| Thursday, September 9, 2010
|Hunting Bass in the Modern Age
I first noticed the bass on an afternoon walk around the lake. He made his rounds, carving a semicircle around the dock, the lowering sun catching the grey band along his side. A scar the color of pig’s skin dappled his lower lip, marking his progress through the lakescape of rocks, sticks, and blackened rhododendron leaves.
At the age of 32, the urge to catch fish, though refined, had not lessened. I had made the move from spin-cast to fly-fishing; yet standing on that dock, I resolved to do whatever it took to lift this leviathan from the water – and save myself the 45-minute trip to the Pennsdale butcher for a rib eye.
The day previous young Emmett and I set anchor – a stone wrapped in nylon rope – a couple hundred feet off Edgemere dock. Fourteen years my junior, Emmett and I had fished annually at the Memorial Day gathering for a good ten years. Emmett used my spin-cast rod, an old stick with rusted guides and an ancient Zebco reel. I used my fly rod.
“Is that hook tied off properly?” I asked him, as he dropped his weighted line to the lake bottom.
He had caught his first fish at about the same spot. I had him reach into the gills of the bass, find the soft dimple behind the neck with his thumb, and break the neck. I told him the local Indians would eat the eyeballs of the fish they caught, and we should do the same. He did so – perhaps my first experience with the power of passing on tradition, invented or not.
After problems in high school, Emmett went to Idaho and got his GED. At the age of 18, he now lived in Washington D.C. I liked to think of myself as something between older brother and father to him.
He reached now over the gunwales to take a look at his knot.
“Should work,” he said. And it did. He caught two perch to my none.
I came down later in the evening with my fly rod and the same spin rod Emmett had used the day before. As my nuclear option, I brought along a plastic container of “Baby Nightcrawlers.”
Slightly lethargic from their nap in the fridge, the worms rallied to my touch in the black dirt, less than five feet as the net flies from my bass, who perambulated around the dock piers.
A man on a neighboring dock watched as I threaded the guides of the fly rod. He smoked while taking occasional glances at the newspaper in his lap.
“You going for trout?” he asked.
“The one with the pink lip?”
I tied on the wooly bugger, a fly made from olive pipe cleaner and a burnished brass bead, and listened only to the click of the gears on the reel as I worked out line. I cast the bugger well beyond the fish, let the wet fly sink to his cruising depth, and began stripping line. The bass made the slightest re-adjustment of direction – out of the path of my bugger – but otherwise paid no attention.
For the next hour I tried various flies – muddler minnow, Dave’s hopper, even a ghoulish frog in desperation. I experimented with retrieves, letting the imitation ride high and dip, bringing it in straight and fast, letting the minnow bounce along the bottom.
Meanwhile, a cigarette butt floated on the lake waves in front of my dock.
I looked over at the man, who held a red keg cup in one hand for ash. He had folded up the collar of his Navy blue polo, and lit one cigarette off another.
“Any luck?” he asked.
“Workin’ at it.”
I took up the same rod Emmett had used, imagining that some of his luck from the previous day might rub off.
The pink of my baby nightcrawler matched almost perfectly the dapple on the bass’ lower lip. I set a bobber to just about that height. He cruised up and, like an embarrassed teenager, curved his head off to the side.
Each time the fish changed location, I chased him down. Finally, perhaps drawing on his years of experience, the bass left his orbit and traveled over to a neighboring dock. Still, I could make out the pink of his lip, ever so faint in the gunmetal water.
I cast over. Almost immediately the bobber began to skate along the surface, then jerked from view. I gave a flick of the wrist, and it was on. He torpedoed under the dock. I held the rod out from my body, keeping the tip high, reeling in quickly. He exploded in a flurry of whitewater, beaver-slapping the water’s surface.
He dove again, then suddenly surfaced on his side, resting, the thick grey band facing me now. The dog, usually disinterested when it came to trout and smaller fish, came over to check out this creature in the same way he checks out smaller dogs.
In my haste to catch this fish, I had not brought my net. So I tightened up the line, wrapped the filament around my palm, and lay on my stomach. As I reached toward the water I heard the man click his tongue.
The gills of the fish flapped as I lifted, two sand dollars of armor. I got him just far enough out to see the glory of his 20 inches and the thousand-volt line of his back before a single twitch did its work – the line broke, the water splashed, and the monster retreated beneath the leaves of a mountain laurel.
There is a silence after you have lost a fish that echoes to the ends of the earth. Even the guy watching me with his polo and cigarette had the decency not to break it. Such a deep prehistoric disappointment, that drop from electricity and everything sharp and meaningful to nothing.
I looked at the line. Instead of a clean break, there was a squiggle at the end. The knot had failed. I looked at the fish, now finning near the bank. The hook and line extended from the side of its mouth like a gossamer of drool.
“Helps to have a net,” the fellow said, rubbing out his cigarette in his beer cup.
Truth is, as much as I wanted to de-limb him as he said this, he was right. Present this fish with a worm, and he will eat it. He has little choice in this calculus.
I too as hunter have an end of the bargain to uphold. It consists of attention to detail, a conscientiousness of tradition, and a devotion of thought and reflection to the task at hand. It means arriving with a sharpened knife, a proper knot, and a net to lift a fish from the water.
|posted by Brendan Jones @ 7:15 AM