Friday, May 29, 2009

Night Bassin'

I can hear, and feel, the fish take to the air less than twenty yards in front of me, but I can’t see him. It’s simply too dark. I want to reach up and flip on my headlamp but the largemouth just won’t stop jumping and I need a hand on both rod and spinning reel to try to keep him on the line. And it’s a legitimate concern too, as with each aerial and shake I can distinctly hear the jointed jitterbug rattle in his mouth, a warning signal that my hookset is tenuous.

Sure enough, on the third or fourth furious launch, my line goes slack, the rod recoils, the 'bug lands somewhere near my feet, and the bass is gone, sight unseen, despite all his flamboyant acrobatics. All goes silent and, when my heart stops hammering, I realize that the frogs have started their moonlight songs once again.


Yes, I’m usually a fly fisherman. So what’s up with this spinning tackle talk? In truth, I’d also rather be standing in moving water with a fly rod in my hand, but there’s so much more to life, and sport, than a singular fixation. If you’re a fisherman, an outdoorsman, a sportsman, you love it all and try everything you can to broaden the experience. So fishing spinning tackle on a tree lined bass pond, alone, in the dead of night, isn’t fishing the dark side; it’s a new and invigorating rush. Trust me. And if that doesn’t convince you, try this. Did you go fishing last night? Would you have liked to? I rest my case.


It had been a very long day. The details are not important here, but it had and when I finally got home around 9:00pm, I needed a break. But not the “sit on the couch and stare at the TV” kind of break; I needed a diversion and fishing seemed to be just the ticket, despite the hour. “Mary, I’m going down to the pond for a while”. I even invited her. She sanely declined, with a chuckle, and good-naturedly sent me on my way with only the slightest hint of an eye roll. (Have I mentioned what a lucky guy I am?).


Now I have enough trouble controlling a fly line on a wide-open river in broad daylight so taking it to a socked-in pond on a dark and potentially stormy night would have been courting disaster. Instead, I reached for my favorite spinning rod, a butt-ugly, 5’6” Shimano Bullwhip Fightin’ Rod with “medium – bass walleye special action”. It's quite possibly 25 years old and its origins are sort of murky, involving my wife’s ex-father-in-law, my stepsons, 10 years hidden behind the water heater with old hockey sticks and broom handles, and rediscovery when we moved here to paradise. It’s graphite, but I bet it’s an early one, discolored finish, with cracks starting in the thick base from use, though they don’t affect the rod, yet. Leaning there with my fly rods, it’s a short, plump Bertha among the graceful and willowy Tiffanies and Giselles, but over the years this Bertha has caught more and bigger fish than my whole runway of sexier sticks. It deserves a night out occassionally. And admit it boys; we may love the pretty young things but, when it's biscuit time, we find our way back to Grandma's.

On the end of a 12 lb, braided line, I tied a jet-black, 3/8 ounce, jointed, Arbogast jitterbug. On the surface (pardon the pun), putting a black lure on to fish in the dark seems crazy, but, from the fish’s perspective, the dark bait stands out against the light field above, be it moonlight or even the sparse illumination provided by the stars, better than a light colored lure does. The venerable jitterbug has been around as long as I can remember, the perfect topwater lure for night bassing; slow retrieving, noisy, and riding high enough that unless you drag it over something (or cast it onto the unseen shore) it’s not likely to get hung up anywhere. It looks cool too, especially in all black; sort of a Lamborghini sleek bullet, with treble hooks.

I also grabbed my Petzl headlamp, stuck a pair of forceps in my back pocket, pulled on a long-sleeved shirt and my tick gators to keep the chiggers at bay, and spritzed on a little “Eau de Deet” for good measure. Now where were those night vision glasses?


The sky is clear, for the moment, but the moon will not be up for a while so it’s still damn dark. I know this eight acre pond like the back of my hand and it’s a good thing because, even with the headlamp, I only semi-successfully avoid the shin-busting blowdowns and ankle and knee wrenching stump holes and feeder ditches, more by memory than by sight. And the deep late summer grasses along the east side don’t help. It’s a trek, too, as I want to fish the backside, several hundred yards of stumbles from my parked truck. The backside is a half-acre of mudflats and stumps when the pond is low, but prime bass cruising territory when it’s high; perfect for night topwater action. On the way I occasionally stop along the deeper east side and cast to spots where I know there’s some submerged cover, but that’s just foreplay. The real fun awaits in the shallow north end.


I haven’t been to the pond in a few weeks. Its bass have been summer lazy, hiding in the central depths, and not much interested in anything I throw their way. The pull of the fly rod has taken me elsewhere and kept me otherwise entertained but I’ll always find my way back to the pond; there are lots of largemouths there, and some big ones. This past spring I caught an 8-9 pounder (which is another good story but, for another time)) and the previous fall I saw a kid pull one out that made my hawg look like an hors-devours. His is probably on a wall somewhere now, but my fish went back into the pond. Hopefully I’ll see it again in a pound or two.

The pond is community owned, resident use only, and has a couple of sand beaches that we have created for the kids, but if you avoid the mid-summer days, which for a fisherman is easy to do, it’s pretty deserted. I seldom, if ever, see anyone around when I fish and at night I own the place. There are a couple of houses within shouting distance, but the summer-full woods effectively screen them, despite the local deers’ best clearing efforts. It’s a nice place to spend a quiet evening fishing. Quiet, that is, unless the resident beaver is slapping the water with his broad tail to lay his own claim to the area.


My night bass fishing process is to use the headlamp to approach a fishing spot, turn it off as I reach the pond’s edge, pause to let these old eyes adjust as much as possible and to visualize, mostly from memory, where the exposed limbs and shoreline are. There’s usually a little moonlight, but knowing where the hazards are sure helps in picking them out in the dark. I cast and listen for the splashdown, hopefully in the general direction I intended, and begin a slow and steady retrieve. Thankfully, the jitterbug gurgles noisily, letting me know generally where it is and when it’s about to hit my rod’s tip guide. The fish like that gurgle too.

At night, bass strikes are more sound than anything else, a dull splash or swirl that needs a quick response. You can’t wait until you feel it. And, when hooked, every fish seems to go airborne at night, making the whole process an extreme audio experience; a sensual process, in the very basic sense of the word.


I ended up catching three chunky 12 inchers and lost at least that many to poor hand-ear coordination or to dark, watery high wire acts. It’s invigorating out there at night, chasing fish that care not for the time, and really experiencing a beautiful part of the day that we tend to ignore. I’d told my wife I’d be home in an hour-and-a-half and I would have been my usual hour late but there was lightning showing beyond the treeline, distant rumbling starting to be heard, and the stars were steadily being covered by a soft, moist blanket. I kept thinking I felt drops, but it was usually just light spray from my casting. Rain was clearly on the way, though, so I reluctantly picked my way back along the dark east bank, climbed into the truck, and slowly returned the dirt road half-mile to the house as a gentle sprinkle began. The deer alongside the road looked up from their foraging, noted my passing, and wondered what I’d been up to this time.

Note: The above was written last summer, pre-blog, and posted on my Triangle Fly Fisherman's forum, but it's a favorite of mine and I thought I'd recycle it here in lieu of new reports. This convalescence mode really stinks.

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