I don’t know what officially, meteorologically or scientifically defines a drought. My definition has always been “when I hear white suburban men complaining about watering their lawns, it is a drought.” Since I have begun fishing, though, water levels of my local fisheries has become the best indicator, and both my local pond and my usual spots on the Fox River are definitely at the lowest levels I have seen over the past few years.
Now, I still haven’t figured out what that means for the river. True, I am starting to see that lower levels pushes the fish from the slack to the current, but I have years of data to acquire and compile before anything becomes second nature to me on the river.
The pond, which I had been neglecting through this extensive rainless period, started to intrigue me. I knew that if the water level had dropped as much as it had on the river, that meant the water temperature would also be going up and, in turn, might mean more active largemouth. The spawn is over, we have had 4 or 5 straight days of 90 degree weather with cloudless skies and I guessed there would be a lot more exposed shoreline and a lot more underwater vegetation, and I hoped this meant hungry, aggressive bass.
So I decided to head to the pond on my lunchbreak yesterday. 12:30 PM. Bright sun directly overhead. Few clouds. Wind gusting between 20 and 30 MPH. You know…ideal fishing conditions. I was certainly correct on the shore. Standing on a now dried out bed where I was catching bluegill a couple of moths ago was a bit weird, but also gave me a new angle at some of the known largemouth hangouts.
I’ve mostly been using the baitcaster lately, simply just to get the hang of using it. The thing is cheap and not in great condition, but, my hope is that someday when I have the money to buy a nice one, I won’t have any problems learning to use it. I tied on one of my largemouth wormhooks. I have been crimping down the barbs on a lot of these hooks I have been using at the pond. Aside from them being obviously better for the fish and much easier to unhook, my hope is that it will also help me to learn better hooksetting and how to play a fish better. I have definitely lost a few fish and senkos this way, but it also makes each fight a little more of a valuable learning experience. Plus, I am only using these hooks at the local pond where, until yesterday, I assumed any bass I lost was worth losing. Not only because I assumed they’re all cookie cutter carbon copies of the same clean, 12 inch bass I always seem to catch there, but because I know I would be back to catch it another day.
I threw on a green pumpkin Strike King Shim-E-Stick and begun casting. Had one, lost it on a jump. Had another, pulled the hook out of it’s mouth and lost the worm. Reaching for another one of the same plastic worm, I decided, for fun, to throw on the bubblegum pink senko that had been given to me by a coworker. I had caught a fish or two on this color before, and given how aggressive the bite had been in the first 15 minutes, I figured it was worth a shot.
First cast went down at the edge of the submerged weeds that marks the barrier between a shallow bay and the deeper part of the pond. I quickly felt two small taps followed by a hard slam. I did my best Bill Dance impression and made a big, theatrical hookset. I began to retrieve. As soon as I got that fish out of the weeds and into open water, she began to pull in such a way that I actually verbalized “holy shit!” to my audience of nobody. I briefly thought it might be a big carp, as I doubted any bass in this pond could pull that hard, but I also have not seen a single carp in there and also had my doubts as to whether a carp could get it’s mouth around a big 3/0 hook.
Rod tip doubled over pretty well, I tensed up, realizing this was not the ordinary bass. I suddenly got very nervous about that crimped barb. I got very nervous about the weeds I knew she would dive into when I got her close to shore. As expected, she buried in deep in the weeds and I pulled up a clump of vegetation that looked so big that I thought I had lost her. Once I pulled some of the weeds back, though, it became apparent that it was, in fact, mostly fish on the end of my line, not weeds. I knew immediately this was my personal best largemouth. A big fatty that I guessed to be around 16 inches. It was not until I hoisted it up that I felt the weight of what was easily a 3lb fish. It was not until I lipped her and got almost my entire fist into her mouth that I took a better look. This fish was pushing 18 inches long. This was a real, proper lunker. And she wasn’t caught by happenstance while trolling a crankbait in a stocked lake. This was earned, and it felt great. After a few photo-ops and a whole lot of whoopin’ and hollerin’ I returned her back, hoping we could dance again some other day.
Happy with that outcome, I headed back to work to finish out the day. Knowing it was unlikely to top the feat I had already managed at the pond, I decided to make a trip to a small creek that I have been meaning to explore on my way to my second job later that evening. A 2002 DNR electrofishing study of this creek revealed alarmingly high numbers of smallmouth at one particular location. I had stopped at this spot last week sometime, landing a smallmouth on my first cast. Recon showed that hitting that spot from shore was going to be extremely difficult, though, so I decided I would put on the knee-high galoshes I commandeered from my dad and walk through the shallows along the shore instead of fighting the thick forest of trees and thorny bushes that comprise the land surrounding the water.
This would be a first for me. I have been trying to get myself a pair of waders for a long time, but so far the appropriate funding has escaped me. Things keep coming up that postpone the purchase. As the postponements have worn on, I have seen more and more people “wet-wading” in the Fox. That is, wading without the aid of hip or chest waders. It seems simple enough, albeit perhaps unnerving and messy. But, since this is a relatively small creek and I know the water to be shallow and clear, I thought it would be a decent place to get my feet wet, so to speak.
It was within about my 10 first tentative steps when I became aware of the fact that “hey these galoshes clearly have holes in them because they have already filled up with water.” Now that I was pot-committed, I figured I would just try my best to keep the water below the bottom of my shorts, as I was going directly from the creek to work and, of course, was not smart enough to bring a change of clothes. That, of course, did not work so well either, but I was able to stay mostly dry. Certainly dry enough to get through work.
I caught some fish. A few smallmouth, sunfish and creek chubs. But this adventure wasn’t really about catching the fish as much as it was about my first time wading. In an effort to cut down on increasing verbosity, I’ll bullet point some of the things I feel like I learned, as well as the highlights.
- Be deliberate. I am an oaf. I trip and fall a lot and dry land, so I knew I would have to move slow and pay attention or else I would end up quite wet. The galoshes were big and clumsy and, as clear as the water was, looking down through water distorts depth perception quite a bit, so I made sure to secure each foot before moving the next one. It paid off, as I didn’t fall once.
- Be patient. Walking through a muddy, silty, rocky creek disturbs the terrain, obviously, and it is important to find the spot I want to cast from, stand still as possible and let everything settle again. The fish, surprisingly, weren’t frightened off by my presence as long as I wasn’t clodding about.
- Be observant. It isn’t just as simple as getting in the water and casting to the places I couldn’t cast to from shore. Once in the water, the viewing angle changes in such a way that I noticed spots I didn’t even see from shore. This is not just limited to deeper pools, but things like undercut banks and submerged structure creating current disturbances below the surface. Also, seeing the fish swimming around, often within feet of me, gave me some insight as to where they position themselves in relation to current and structure, which will have an impact on how I approach fishing from the water in subsequent trips.
It was an interesting experience, one I hope to do a lot more of. Yes, I still would rather have waders, I think, but until such time that I can afford a pair, I think I will explore more water without them. Maybe even the Fox River this weekend. With the current and levels so low, it would probably be a good time for an inexperienced and ill-equipped person like myself.
NOTE: This was started earlier in the week and written over the course of a few days, so days that refer to “yesterday” are actually referring to Monday or Tuesday. I don’t even remember, man. I am too lazy to go change it all.