Mondays can be difficult. This one was no exception.
The work week started off with problems. Conference calls and Zoom meetings – now a regular part of just about every business – needed rescheduling. Project managers were picky; approval was required from everybody, resulting in nothing getting done. Instant communication is more a pain than it’s worth.
To top it all off, my wife was mad at me and my dog was sick. What a day! I knew the river could save me. If I gave it long enough, and allowed the afternoon sun to slack off a bit, there was hope.
I live in a great city. Here, culture combines with good people, resulting in residents who still care enough to hold a door, and plenty to do around town.
But my attraction to the place was more than the neighborly feel, it was the close proximity of the St. Johns River and, more importantly, the land on each side. Both banks are owned by the government. The west bank is home to The Forest, technically the Ocala National. On the east, is the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.
Yes, this stretch of Florida features what may very well be the last remaining freshwater completely surrounded by undeveloped land. And that – the recognition of places best left alone – is what brought me here.
Sure, there are better places to fish. Kissimmee immediately comes to mind. And the new lakes around Fellsmere are world-class. But I don’t care.
You see, I’d rather fish by myself and catch nothing than fish in a crowd and catch a pile. It’s just always been that way. Granted, it’s nice to get a few bites from time to time, but the main goal of my bass fishing no longer lies in weighing my five best fish. I don’t go out there to excel at my job. In fact, lately, it seems I go to get away from it.
So I waited until about 6, loaded up the sick dog and headed to the ramp.
Jet Skis on trailers pulled out as I arrived. Win number one. After a quick launch I was off, picking the first major creek I came to, the sun low enough now to be blocked by the high cypress trees lining each bank. The scene was vintage Florida, the way it used to be. Killing the engine, we slowly floated downstream, the current just strong enough to be noticeable. We – my dog and I – shared a bottle of water. It was still awfully hot.
But the shade was now on the water and to the bass – the young schoolers that were always at this spot – to them, it was time to make hay. As we drifted, the bass exploded on small shad around the boat. I’d come into their realm and disturbed things just enough to spook the bait. The bass wouldn’t spook, they were too focused on eating. As long as I stayed quiet, they’d allow me into their world for a time, a world of boom and bust and getting ahead while you can.
May is a boom. Down on the river, the locals call it “school bass season.” School bass are usually small – about a pound or 2 – but fry up well when you have enough of them. Around here, a bass is still a fish, just like a crappie, a bream or even a mullet. They all fry up well.
We wouldn’t be keeping any today. A worm would get bit, but this was one of those special times when lure choice became a matter of what was most fun.
By now, the dog was bouncing from the front deck to the back, wondering why those little minnows were jumping out of the water, and just what it was that was chasing them. How badly he wanted one of those bass to jump into the boat. I’m not sure what he’d have done.
By some stroke of luck, I stumbled across a tiny spinnerbait, flashy willow blades a couple inches long. My first cast produced not one, but two strikes. The world was right again.
Cast after cast, fat little bass ate my lure. They smelled when I lifted them on board to take out the hook. After a half dozen, I resisted setting the hook, instead having just as much fun tricking the bass into biting my lure, then leading them around before they finally spit out the metal imposter. A few struck the bait a second time. Greedy. Hungry.
Drifting down the creek, I came across a few lily pads where I knew a swim jig would work. Resisting, I pushed the little spinner. Three casts later, I dug in the rod box.
After years of pondering, I know what my favorite sound is in bass fishing. It’s the sound of stretching line. I understand anglers who fall in love with topwater strikes; the ka-bloosh of a monster bass hitting a frog. And there’s the wind rushing through your ears when running down the lake, and the drag of a spinning reel sounding when a big smallmouth pulls, and the whip of a hard hookset.
But when I close my eyes and think of bass fishing, I envision a lure running by thick cover and a bass trying to take that lure away from me. And the sound of line – braid or nylon or whatever – stretching to the point where the next second is going to decide my fate.
So when the swim jig came across those pads, and the little clump of floating pennywort that was mixed in, and that bass, that big, old, too-cool-for-school bass came out of there and tried to take that lure away from me, and that line made that sound. At that time, the rest of the day had never happened. Not for me, or the dog.
I leaned. The fish leaned. The hook broke.
And all was right in the world again.
(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.)