Sorting through memories, I came across a familiar old photo. Maybe once used in a tourism brochure, or a flyer for a guide service, the angler in the picture was vintage Florida. Sun-bleached hair tucked under a faded cap, an ecstatic grin across his face as he hoisted the giant bass.
I knew the caption: Thirty-two inches. Osceola County.
To me, the very thought of measuring and releasing such a fish rather than weighing it defined the epitome of sportsmanship in an era when lunkers were routinely slaughtered to become skin mounts. Somewhere out there once swam a bass nearly three feet long.
It took me to the moment I’d come face to face with the man in the photo. A local ace, Jim wasn’t in it for the money, but for his love of fishing. My dad had hired him from time to time, filling in a fish-less vacation with better odds on a guided trip. That day, however, would be different.
I must admit, I was a bit surprised when my father agreed for me to join Jim solo. Pushing away a few empty beer cans, I climbed in his jacked-up truck for an adventure I’d never forget. The hot summer sun beat down as we barreled across dirt roads, criss-crossing the cow prairies of that desolate land. Dust covered the boat in tow. Windows down; the radio cranked. No longer regarded as a pasty-white kid from the North, I was transformed into a local.
I was free.
Jim told me a story of how his buddy had hit a cow crossing the road a few days prior, totaling his truck and boat on the way to a tournament, nearly dying in the process. We crossed creeks and canals with more cover to flip than all the lakes in Ohio. Finally, we came to Kissimmee.
Words cannot describe my first impression. There, for as far as I could see, were great stands of maidencane, endless fields of lilies and cattails that stretched across the horizon. One thing, however, was missing.
Sandwiched between a drawdown and a drought, the great Kissimmee was but a fraction of its former self. Floating docks rested on the bottom at the ramp, the only meaningful wet spot being the blowhole created by anglers previously loading bass boats on the trailer. It would have to do.
After several botched attempts, Jim and I finally figured out a way to launch the boat through a process that involved unhooking the trailer from the truck. At the time, there seemed absolutely no consideration for how we would later get the boat back on the trailer. At 15 years old, I didn’t care.
Once on plane, Jim kept the throttle pinned down. Trimmed to the max, a giant roostertail followed us; the only boat on the lake. Several times I felt the lower unit coasting across the bottom, as if pulled by massive current. Finally, we landed in a small pond, skidding to a sudden stop. Jim trimmed the motor all the way up and pulled two rods from the locker.
The sticks were identical; seven-foot heavies. Mean Green Trilene was the line of the day and lure choices consisted of only one: big, black Johnson Silver Minnow spoons.
To each spoon, Jim carefully threaded on a large soft-plastic lizard. Thirty years later, I still remember his exact reasoning.
“It makes the whole thing… reptilian.”
Jim reasoned that this was alligator nesting season and, each year at this time, gigantic bass attacked the newly-hatched gator babies for an instant shot of protein. I drank it all in.
Our chosen fishing area was just two feet deep but, surrounded by thousands of acres of nearly dry muck, it became the best spot in the lake. Jim made the first cast – a short pitch to show me the proper way to fish the spoon.
The key, he said, was to continuously shake the bait, almost in place, while slowly winding the handle. The bulky lizard trailer kept the bait high in the water column, allowing the bass to focus in on the lure’s body.
I’ll never forget the scene. Right then, as Jim shook his bait near the surface just 20 feet from the boat, an enormous bass blew up on the lure, immediately straightening and breaking the 20-pound test in an audible CRACK. The line actually whipped back and hit me.
I have never, ever shook so hard before making my first cast of the day.
Time after time, big bass would bust our lures – some getting hooked, many others not – until we needed to break for rest and water. That day still rates as some of the most exciting fishing I’ve ever experienced. While I don’t remember any 10-pounders coming over the gunnels, certainly dozens of monsters gave us a scare, based on the memories of a 15-year old boy.
I often reflect on that time in my life, when all that mattered was bass fishing and men like Jim were more influential to me than any TV actor or football player or rock star. Or teacher or uncle.
They were free.
Later that day, several failed attempts to get the boat on plane led to a marathon boat-pushing session. It was easy to retrace our initial path coming in, as the skeg from the outboard had left a mile-long trail in the sand. At dark, the mosquitos were monumental.
Don’t even ask how we got the boat on the trailer.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)