Thursday, September 15, 2011

To Fish or Hunt? That is the question...

It's a tough choice for me in the fall, to choose
to bass fish or bowhunt for whitetail deer.
In my home state of Maryland, today marked the opening day of whitetail deer bow season.  For years, I'd burn a couple days of leave and head to the Western part of the state for some camping and early season bowhunting along with some of my local friends, and some that came down from Pennsylvania.  I had some great times and some fun hunts for several years.  Over time, some of those friends have grown apart due to family and work demands, and the annual camping trips became less annual, and eventually stopped.  I miss those days.  But, my urge to get in the woods still lingers.  These days, I'm a bit of a loner now when I hunt, making short trips to local spots.  Every now and then I'll hunt with a buddy, but they have teenage kids that occupy their time with high school sports, much like the experiences I had the past several years.  My daughter's grown now, in college, and is playing for her college softball team, so I'll be busy watching her a few times this fall.  But the most problematic influence on me NOT getting in the woods during early bow season has nothing to do with any of that any more, it's my drive to catch fall bass.  In other words, I'm torn between two of my favorite things to do.

I used to balance my problem by taking a few days off to hunt on the camping trip, and fish the Sunday of that opening weekend.  For me now, taking a few days off this time of year is out of the question, as it's one of the most busy times of year for me at work.  Growing up and being responsible has it's drawbacks!  So, I'm limited to weekends, and with family demands, that means choosing a day to either hunt or fish.  In recent years, I'd play it by ear, see who wants to fish and where, look at the weather forecast, and make a decision on which way to go.  This year, they're calling for cool temperatures this weekend, yet, I have a buddy that would like to fish, setting the stage for a tough decision on my part, and I've still got a huge urge to catch bass.

I guess it's fall now, I'm not sure, I can't ever remember when the season officially changes.  But the days are getting shorter, and the weather is changing.  I hate hunting in hot weather, but even when it's somewhat cooler, early season, I prefer to bowhunt without using a headnet and full body armor protection from those pesky annoying mosquitos.  They have deet products now that are supposedly scent free, but I don't believe it.  And, when it's hot, I sweat like a pig, and even if I may or may not smell like one, I certainly have this feeling that no matter how much I try to stay scent free, I have this feeling that every deer in the area can smell me.

Still, some of my most successful bowhunts have been early season ones.  Typically, I'd take a doe early on to put some tasty venison in my freezer.  At some of my favorite early season spots, on public and private land, I have some favorite trees that I like to climb using my portable tree stand.  By the way, I really like my Lone Wolf climber, they are light and don't creak, and pack very flat.  The only thing you need to bring is a nice cushion to sit on, because that's one thing that they lack.  And with my tailbone becoming more exposed as a result of the atrophy of my butt muscles due to my increasing age, the importance of the cushion each year has become the utmost importance.  These favorite trees are my favorites for various reasons.  I choose trees that I can have decent shooting lanes and visibility, but still have enough cover that deer can't spot me in the tree.  Unfortunately, visibility in early season isn't like after the leaves fall, and the deer can sneak up on you quickly and quietly.  Therefore, being alert is of utmost importance, because your window of time to get that good shot is a bit shorter.  Pre-season shooting practice, even better if you've done it all year long, really can make the difference this time of year in having the confidence to get that good shot.  And there aren't many experiences than bagging a deer with a bow during early season.  My special seasoned grilled tenderloin venison is proof enough of that...ask anyone who has tried it, especially mine!

Most bowhunters exclusively bowhunt during hunting season, and fish very little, but frequent the fishing holes during spring and summer.  When they vacate, they're leaving more room for anglers like me to take advantage of the feeding binge that occurs beneath the surface.  Bass, like many other warm water fish, sense the change in the seasons and they shorter days, and begin to fatten up on their favorite prey items, often wtih gluttonous abandon.  That translates to some of the best fishing of the year in my book.  I've been part of some awesome bass fishing bites this time of year, catching both size and numbers. 

So, while the waters we fish are less populated by anglers due to the start of hunting season, anglers could be missing out on some of the best bowhunting of the season.  Deer are a bit off guard this time of year, after having most of their woodland home pretty much free from human intervention.  They aren't expecting us, unlike late season, when deer have learned to search the trees for humans.  Some people don't believe that whitetail deer are capable of that, and I was one of those people, but I've witnessed it.  Anyone that bowhunts on public land has witnessed it too, and if they haven't, they will soon.  During early season, rut hunting tricks are ineffective for the most part, so leave your hormone type scents at home, and your rattling antlers too.  The only tools that I've found to work during early season are grunts and bleats, and if overused, you'll chase the deer away.  One bleat or grunt might help bring a deer in range, maybe two at the most.  Deer routinely vocalize to each other, but not often, so if you are any different than what they normally hear this time of year, your efforts can backfire and all you'll see are white fluffy tails waving at you and snort calls in return warning all other deer in the area of your presence. How exactly has using a call worked for me in the past?  It worked twice, that's it.  Twice.  During both times, I had deer within range and couldn't get a shot.  As they moved away from me, I grunted once, and they stopped and hung out longer, and eventually I was able to shoot a doe that may have walked away otherwise.  The year before that, a bleat did the trick.  That time, I had two does around me, and they stopped and reversed direction on the bleat, and nearly came right to my tree.  I saw a buck appear a few minutes later, so I thought that I'd try a grunt to keep him from moving away, only to have all three deer run and snort away.  The message is that it may work, but it could work against you.  I've come to think that I'm better off being scent free, blend in, and be unnoticed.

My buddy Howard boated this nice largemouth last weekend
while tossing a spinnerbait across an underwater hump.
Meanwhile, while folks like me are sitting in trees, anglers are pounding the banks in search of active largemouth or smallmouth bass.  Bass probe lake shallows along ambush points like points and underwater humps, islands or bars, or hold along woody cover if you can find it.  Reaction lures, like spinnerbaits, tempt good sized bass and allow you to cover a lot of water quickly.  Crankbaits, both lipped and lipless, are extremely effective search baits.  In reservoirs with a shad population, schooling bass can hardly resist a shad imitation crankbait.  Crankbaits are very versatile, allowing you to cover multiple depths, speeds, and by varying retrieve cadences by stopping and starting the lure, you can draw some pretty violent hits and land quality sized bass.  Suspending crankbaits are also very effective, allowing you to stop your retrieve leaving the lure holding at a desired depth, and bass often strike when the lure is at rest or on the very next little bit of movement.  Rapala Flat DT crankbaits are very good for this presentation, and come in a versions that dive to three, seven and nine feet.  Lipless sinking crankbaits are also great search baits, and are very versatile as well.  You can cast them out, let them sink while counting down to a specific depth, and crank them back.  You can cast them out and work them back right away near the surface.  Or, you can allow them to sink completely to the lake bottom, then jig them back in a yo-yo fashion.  Bass often strike when the lure is on the fall, so watch your line closely while doing this.

Howard found that this chunky largemouth bass fell for a
Texas rigged plastic worm fished over a reservoir hump.
Soft plastics also work well in the fall, especially on days when the search lures aren't drawing strikes.  Shaky head rigs, and Texas or Carolina rigged plastic worms will allow you to effectively work the bottom, while drop shot rigs will allow you to catch bass that are suspended just off the bottom.  Skirted jigs, jigheads teamed with twister tails, tube jigs, and jigging spoons can also help you locate fish on deep water structure.  Twister tails, or grubs, also make great search baits allowing you to cast, jig, or retrieve them and cover a lot of water.  Sometimes you can simply swim them straight back and find a few schooled bass in search of shad.  You can also attach jig spinners and turn them into a spinnerbait.  Jig spinners are spinner blades on wire arms that clip to the jighead, creating a spinnerbait.  In line spinners also work quite well as search baits for bass and other species in reservoirs.  These often overlooked lures can be worked at various depths and speeds, and readily put fish in the boat.  You can catch quite a mixed bag of fish using them, and when bass aren't biting, other species can make your day.  I've caught trout, bass, sunfish, perch, pickerel, crappie, pike, rock bass, walleye, and even catfish on in-line spinners in the fall.

What about lure colors in the fall?  Of course, chartreuse works all year round.  A guide local to our area, Glenn Peacock, used to have a saying, "If it ain't chartreuse, it ain't no use".  I always loved that saying.  I only fished with him one time, and we had a great time.  He put us on fish too, and some big ones, along the Upper Tidal Potomac.  Anyway, that saying always stuck with me, and there is some truth to it for sure.  Colors that match the natural forage of your lake will tempt bass, but one color seems to always rise to the occasion in the fall for me, especially when fishing spinnerbaits and twister tails, and that is white.  Why?  I don't know.  Perhaps the visiblity, drawing strikes when bass are the most active and can see it from a good distance away in clear water?  Perhaps it's because it's the most visible color when waters are murky? And, for bottom soft plastics, black or chartruese when the water is murky, or green pumpkin or watermelon work well during clear water.  Any natural color will work, and others include smoke, pumpkinseed, motor oil, or root beer can be effective in clear water.

During the fall, fat smallmouth bass might show up as
"doubles" as my buddy Bob and I found out on the Susquehanna
River not long ago.  These fish fell for spinnerbaits.
In addition, smallmouth bass in rivers become extremely active, and can give you some of the best fishing days all year long.  They are also fattening up for the upcoming winter, binging on minnows, crayfish, insects, and anything else that the river currents deliver to them.  Just about any lure will take smallies this time of year, but when they are super active, nothing is more fun for me than tossing the white tandem spinnerbait. They hit them so hard that the bigger ones bend them out of shape, leaving you with a twisted heap of wire, lead and metal sometimes.  Ah, I love it!

Bucks like this one that my brother shot in 2005 with his bow
might walk by your early season stand unaware of humans
invading their woods in a new hunting season.
OK, so what will keep me off the water, away from my fishing addiction?  Not much really, except perhaps a great bowhunt when the weather is right.  Cool crisp fall mornings, nice sunny post cold front days when the fishing might not be as good tend to result in great days in the woods.  Let's face it, I'm an angler and a hunter, it's friggin' hard to choose folks, and often my choice rides on just a whim of what I'm thinking about the most on any given day.  In the past, I had planned to hunt an upcoming early season day, even having all my scent free pre-hunt preparations done (see my hunting stories to read about my nearly anal anxiety about scent free preparation), only to have a friend offer me a spot on his boat to a location that I'd never pass up.  Such problems for an outdoorsman to have, eh?

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