Thursday, April 19, 2012

Black Marks, Blotches or Spots on Bass...OH MY!

I, like many anglers in my region, have been catching both largemouth smallmouth bass that exhibit large irregular black blotches or spots for many years now.  When I first started noticing fish with these weird markings, they occurred mostly with largemouth.  In recent years, I've been seeing them in smallies too.  The bass that I've caught with the spots were large adults and appeared to be really fat and healthy.
Black blotches or spots, like the ones shown here on a fat healthy largemouth bass from the Upper Tidal Potomac River caught by my buddy Bob Barber, are nothing to worry about.
In addition to the local waters that I fish, anglers in other states and, from what I've read, in Canada, have been seeing this phenomenon as well.  Naturally, when weird stuff happens to fish, anglers and biologists alike tend to think that the causes surround parasitic activity, water quality issues, or mishandling of catch and release fish.  These concerns turn to complaints and assumptions, and eventually research into the potential problem, and rightly so.  That's how the process usually works.

So, what are the spots and are they anything to worry about?  The condition is termed hyperpigmented melanosis, which is a fancy term for pigment discoloration.  The condition seems to occur in larger adult fish more often than juveniles.  The spots don't appear to be permanent.  Often, the coloration often returns to normal after a period of time.  And, researchers have found the fish exhibiting the spots seem to be otherwise very healthy.  Of the ones that I've caught over the years, I tend to agree, they seem very healthy.
The black blotches occur just about anywhere on bass, even the lips as shown here from a largemouth caught in a small Maryland lake.  The patterns can be simple spots, or large irregular blotches.  I think that they give the bass character!
Anglers are increasingly reporting occurrences all over the country that, in some cases, are on waters that are already troubled by poor water quality or pollution.  The fears about their home waters may be well founded, but perhaps the link to the spots may not be.  Reports of people catching fish with the spots seem to be increasing, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the number of affected fish is increasing.  People are noticing, and with the amount of free exchange of info over the net, are simply talking more about it.
Here's the same bass shown in the previous picture, displaying several spots and blotches on the lips, body, gill and fins.
Researchers speculated for some time that stress of some form may be the cause.  Stress resulting from fish handling (perhaps catch and release), parasitic activity, disease, natural injuries to the skin, bacterial or viral infections, pollution or poor water quality have been suspected causes.  Even though all of those could possibly result in the condition, there's no evidence to directly support that this type of melanosis is caused by those factors, and researchers have stated that the symptoms could very well be genetic or hormonal.

In many fishing forums, more and more people are posting fishing reports with pictures of affected fish along with voicing their concerns.  With all of the buzz about blotchy bass, and after catching a few myself, I decided to do my own research.  I really couldn't find much on the web except that nobody really knows that causes the spots, that the fish appear healthy, and that researchers at Auburn University are studying the phenomenon.  I was not able to find anything about the results of the Auburn study.

Gene Mueller, who writes and awesome blog that I urge you all to visit, Gene Mueller's World of Fishing & Hunting, mentioned to me that these spots aren't anything to worry about as he had spoken to Maryland DNR officials, and they assured him that the spots were nothing to worry about.  In addition, the Maryland Fisheries website mentioned in their fishing report in reply to a post something to that effect.

I wholeheartedly agree with Gene and am not worried about the spots.  But I'm not sure that the rest of the angling community feels the same way.  So, I wondered that, with all the increased concern about blotches on bass, maybe I'd address the topic here to put forth some of the latest info.

Wil Wegman recently wrote a detailed piece in the April issue of B.A.S.S. Times on the topic.  He interviewed various people researching the spots, and shared what he learned with the B.A.S.S. Times followers.  he relates that former Professor John Grizzle of the Southeastern Cooperative Fish Disease Laboratory at Auburn University and Associate Professor Jeff Terhune, who currently runs the lab, concur on their take on the spots. 

Dr. Terhune states that "...there could be lot's of causes, some anecdotal and some potentially real.  Even spawning may create lesions or sores that heal in this manner.  Genetics can also play a big part.  Overall, most of the hyperpigmentation that I am aware of causes no harm to the fish, otherwise you would see fish in poor condition (i.e. thin) or with some other diseased condition."

Mr. Wegman also reported that Dr. Terhune believes that "though anglers are targeted as causing the strange bass coloration, it's far more likely to be a natural occurrence that has little to do with how much a bass has been handled."  That doesn't let anglers off the hook though, as it's our responsibility to carefully release our catch (if that's our intent) and handle the fish with the utmost care as much as possible. 

Then again, many people are questioning what, in some bodies of water, seems to be a more recent phenomenon.  The Susquehanna River in particular where more and more smallmouth bass seem to be exhibiting the spots than many Susky veterans can ever remember.  Recent water quality issues that are known to cause other problems with the health of the bass populations there, along with dramatic decreased young of the year counts, have resulted in recent regulations closing all bass fishing in large stretches of the popular river during the spawn, including catch and release fishing (beginning May 2012).  Perhaps there is something to this. 

Some veteran anglers are asking for more detailed studies by Pennsylvania officials to see if the spots are indeed linked in some way to the troubles of that river.  Perhaps they'll find out one way or another.  If they're related, they could be an indicator of bigger problems.  At the very least, even if the spots prove harmless, more attention would be given to address the real causes of the decline in bass numbers there.  More to come I'm sure.
This Susquehanna River smallmouth bass shows multiple black spots.  Anglers that frequent this popular river are extremely concerned about increased occurrences of the spots in their river, especially in light of other problems related to pollution there.  Photo Courtesy of Bill Yingling, M.D.
So, in summary, as Gene pointed out to me months ago, the black blotches appear to be nothing to worry about, at least on the individual bass studied.  But, could they be an indicator of bigger problems on some bodies of water?  Our focus should be on improving the water quality as much as possible, especially if the spots really are an indicator that is tied to water quality.  The bigger problems that have already identified are decreased young of the year smallies in our upper rivers along with discoveries of intersexed bass, and bacterial lesions more than likely due to poor water quality and various forms of pollutants.  But that's a blog topic for another day.

By the way, I've been a lifetime member of B.A.S.S. for many years.  Their publications, Bassmaster Magazine and B.A.S.S. Times are highly informative.  They are a must for the serious bass angler.  I've saved every copy since becoming a member many years ago.  Often, the information found in both publications is useful to other anglers as well, especially topics regarding fishing politics and conservation.  I highly recommend both publications.  I'd like to thank Bassmaster and B.A.S.S. Times for their contribution and permission to share their research, and Wil Wegman for writing such an informative article.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Pick Your Spinning Reel Wisely

By Guest Author John Anderson

Even though anglers have their own preferred tackle, some equipment are better suited to a specific type of angler.  Spinning reels are more favored than baitcasting reels.  Of course the skill level, the line weight, water conditions and the type of fish that one hopes to catch must be considered.  These reels have been in use in North America since the 1870s.  These fixed spooled allowed the use of artificial flies for trout or salmon and other lures.
It is easier to cast, has no backlash and thus it makes a better choice for the beginners.  It is also easier and quicker to master.  Adjusting the drag does not have any affect whatsoever on the casting distance.  They come in a reasonable price- easier for many to afford.  It is better to use a swivel when using while retrieving the line or it tends to get tangled.  For best results, use thin lines.
Once you are in a well stocked fishing supply store, pick up the different reels and spin the handle to test the operation.  Reels that spin smoothly without jerking or wobbling should be preferred.  The handle and the reel must be comfortable to hold.
Choose from the ultralight, light and heavy spinning reels.  These reels have big spools that hold enough line and since the spool is bigger, it helps retrieving the lines faster.  Spinning reels have handles on either side allowing the angler to cast with his dominant hand.  
Spinning reels should be the first choice of the beginners.  Less likely to tangle and backlash that occurs when is learning the casting and reeling techniques.  The price of the fishing reel is also a factor here.  Baitcasting reels cost way more than spinning reels.
It is also much easier to adjust line tension and drag with a spinning reel.  They also come in various sizes to suit every angler’s need. 
But don’t end up buying the cheapest one.  Look for the branded reels in reasonable price.  You would not want to end up with a low quality reel as that is just going to affect your fishing capacity.  Also opt for a lighter line-braided or otherwise- it works well with this type of reel.

Where you fish is also influences your choice of the reel. If you are into fishing in open bodies of water with minimum vegetation and other obstacles in water, go for a spinning reel. 
Unlike other reels spinning reels are also a lot easier to maintain and take care of. It is easy to dissemble and reassemble and all you have to do is follow the manufacturer’s instruction closely. 
It does not make a difference if you buy your tackle from your local tackle shop or make an online purchase with your credit card, what matters here is the quality of the product.  Make sure you have gone through the reviews or may be consulted an expert.  There is no point buying the fanciest and the latest model of the spinning reel available in the market.  Make a sound choice after having done some research on the product, its features and specifications and the manufacturer itself.
Author Bio:  John Anderson is an ardent outdoor enthusiast who has a special interest in fishing and boating.  He hails from Australia and has travelled to almost all the wonderful places in the country for one of kind experiences.  He is also a proficient author of several outdoor articles on travel with a bias towards boating and fishing.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Still Water Brookies

By Guest Author Brian Holland
Every serious angler has heard of Salvelinus fontinalis, the crown jewel of the North's back country, or as most anglers know it, the brook trout.  This is not a fish famed for its gigantic sizes, a true trophy is a fish in excess of four pounds, but what has gained this fish its fame is its spectacular colors, the vivid blue halos and dark red bellies, particularly in the fall when these beautiful trout make their annual spawning runs and gain their spawning colors. 

These trout are quite possibly just as famous among serious trout enthusiasts for the places they wind up when targeting these fish.  Deep back woods valleys, cold crystal clear free flowing mountain streams, and remote beaver flowages, all places that can truly only be described as God's country, are the types of places that brook trout, or brookies as they are affectionately known, call home. 

Maine is one such place in the eyes of many anglers, having a reputation that is well deserved as the state holds over 95 percent of the nations wild brook trout stocks and is home to hundreds of miles of wilderness, broken only by the gravel logging roads that are used the access this region.  I have been very fortunate, having grown up in the central part of the state, and now attending college in the extreme reaches of Northern Maine to have these brook trout waters in my back yard. 

I developed my passion for these trout at a young age, targeting small wild trout in the area's local brooks and streams, and working up to larger river systems as I grew and learned.  I was also fortunate to be introduced to the entirely different sport of fishing big water, or large lakes and ponds for these fish, and that is where my passion truly lies today. 

Comparing the art of fishing for brook trout in lakes to the art of fishing for them in flowing water, is like comparing apples to oranges.  In general brookies grow much larger in lakes than in flowing water, and they become less opportunistic and more selective on what, when, and where they will eat, making them much more difficult to catch.  It also makes catching one that much more rewarding.  The methods and techniques for catching these fish vary as much as the opinions on what truck is best suited to get you to the lake.  These techniques vary depending on the season and the fisherman.

While I fish for big water brookies using a variety of these techniques, my favorite way to fish for them is trolling.  Trolling can be broken into two categories, trolling with fly gear, and trolling with hardware or other types of lures and attractants.
The colors alone of a native Maine brook trout make fishing for them a treat.
Photo courtesy of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Traditionally, brook trout have been sought by serious anglers with the fly rod in hand, and it is considered a greater challenge by many to hook play and land brook trout on the fly than it is on other types of gear.  While this is true, it is also true that using fly gear on brook trout can produce some excellent fishing, and it is just plain fun.  Under the right circumstances brook trout can be landed using fly gear throughout the open water fishing season, but trolling with this type of gear really stands out in the spring of the year. 

Spring is an awaking time for brook trout like it is for all living things.  The sun's rays are once again warming the water's temperature, bringing it closer to that 45-55 degree range that brook trout love.  Brook trout take advantage of the fact that these waters are still cool by spending their time in the shallow portions of the lake.  These shallow portions heat up faster than the rest of the lake, particularly large shallow flats in protected coves. Brook trout seek out these places, looking for that ideal water temperature. 

These shallow portions of the lake also offer brookies a variety of food sources in the spring of the year.  These food sources range from the larval forms of water born insects, to crayfish and bait fish,  and brook trout take advantage of these food sources, often feeding heavily.  The fact that these fish are in shallow water, and that they are eating a variety of food sources easily replicated by flies, makes fly gear ideally suited to catching them in the spring of the year. 

My set ups consist of a 6 weight fly rod paired with either a 6 weight, weight forward floating, or a 6 weight full sink fly line, all with at least a hundred yards of backing.  The weight forward floating line may not be ideally suited for trolling, but as a broke college student, I take advantage of any instance where I can utilize the same the gear for different fishing styles without loosing much performance. 

I have found that the leader to loop fly connections that many fishing outfitters carry work well and use these to attach my leaders.  The waters I fish are crystal clear, and the brook trout tend to be line shy,  so I usually run fifteen feet of 8 pound fluorocarbon leader before attaching a small barrell swivel and another five feet of fluorocarbon leader. 

I fish with a variety of flies, both nymphs and streamers.  I usually fish nymphs in the earliest parts of the season just after the ice has receded from the ponds.  At this point in the game brook trout can be some what lethargic and not willing to chase streamers imitating bait fish.  Nymphs, however, when dragged slowly across the bottom on a sinking fly line can present brook trout with a meal they can't pass up.  A good rule of thumb for this kind of fishing is maintain slightly faster than headway speed.

As the old timers have told me, “If you don't loose a fly on occasion, you aren't fishing right”, so make sure you are getting your flies on bottom, an occasional jerk of the rod tip as the fly bounces over a rock is a good indicator you are fishing your nymph right. 

There are many good nymph patterns out there, but a couple of my personal favorites are the wooly bugger and maple syrup.  Streamer fishing usually peaks anywhere from a week and half to three weeks after the ice has receded, depending on the weather and the lake.  I have found, however, that as the surface temperature of the water reaches 41-42 degrees, you'd better have a streamer in the water.

Streamers have been equally effective for me fished on floating and sinking fly lines depending on the conditions and the day.  I usually run one rod with floating line and one with sinking to cover a variety of water depths.  When streamer fishing I have found a good rule of thumb is to move forward at about the same speed as you would if walking steadily along the shore line, however, don't be afraid to mix it up if you aren't catching fish.  Speed up or slow down, and try to remember either the bend in your rod or the sound of the motor when you hook a fish, so that you can repeat the same speed if you don't have a GPS or fish finder to measure speed. 

I have caught brook trout on a variety of streamers, and the ones that will be as effective on any given day change as often as the weather in Northern Maine.  Most of the time it's tough to go wrong though, assuming that you stock your box with a few gray ghosts in a variety of colors, a couple 9-3's, black nose dace, and Barne's specials.  It doesn't hurt to have these patterns in a couple of sizes either, both single and tandem hook flies. 
This twenty inch beauty fell to a 9-3 and black nosed dace
tandem set up.
When fishing streamers they can be fished either as a single fly or as a tandem set up.  Most of the time I fish a tandem set up, running a single hook fly on a dropper loop two feet in front of a tandem fly on the back.  I have seen these tandem set ups out fish single fly rigs on numerous occasions.  I'm not sure of the exact reason for this, but believe it both gives the fish more to see in the water, as well as the fact that the rig looks like a larger fish chasing a smaller one, causing brook trout to hit out of aggression. 

There are several other important things to remember when trolling for brook trout with fly gear in the spring.  Fish shore lines that remain shallow for a distance out from shore, these shallow flats are where the feed brook trout are chasing live bait.  If it is possible you should also target wind blown shore lines as the wind pushes much of the debris floating on the lakes surface into the wind blown shore, which in turn attracts bait fish, which also in turn attracts brook trout. 

This rule of thumb has proven the difference between a skunk and a successful trip for me many times.  Last May, for instance, a fishing buddy and I headed into Western Maine to troll for brook trout for three or four days, the first two of which we only caught a very few brook trout.  The third day of the trip we finally headed for the other side of the lake, the wind blown shore, and our luck immediately changed, and we proceeded to land ten healthy brookies in the next 45 minutes.

A final word of advice is to troll just off the shore line where the bottom is visible on one side of the boat but not the other, while weaving in S shaped patterns in and out from shore.  This accomplishes two things, one of which is to cause the gear on one side of the boat to speed up while causing the other to slow down, this can be a great way to determine if you are traveling to slow or fast.  If the line on the inside of the curve is the only one getting hit, you need to move faster, the outside line slower.  It also allows you to drag your gear over water that the boat has not directly traveled over the top of.  Also, brook trout may scare easily in shallow water as a boat travels over head, and when getting the lines out and away from the line of boat travel, you are less likely to scare these fish.
This healthy looking brookie was one of many we were rewarded with on a recent trip after changing to a wind blown shore.
Lastly, sometimes it can make a significant difference in your catch rates by “working” or pumping your rods as you troll.  This a simple matter of pulling the rod towards the bow of the boat in a pumping motion and then allowing it to settle back towards the rear.  This causes the fly to dart, speed up, slow down and more closely imitate the movements of a bait fish more closely.  If there is one thing I've learned, brook trout always seem to strike when you least expect it.  I've been caught off guard many times staring at some mountain in the distance pumping a fly when the rod is nearly ripped from my hands as a big old square tail grabs hang on!

In my book, nothing beats the feeling of a twenty inch native brookie making the drag of a 6 weight sing, but as the season progresses and the water warms, dragging fly gear in extreme shallow water becomes less effective, and to catch good numbers, my fishing partners and I switch over to fishing lead core and stainless steel alloy lines to improve our catch rates.  Not only do these setups help to get our terminal gear deeper, but allow us to put more pressure on these native jewels allowing us to get them to the boat quicker and avoid stressing them in the warm waters.
In the waters we fish, we attempt to imitate two main food sources when trolling hardware for brook trout.  The first of these food sources are bait fish, mainly smelt and dace.  In this type of fishing we make use of the lead core setups.  Lead core line is line with a lead center and a plastic sheating on the outside.  The plastic sheating is colored in different colors every thirty feet, allowing the angler to determine how much line is off the reel.  As the center is lead, these lines are heavy and sink much faster than traditional monofilament or fluorocarbon lines, allowing you to present your baits baits and tackle in deeper and colder waters. 

Lead core setups consist of a medium heavy action spinning rod 7-8 feet in length, paired with a Penn 209 level wind baitcaster reel.  The reel is spooled with ten colors (300 feet) of 12 pound test lead core,  that is attached to a fifteen feet of 15 pound test florocarbon leader attached to ten feet of 8 pound test fluorocarbon using a blood knot.  I then attach a small size 16 barrel swivel to the 8 pound fluoro using a palomar knot, and then attach another three feet of 8 pound fluoro using an improved clinch knot, our lures are then directly tied into the leader. 

We use a variety of lures, ranging from small stick baits such as Yo-Zuri's Pins Minnows to things such as DB Smelts, Mooselook Wobblers and Guide Specials. We have found a vareity of colors to be effective, however rainbow patterns and anything with red or orange can be good depending on the time of year.

The most productive way to fish this gear is to target deeper water immediately adjacent to large flats.  Brook trout will hold in these areas during the day occasionally eating the bait that holds in these areas and waiting for the cool of night to bring about fly hatches when they will once again slip into shallower warmer waters to feed on the hatching insects. 

The depth at which we fish varies with the time of year, the weather, and a variety of other things.  The best way to determine which depth is right is to experiment, running different rods at different depths and changing depths every half hour or so until you find a depth that is producing fish.  A good starting place is 15 feet for most Maine lakes after the water warms.  To achieve this depth we assume four feet of sink for every color or lead core line in the water.  So, for fifteen feet of depth, we run just under four colors of lead core.  This sink rate changes based on your speed, lure, the amount of lead core in the water, and a variety of other factors.  Most lead core spools come with a chart that will give you a rough idea of the sink rate based on your setup. 

It can also be difficult to decide on what speed to drag your gear at.  As I'm a broke college student without a fish finder or other electronics to measure speed, I usually run the lure along the side of the boat and change speed until I reach a point at which the action looks correct for the lure.  Determining this is something you can only do with practice, so don't be afraid to get out there and experiment.  Just as with trolling fly gear, changing speed and directions while trolling can help you determine the speed you should be trolling at. 

As the season progresses, brook trout fishing continues to slow until the water begins to cool again in the fall of the year.  As the water warms, fishing around dawn and dusk can prove to be the most productive.

In the spring of the year brook trout can be taken on hardware in much the same way as by trolling fly gear.  Many anglers target them this way by trolling with a medium light action spinning rod and small Super Dupers or other lures such as the one's mentioned above and by targeting the same area's as mentioned in the fly gear trolling section.  Some anglers even claim that trolling hardware tends to produce bigger brook trout then fly gear in the spring of the year,  this may well be true,  but the only way to find out what works best for you is to get out and fish!
This fish slammed a rainbow patterned Mooselook just
after completing a turn on the inside rod.  I slowed my
trolling speed after catching this fish.
During the hottest of the summer months many anglers give up fishing for brook trout in the lakes and ponds in favor of fishing their favorite trout streams.  My fishing partners and I still make an occasional trip chasing the big lake dwelling natives, however, using a technique that not many anglers use to target brook trout.  One of my favorite big brook trout lakes in Western Maine supports a very large population of crayfish, and I have found that during the warm summer months many of the lakes brook trout feed on these crayfish and hatching insects almost exclusively.  Many of these crayfish can be found living amongst the rocky shoals of the lake in 10-25 feet of water and brook trout will spend much of their time hugging tight to the cool waters found near the bottom of these shoals, cruising for crayfish. 

To target these fish we use the exact same setup as mentioned in the lead core section above, except we switch out the lead core for 18 pound test stainless steel alloy line and add several more swivels into the setup to avoid line twisting.  We then use a lure known as a flatfish and drag these lures along the bottom.
This vivid color male brook trout was caught in early August on a DB Smelt.
Flat fish are designed to be very active when trolled and therefore give off a lot of vibration even at slow trolling speeds.  Their design forces the nose of the lure down and allows the rear of the lure and the hooks to rise up off bottom, decreasing the amount of snagged lures.  We troll these lures directly on bottom allowing them to stir up sediment and debris imitating a crayfish on the run.  The stainless steel alloy line works well for this as there is very little give and it is therefore very easy to tell what the lure is doing on bottom, what type of bottom the lure is on and the difference between being a strike and the lure bouncing on bottom.  
This slob of a brookie was caught trolling a silver flatfish on a large flat and was full of crayfish in addition to our lure.
This type of fishing can be challenging as the line must be constantly watched and adjusted to maintain contact with the bottom without dragging feet of line along the bottom as well.  We use a variety of colors, however, we have found silver to be very productive in this particular pond as the water can become dark and stained relatively quickly with depth as many Northern Maine lakes are, and the flash of sliver is one more added attractant to draw these big brook trout out.  An added bonus to fishing with this setup in our favorite big brook trout water is that often times large togue (lake trout) are found feeding in the same area and more than once we have hooked up with and landed these fish while targeting brook trout.  
As an added treat, fish like this 29 inch lake trout also fall victim to trolling with flatfish late in the season.
Whether it's trolling fly gear in the early spring, fishing flatfish late in the season or throwing dry flies to small natives in a stream, catching brook trout is an unbelievable experience in places such as Maine waters.  They can be a challenging fish to catch, but the reward is well worth the effort when you enjoy the experience as much as I do.  This article is by no means a complete guide to catching brook trout in big water.  In fact, it only scratches the surface, but one thing is for certain, get out and experience fishing for brook trout  yourself, and it won't take long until your hooked.

Brian Holland is a contributing member of two of my favorite fishing forums, and, where he is known as Litchfield Fisher. 

Thank you Brian for your contribution to Fat Boy's Outdoors Blog!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Fat Boy Overboard!

During the spring of every year, conditions are great for fishing, but these can be some of the most dangerous times for anglers.  Severe weather changes often occur during March and April that alter a nice calm spring day of fishing into a scary event in a matter of a few hours.  All it takes is a strong front to come through.  Of course, we all watch the weather and take safety precautions, have the right safety gear on our boat, and try to use common sense while we are out there having fun while trying to stay safe.  But there are times when we aren't so careful.  When the weather is nice, we often let our guard down.  Have you ever thought about the phrase, "it won't ever happen to me"?
It's a beautiful day, we're catching fish, and these are the times when it "won't happen to me".
I'll relate the substance of an old e-mail fishing report that I found from many years ago that I circulated to a number of my friends.  I learned a lesson the hard way, and after telling that story, I'll delve on some of those issues a bit.  I don't want to be preachy, but if this gets through to one person, then the post is worth it.

Bill and I launched his car topper, a Coleman Crawdad powered by a 12 volt trolling motor along Mattawoman Creek, a tidal tributary of the Potomac River, in search of largemouth bass, crappie, yellow perch, and anything else that cared to bite on an early March day.  The weather was nice with temperatures in the low sixties but a front had moved through and became a bit windy.  The water temperatures were in the low forties.  Conditions were prime for good fishing.  We were out for fun.
As you can see, even though the Coleman Crawdad is a stable boat, it's not very roomy.
After a couple hours of fishing, we had boated a few bass but found the bite had become a bit tough.  The hard baits weren't producing and we weren't getting the reaction strikes.  We turned to finesse techniques for the bass, and if that didn't work, our plan was to adapt to catch panfish.

All of a sudden, I had the urge to purge.  Anglers are supposed to be a patient bunch, and that's fairly true, but when I have to pee, my patience thins and I tend to fish too fast and lose concentration.  So, I had to do something about it.  At the time, Bill was a good 300 pounds, and I was pushing 240, so were were pushing the weight capacity of the boat without our fishing gear (rub-a-dub-dub).  Like I had done many times before on this boat and others, I stood up on the front of the small boat to take care of business over fifteen feet of forty plus degree of water on a platform that isn't designed to support the weight of an average person much less a hefty feller like myself.

While up there, I had a sense of vertigo while gazing down at the cold clear water, but then thought nothing of it.  After finishing my natural duty, I stepped back down and my right foot slipped on a bag of blue fleck Berkeley Power worms that lay perfectly in my way.  The boat is small and cramped anyway, and my disorganiztion with my fishing gear didn't help matters.  I lost my balance as a result and wobbled, the boat tipped, and over the side I went.

Later, Bill recalled that it looked like I had simply just decided to leap into the water.  I managed to hang on to the side of the boat as I fell with one hand but not with enough pressure or weight as to pull the boat over and bring Bill in with me.  I was not wearing a life vest.

As I clung to the boat, it felt like Bill was sitting on my chest.  The cold water sucked the wind right out of me and I could hardly breath.  Bill seemed like he was in shock after what he witnessed.  So, I tried to think logically and instruct him what to do.  But the vice like grip of the cold on my chest wouldn't let me utter the words.

Meanwhile, Bill, with the best of intentions, extended his hand out to me in an effort to pull me back in.  I knew that if he succeeded in doing that, the boat would have surely capsized.  I managed to shake my head "no", and with a word or two at a time, uttered the words, "tow shore".

Why didn't I swim?  My body was shivering like crazy, and was locked into one giant muscle cramp.  It was all I could do to hang on to the side of the boat.  Bill turned on the trolling motor and the boat lurched foward, but came to a stop immediately.  We had the anchor down.

Bill pulled up the anchor and tried again, and the back of the boat swung around but the front stayed put.  The front anchor was down.  I don't know how I managed to do it, but I pulled myself around the boat hand over hand and managed to pull up the anchor with one arm as I desperately hung on for my life.

After that, he towed me to shore.  I hung on with both hands with my elbows hanging over the boat, and tried to keep my legs as high as possible to avoid getting hung up in the awesome subsurface woody bass cover below.  After reaching shore, I managed to gain my footing on the bank. 

Once on shore, I peeled off all of my outer layers and put on the only pieces of dry clothing that I had, a hooded sweatshirt.  I also donned my life vest for added warmth.  It was a bit late for putting that on, wasn't it?

Meanwhile, the front had moved through and the wind picked up, making it even more uncomfortable.  I was shivering uncontrollably.  We headed back toward the boat ramp and found more protective water and continued to fish.  You see, I didn't want my stupidity to ruin my fishing buddy's day.  We don't get much time off work to fish, so when we do, we need to fish regardless of the circumstances, and we did so until dark despite my discomfort.

I had a hard time catching fish that evening as my concentration was at an all time low.  I was not on my game, but I tried my best to have fun.  After the day was over, the heat in Bill's truck helped to revive my senses, but I remained sore for a few days afterwards.  The cold water sucked all of the energy out of me.

Well, it happened to me!  I was lucky.  Any number of things could have happened during that ten minutes that I spent in the frigid water that could have resulted in my drowning.  Seemingly innocent every day situations like that can turn deadly and often do for many.  I should have been wearing my life vest especially when I put myself in a precarious position. 

My buddy Bill, shown here with a chain pickerel on another fishing trip, saved my life that day on the Mattawoman.
The main cause of drowning while boating results from people falling overboard.   And many of those happen when people either try to relieve themselves or are throwing up and leaning over.

So, another lesson that I learned and continue to do today is to bring a bottle or something to use when nature calls and not go over the side of the boat, regardless of the size of the boat.  And from that point on, I wear my life jacket when running from spot to spot, when weather conditions create instability in the boat that I'm in, or any other situation where there is a chance that I could fall out of the boat.

This time of year the fishing is often fantastic.  Play it safe though, because the alternative may not be worth your life.  Wear your life vest, and use a bottle!!!!!!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bass Thumb

Bass Thumb noun

[Singular] US:  an irritation attributed to catching and landing a large number of largemouth bass (micropterus salmoides) or other bass species, caused by the sandpaper like teeth of the bass being held by ones thumb.  Such irritations may cause minor pain while simultaneously increasing pride and anglers ego.  Landing other species may add additional abrasive damage to the skin.

OK, truthfully, you won't find that definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  But maybe it should be there as bass anglers world-wide can attest, it does exist.  And since Fat Boy's Outdoors has captured this often encountered phenomenon, the time has come to honor the term appropriately and accurately.

For those that haven't experienced bass thumb, the rest of this blog post will capture in text and photographical detail the causes, symptoms, cures and other related information.

Cause:  Quite simply, bass thumb occurs after catching, landing, and gripping numerous largemouth bass.  When bass are "lipped", the raspy teeth dig into the flesh of the inner thumb as the fish squirm and shake in an attempt to gain their freedom.  The larger the bass, the more pressure is applied due to the increased weight on the human skin, amplifying the irritation.  Eventually, if enough big bass are caught, landed, lipped, photographed and released, the irritation can become severe enough to draw blood.
The raspy teeth shown here on this largemouth bass will slightly abrade your skin, causing a rash like irritation that anglers often refer affectionately to as bass thumb.
I recall a trip to lake Erie fishing for smallmouth bass.  We caught so many smallmouth on that trip that my bass thumb was so sore near the end of the trip that I had to belly land my bass instead of lipping them.  What a nice problem to have, right?
My friend Steve Kelley with a fine fat six pound plus largemouth bass caught the other day, that, among others caught, gave him a case of bass thumb, a reminder of a great day of fishing.
Symptoms:  a rash like series of abrasions, the depth of irritation could break the skin layers leading to minor bleeding, indicating that the angler successfully caught and lipped a large number of bass.  Additional symptoms included euphoria, excessive smiling and story telling, bass size exaggeration, and the desire to inflict such thumb damage in the future.
After catching enough bass like this one to get bass thumb, all you can think about the next day is when you may be able to get out and repeat the opportunity to inflict such thumb mutilation again.
Treatment:  for inexperienced bass anglers, treatment often includes antibiotic ointments or skin moistening lotions, but for experienced anglers, there is no cure except for time.  Bass thumb and related minor pain serves as a reminder of recent good bass fishing.  Yes, time will heal the wound, but most anglers would gladly return to the water, catch more big bass, and continue to add further bass thumb irritation.
Most bass anglers, like Howard Boltz, relish the opportunity to get out and fish and NOT let their bass thumb symptoms heal.  After catching bass like these all day long, who in their right mind would disagree?
Other Possible Causes:  while bass fishing, often you catch other species with or without the raspy type teeth of the largemouth that increase bass thumb irritation either directly by their teeth, by their protective slime coat, sharp fin spines, or razor sharp gill covers.  These additional irritants often cause adult anglers to act as giddy as a school child.
Catching stripers, or rockfish, often adds to the euphoric behavior while incurring bass thumb.  Bob Barber demonstrated this behavior after landing this rockfish, in anticipation of his next catch that might add to his bass thumb irritation.
In addition to those fish that you may lip, you may wind up catching large heavy fish that have jaws too powerful to hold, predatory fish that often attack your bass lures, like big blue catfish, striped bass, invasive species like snakeheads or even smaller species like voracious yellow perch.  All of these fish add to the memories that are associated with catching bass and getting bass thumb.
Steve Kelley, posing with a big blue catfish that brutalized his existing bass thumb irritation, is smiling from ear to ear despite the discomfort on his thumbs knowing that memories like this last a lifetime.
Prevention:  Avoid bass fishing.  Now, we don't want to do that, do we?
If you encounter a snakehead as Steve Kelley did here, don't lip it like a bass.  If you do, you won't have much of a thumb left, turning your bass thumb symptoms into shredded snakehead thumb.  These fish are very toothy.  Handle them with care, and in Maryland, make sure that you kill them upon capture.  Take them home and eat them as they're very tasty.
Conclusion:  Next time you get out and catch a lot of big bass and other species, take a look at your thumb and notice the result of your actions.  Enjoy it!