I’d left my Coke on top the truck. It was evident now, as I watched 32 ounces of it slosh around the bed, along with a foam Wendy’s cup I hoped wouldn’t blow out along the highway. The last thing I needed was a ticket for littering. As it was, I had to scrape together change for the turnpike toll but, in those days, tolls were measured in quarters, and I could usually find enough in the ashtray or the crack of the passenger seat.
What was more important was the time. In fact, the exact minutes on the clock mattered more than anything in the world, as after-work trips to Vermillion left only four hours to fish, max, and that was barring any traffic jams or a train on Route 60.
Four hours. Exactly one-sixth of the day, but by far the most significant.
I’d waited all day for that window. Under my breath, I prayed the whole way to the lake that it wouldn’t be rough. The forecast was for a south wind and it seemed pretty nice on shore, but I knew how different things could be on Lake Erie. This was a time when locals would still look at you like you were crazy for attempting to take a bass boat on the Great Lakes. "Thing’s a death wish," they’d say.
Flags. I knew the location of every flag along my route to the lake, and a buddy and I would check each one for direction and speed. We knew the reliable flags, along with the liars placed too close to a building or in an alleyway. Pay no attention to the liars; they try to convince you it’s always calm.
On certain occasions, especially early and late in the year, shoreline weather would be balmy, but the big lake would turn sour. As lifetime anglers, we understood the temperature gradient between sky and water could result in a “double-bagger” day, where one rain suit wasn’t enough. On those days, we earned even more confused looks at the gas station.
But as we passed the breakwall, it was clear everything was going to be alright. Sure there was a bit of a breeze out of the north and the whitecaps would make the driver’s side a little wet, but we turned west, as we did every day that week, and headed for Ruggles.
Now some of you may have heard of this place. Those of you old enough to remember, or compete in, the infancy of Great Lakes tournament fishing likely never forgot.
You see, back in late '80s, Ruggles Reef, or beach, or whatever you wanted to call it, was the greatest smallmouth fishery in the world. I don’t care what anybody says. At Ruggles, it was often possible to get in a certain depth range, say 19 feet, and drift parallel to that contour line for the entire evening and catch fish almost continuously. The schools of bass were measured in miles.
Such made for some urgency. As my buddy idled the boat out, I powered up the graphs, strapped the rods to the deck and got the drift sock out. Still parched, I pounded a Mountain Dew as we got on plane.
Our trip was short, as we simply stopped upwind of two anglers fighting fish in another boat. They’d have pulled the same trick; besides, what difference would it make. It was impossible to catch all the fish.
We drifted along sideways, dragging the staples of the day downwind. Five-inch Avocado grubs. Green tubes with gold flake. Occasionally, a Silver Buddy would be subbed in when things turned bitter cold. The bass ate them all. So did the rocks. Years later, we’d get hung up less as zerba mussels filled in the nooks and crannies. We’d see less crawfish in our wells, too, but never considered the outcome.
But this day was one of great optimism. As we drifted out to depths unknown, my best buddy and I doubled up. Each fish was bigger than any before it. We’d found something.
In those days, 30 feet was the max depth anyone fished for bass, and that was pushing it. Everyone knew that a bass was a bass, and bass lived around the shoreline where they ate crayfish or minnows or frogs or whatever. In any case, bass were shallow-water creatures, according to the book.
But these fish hadn’t read it. And, for some reason, there were more big bass in 30 feet of water than I’d ever seen anywhere. Carefully, we lined up shoreline markers – a tree on the edge of the new house addition that still showed Tyvek. Carefully, we confirmed our depth and threw out a marker buoy in hopes of never losing the magic ridge. The buoy would spend the summer on that rock, eventually growing moss, and watching over the biggest school of smallmouth bass ever known to man. Once green, no one ever noticed it.
In those days, the possibilities were endless. There was no Side Imaging, no data cards; hell, there was no GPS. The water was endless. All that mattered was the clock.
The last time I went to Ruggles, despite my modern technology, I never caught a bass. Everything it stood for was gone.
(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.)