sliver more than 19 3/8 inches, with a belly like a middle-aged mommy. On this day, I fully expected to raise the bar to 15 consecutive catch outings and believed we would catch some big smallmouths, but I really didn't expect to catch my largest ever yet, bigger than the 19 1/4-incher I released in another river last September.

When we left, the muddy flow completely subsided, river restored to even clarity; as if a shadowy ghost passed through, it all came and went fast. We had elsewhere to go.

"By saving the shiners, if there's a big bass at the next spot, it will likely hit on the first cast." I knew what I told Matt from long experience. I can't say he believed a word of it, although in vernacular speech, it made sense, as it might not on your screen.

We had eight or nine lively shiners left. Not very large, and though I won't say where I bought them, because I have great respect for the place, it's worth complaining about the size of "large" shiners, since we don't want the standard corrupted. Most of what I spent $5.50 a dozen for were medium. I pointed this out to the proprietor, but not in a mean spirited way.

We found a new spot. It didn't look likely. But who knows. We approached with rods and bait. It had possibility. You know the feeling. It's as if you feel something might happen, but ordinary life can't believe it and remain quite sane. If every situation approached held a special reward, what would be the point, anyway? Besides, this spot didn't look special. It just felt that way to me. I let Matt have first cast. I began photographing a scene.

"Dad! Look at that bass!"

What had I said? First cast--big bass. Exactly.

Trick photography again. Matt's bass looks like a five-pounder. And let's say it was pretty close. But we measured it. 18 inches. This fish beautifully chunky, it weighed somewhere around three-and-a-half pounds. From the shallows. We caught lots of smaller bass and missed a few hits.

The next spot we tried, new to us also, is a deep hole. Matt nailed an 11-incher; I missed two hits. A big swirl right up against the bank opposite to where we stood revealed a good-sized bass. Another one of these heavy weights, perhaps not. But I really couldn't tell, it just seemed for certain no more than two pounds. I had waded out, abandoning the dry integrity of my shoes for just that purpose of winging a shiner right in tight, the cast perfect. The bass dropped the bait after I tightened up. Usually, they hold on, even though they feel that tension.

A nice couple of hours this afternoon. Wouldn't you know we would fish Maine hard all week, then come down to this Jersey crick and catch the bass we dreamed of catching up there.

 Matt in a forbidden place, but I never pointed out to him it is posted. Freedom is worth dying for--getting arrested isn't that bad.

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