There’s a contingent of saltwater anglers sometimes labeled as purists. “Fly only” is the correct term, I think, to describe fishermen who have given up on conventional or spinning gear and, instead, replaced it with a fly rod for all pursuits. Bonefish and tarpon junkies make up the largest percentage of the group, but anglers targeting all sorts of species have gone the way of the fly. Redfish, permit, sailfish; even blue marlin addicts are being converted.
At first glance, I think how lucky we are as bass anglers to be more logical in our choices. Then I correct myself.
For some time now, I’ve noticed my personal tackle choices are being reduced more every day. I assumed this was a sign of getting older. Most old guys I know, anyway, seem to have a favorite way of fishing and stick to it no matter what. Dyed in the wool, my dad will chunk a Texas-rig until the cows come home, even when bass are busting a topwater. How he pulls that off, I’ll never know.
Another old buddy is a spinnerbait guy. Growing up watching Jimmy and Bill, he bought a carton of Strike Kings and never looked back. Believe it or not, some still feature a “turtle back” blade, and still catch a bunch of bass. The man has never tried a ChatterBait and owns nothing with treble hooks.
And me, I’m finding that a couple of outfits get the most attention. I’ll never turn my back on a the original Rapala. Swim jigs are just too darn productive to give up. Worms always work in Florida. And the big stick makes four.
So I guess I’m a little more diversified than my fishing partners, but still way off pace compared to most of bass fishing America.
There was a time in my life, however, when I tried to master every bass technique out there. Truth be told, I made a pretty good run at it. I’ve always been comfortable fishing heavy-line tactics on the bank, yet most of my Great Lakes success was done in deep water with light gear, so blending was never an issue. But the more I tried to find the next best thing, or learn a new trick, the more distracted I found myself becoming. The more I thought back to an observation I made as a young man.
Picture this. As Midwesterners on a week’s vacation to Florida, dad and I would anchor up each morning on a particular stretch of the Ocklawaha River and dunk shiners for big bass. Now my father’s always been a die-hard angler and a very systematic guy, so there was no lounging when it came to these types of affairs. We’d be on the water as the sun came up and off when it went down for the night.
So each morning we’d be there, in the pre-dawn light, the world quiet except for the frogs and birds and gators that made up the bulk of the population of this remote part of 1980s Florida. Then, like clockwork, a lone angler would float his way down the river channel in a small, plastic boat – commonly referred to as a portable, or one-man rig – chunking a worm to the exposed stumps and standing timber.
After the first few days of this, we got to know the guy a bit. We’d make small talk as he floated by, casting the same worm, on the same rod, day after day. It turns out he lived just upriver and fished his way down through that stretch every morning. It had been his life’s goal to put in his 30 years at the factory, retire, and fish every day. He’d done the work and stepped down a few years prior, and was living out his dream.
I vividly remember asking the man if he’d caught any 10 pounders. “Not this year yet,” was his reply.
As it turns out, some days he’d catch a couple fish, some days a dozen or so. Every once in a while, none. In any case, the man would try to be home by 10 a.m. to have breakfast with his wife. And every day, he fished with nothing but a Texas-rigged plastic worm, in one of two colors.
As a kid, I had no understanding of this approach. My goal was to get a new, bigger tackle box every birthday, and fill it as quickly as possible. There had to be a direct correlation, I thought, between the number of lures I owned and the number of fish I could catch. Getting to know each bait intimately was half the fun, and I’d always select the lures with the best paint jobs.
Coincidently, I started with a floating Rapala, but quickly moved on to crankbaits. Wiggle Warts were a favorite, then Wee-Rs. There was a definite buzzbait obsession in my pre-teen years, followed by a full-scale transition to the jig and pig. Plastic craws made a big push, as did big worms and spinnerbaits, especially with painted blades. Then, of course, came custom topwaters and flat-sided divers costing 20 bucks or more.
Yes, looking back, I was probably a lot like many other bass nuts. Cycling through the popular lures and trying to get better at using them; better than anyone else. Then doing everything possible to know those lures better, as well. Fishing, learning, and modifying each to catch one more fish. Tying jig skirts and boiling trailers. Changing out blades and swivels. Sanding baits and swapping hooks.
Such would occasionally take my fishing to another level. Success was the result of time on the water and the willingness to try new things. But yet, despite it all, I’d still think back to the mysterious river man casting his worm. There was just something about the accepted simplicity in his fishing. It was a complete separation of the bass fishing hype; tournament winning lures, secrets of the pros and master catalogs. It was total satisfaction with everything perfect about our sport.
For over 30 years, a part of me has idolized that man. Despite traveling all over the country and fishing with thousands of lures, I yearn to have the time and freedom to fish every morning with the same plastic worm and be home in time for breakfast.
I wonder if this is the same feeling that the fly addicts get. Perhaps it’s nothing to do with being a purist, or being perceived as anything, by anybody. Perhaps it’s just discovering what’s best for you.
(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.)