There are times I fish just to keep ‘em honest, and unfortunately this was one of those times. The only boat on the lake, my trolling motor churned mud as I aimlessly flipped each reed clump. I’d run across 3 miles of water so shallow I’d held my breath, settling into an area that I knew, deep down, would result in a fishless afternoon. I had to be sure.
Three years ago this same spot presented the equivalent of a Florida bass utopia. More water flooded the shoreline then, holding pre-spawn bucketmouths with no fishing pressure but my own. After catching a 5-pounder from a thick pennywort mat, a second flip into the same hole produced a 6. It was that good.
Each year after, the same week finds me again fishing, failing and dreaming.
Following my heavenly experience in 2017, I attempted to trace the fish back to their homes. As the water receded, so did the fishing, so I assumed the bass were moving out. However, the hole in my theory I couldn’t overcome was the 3-mile distance to any reasonable amount of water. I mean, the places I’d caught fish were nearly dry by spring. Yet, try as I may, I never again stumbled across those bass. No bites; none.
An old-timer at the dock confirmed my disbelief. “Bass fishing’s only good in this lake when the water’s over the dock,” he said. Earlier that fall, I remembered getting wet feet when walking to the truck.
So here I was again, hoping to solve another of nature’s mysteries that had no logical explanation. It was a familiar displeasure in my gut, the type that can only be defined as hopeless, looking for pity from an indifferent master. None would come.
I remembered that feeling. It seemed like eons ago, but I vividly recalled the first fish that hit my spinnerbait while practicing for a big tournament on the Potomac River. I had visited the site before and bombed, but vowed this time would be different. Venturing to Occoquan Bay, I was greeted by flooded cover and hungry bass, making for the type of fishing only available when the stars align on a tidal fishery.
The first day of the tournament found me waiting for high tide, certain I’d be making hay by noon. But the water never came.
The following day, I again put all my eggs in the high-water basket, and again failed. Determined to save my pride and entry fee, I relentlessly idled the entire bay, looking for a small depression or offshore oddity that held the school. Maybe Side Imaging could save me. But nothing did.
Another memory hit even closer to home. Back in the heyday of Lake Erie bass tournaments, a few friends and I took home most of the money. Early on, a buddy fished a place I can’t detail as more than “an object” far out in the middle of the lake. I mean, this thing was out there by nothing. Several times in team tournaments, he and I would run to his spot and immediately load the boat with gigantic smallmouths. It was absolutely insane fishing for bass that I’m sure had never seen a human being. Other times, we’d show up and not catch a fish. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the outcome.
However, each time we struck out, we’d idle and idle around this thing, sometimes several miles in each direction. We’d graph and fish and try and try to “re-find” those big smallmouth. On one occasion we caught a single, huge bass. All other attempts went completely fishless.
I bet such stories get you thinking of your own. Each of us has these incredible memories of unexplained bass failure; often they resonate with us far longer than the tales of success. Certainly, we’ve all fallen victim to the unexplained subtleties of nature, just when we thought we had it all figured out.
I suppose that’s what bothers me most. As an avid outdoorsman, I’ve discovered untold numbers of nature’s secrets. The ways crappies move from brush to docks, and when. Or how walleyes love it when a lure makes a turn. When the ducks will show in fall, and exactly where they’ll land when they do.
And I’ve been fortunate enough to figure out a few bass. But it was those that I couldn’t that still haunt me.
There’s just something about being sure of yourself when it comes to fishing. It’s Colorado blades in muddy water, Shad Raps when it’s cold and docks around the shad spawn. There’s tangible evidence that repeats itself, and we can use that to trust our decisions. Decisions that we made based on reason.
So it stands to reason that the bass that inhabit my shallow-water lake when the water rises come from somewhere. And they should be acting just like any other bass, chasing shad and eating Culprit worms and allowing me to trust my decisions.
Yet, 3 years later, they continue to disprove my theories. Those based on thousand of days on the water all across the country in hundreds of different scenarios, each time hoping to get a few bites and unlock the puzzle.
Often rewarded, but occasionally just keeping ‘em honest.
And knowing it.
(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.)