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.

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.