|Finally! Yes! I finally caught a smallie!
After an enjoyable but slightly disappointing outing the day before, I decided to go on a small adventure Sunday. What may be normal outings for regular people always seem to be big productions for me, probably because I have so little experience with the outdoors. This would not be an exception!
4am woke up, coffee, oatmeal, packed the car, google mapped my destination, and I was on the road at 4:30. My destination was supposedly 40 minutes away, on the Fox River in Batavia (I think). I strapped on my brand-new L.L. Bean waterproof medum-cut hiking boots, put on my camo hat; I felt like a real outdoorsman now. I was ready.
There seemed to be some nature preserves or parks or something on the river there, and it looked like some easy access to the water. It was early and nobody was on the road, and I drove very fast.
I made use of the “scan” button on the radio, and enjoyed some awesome Barry White, some kind of annoying bachata, and a whole lot of club house music. It seemed to be broadcast live, I wondered if somewhere in Chicago at some club there were still drunk people bumping and grinding to the music I was listening to. For them it was still Saturday night, but for me it was fishing-trip-Sunday. I thought about how the music was pumping them up to get down and party, while it was pumping me up to hunt for smallies.
I made it to the preserve in about 25 minutes. I was met with a barrier, the park was closed. I got out of the car and investigated- there were 2 padlocks on the gate. I thought for a minute, my coffee not entirely working yet. I went back to the car and looked at google maps- there was another park to the south. I got back on the road, driving slow so I wouldn’t miss it, and found the entrance. No gate on this park- I was in.
I slowly drove around, trying to make sense of what I could see in my headlights- it was pitch black, and there were no lights. I looked at satellite images on my phone to figure out where to park close to a path that lead to water. I saw a possum casually cross the parking lot and return to the darkness.
I parked, turned off the radio, turned off the lights, and shut off the car. And then there was nothing. It was completely black, silent, and cold. I was going to go outside and wander around in this? Was I crazy?
Apparently, yes. I didn’t drive all this way to NOT have an adventure, to NOT catch any fish, and NOT find any smallies. This was character-building, I told myself. I got out of the car.
Headlamp on high, my gear on my back, a flashlight in one hand and two rods in the other, I set out into the darkness.
|hiking in the dark
As I walked, I passed a few non-paved paths that seemed to lead toward the water, but to be honest I was a little apprehensive about hiking down narrow deer paths in the dark in a place I’d never been. I have almost no experience hiking, and even with the headlamp and flashlight, I still could barely see 20 feet in front of me. I kept to the paved bike path, hoping it would lead me to water.
After about 45 long minutes wandering in the darkness, I finally got to the water- an observation deck high above the water- no way I could fish from here! I needed to be ON the water. It was a great view, but it wouldn’t work. I was discouraged. I was wasting precious fishing time bushwhacking through the forest.
I decided to brave the narrow dirt path and go deep into the forest (well, it’s not that deep- but in the dark it seems pretty infinite). Seems like it could swallow you up whole. I knew there was a major expressway a mile away, and a densely populated area all around me, but from inside the dark forest I might as well have been in the Amazon, or the Boundary Waters, or some other place I’d never heard of.
A few times I found myself going in circles- I should have brought my compass. I saw a sign that had a picture of various animal footprints you might see on the path: Squirrel, deer, possum, coyote, bobcat… BOBCAT!!? COYOTE!!?? Oh jeez.
I pretended I never read the sign and continued walking. On the positive side, my new fancy L.L. Bean hiking boots were perfectly executing their job. At times the trail was a 45° angle, and the very grippy treads on my feet easily grabbed the earth and pushed me along.
Finally I reached a small path that lead to some kind of utility building. There was a lot of noise coming from the building, as if there were some kind of machine or pump inside. The trail seemed to slope down to the water, so I turned and began walking that way. In a few short moments the forest opened up, and I was greeted with the sight of water and shoreline. The shore was rocky, and the river actually had current- not like my Fox river trip two weeks back. Maybe this would be a good spot.
|Early morning on the Fox
I put down my backpack, and cast into the moving water, trying to remember all the important things about river fishing. What the heck were riffles? How do I find pools? It was early, I struggled to dig up the information from my exhausted brain. I tied on a 4″ yum grub with a tail on a fluorescent yellow jighead. Everybody seemed to be having great luck catching smallies on similar rigs.
|Best. Lure. Ever.
I got hung up on a branch. I managed to get it free, and immediately got stuck on my next cast. Ok, so this is how today is going to be? I couldn’t get it free. I suddenly remembered something I read on the windycityfishing.com forums… the “bow” technique for unsticking lu
res: reel in the line so it’s tight, and pull the line near the reel as if you’re preparing to shoot a bow and arrow. When you let go, the line springs back, hopefully springing the lure back as well, unhooking it. Didn’t work. Ok, I tried again.
Bingo! My lure easily came off, and I reeled in. What a great trick! I cast again, aiming for what I think is called a seam- a line between two different currents on the top of the water…? I am a complete newbie to river fishing.
And then.. BAM! Fish on! Just like that! Third cast.
Could this be a smallie? Probably not, it was only my third cast, it was probably some crappie or something. It fought pretty hard though… Wow.. Could it be? The smallie that I’ve been desperate to catch all year, been complaining about nonstop in my blog and to anyone who’ll listen, could it be on the end of my line?
After a short but magnificent fight, out of the water I pulled the most beautiful, amazing, incredible smallmouth bass. It was small, but to me it was a trophy. I wanted to put it on the wall.
|My first smallie! (of 2011)
I literally jumped up and down, and shouted with joy. I know serious, manly fishermen might read this- anglers who might think nothing of catching a 10-12″ smallie, and would certainly never giggle and jump for joy- but I don’t care. I was so incredibly happy. Catching this prize of a fish made the hour of aimless pitch-dark hiking worth it.
I held the fish and thanked it profusely. It wasn’t a huge fish, the fight wasn’t even the best fight I’d ever experienced; but this was a fish I’d been trying to catch for months, and I had finally accomplished my goal. I took about 30 pictures in quick succession, trying to ensure I got a thorough record of this oh-so-important catch.
I walked back to the shore to release it. Thanking what had been such an elusive fish for me to find and catch, I carefully returned it to the water. It swam away immediately in a large explosion of water.
Oh man, if I left right now I’d be completely satisfied.
I cast again to the same spot, and didn’t find another smallie there. For the next half hour I fan casted the area, casting both upstream and downstream, and perpendicular to the shore. I got hung up every other cast, and lost about every third jighead I tied on. The bow technique prevented me from losing all of them. Although this was the spot where I finally caught a smallie, I decided to move farther upstream since I wasn’t getting any fish here.
Backpack on my back, rods in my had, I carefully crept through the trees. I wanted to stay close to the river, and there was no path. I crouched down to avoid low hanging trees and spiderwebs, carefully stepped to avoid falling into the river, and climbed over a variety of huge fallen trees. This was some real outdoorsy #$&! for me.
I made it to a little point in the river, which was very rocky and seemed to continue deeper into the river. I’d read this is the type of place one might find smallies. I looked at the river, completely perplexed by what I was seeing; I didn’t really understand what all the different currents and lines and ripples and riffles mean. I didn’t even know if that is what they are called. I’ve pretty much fished on lakes- that smallie back there was my first moving-current fish, ever!
I saw a small pile of brush and branches about 10 feet from shore that was displacing the water around it. I wondered if a fish could hide behind the branches, saving some energy and waiting to ambush prey. I cast slightly upstream of the spot, and a combination of my reeling and current brought the lure right into the spot.
And then BAM! Fish on, again! I was pretty sure this was a smallie.
This one fought like a champ! As soon as it realized it was hooked, it seemed to swim everywhere at once… then, like a cold war era missile launched from some hidden silo in New Mexico, it erupted from the water in a cloud of splashes, flying at least a foot clear of the water. Amazing! These fish are powerful!
It swam upstream, downstream, deeper, higher in the water column, I struggled to keep it coming toward me and away from branches. I was determined to land my second smallie. This was amazing.
I pulled it out of the water, removed the hook, and admired it. This was a nicer fish than the previous one, maybe 13-14″, and a veritable warrior. Even while I held it with my thumb, it repeatedly bit my finger, and continued to shake and squirm. What a fish. I took more pictures, and returned it to the water.
Casting back to the same spot, I became immediately tangled. Using the bow trick, I got untangled, recast, and got tangled again. I remembered somebody saying “If you’re not losing lures, you’re not fishing,” I must have really been fishing.
Lost a few more jigs and grubs, but every time I have to tie on another lure, I get better and faster. At this rate I’ll be an expert real soon.
After some time without any fish, I decided to continue moving upstream. I saw a variety of birds hanging out farther north, it looked like they were standing in the river even though they appeared to be in deep water in the middle of the river. I guessed there was some very shallow water, and there might be some of those pools I’d heard about near there. Then again maybe that’s not what pools are- I definitely need to make myself a river vocabulary list, with definitions and using each word in a sentence. Just like spelling class in elementary school, only this time about catching fish. “Riffle. R-i-f-f-l-e. Riffle. Some kind of water in a river that holds fish. Riffle.”
I hiked through the forest, crouching under trees, watching out for spiderwebs, almost tripping every other step. I wondered if this is how a fox or cougar must feel- slowly creeping through the brush, hoping to get the upper hand on its quarry. They would certainly be more stealthy than I was. This is the closest I’ve come to hunting; hunting fish. Of course today I wasn’t hunting to eat, the way all other predators did.
Reaching another rocky shoreline, I found the shallow rocks the lead out to the middle of the riv
er. The water looked only about 6″ deep, and the current wasn’t too fast. I stood on the shore, looked down at my new waterproof medium-cut hiking shoes, and back to the water. Should I risk it? What if I tripped and fell, soaking my iphone, somewhere in its memory were the pictures of my first smallie? Or worse, what if I became swallowed up in the current?
|these boots are awesome
Throwing caution to the wind, I slowly and carefully stepped out into the river. Surprisingly, my feet remained completely dry. As I made my way beyond the trees and into the river proper, my boots skillfully gripped the rocks and continued to resist the water. Awesome.
I found myself about 30′ into the river, something I only thought was possible with waders. I scanned the water, and all around me were interesting looking changes in current, but of course I didn’t know what they were called. Some places where the water went in circles, some places where it quickly rushed over submerged rocks, some other places where it moved slowly and was darker. I was pretty confident those were called “pools.”
Casting into a pool, I was again immediately hung up on something, some rocks probably. Using my new fishing rod archery trick, I released my jig, brought it back to me, and recast into what I was pretty sure was called a pool.
BAM! Fish on! This was another fighter, a fish that wouldn’t come in easily. It burst from the water 3 or 4 times, its tail still wiggling back and forth trying to swim through the air. This fish was getting some serious air time, almost floating above the water before it came crashing down.
Fortunately, I kept tension on my line and was able to land it. I grabbed it with my thumb, it bit me, and I got out my phone to take some pictures. Smallie #3.
This was an amazing trip. Not only had I successfully located and landed my first smallie (well, of 2011), but it was my first moving current fish, and I was catching more! It wasn’t the high numbers of 50-70 fish landed that I’d been reading about from much more advanced anglers, but I was incredibly happy to be consistently catching fish.
A guy in an awesome looking long blue kayak was fishing, slowly paddling down the river. He said he caught a few small smallies (I think that’s what he said) and I told him about my few fish. I don’t think I hid my excitement very well, even though I said I was catching smallish smallies.
Standing almost in the middle of the river, surrounded by trees just beginning to change color, geese and ducks and herons flying all around me, the sound of gurgling water, three smallmouth bass on my iphone-photo-library-stringer, this was bliss. The outdoors is wonderful. I wondered if this was the appeal of trout stream fishing; standing out in the river, engulfed by nature, catching powerful little fish.
And then I caught another one! There were some splashes near the shore, which I assumed were more smallies. I cast downstream, parallel to the shore, and reeled back in. The amazing swimming action of these grubs was enough to entice my fourth and final fish of the day. I fished some more, continuing my fish-catching hike through the woods, but there were no more fish for me. I saw some guys in waders farther up the river. At one point there were some shouts; it sounded like one of them hooked into a monster, but it threw the hook. I heard him say something about the seam. I need to learn this vocabulary.
On my way out of the woods, a man and a little kid armed with rods and bobbers were heading in. They asked me about river access- they seemed as lost as I had been earlier. I told them to follow the path- which wasn’t much of a path- about the stream that emptied into the river, and the rocky areas where I’d caught the smallies. The man’s eyes lit up when I said that. They continued into the forest, and I walked toward the car. I hoped they would get into some fish.
I loaded my backpack and rods in the trunk, thoroughly satisfied with my Sunday morning. First smallie, first river fish (Ogden slip doesn’t really have current, so I’m not counting that), and for the first time due to my awesome new footwear, I felt I could go anywhere. I stood in the middle of a river and caught smallmouth bass. Just awesome. I couldn’t wait to post about this to my WCF comrades, specifically those who had provided so much advice on river fishing. Although I forgot all the important vocabulary, I did end up catching some smallies. Finally.
|my fox river base camp for a while