Matt where we spotted the big bass a couple of years later.
Take a Clue from River Bass Migrations
Many years ago, my son and I walked a return loop along the North Branch Raritan, pausing at our favorite spot, sighting an immense smallmouth bass I estimated at 20 inches long. We stood high above the bass, which stationed at the edge of deep water closer to the opposite bank, and cast plastic worms, arms and rods motioning in synchronized rhythm with our offerings splashing down in front of the apparently indifferent fish. We felt eager to come back and try again with live shiners. Two days later, we arrived to find an older man fishing the same spot.
He said, “There are huge smallmouth bass in this river.”
“I know,” I said.
“Just yesterday, I caught a 21-incher upstream in the Lamington.”
“Really!? Right in the hole above the bridge?”
The Cowperthwaite Road iron bridge over the Lamington River is about three tenths of a mile upstream of the river’s confluence with the North Branch. We stood about a hundred yards downstream of the joining flows. I never mentioned the bass we had attempted to catch, but I thought surely this man had caught the same fish. The chances of two bass that big so close to one another seemed very unlikely. If the man lied as a diversion, no evidence suggested so.
Not long after these incidents, my son and I began snorkeling in the clean river along the Bedminster Hike and Bike Trail. We wanted to sight fish. Many face to face events with smallmouth bass unfolded over the next four years of occasional summer exploration; two incidents especially convinced us that bass migrate around rivers they inhabit. I discovered half-a-dozen smallmouth bass in a particular hole one afternoon, and found none in it the next day. Another day, Matt discovered upwards of two dozen bass, some of them a foot long, underneath a bank cut about two feet deep by sluicing current, an entire school of smallmouths racing out of this shelter, charging downstream like a herd of small buffalo.
Since we had found a lair easy to check on, I investigated the undercut repeatedly. It did not hold a consistent number of bass, and usually none. After years of familiarizing ourselves with bass that don’t seem to be homebodies, we still didn’t believe our evidence that smallmouth bass migrate around small rivers is conclusive. Perhaps the half dozen bass that vacated the first hole in question simply fled my intrusion. And maybe the inconsistent number of fish in the undercut had to do with stream flooding, which would easily influence the number of bass in such a tight space.
After eight years since we spotted the big bass, I simply went online after doing all this first-hand research on our own. Plenty of sites offer evidence that smallmouth do exactly as the big bass we spotted made us first suppose. In my imagination, I see my son and me standing on the concrete of the old bridge abutment, our arms moving in sync with plastic splashing in front of the bass. I see this as though from the fish’s perspective and think I may know one of a number of causes for migration. No bass could rationally infer that the sudden presence of plastic worms in front of it was caused by our arm motions, but with water clear and the fish’s eyesight sharp, the bass surely perceived this action. Who knows, the fish may have been moved to clear out, having perceived a subtle threat.
Later, my son and I had stood at our favorite hole with a big bucket of shiners, prepared to catch the biggest smallmouth we had ever seen. But after I got news that evening from the old timer about the fish’s whereabouts, I distinctly felt duped—by a bass.
Assuming that stream bass travel about, rather than reliably reside in holes favored by fishermen, what does this mean for our approach to fishing New Jersey Highlands streams? Perhaps nothing, since such behavior is beyond our predicting any of it accurately, although we may assume that just because we encounter a big bass in a particular hole or stretch, this doesn’t necessarily mean the fish will be there next time. For all we know, a hole may empty entirely of bass overnight, yet harbor dozens at a later time.
This much I know: We like the comfort of knowing a good spot. It’s easy to prepare anticipations by imagining enjoyment in a familiar place, and all too easy to stay put too long when it really isn’t yielding much.