Fishing with the Amateur

I'm currently living in northern VA, and exploring some of the public fisheries the region offers. Here you'll find a quasi-guide of northern VA's small-water largemouth and smallmouth bass fishing venues. I'll also ramble about my life in general.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Return Trips

Over the last month I've made return visits to Lakes Cook and Fairfax. I've hit Lake Cook once, and Lake Fairfax twice. Overall the lakes didn't change much, but it was enough to make things interesting.

I had hoped to find Lake Cook a little cleaner on my second visit. I believed the heavy rain was responsible for the dirty water on my first trip. While the lake was a little cleaner the second time around, it was still pretty stained. The fishing hadn't improved much either. The grass had grown, so I spent some time fishing the thicker stuff. I also hit the limited shoreline cover. A few hours later, I had only one fish to show for it. Consequently, I won't be back anytime soon.

My visits to Lake Fairfax were more productive. On my first trip back I didn't do as well as I would've liked, catching only two keepers. The water was a little lower and the grass a bit higher. Moreover, the lake had been pressured hard. I talked to a guy who'd said he'd been camping for a week and caught good fish every evening. I saw him catch a three pounder out of a hole I'd been anxious to fish for a week - he was already there when I arrived. I'm convinced the fish were holding a little deeper that day, and the fishing pressure really shut them down. Continuing the tradition I began a few weeks before, I missed a good fish right before leaving.

The third trip to Fairfax was arguably the best yet. The water was low and the heat was almost unbearable. I felt that the fish would be in deep (cooler) water, which I couldn't access from the bank. The next best thing would be to visit the large feeder creek at the upper end of the lake. I figured the water would be cooler there also. That turned out to be a very good decision.

I headed upstream until the creek began to look like a trout stream. Fallen trees and brush littered the shaded water, which was also brimming with baitfish. The spot had everything the fish needed. Small plastic worms captured three solid fish. After convincing myself that no others were present, I moved out to the mouth of the creek.

On a whim I tied a Zoom Toad onto my baitcast rod and threw it out across the flat. My first cast landed near a patch of matted grass. A fish sucked it down before I could turn the reel handle twice. That fish came off though. The fish hit a full cast length away, and I hadn't hit him hard enough on the hookset. He stayed down in the shallow muck and worked the hook out. A second fish hit a few casts later and I landed that one. He wasn't as big as I believed the first on was, but he was still the nicest fish of the day. After missing two more fish, I finally landed a larger one - 16.5 inches and very thick. After that the fish shut down, so I moved to the other feeder creek, which is much smaller.

Daylight was fading so I worked quickly, casting to holes in the grass. Though I'd never caught a fish from that part of the lake before (it's extremely shallow), I quickly hooked and landed a big fish. It was about the same size as the last one - maybe a little bigger - and he increased my total to six fish. A few more casts produced one more small fish, my seventh. By now the sun had set and night was fast approaching. I trudged back to the car, quite pleased with my performance. The fish were right were I thought they'd be, and I figured out how to catch them.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

You Learn Something New Every Day

I've been a frequent visitor to the Shenandoah River for about four years now. I fished the river constantly during my college years, and was constantly learning. I went from being a one-dimensional angler to a very versatile one - at least I think so. Though I now possess a much greater knowledge of bass (and other species too) than I did a few years ago, the river is still teaching me.

A river changes frequently, forcing the fisherman to change as well. The Shenandoah is no exception. To consistently find success, an angler must be able to adapt. Lately fish have been transitioning from late spring / early summer patterns to late summer patterns. Also, the water levels are constantly fluctuating. Due to the recent lack of rain, the water level has been low; but after a heavy rain it can flood quickly. On my last visit to the Shenandoah, I faced low water levels, partly cloudy skies, and clear water.

I started out visiting a few holes close to the dam that always hold fish. I caught one on a spinnerbait out of a tailrace pool in 6 inches of water. I then began throwing a "creature bait" around a pile of large submerged rocks in slack water. After pulling a few decent fish from under the rocks, I moved to a faster riffle area and soon hooked and lost a solid fish. After visiting a different hole that produces well for me in the spring and seeing little action, I decided to hit one more spot before leaving.

This spot features a large metal beam that's wedged in between some rocks and is solidly anchored. It has survived numerous floods over the last four years, and its always covered with debris. It sits at the end of a long riffle and just below a trickle of water that flows in from the power generator. Throughout the warmer months it always has at least a few fish on it, but on this day it produced nothing. It did lead me to discovering a new pattern though.

Just before reaching the obstruction I tossed the spinnerbait into the tail of a riffle that was smothered with grass (ranging from knee to waist high). I caught a decent smallmouth on the first cast. Curious to see if anything else was holding in the shallow grass, I waded over with the creature bait. After quickly catching a couple of largemouths and seeing several others, I opted to fish the weeds for the rest of the afternoon. I couldn't believe how shallow the fish were holding. They were way back in the weeds - as far as they could go - in water as shallow as six inches. They were sitting just out of the current, but they would come out for a well-placed bait. Occasionally you could watch the weeds move as a spooked or recently-released fish swam through them. It was incredible to watch.

I worked the main weedbeed in the middle of the river, following it as far as it ran downstream, and then moved to a similar spot upstream. The action was consistent throughout - lots of keeper fish, with a big one mixed in every once in a while. The pattern was so strong that I could predict where the fish would be, and almost call my shots. I pulled probably a dozen largemouths from the weeds that afternoon, and I missed several others. Counting the fish I pulled from other areas, I had probably twenty total. My five biggest were around 7.5 lbs. total - not bad on any day.

This weed pattern is one I'd never experienced on the Shenandoah before, so I'm anxious to exploit it again. I know there were several good-sized fish I spooked, and it'll be fun trying to catch them next time around. I'll be looking for this largemouth pattern for the rest of the summer. Hopefully they'll let me of work to see if the fish are still around.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

My Latest Tournament

After weeks of silence, I return to voice my thoughts on a fishing tournament I competed in yesterday. It was July 29. The time was 3:30 (AM). It was quiet...a little too quiet. Suddenly three different alarms shattered the silence. I staggered out of bed and into the shower. By 4:00 I was on my way to the lake.

I met my partner a little after 5:00. I threw my gear in his boat and we made our way to the check-in point. We then waited patiently for the blastoff. My partner noticed a boater who seemed to be having trouble with his big engine. "It stinks to have engine trouble on the day of a tournament," he quipped. He should've kept his mouth shut. A few moments later my partner went to start his own motor. Nothing happened. One look at his face told me that it was going to be a long day.

I was hoping that this would be a breakthrough tournament. I wanted to catch a limit and finish near the top. I couldn't have had a better partner. He was a local who grew up fishing the James River. He knew it like the back of his hand, and he thought we'd have no problem catching good limits. Now we were limited to use of the trolling motor only. We couldn't visit any of the spots he wanted to fish. My morale had been dealt a severe blow.

My partner caught the first fish - a two pounder - within sight of the launch ramp. I caught a 12 incher not too long afterwards. That made me feel a little better. Four more of those would've made my day. It wasn't meant to be though. My partner opted to head to a nearby power plant where the water would be a little cooler. Before reaching the cool water discharge we went up a tributary creek and he caught a small one.

My partner was alternating between a crankbait, finesse worm, and a "creature bait", and he caught fish with each. I was still trying to get into a rythm. I'd caught a fish on a finesse worm, but I hadn't done well with anything else. Halfway through the day I decided to switch from my shallow-running crankbait to one that dives a little deeper. That paid off later. I was also driving myself nuts trying to decide which spinnerbait I should throw.

In my previous fishing endeavors this summer I'd done well with a 3/8 ounce bait with fairly small blades. My partner suggested I go to one even smaller. Unfortunately I was using pretty thick line - 17 lb.test. That line is great for some applications, but fishing 1/8 ounce spinnerbaits isn't one of them. I also knew I would waste valuable time if I respooled, so I was at a mental impass of sorts. After fishing the smaller spinnerbait on the heavier line for a while, I decided I would go back to my heavier bait, which I had much more confidence in. My second keeper came on that bait.

By now it was midday, the sun was scorching, and we were a good distance downriver. My partner decided to head back upriver to an area where he'd caught two fish earlier. He caught a third while fishing a finesse worm in 15 feet of water. Shortly afterwards he said it was time to make the trek back upriver. We would be using only the dying trolling motor and we'd be fighting the tide the whole way. For half an hour we were in the middle of the river where it was pointless to even cast. My partner had his limit (which turned out to be a little over 7 lbs.) and I had my two short fish - one of them dead (which incurs a 4 ounce penalty). We eventually got in close to the bank and I kept casting, even though there seemed to be nothing in the area that would hold fish.

We finally got back to the launch site at a quarter to 2:00. I was preparing myself mentally for our last hour of finishing. It was then that my partner informed me that the trolling motor battery was about to expire and we were heading to the ramp. I couldn't believe we were going to forfeit our last hour of fishing, but we didn't have much of a choice. My partner offered to visit a nearby rocky point before our battery died, and I was grateful. We each made several casts before my partner set down his rod and headed for the ramp. He stopped briefly to talk to another competitor and tell him how the day had gone. I made one last cast to the point with my crankbait.

My partner was chatting about the busted outboard and dying trolling motor. The other competitor asked how we'd done in terms of fish caught. At this point, a fish popped my crankbait. "Fish on," I reported, but I don't think anyone heard me. My parnter was now informing the other guy that he'd caught a limit and I'd caught two. Just then I swung the bass aboard. My partner turned around and said, "Three now." It was beautiful. The fish was small and barely 12 inches, but I was thrilled nonetheless.

My three fish weighed 2 lbs 14 ounces - pretty pathetic if you think about it -but under the circumstances I was quite pleased. I was on a body of water I'm not familiar with, we'd had boat trouble, and I'd been shorted an exorbitant amount of fishing time. Under those conditions I managed to boat three keepers (my previous best was a whopping one fish). I also set a personal best for a one-day tournament weight total, besting my previous weight of 2 lbs 7 oz. Though it was a long, hard, trying day, and so much that could've happend didn't, I went home happy. PS - I finished in 53rd place (out of 129).

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

No Trespassing: Violators Will Be Shot

[This post isn't for the faint of heart]

It's late and I'm tired, but instead of sleeping I'm sitting at the computer. Why, you ask? I'm celebrating the 1 day anniversary of what may prove to be the most exciting event of the summer - for me at least. Yesterday evening, just after finishing dinner, I sat down to watch a violent movie. The fact that I chose We Were Soldiers, a film based on an actual battle from the Vietnam War, seemed to foreshadow the events that were to follow.

My grandparents and I have had some trouble with mice lately. It actually began last summer. Late on night Larry (my former roommate) and I heard a mouse making some obnoxious noises inside the wall. We stumbled across a mousetrap at work a few weeks later, and used it to silence the mouse soon afterwards. Well his buddies are still around. I'll occasionally hear them scurrying around in the wall, but they had been rather quiet lately. Then a visiting friend saw one run across the rafters in the furnace room. Finally, about a week ago I saw one run across the floor as I was watching a movie. That was the proverbial last straw.

With my grandparents' blessing I set two traps in the furnace room yesterday evening, and then sat down to my movie. Mel Gibson was interrupted by a loud snap. In no particular rush to dispose of a dead mouse, I waited a moment before reluctantly entering the furnace room. I brought along my spring-loaded airsoft pistol, which had been sitting next to me throughout the movie. (If another furry rodent were to surface during the movie, I wanted to be ready.)

Entering the furnace room, I flipped on the light and peered into the corner. Sure enough there was a mouse there, but he wasn't in the trap. He had somehow managed to spring the trap without getting caught, and was now sitting a few inches away from it looking confused. He didn't seem to mind the light, and he didn't seem to have seen me yet. Crouching behind a toy kitchen set for concealment, I quickly took aim and...pop. I missed; but the mouse didn't flinch. Pop. I missed again. This time he turned and looked in my direction, still confused. Knowing that I'd overshot him twice (putting the pellet in almost the exact same place no less), I thought it wise to correct my aim. Pop. Head shot.

The mouse now had the look of staggering fighter who's one punch away from being knocked out. But, instead of running (as I was expecting) he moved more like he was slowdancing. I quickly fired again. Another hit. After a couple of erratic hops, the mouse crawled behind a foam manikin head and went belly-up. He was down for good. The whole incident lasted fewer than 10 seconds.

It took a few more seconds for everything to sink in. I had just shot a mouse with an airsoft pistol! Not only did I hit it, I killed it! Before disposing of the body (and getting the blood stains out of the rug) I proudly recounted the story to my grandparents. My grandfather was impressed with my feat. My grandmother was horrified that I'd seen a mouse, but she didn't seem too impressed with the fact that I killed it. She said I tortured it. I don't think you can call that torture though. It wasn't like I was trying to shoot off his tail or something. I shot to kill.

Looking back, this event will probably rank among the coolest things I've ever done. It's right up there with my carp-killing adventures. That's right, I've killed carp using weapons ranging from a bow and arrow, to a spear, to a sheath knife. But those are stories for some other time. For now I'm happy to have the distinction of being the guy who sniped a mouse. Maybe next time I'll try using a firecracker...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Catch them if you can

Lake Fairfax was the second lake on my list, and I visited it this afternoon. On arriving I first walked down to the lake to scope it out. The lake is approximately 20 acres, and seemed to be very shallow. It was a brownish hue, probably due in part to the rain from the previous days. I suppose the lake could have been deeper than it looked; the dirty water may have been playing tricks on my eyes. In any event, though, a guy who works at the boat rental facility told me it was supposed to be 20 ft in the middle. Regardless, my hopes of discovering a decent bass population, let alone catching anything, were only slightly higher than they had been when I visited Lake Cook. By the days end I was pleasantly surprised.

As I grabbed my gear from the car, the wind had picked up and it looked as if a storm was about to hit. I was not deterred. After stopping briefly to fish a pile of debris, I walked to a corner of the lake that was lined with cattails, the best cover I'd seen thus far. I'd chosen to bring two rods, leaving two others in the car. I wanted to alternate between a buzzbait and crankbait, and thought I could even switch to soft plastics (using the stiff buzzbait rod) if the action was slow. Just for the record, my crankbait rod has a limber tip to keep hard-fighting fish from tearing hooks free.

After half a dozen casts through the area with a buzzbait, I threw in right against the reeds. The bait hadn't gone more than a few feet before a nice fish sucked it down. After a good fight, I lipped her and measured her - 16 inches, and thick. I made a few more casts into the area and was on the move again. The next decent fish (I caught one dink a few minutes after the first fish) came out of some grass on the opposite side of the lake. After a fish swiped at the buzzbait (and missed) on two consecutive casts, I fired a crankbait into the same area. The fish missed again. I caught him on my fourth cast. He measured 14 inches. Less than 50 yards down the bank I made a cast to a solitary tree limb sticking 6 inches out of the water. A good fish grabbed the buzzbait on the first cast. 15 inches.

Now the first fish could've been a fluke - the only good fish in the lake. Even with the second fish I believed it was possible I'd caught the only 2 in the lake. But, with the 3rd fish (and a 15 inch average), I had to admit there was probably a good population present. Finding some likely shoreline cover a little further down the bank, I made a few casts; but with no takers, I moved on. I didn't see anything fishy enough to make me stop again until I got back to my starting point.

I would've spent more time fishing alongside a long pier and an adjacent floating dock, but a minefield of floating debris kept the buzzbait from working right. I wanted to fish a stretch of riprap before returning to the cattails, but some fisherman working their way around the lake from the other direction changed my mind. I headed straight for the cattails, but did so without looking like I was trying to beat those guys to the spot. Next I put on a clinic for them. I worked the same cattails I'd fished before, but from the opposite direction. In a dozen casts I taken 2 more fish, both of them 14 inches. After making a few casts with the crankbait and catching only a dink, I walked back around to my original spot. The other fisherman, having caught nothing, had vacated the spot.

In the world of bass fishing, there are few things more humiliating than watching somebody else catch fish out of a spot you've just fished, when you'd caught nothing. Having caught a limit of fish that weighed probably 8 lbs, and on a lake I'd never fished before, I was feeling a bit too proud. I decided it would be fun to boost my already swelling ego by catching one out of the area those guys had just left. In addition to heaping disgrace upon them, I would also earn major bragging rights. However, it wasn't meant to be.

Though my primary motivation was pride, I also wanted to beat those guys because they weren't fishing "correctly." That's one of my pet peeves I guess. These guys were using the same type of bait I was (a buzzbait - I could hear it when they cast it), but they were retrieving it below the surface. That's a big no-no in the world of bass fishing. Everybody knows you work a buzzbait on the surface; it falls into the topwater class for crying out loud. Topwater is a pretty self-explanatory word - top and water. You work the bait on top of the water. Obviously no one had taught that to these guys, so I decided to teach them, but in a nasty demeaning way. It almost worked.

There was an old laydown tree extending a ways out into the lake. At first glance you couldn't really tell that it was a good-sized tree. It looked like a small piece of wood sitting on the bank, but it was actually a high-percentage spot. The other fisherman (only one guy was actually fishing; his buddy was just watching) had fished that spot, but they hadn't done it right. I did it right.

My buzzbait got absolutely hammered as it passed over the submerged log. A big boy lived under that tree and I had him. It usually takes a pretty good fish to get me noticeably excited. I wear a pretty good poker face (especially when I'm fishing around other people) that can often make you think I've had a lousy day even when I've absolutely slaughtered them. Well this fish instantly erased my game face.

The strike was just like all the others, but this fish instantly began pulling drag. There wasn't the usual strike, then hookset, then run. It was all sort of blurred together. He struck, and I struck back, but he was racing away with my bait before I'd even finished the motion of setting the hook. Fish don't pull drag like that when I'm using my buzzbait rod. My eyes got big, I felt a rush of adrenaline, and words actually came out of my mouth: "Holy Toledo! That's a big fish!" Words don't come out of my mouth like that when I'm fighting a fish. At least not with that kind of emotion. Usually its, "Oooh..good fish" or (if I'm by myself or around close friends) I'll start singing something like "I've Got You Babe" or You're the One that I Want." This fish sent a wave of fear over me like only a monster fish can. I was all over in a moment though.

After his spine-tingling, initial run I knew I was dealing with a completely different class of fish. This fish fought like a smallmouth (anybody whose tangled with one knows what I'm talking about), and in my experience it's only a jumbo largemouth that can do that. Even then, they only do so on occasion. Well, anyone who knows smallmouth knows that they're famous for their gravity-defying leaps. This guy must've thought he was a smallmouth. He jumped...the bait came back empty. I haven't lost a big fish in a long, long, time, but I lost what could've been my biggest fish of the summer. It took only a little more than a second for my awe for the fish to turn to disgust at my mistake (I'd not kept the line tight enough on the jump). The beautiful, ancient fish disappeared in a flash, and I'd only caught a glimpse. My eyes turned from the rippled surface to the bait at my feet. All at once I wanted to curse, throw down my hat (though I wasn't wearing one), and snap my rod - and all at the same time. Instead I ground my teeth and let out and let out a nasty growl.

I knew he wouldn't hit again today. He hadn't just swiped at the bait and missed, he'd felt the hook in his jaw for nearly half a minute. I made a few more casts at the log, hoping he had a big friend visiting. No such luck though. My day was done. I made a few more casts and caught another short fish along the riprap, but my mind was still on the one that got away. It's still there now (my mind I mean). I'm not too disappointed though; I know where that fish lives, and I'll be back soon enough. I think we'll meet again.

In stark contrast to Lake Cook, I was very impressed with the quality of fishing at Lake Fairfax. I caught 5 bass better than 14 inches, and missed one that was probably in the 5 lb range. Appearances can be deceiving I guess. The 20 acre lake may be relatively shallow and featureless, but there are some nice bass living there.

Fishing in the rain

Over the last few days our region has been pounded by thunderstorms and rain showers. There have been power outages, evacuations, and flooding. Naturally, I decided to go fishing. I'd been searching online for public fishing opportunities and stumbled on to several. Lake Cook, located in Cameron Run Park, was my first stop.

On arriving at the lake I was rather disappointed. I knew it was only supposed to be 2 acres, but I hadn't expected it to be as small as it then looked. Ironically, I had chosen to fish this lake first because I knew it would be small and I could cover the entire lake in a few hours. If they were in there, I felt like I could catch them. The pouring rain and mud-colored water merely lowered my spirits a bit. Nevertheless, I went to work.

The mud colored water told me fish would be shallow, and that vibration and sound would be the keys to finding fish. I fist tied on a Cotton Cordell lipless crankbait. After catching grass on my few casts I decided I needed something that wouldn't run quite as deep. My spinnerbait wasn't riding high enough either, so I switched to a shallow running crankbait - a Mann's Baby 1 Minus. I fished hard for more than an hour before finally finding a friend. A little largemouth that was 12 inches at best hit right at the bank. After a brief battle I qickly released him. A few minutes later 2 catfisherman, the only others to brave the weather, stopped by to chat on their way out. They'd caught their limit (4) and told me there was a healthy population of catfish present, as well as a few large carp. I thanked him and went on.

I soon reached the end of the lakeside trail and started back around. I'd been disappointed with the lack of cover in the lake, and also with the fact that it seemed unusually shallow. I wouldn't have believed the water was deep enought for a bass to survive the winter if not for a park sign indicating a resident bass population. The fact that the lake is spring-fed is the only way I can figure a bass is able survive the winter there.

On my trip back around the pond I switched to a Norman Mad-N crankbait that dives a couple of feet deeper that the Baby 1 Minus. I went back to the few areas that had wood cover, and worked the lure as slowly as I could, but to no avail. Just before leaving, I stopped at a wooden platform that was partially flooded by the rising water. On my second cast I got a hit and set the hook on a better fish. I nearly lost her when she wrapped around a trout fisherman's snagged line (judging from the bait attached), but she stayed on. The fish was chunky and looked to be around 14 inches. (I didn't want to waste time fumbling around with my rainsuit trying to find my tape measure.) After a few more casts I headed home happy.

Looking back, Lake Cook is an intersting body of water. It's spring fed and smack in the middle of the city. The state stocks trout in the colder months, and there seems to be a decent catfish population. However, I wasn't too impressed with the bass fishing. A 14 incher is a nice fish, but it isn't huge, and I doubt the lake can support anything much bigger than that - at least not very many of them. The lake's small size, coupled with the heavy fishing pressure (it's relatively easy to overfish a small body of water like that) has convinced me to concentrate my efforts elsewhere. Nevertheless, under the conditions I faced yesterday, I was very pleased to catch the two I did.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

From her good side again Posted by Picasa

Monday, July 11, 2005

Same fish, new angle Posted by Picasa

My new personal best - she's somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 lbs Posted by Picasa