Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In, Under, and on Top of the River

After my last two blog posts about underwater photography and fishing buzzbaits, I couldn't wait to get out and try it all again in one trip.  What better a place to do that than our favorite summer wading spot?  My friend Rodger and I put in a full day of fishing and had a blast.  For me, it was all about the experience, not just numbers or the size of the fish (although bigger fish would have been more than welcome).
I love wade fishing the river in the summer.  We had gin clear water and bluebird skies to deal with, but the fish cooperated for us.  I had a great time.
The weather conditions weren't optimal for fishing, and as I later found out, not optimal for viewing certain species underwater either.  A cold front moved through the night before, and we had bluebird skies with a slight breeze, with air temperatures in the upper 80's.  That isn't a problem for wade fishing for smallmouth bass, but combine that with very low gin clear water, and it seemed that all of the fish were very spooky, including those that I wanted for my photo op.

I started off in the morning with a Heddon Baby Torpedo and after about thirty casts or so, decided to switch to a more finesse approach.  My buddy Rodger started out finesse fishing by tossing a small plastic worm and already had several fish under his belt by the time that I adapted.  Following his lead, I opted for the finesse approach and offered them the same four inch plastic worm, a lure that even skittish smallies will bite in our local river with such tough conditions.

My first spot fishing the worm was stacked with bass, so it didn't take long for my numbers to catch up.  At one point, I was able to catch them within a rods length of me and actually watch my worm bounce along the bottom and see the bass swim up and gobble it up.  The water was so clear that the fish would close in from about ten feet away on my lure!

It is amazing at how good their senses are.  As soon as the lure made the splash, their lateral line combined with keen eyesight allowed them to hone in for the attack from quite a distance away.

The river bottom, picture taken underwater from about waist deep.  The water was gin clear.
Here is the same spot with the picture taken above my waist with the camera out of the water.  Notice how clear the water is.  The only blur coming from water drops on my camera lens.
After catching a dozen or so bass, I started my underwater explorations, searching for good pictures of darters, minnows and anything else of interest.  However, even the little fish were spooky, and it was difficult getting close to the ones that I could find much less getting a good picture without scaring them away.  I did manage to get some pretty cool photos though.

This darter posed for me briefly before I spooked it.  I'm not sure what kind of darter this is.
Edit:  This is a female rainbow darter, Etheostoma caeruleum.
Here's a closer look at the darter from above.  I can't identify it from this picture.  Greenside, tessellated, and rainbow darters live in this watershed.  What do you think?  Edit:  Since identified as a female rainbow darter, Etheostoma caeruleum.
Here's a closeup of a greenside darter from yesterday's trip.
I think this picture is cool in many ways.  I love the surface reflection of the bottom on the waters surface.  the minnows feeding in the foreground are cool, but notice the predator in the background?  This 7 inch largemouth bass would dart in to attack the minnows every now and then.  There were a couple redbreast sunfish hanging out with it waiting to gobble up any morsels leftover from a successful attack.
I was able to snap a picture of this juvenile redbreast sunnie holding in the current, waiting for the current to deliver a tasty meal.
As the same sunfish turned down river, a school of minnows moved in to feed.  I'm not sure of the ID of these minnows.  Anyone know?
OK, changing gears again back to fishing - both Rodger and I caught a bunch of average sized smallies and took a lunch break at a local Mom and Pop joint, where we ate delicious but inexpensive food washed down with some cold beverages.  The atmosphere sports game mounts of all kinds, sporting memorabilia, and other things local to the area.  After eating and relaxing, it was tempting just to stay and watch football or racing, but we persevered through that laziness, mustered up some energy and headed back to our spot for the evening bite.

While the sun was still up high, Rodger and I found some worthy holes down river and let the plastic worm do its thing, tempting bass to bite consistently.  The problem was that the river was so low, that finding spots deep enough to hold fish was tough.  They weren't normally where you'd find them.  But, when you found a good hole, the fish were stacked in there.  When wading, it takes time to find those holes, not like in a boat when you can run and gun to them.  It takes time for old farts like us to wade from one spot to another.  I tried topwater off and on with only a couple slurping hits, but no fish hanging on.  While the sun was high, the plastic worm was the ticket for the majority of the time.
Here's Rodger with a willing smallmouth that inhaled his plastic worm.  Underwater photography is great, but remember to do what I didn't do, wipe off the water from the lens before taking a picture of your friend with a fish!
After searching for those productive holes while wading down river, we realized that we'd better start heading back as the sun edged over the adjacent Western hill so we could find our way back.  Of course, when you head back, you have to wade and fish your way back, stopping when the fish dictate.

Wading up against the current takes time, and on that day, it proved to be taxing on my old aching legs.  For some reason, the fish stopped biting my plastic worm.  Either Rodger and I sore-mouthed the fish in those productive holes or the fish wanted something else.  I decided to make things easier on my bones by wading to the other side of the river to very shallow ankle deep water and wade back.  I tied on a buzzbait to cover more water and maybe catch a few fish along the way.

While working that ankle deep water with the buzzer, I had a hit and a fish on briefly, but it spit the hook.  I thought that was encourage, so I kept casting.  A few casts later, as the lure hit the water, I saw a wake heading from about twenty feet away toward my bait and became very excited.  The fish nailed my buzzbait and took off.  I thought it might be a big fish, but after I turned it, I realized that the fish was a little bigger than the average for the day, but not by much.  It wasn't the size of the fish that got me fired up, but how far it came to hit my lure.  Prior to that, I can't recall a bass charging in from that far away!  It was an exciting moment though and I realized that the topwater bite was on, finally.
Here's a picture of the bass that made the wake in shallow water, charging from about twenty feet away to attack the buzzbait.
I managed to catch seven more bass on the buzzbait as we headed back to our take out spot, finishing with 41 bass for the day.  I fished about 70 percent of the time, with the rest of the time spent trying to get some decent underwater photos.  But, that's pretty productive anyway!  Rodger finished with 50 plus bass along with a few big sunfish.

All in all, we had a really fun day.  Even though it wasn't the topwater bite that I've been craving, I was able to accomplish two things with this trip, some topwater action and getting a few good underwater photographs.  I can't wait to do it again.  Good fishing, cool underwater wildlife to observe, good cheap food and drink, and sharing it with a good friend.  That makes for a memorable day!

Monday, August 22, 2016

I'm a Buzzin' for Smallies!

The dog days of summer bring out some of the best topwater bites for smallmouth bass.  All topwater lures can be productive at one time or another, but when the fish are aggressive, buzzers or prop baits are tough to beat and a heap of fun to fish.  Why?  They create a disturbance that aggressive bass can't resist and they cover a lot of water.  That's a formula for some pretty good numbers, wouldn't you agree?  Not only that, they're big fish baits too.
Mid summer river conditions like this just scream topwater to me, and my go to topwater baits are either a buzzbait or prop bait.
It doesn't matter to me if I'm fishing from my boat or wading, because when the fish are on this type of bite, it's quite exciting.  If I start off fishing low light conditions, I'll opt for a topwater lure of some sort, and for me, I like to cover water quickly, so it's either a buzzbait or a prop bait to get those aggressive biters that are a little less wary at that time.  Normally during mid-day, I'll work soft plastics, but, if I see signs of bass feeding on the surface or chasing minnows in the shallows, then I'll break out my topwater lures and give them a go.  Hungry summer bass may be aggressive even in the mid day heat.
My buddy Howard and I with a double, both caught on buzzbaits.  Nice size bass like these are so much fun when they crush topwater lures.
I find that both buzzbaits and prop baits are equally effective for provoking strikes, but river conditions and the mood of the fish dictate which one I'll pick.  If weed growth is abundant, then the buzzbait is a bit more effective because you can fish right through most weeds and draw strikes without getting the lure fouled.  I'd rather spend more time with my lure in the strike zone than having it out of the water cleaning it off.  Prop baits are weed collectors.
This chunky river smallie attacked my buzzbait!
However, if the water is up and the weeds are submerged, or perhaps, like in certain years, weeds aren't as abundant, prop baits seem to result in a better hook up ratio.  I don't think fish key on either lure over the other very often, but there are times when they slurp rather than crush the lure, and the prop baits work better in that situation, it seems, at least for me.

My go to buzzbaits for smallies are the 1/8 ounce Strike King or a similar buzzbait.  I beef them up by adding an old 4" ringworm as a trailer as it seems to trigger larger bass to strike than without the trailer.  When it comes to color choice, many folks local to me go with white, especially this time of year to match the white miller mayfly hatch.  That works great for them, but oddly, my first choice is an all chartreuse buzzbait.  My thought is that it imitates frogs, I guess, and chartreuse catches their attention (no pun intended), at least for me.  I will try larger buzzbaits too, especially if they're super aggressive.  Bigger baits often lead to huge smallies.  I always carry the larger buzzers in the boat, but don't carry them when I'm wading because I don't have that beefy tackle with me, and I like to keep my vest from being too full!
The 1/8 ounce Strike King chartreuse buzzbait with a ringworm trailer...deadly on summer bronze.
My favorite prop baits are the Heddon Baby or Tiny Torpedo.  I like the larger "Baby" size when the fish are really aggressive, and when they're in that slurping mood, I go to the "Tiny" version.  I like flash in my lure, so the "G Finish" is my favorite color.  My next choice would be any color with a white belly.  I'm not sure the fish care all that much about the color.  Just make sure that you tune the lure (by bending the propeller arms if need be) to make sure that the propeller spins freely in the current.  Keep an eye on it to free it from algae or weeds that you might pick up unknowingly.

For the buzzer, the key is to start your retrieve right at or just prior to the lure hitting the water on your cast.  This is to get the prop going as soon as possible and keep the lure on top of the water.  After that, I find it more productive to reel the lure as slow as possible so that the prop still gurgles on the surface (barely) without the lure sinking.  I seem to get more hits that way than buzzing it fast.  But, let the fish tell you, because there are days when all rules are thrown out the window.
Fish a buzzer during a summer evening and catch aggressive smallmouth bass, one after another!
With prop baits, it's the same type of thing, to retrieve just slow enough to keep propeller spinning, but not burn the bait too fast, especially when the fish are in that slurping mode.  One difference though is that with prop baits, they float, so you don't need to reel them in right away.  You can let them sit a bit, and you may find that some fish will hit it after the rings from the splash settle down, or when the river current starts spinning the propeller.  Be patient with these baits and let the fish tell you what they want.

If fish are slurping your buzzbait but not getting hooked, try switching to the prop bait.  Conversely, if they're crushing your prop bait but you're tired of dealing with removing those spunky fish from the treble hooks, try going to the buzzbait perhaps, although it's tough to change lures when something works so well!  Such a problem to face, huh?
The Heddon Baby Torpedo at work, landing one smallie after another that day.  The weeds weren't bad, and the fish were in a slurping mood, but man did they ever slurp!
If you get a strike and miss a fish, and then you follow up with another cast and that doesn't result in a strike, then make sure you or your fishing buddy follow up by casting soft plastic bait to the spot where the missed strike occurred.  Most of the time, that fish will be there and ready to eat something else.  Soft plastic flukes, stick baits, plastic worms, tubes or grub tails all work well for that purpose.  I always have a follow up lure like this rigged up for that purpose.  If you're fishing skinny water, flukes or stickbaits work great, for deeper water, tubes, worms or grubs will get that fish for you.

If you're fishing topwater and your fishing buddy is fishing soft plastics, you can team up on fish by letting your bud know that you just missed one, to cast to that spot, and give him or her the fish.  After all, if you're working topwater, you're picking up the most aggressive ones first, so it's a great way to share that aggressive bite with your fishing pal.  Your fishing buddy will appreciate those aggressive strikes, trust me!

These lures are great for the rivers, but don't forget trying them in small streams.  They can provide some terrific topwater action.  I had a great day on a local small stream several years ago, catching 99 smallies all on a buzzbait.  Because the bite was so hot, as the day went on, I set a goal for 100 bass on buzzers, but we ran out of time as it got dark, the bite slowed, and we had to leave.  Many of those bass were between 14 and 16 inches long, with a few up to 19 inches.  Buzzbaits are big fish lures for sure.  I'll never forget that day!
Here's a chunky small stream bronzeback that fell for my 1/8 ringworm tipped buzzbait.

My Buddy Howard fishing a small stream last summer.  Don't overlook using a buzzbait in streams like this, especially if the stream is remote with little fishing pressure.  Smallies may never have seen them before and might hit them often and hard.
During the summer, the great thing about these lures is that they may work when the water is gin clear or muddy.  When the water is clear, they seem to work great during cloudy days, when there is a slight chop on the water (not too much, but just enough to break up the surface and confuse bait), during the twilight magic hours of fishing (sunrise and sunset), or maybe even more, at night.  If the water has a stain to it or is muddy, especially during hot sunny days, a buzzbait is a great choice because the lateral line of an aggressive bass will allow it to hone in on the noisy disturbance that your lure creates no matter what time of day.

But, like I said earlier, let the fish make the rules and tell you.  They may work in the middle of a calm sunny day!  When I had that 99 fish day, I started using a plastic worm and didn't have much luck.  After a while of working that worm, I got fed up and reeled in the worm extremely fast and a smallmouth attacked it just as I pulled the lure out of the water.  The fish told me by its actions, that they were in a chasing mood, so I tied on the buzzer and the rest was history, a day that I'll never forget.

These aggressive topwater bites are so much fun, but don't let them get you in a rut.  Always keep an open mind this time of year, because if these lures don't work, other slower topwater baits might be the ticket, like popping plugs or walk the dog type lures.  If none of them work, then you always have the option to fish other patterns.
Don't be shy about trying them after dark as Howard shows you here.  Not only is that buzzbait time, but it's big fish time!  Explosive strikes that scare the you know what out of you can happen!
Next time you go smallie fishing, break out the topwater buzzers and give them a try.  You might have a 99 bass day bass day to remember too!

Monday, August 15, 2016

My "New" Way to Go Fishing!

One of the great things about fishing is to experience the outdoors.  Until recently, during most fishing trips, I’d forget to take the time to appreciate what was going on around me.  I sort of had blinders on that kept me in focus to catch the species of fish that I was targeting that day, to catch the most, to catch the biggest, to reach my ultimate goal, a personal best.  I had fun at the same time, but, even though I was in tune with what went on around me to be a successful angler, to establish patterns to catch fish, I didn't always take the time to observe more closely to see the subtle beauty of what is behind it all.  So, perhaps I really wasn't experiencing the outdoors as much as I could have after all.

In the past, for most of my fishing trips, my appreciation of the outdoor experience other than actually the act of fishing was to take a little time for lunch, or a drink, or take a quick photograph of a deer or other wildlife, or a scenery shot.  So, now I’ve incorporated a new concept to some of my fishing trips, where conditions permit, to add some underwater photography to my fishing arsenal and also to take some time to observe the critters that live there and their behavior.
Until recently, scenery and wildlife shots while eating lunch or taking a break for a drink would make up the time I took to appreciate the ecosystem that I was fishing.   But gin clear water like this paired with an underwater camera allow me in to take a closer look.
So, what conditions would be needed for this?  Clear water, the clearer the better, which is usually opposite of what most anglers feel are ideal fishing conditions.  But, I don’t seem to have trouble catching fish in clear water, so that’s not a problem.  Also, how I fish would be another.  Wading is much easier to get a clean picture because you're motionless, and can remain so for fish to get used to you and lose fear of you so you can get a good picture.  I'm not saying that you can't do this from a kayak, canoe or boat, but it would be more difficult.  Another factor is the weather or the time of year.  My experiences doing this have been in the summer.  If I decide to extend this aspect of fishing to colder weather or season, then I'll have to adjust and buy a wet suit.  Also, make sure that you have a decent camera that you can use underwater.
A juvenile smallmouth bass cruises the shallows in search of prey.  Just ahead of him is a large minnow or perhaps a small creek chub.
So, where did I get this epiphany about my new way to fish?  It wasn’t my idea, many people have done this before.  Actually, let me back track a bit, because, while fishing small streams, I took occasional breaks to sit on rocks and watch minnows and darters, but I needed to look deeper (no pun intended) to really see.  Seriously, I can thank the members of the North American Native Fishes Association (NANFA).  There, you’ll find anglers, aquarists, outdoors enthusiasts, and outdoor and environmental professionals that all love the beauty of our native ecosystems.  They share tons of beautiful photos, videos and articles on the forum, website, and in their publication (American Currents).  I joined as a member a couple years ago, and will remain so as long as I can do that.
A greenside darter poses for a quick picture along a rocky and weedy river shoreline.
If you visit the NANFA website (linked here and on my blog side bar), check out the reports or photography sections of their forum and you’ll see tons of beautiful pictures and videos of some of the most beautiful fish in the world with as much color as you’d see in tropical aquariums that you may not have known about that are right under your nose.  I was so amazed at what I saw on there, and learned about what I formerly thought of as “bait”, that it inspired me to learn more about the places that I frequent on my free time most often.
Minnows seem to dance around weeds and current while feeding, not caring that I'm there to observe.
There are so many beautiful species of fish, minnows, chubs, darters, sculpins and other species in their breeding colors to observe where I fish.  My pictures in this post don't do them justice though, because I'm relatively new at this.  To get a sense of what I'm talking about, please visit the NANFA forum and check out the reports.  Many people (including me soon) set up aquariums for their favorite species.  For me, I have a passion for the darters.  They are so cool to observe in the wild.  My love affair for them is not new, I've always watched for them and had a native tank with darters, minnows and chubs years ago when I was in college.  I really loved that tank.

I'd love to have many of these species in an aquarium because of their tremendous beauty, but many of the species that we target while fishing on each trip also are beautiful.  They are too big for my aquariums, but I love watching them in their natural habitat.  We frequently post pictures of the fish that we catch after unhooking them, but they are also so interesting underwater doing what they do every day.   Smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and sunfish of all types display beauty that rival many fish found in the tropical aquaria that come right up to you for close up visits if you are patient, don't move, and let the habitat around you settle down.

I'd love to capture such beauty in an aquarium, but for now, I'll observe and admire in awe.
There are a couple greenside darters along with a juvenile redbreast sunfish feeding as minnows cruise by.  Can you see the darters?  Darters are a bottom dwelling species that lacks a swim bladder.  They blend in so well!
So the next step in the near future for me to further enjoy the experience will be to obtain quality snorkeling gear and carry it with me on my wading trips, when conditions are right.  Not only will I fish, but I will also make sure that I will take some time to observe what is going on around me.  Without snorkeling gear, it's tough to see underwater from above when it's windy.  Getting the right gear will allow me to more effectively observe and photograph.  All I have to do is figure out how to lug it around when I fish!
This redbreast sunfish decided to come in for a closer look.
I've always been a fan of the Hook 'n Look TV fishing show.  It always fascinated me and made me think about what it was like "down there" while I was fishing.  So, maybe this fascination with observation and underwater photography was there all along?
Look who else decided to check me out!  I'm not sure of the identity of this fish, perhaps a juvenile chub or an adult minnow.
It didn't take long for this greenside darter to move in to check me out either.
The darter forgot about me and decided to nip on something for lunch.  Notice how well they blend into their surroundings.  It looks like a tail of another darter just behind this one, but it's hard to tell for sure.
After that, the darter struck quite a pose for me!
One problem for me will be getting good photographs in deeper water if I plan to do the combo fish and snorkel trip thing.  Adding a weight belt to get deeper would help for better pictures, but I don't want to lug weights around me when I fish.  I may have to go on an observation only trip, no fishing, to get better photographs in deep water.  Shooting pics from the surface in water deeper than three feet, even in a gin clear river, show up on the camera as being a bit murky, as the next couple photos show.

What I think may be a northern sucker searches for food in some deeper water just ahead of me.  I think that having snorkeling gear will allow me to get closer pictures in some of the deeper areas.  The light penetration in shallow water makes a huge difference even when the river appears crystal clear.
I was able to coax this juvenile smallmouth bass in for a quick picture with my camera in one hand, and with my other hand, using my fishing rod dabbling a plastic worm into close range in about 3 feet of water.  My buddy Howard was laughing at me as I must have looked pretty silly doing this.
So for me, this is my new way to catch fish, to catch with by rod and reel, but also with a camera, to enjoy the beauty around me, the wonder of the food chain at all levels and the circle of life in the ecosystems that I visit and fish.  As far as my improvement as an angler, these observations are bound to improve my ability to catch fish and establish patterns.  I encourage you all to take a closer look, observe and appreciate all that nature gives us.  And while you're at it, take a look at the NANFA website and consider joining.  Their mission is a worthy one, the info they provide is fascinating, and their magazine is terrific.  I've learned so much.  After typing all this up, I am getting myself worked up and can’t wait to get out there again!
I didn't take this picture on the same fishing trip as the other photos above.  Rather, my daughter and I checked out a small stream with only the camera in hand to snap off a picture of a beautiful rainbow darter.  These fish in their breeding colors are spectacular.  Either this was a male prior to displaying such color, or a female, whose colors are more subdued.  Anyway, I thought it was worthy of sharing...until next time.
Also, at this time, I’d like to wish my brother a Happy Birthday.  He passed away unexpectedly in 2007 at the young age of 36.  I miss him greatly, and all that I do on this blog, including this post, is dedicated to him.  He would have loved doing this too.  You can read more about his story on a page of this blog, linked here:  Tribute to My Brother Kyle