Saturday, November 19, 2011

Small Stream Bronze - A Fishing Story

I was dozing comfortably in dream world on the couch at five in the morning when Genz Man gently knocked on my door to alert me that it was time to go fishing.  Genz Man is my friend Bill's user name on some of the web forums that we both frequent.  He knocked loud enough for me to hear, but careful enough as to not wake my wife or daughter.  I was tired because I didn't sleep the night before but for a few hours.  I stayed up and prepared my tackle until about two in the morning. 

I stuffed my fishing vest with bags of my favorite soft plastics, packed my small crankbait and topwater box with as many as I could cram in there, organized my minnow box so that the Rapala Floating Minnows, Countdown Minnows, and various jerkbaits weren't so tangled up that they'd come out in one big pile, and made sure my jig and terminal tackle box was organized and ready to go.  I donned my vest to make sure that everything was within reach, and it was, yet I felt like a well-armed policeman with so much gear around my belt that I had to hold my arms out about a foot from my torso.  After that, I dressed for the wading trip, packed my lunch, and readied a change of clothes. 

It took me a long time to prepare and get everything just right that my efforts robbed me of much needed sleep.  However, the preparation and anticipation of small stream fishing for smallmouth bass is almost as fun as being out there.  If it was for any reason other than for fishing, I might have been grumpy and irritable.  Even though I closed my eyes around two in the morning, I hardly slept because my mind raced with short mental videos of me casting to oversized chunky bronzebacks willing to chomp on my plastic offering and leap out of the water several feet into the air.
I was already fully dressed and ready to go when Bill arrived.  I arose and walked into our bedroom to give my wife a gentle kiss goodbye, then ventured to my daughter's room to do the same.  I grabbed my rod, wading shoes, a change of clothes, my fishing vest and a cooler of water and was on my way.  As I locked my front door, I realized that I’d be free from the daily grind and all that anxiety for an entire day.  Mockingbirds and catbirds sang boldly as if to alert the world to the beauty of their music while Genz Man helped me load his car.  His vehicle, a blue Ford Escort wagon, was a true fishin’ machine in my humble opinion with its hatch back boasting lots of room for rods, tackle and anything else we wanted to bring, like a mini station wagon!  We got in, discussed our wading destination, and we were on our way.
We had about an hour and twenty minute ride to our spot, a tranquil freestone stream scarcely fished by anyone except a few anglers local to that area.  Typical to many small streams, the fishing holes closest to the bridges and parking areas receive the most fishing pressure, but if you put forth the effort and wade a ways you’ll usually find lots of action.  Genz Man, always the pessimist, complained that the water might be as muddy as chocolate milk because of the thunderstorm that hit the area the night before. 

My mind wandered off.  I imagined casting my four inch green pumpkin tube jig up and across the stream into a four foot deep pool full of chunk rock right along a line of foam drifting along the current.   My jig drifts ever so slowly, sensing it tick the rocks with my St. Croix graphite rod.  I lifting my rod tip as the jig crawls over the rocks mimicking the bronzebacks favorite protein packed food source, the crawdad. The lure hangs up on a rock and I quickly jerk the rod tip in an attempt to pop the jig free from the snag.  The jig frees itself and I feel the telltale tap of a chunky smallmouth inhaling the lure.  I reeled up the slack line, dropped the rod tip and with a quick sweep of my rod, drove the hook home.  The king of the stream leapt several times as I finally turned its head and controlled him toward my side of the stream… I marveled at the teleosts size and beauty.   

“Kevin!  Where am I supposed to turn?” yelled Genz man as I snapped out of my daze with a smile on my face.  “Turn left here, Bill.  Go around the bend and make the first right.   The bridge is at the bottom of the hill and we’ll park there.  Pick up the pace, will ya?  Yer drivin’ like an ol’ lady,” I replied in a ridiculous sarcastic attempt to gain fishing time.
We reached the bridge and jumped out of the car like two little kids in a Disneyland parking lot and rushed down to check the stream conditions.  I knew that the water clarity would be crystal clear.  This particular stream seems to be less influenced by erosion than the other streams that we fish.  Of course, before I can comment on the stream conditions, Genz Man jokingly replies, “Chocolate.  We’re gonna get skunked!”  He did that the entire ride to our spot.  When I was a kid there was a cartoon show on the television titled “Gulliver’s Travels” and there was this character named “Glum” who always spoke of gloom and doom, no matter the situation.  Glum’s favorite saying when everyone was in peril was, “We’ll never make it”.  Well, “Glum” should be Bill’s web forum user name instead of the one he uses, because that describes him to a tee! 

We rushed back to the car to get ready.  The temperature on the dash read ninety two degrees and it was humid, but we knew we’d be cool in the stream and we’d tote plenty of water to stay hydrated.  Plus, we knew that we could always remove our gear, place it along the shore, and take a dip in the cool water of a deep pool later to stay cool if we had to.  Next, we put on our wading shoes, made sure that we applied sun screen, and sprayed Deep Woods Off all over us to repel those biting flies that participate in aerial races around your head.  I made sure that I had my lures ready in my vest within easy reach, double checked that I had packed enough water, and made one final check to make sure that Genz man had his car keys on hand before we locked up the vehicle and headed off in pursuit of our quarry, Micropterus dolomieu, commonly known as the smallmouth bass. 
An early morning fog enveloped the area as we approached the clear rock strewn stream and entered the water.  “Whoa!”  Those first few steps into the creek are a sometimes a shock to the system when wet wading a mountain stream.  These shady streams run cooler than the major river systems in our area and at seven in the morning, the chill of the water really wakes you up in a hurry!  We briefly fished the pool below the bridge and each caught a small rock bass. 

“What are you starting out with Bill?” I asked.  He replied, “I’m using a pumpkin worm with a chartreuse tail.  How about you?”  I hesitated to tell him, as if keeping the lure tied on the end of my line a secret would give away my competitive edge.  But, I relinquished and spilled the beans, "I’m starting out with a tube.  Let’s move on to some better pools.”  We had to cross through a deeper pool to the gravel bar on the other side and that meant that we had to get our "you know whats" wet.  “Whoa Nelly that water is cold!” I blurted out.  Genz man cursed me for putting him in such discomfort by making him cross the cold mountain stream so early in the morning.  “Don’t worry Bill, this way you’ll get used to it faster.”  As we both felt the cool water running through our loins, I yelled out the famous Seinfeil episode buzzword, “Shrinkage!”  We both laughed and crossed.
We decided to fish in an upstream direction.  Fishing upstream has its advantages.  Usually, you have a better chance in avoiding spooking the fish because most of them face upstream.  That way you remain unseen for a longer period of time and you can approach for a closer cast.  That's the theory anyway.  Fish orient themselves into the current to ambush unsuspecting prey that might drift with the current into their feeding lane.  Also, you pretty much avoid kicking up silt and clouding the pools that you are approaching and potentially alerting smallmouth of your presence. 
I knew that just ahead of us were a couple really awesome holes that should house some big fat smallies ready to comsume our tempting lures.  Genz Man had never fished this particular spot.  He was outwardly negative as usual, like Glum, but you could tell that he was pretty fired up.  We crossed over to a gravel bar, pushed along a very shallow gravel stretch and made our way upstream to the next pool.  “Bill, just around the corner is a pretty nice pool with lots of chunk rock.  I’ve caught some brutes there. Wade carefully across the stream here so that we can approach from that gravel bar over there.  Be stealthy and careful not to spook them.  They hold tight to the rocks at the head of the riffles, so cast across and down and you should hook up.” 

Genz Man took my advice and hooked into something solid, the type of fish that doesn't budge on your hook set.  The fish zipped across the back of the pool taking line for a few seconds.  Genz Man fought his fish for a minute or so and then eased the bass to his side, lipped him, and bellowed, “Ah, just a twelve incher.”  I corrected him, “Bill, that fish is about fourteen inches long.  Just hold your hand up and spread out your fingers.  Your hands are about the same size as mine.  That’s about nine inches and the fish extends at least five inches past your little finger.  Do you want a picture?”  He replied, “Naw, maybe on a bigger fish, save it for later.”  After that, we each caught a couple dinky smallmouth out of that hole.  They’re good practice for that big one that may hit later on.  I still marvel at how cool even the smaller ones appear.  Their coloration, the red eyes, and how aggressive they are simply amaze me.  For their size they still fight and leap with the heart of their older generation.  “Bill, let’s move on to the next hole.”
After we waded through a shallow unproductive stretch, we approached a nice looking pool where the stream was at first fairly straight and then widened into a deeper pool.  On the left, steep eroded banks lined with fallen trees were scattered by past floods along the shoreline, and on the right side stood a few boulders along a rocky shale cliff.  Heavy spring rains caused the creek to swell over the banks earlier in the year, which created currents that piled up the gravel in the center making it the shallow spot in this pool.  This was the place to wade in this pool as it was about knee deep. 

During the summer, the flow here splits to either side of the gravel bar.  The obvious deeper fish holding locations were on either side of us.  I noticed that the current ahead of us boiled over a huge section of chunk rock in the shallow stretch.  Other than the shoreline cover, it’s the only object submerged that fish could use as ambush cover, so I tossed my tube just upstream past the rock while Bill worked the shoreline cover.  I let the tube sink down into the current so it drifted along the stream bottom adjacent to the rock.  I felt a tap as a smallie inhaled my lure, just like my dream on the ride up, and promptly set the hook.  Instantly a nice smallmouth rocketed out of the water a couple feet in the air and headed downstream. 

Meanwhile, Genz Man had placed a beautiful cast deep into a blow down on the right side of the creek that resulted in a decent fat thirteen inch largemouth bass.  As Bill screamed out the identity of his catch and proudly lipped it up into view, I stood amazed at the power of these stream smallies as I carefully fought my fish.  I love the power of bronze!  Wow, what a good fight.  I finally landed it, a dark fat smallie.  I didn’t have a scale or measuring tape handy because when you wade as far as we do you plan to get wet and you have a limited the amount of space for tackle.  You have to pack light and any extra space is crammed with tackle.  So, once again, I stretched my thumb and index finger as far as it will go (about nine inches) and held my hand up against the snout and tail of the bass.  I estimated that the head extended about seven inches further than my little finger and estimated this bass to be about sixteen inches long.  Genz Man scrambled for his digital camera as I prepared to release the bass. 

I gazed into the smallies mouth and noticed that there was a pair of antennae sticking out of the gullet.  Using my forceps, I carefully pushed back the tissue and revealed the head of a crayfish remarkably close in color to the green pumpkin tube that I was using.  My confidence was at an all-time high for the remainder of the day.  Genz Man snapped off a photo and I gently released the bass to fight another day. 
Here's a nice smallie that hit a tube jig on a small stream.

What a start!  Small streams such as these can’t take much fishing pressure.  Small stream watersheds are a fragile resource, so catch and release helps to ensure that future trips will be just as productive each time that you return.  We caught several smallmouth between eight and twelve inches, a couple red breast sunfish, and a few rock bass and moved to the next hole.
I just love small streams!
The next stretch of stream was about two hundred yards long, and was fairly unproductive but we picked up a few short bass here and there.  Chutes in the rapids along the right bank dipped under some undercut banks that were hidden in streamside root systems.  Those are classic trout spots on many streams.  On streams like this you could encounter a feisty smallmouth instead, and that is exactly where we picked up the bass in this stretch. 

The middle of the stream had lots of gravel and not too many places for bass to hide, so we fished through this area fairly quickly.  I remember the first time that I fished this stretch it seemed that whenever I looked ahead, the pools looked better and better.  Often you’d see some bluffs or cliffs and imagine a deep hole under them only to find that even though it looked deep from far away, when you waded up on the spot it turned out to be shallow and without fish holding cover.  This sometimes results in wading where you should be fishing and fishing where you should be wading.  So, I’ve learned to remember those stretches the next time.  Still, you should approach them stealthily because stream beds change each year from periodic flooding.  It’s amazing how much rock will move during a stream flash flood.
Genz Man with a suprise pickerel on a smallie stream!

We encountered a pool around the creek bend that was deep, rocky, and separated by an island.  A kingfisher perched on a limb overlooking the pool.  If he felt it was a good spot to fish, then we should too.  After all, he’s a master at this sport and makes a living fishing.  There was good flow to the pool from both sides of the island, and off to the right was a slack water pool deep enough to hold fish but just off the main creek.  The pool is roughly four feet deep at its deepest spot but filled with chunk rock.  We planned to fish this pool thoroughly and then take a break for lunch and along with a nice drink of refreshing water. 

One of the things that I like to do is use a rattle in my tube jig and they are great for these deep pools.  I’m not sure if it really attracts them or not, but it doesn’t seem to hurt, and it seems to me that I get more hits using the rattle than if I don’t.  Both Genz Man and I took up our positions on the gravel bar just downstream from the island.  This is a fairly large pool with multiple feeding lanes, and both of us were in prime position to catch fish.  The far shoreline had plenty of shade from the canopy of trees overhead, the undercut bank was lined with chunk rock, and the deep slack area was beyond it. 

Genz Man hooked up immediately on a chunky fourteen inch smallmouth that completely engulfed his plastic worm as soon as it hit the water, and after a few acrobatic leaps, landed the spunky bronze fish.  Meanwhile, before casting, I visualized where the fish hold while using the current as feeding lanes.  Follow the foam.  I figured that Bill was working the far bank so I’d take the deep center section.  Given the depth and amount of current, that choice best suited my lure and presentation anyway.  I didn’t get any hits on that cast, but before I could lift my lure out of the water to make my next cast I see ol’ Genz Man next to me battling yet another feisty bass. 

My next cast gave me that perfect drift right down the foam line.  I could feel the lure ticking the rocks below in front of me and then I had a tap.  I set the hook but felt no weight, and my lure was gone.  Huh?  I blurted out an expletive under my breath.  Either my knot wasn’t up to snuff or this small stream contained toothy critters that previously I didn’t know about.  Meanwhile, Genz Man was in a zone.  He landed four bass in a row all of them exceeded fourteen inches. 

All this happened as I rigged up another tube.  I was Texas rigging my tube that day, first, threading a small bullet weight onto my line.  I tied an extra wide gap worm hook onto the end of my line.  I placed the hook into the head of a new green pumpkin tube and pushed the hook out a half inch or so later.  Then, I pushed a rattle into the tube cavity followed by a drop of worm glue, and then buried the hook back through the tube at the rear near the tentacles and back into the “skin” of the outside of the tube.   

After all that effort, I cast into the pool again only to lose my tube to another bite off.  At that point in time I was fuming!  So, I decided it was time to switch tactics.  I pulled my spare spool of line out of my vest that was filled with Fireline.  Fireline is a fused super line which is stonger than monofilament but not immune to the bite offs of toothy critters.  I eventually pitched my tube back into the pool and landed three decent smallmouth between nine and twelve inches.  None of those bass were the toothy thief that patrolled that hole. 

My frustration continued as I lost my next fish right at my feet, not a huge bass, but a good one.  Next thing I hear is Genz man hooting and hollering downstream from me as he battled a nice chain pickerel.  He landed it and held it up as I took a picture with my digital camera.  It was about twenty inches long.  “Wow, I didn’t realize this stream had pickerel in it”, I remarked.  On my next cast I caught a small pickerel, about twelve inches long.  After that, I had a really nice pick up on the tube and set the hook only to have another bite off.  That was it for the pickerel action on the day, but we did manage to hook a few more bass out of that pool before sitting down to eat lunch.  Time had really escaped us as it was well after two o’clock in the afternoon.  It’s funny how hunger doesn’t affect you while you’re having such good fishing action.  Already on the day we’d combined to catch over forty fish. 
Who'da thunkit?  I've fished this stream for fifteen years and never new that chainsides prowled this body of water!
I sat on a nice flat rock, relaxed, and gazed downstream as a doe and her two fawns crossed the creek at the riffles below about a hundred yards away, absolutely unaware of our presence.  The sun was high overhead but the canopy of trees above us gave us plenty of shady cover while the cool stream cooled our feet. 

As I ate my lunch, I was entertained by the microecosystem right at my feet.  Small johnny darters fed on plankton just a few feet away from me.  A school of black nosed dace and satinfin shiners darted up from the deeper pool at my left into shallow water every now and then to nibble at the hairs on my legs.  A crayfish used its claws to push sediment from under his rock like a tiny bulldozer.  I picked up a flat stream rock and noticed several caddis fly nymphs clinging to the bottom side of the rock.  Mayfly nymphs attempted to find their way to the edge of the rock in search of their watery home.  Tiny young of the year smallmouth seemed to feed in packs against the grass bed to my right on small microscopic prey.  The diminutive bass seem to impose their dominance and their place in the pecking order among the darters.  One smallie no more than an inch long seem to delight in tormenting the bottom dwelling darters.  Every time a darter settled in his territory the tiny bass would shoot out and peck it on the tail, causing it to move and settle again. 

While I ate my lunch and watched the mini ecosystem at my feet, Bill caught a massive rock bass in the deep hole after eating his lunch.  I gulped down some water and finished my lunch as fast as I could chew and swallow.  It was time to get back on ‘em.
Our soft plastics worked well in the next several holes.  One thing that we do to be fair and give each of us “unused” water to fish is to leap frog the holes.  In other words, we’d take turns having first crack at each hole.  No more big smallies were caught during the remainder of the afternoon, but the action was steady.  I noticed a drastic dropoff in the bites as we reached our last hole.  It was time to work our way back if we were to make it back to our vehicle before dark.  Genz Man continued to offer his plastic worm to the fish, this time wading downstream and casting across and down as we trudged along. 

We have to pay particular attention to our silt trail and walk more carefully as to not spook fish in the better pools below.  The across and down presentation changes the lure drift as subsurface lures ride much higher from the resistance of the current.  This difference could trigger strikes from more active fish as the afternoon progresses, but overlooks less active bass that are hunkered down on the bottom.  By this time of day we don’t have time to fish thoroughly, we’re covering a lot of water on the wade back, so it’s run and gun. 
I could have opted for the same drift with my tube, but decided that a different approach was needed, something the fish haven’t seen all day long.  So, I tied on a small 1/8 ounce chartreuse buzzbait and tipped it with a pumpkin/chartreuse tail ringworm as a trailer.  In years past this combination on small streams had been amazing.  Smallies seem to home in on that worm better than just the bright skirt for reasons that I don’t understand.  I discovered it on a Maryland small stream one day when fishing just the ringworm on light line.  It seemed that each time I finished my drift and I reeled the worm back fast to make another cast, I’d get either a fish follow it aggressively or I’d get a hit. 

So I went to the buzzer to call more of them in and maybe get more hook ups, and it paid off.  I had tried the buzzer earlier that day with only a few hits and no fish to show for it.  Adding the worm trailer may have been the difference.  I finished with one bass short of a hundred smallmouth, with all but four bass coming on that buzzbait/worm combination (and plenty of decent fish landed too), so that pattern became etched in my brain forever.  I tossed my newly tied on buzzer at the first piece of cover near deep water that I saw and promptly drew a strike.  I missed that fish, but knew that my pattern would be hot from that point on.  Bill promply followed up my miss with his plastic worm and landed that bass, a nice twelve incher.  
This smallie took a buzzbait toward the end of the day.

As we waded through the pools that we had already fished, I picked up one chunky bass after another that hammered my buzzbait.  It was amazing how aggressive these bass were.  Meanwhile, Bill was still catching a bass here and there, but I don’t know if it was the slower presentation of the worm (not covering as much water) that caused me to catch fish at a faster rate, or if it was that the fish were much more aggressive and on the prowl, or if working the top was getting the attention of the fish better than drifting the bait in front of them or what.  I don’t know, but it was working. 

After landing a dozen more bass, I urged Genz Man to change his tactics and he finally bit the bullet and did (he is stubborn, just like me).  From that point on we both absolutely nailed the bass all afternoon on the buzzers.  Finally, on the last hole of the day, I caught a decent smallie, another fat sixteen inch fish right in the center of a pool where the current was broken by a large rock in front of me.  I tossed my buzzer in there again and had a huge hit.  The bass was much bigger than I’d caught all day and it took my lure straight down under the rock. 

My confidence in landing hooked bass on Fireline had never been a question in my mind.  Once I drive that hook home on the hookset and feel the head shake on the other end I pretty much know that I’m going to land him.  But, not this time, the fish broke my line.  I couldn’t believe it.  I guessed that a sharp edge on the rock must have cut my Fireline like butter.  It was the only buzzer that I had with me that day.  I was so ticked off, not only because I lost that big bass but because I lost my hot bait.  I had another one in the car, but it was two hundred yards away and we only had about ten minutes of daylight remaining! 

I reluctantly tied on a super fluke hoping that bait, normally very productive on this body of water, would produce as well as the buzzer did.  The bass ingnored my soft plastic green pumpkin fluke.  Across the other side of the pool, a nice smallmouth that I estimated at eighteen or nineteen inches leapt from the water with a chartreuse buzzbait visible in its mouth in an attempt to throw the lure.  A couple leaps later and that big stream smallie spit out my lure. 

Meanwhile, Bill was stroking the bass with his buzzer.  I had enough and decided to carefully wade downstream from the pool and around the other side in a hopeless attempt to find my buzzbait where that big bass jumped.  I did this until dark to no avail while upstream from me Genz Man landed yet another bass.  I gave up and just decided to watch him fish.  Bill caught a rock bass and another ten inch smallie and then the action came to a halt as time ran out and became dark.

We had a bit of a drive home so we decided to call it quits and wade back to the car.  We both had a terrific day.  We caught a lot of bass, plenty of wildlife, and we had it all to ourselves.  The entire day was over, gone, like we were in another world altogether.  We had to return to our daily grinds the next day.  On the way home we recapped the day and it seemed to keep both of us lively for the ride home. 
I’d never forget that day, like many that I’ve had on that stream.  I had great fishing, beautiful scenery, and great company with one of my best friends.  What more could one ask for?
Where exactly is this fine small stream that we fished, you say?   It’s the stream just down the road from you!  
Note:  this is a semi-fictional story based on many true events.  It is basically a combination of some of my favorite small stream memories.  It’s how I view my small stream smallmouth bass fishing experiences.  This is NOT a fishing report, but rather just a story for your enjoyment, and my enjoyment each time I relive it by reading it over and over.  The pictures are conveniently similar to the story though!
Please Practice Catch, Photo, and Release on Small Stream Bass.

For more info on fishing small water for smallmouth bass, check out my post titled, "Small Stream Smallies=Big Time Fun" by clicking here:, that is, if you haven't seen that post yet.

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