Wednesday, October 19, 2011

CB Cooks: Roasted Squash and Apple Soup

It's actually squash, sweet potato, carrot, parsnip, and apple soup

As the weather gets colder, and my obsession with fishing gets more difficult to satisfy out in the cold, my fall cooking season is starting in earnest. I'm not done fishing for the year, but the weather is getting nastier and nastier... I've got to start doing some activities to replace my constant fishing fix. Cooking works great!

This is my combination of a bunch of different dishes I've had and really enjoyed. The inspiration for this dish comes from 3 places: 1) the squash and sweet potato soup from Big Bowl (it's very tasty, I highly recommend you get it) 2) A parsnip and apple soup Claire and I had on our honeymoon, and 3) A root vegetable purée from Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Don't let the possibly strange combination of squash and onion and apple turn you off- this is definitely worth trying. I think it's delicious! I was at the grocery store and saw some beautiful squash; here's what I did with it.

Squash - I used a big butternut squash grown by the good folks in Hudsonville, Michigan
Sweet potato - I used a single big one
Carrots - 2-3 would be good
Parsnip - I used just one, but adding more would be good too
Apple - we had a single golden delicious left in the fridge, and it was an excellent choice
Onion - I almost always use white onion
Garlic - you can never use too much
Stock or water - I didn't have any stock, I used plain old water
Oil - I used olive oil
Ginger, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper
A splash of coconut milk would probably be great; some garam masala or curry powder would also be good

Oven - for roasting (this isn't completely necessary, but it concentrates the flavors)
Big pot - for making the soup - I used a dutch oven
Bean masher or immersion blender, or both, or just a regular blender - to get the soup thick and smooth

Roasted parsnip and carrots
1) Roast the squash, sweet potato, carrots, and parsnip in a 400°F oven for about an hour (rub oil on the veggies and season with salt and pepper before roasting). You want everything to be soft and easily mashable. You'll probably want to take the carrots and parsnip out earlier than an hour. I cut the squash in two, and roasted it cut-side up, but you could also dice it and roast it that way. I didn't bother peeling the carrots or parsnips, but I peeled the sweet potato. Would probably be easier if you didn't peel that...

2) Once the veggies are roasted, get some diced onions sizzling in your big pot with some oil

3) When the onions are nice and sautéed, add a bunch of minced garlic and cook for about a minute

Roasted squash (I shouldn't have made
those cuts- made it hard to get the flesh out)

4) Mash up the roasted veggies (not the squash skin or sweet potato peel) and add to the pot

5) Add your liquid (stock or water) to the big pot, stir

6) Simmer

7) If you want it to be nice and smooth, use a bean masher, an immersion blender, or a regular blender. Careful! Blending hot liquids can be dangerous! I first used a bean masher to get the veggie chunks to a workable size, then I busted out my immersion blender to get everything nice and smooth

I caught an immersion blender-
must be about a 25-incher

8) Once the mixture is super creamy smooth, season with whatever seasonings you want. I used ginger, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and cumin

9) Taste, adjust seasonings. If the mixture is too liquidy, let it simmer with the lid off for a while... But watch out for little explosions! Bubbles rising up from a thick liquid like this can be mini burning hot volcanos of scalding lava. I speak from experience.

10) Once you're happy with the consistency and flavor, turn off the heat and stir in some RAW diced apple. Yes, raw! The remaining heat in the soup will partially cook it, and it will keep some of that nice crunchy apple texture. If you want a completely smooth soup without bits of apple in it, either don't add the apple, or add it before you blend the soup

11) Ladle into a bowl, garnish with more raw diced apple on top

Adding the diced apple

- Cook some bacon, dice it up, put it back in the soup after you blend the veggies
- Next time I make this, I will most definitely add some puréed ancho or guajillo chile. Maybe even some fresh green chile too.
- Add a splash of coconut milk - the soup already has a hint of coconut even though there's none in it! This could be good
- Some similar recipes call for turmeric; although I don't think it adds too much flavor, it would make the soup a brighter orange color
- Add garam masala or curry powder - lots of squash soup recipes call for curry powder. I'm not sure exactly why, but it could work
- Add the onions after you blend the veggies, so you get more texture in the soup
- Some potato in the mix would probably be great; or turnips, rutabagas, any root vegetable would be a nice addition
- Some recipes call for the addition of a dairy product like yogurt, milk, cream, etc. I really don't think this is necessary; the soup is super creamy on it's own, and if you cook it with water or veggie stock and hold the pork, our vegan friends can enjoy it too.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How now brown trout?

Pure Michigan!

In Michigan for the weekend, I had to get my obligatory Michigan fishing in. Saturday morning I waded the Thornapple River near Grand Rapids, but got completely skunked (and very very cold). It was beautiful, but I wasn't able to find any fish. I decided to hit up another river on Sunday, hopefully I'd get into some fish this time.

It was cold, dark, and raining, and I left the house anyway. Mark told me about a great spot on a great river not too far from Grand Rapids- the Rogue River, and I was determined to check it out. It's not every day I get the chance to fish pristine Michigan waters, and I knew there were fish in there I wasn't likely to find at Busse or the Fox River. Fish like trout. Although I've gone salmon fishing a few times in the harbors in Chicago, I have yet to connect with one of those beasts. In fact, the only trout I've ever caught were 3 8" steelheads at Burnham in the summer.

I threw my stuff in the Mini Cooper, plugged my phone into the aux input, and accelerated onto the expressway. I tuned my Pandora radio to Mos Def, but I wasn't listening... I was fantasizing about the steelhead I was about to catch. Or kings. Or coho. I don't really know. Following my GPS and the pin I'd dropped on the secret location, I made my way to Rockford, Michigan, and parked.

I got out of the car, and looked down at the river. My first impression was a little bit of terror: it looked super fast and super cold. Was I ready for this? This would only be my 4th or 5th time wading. And it was cold out, not to mention raining. Like usual, I threw caution to the wind, and suited up.

The cold-looking Rogue River, Rockford, Michigan
I headed down a path, walked under a bridge, and immediately noticed a ton of "PRIVATE PROPERTY: NO HUNTING OR FISHING" signs everywhere, all around the path. Mark told me the day before Michigan law allowed anglers to use a reasonable amount of bank to facilitate fishing public waters, so I wasn't too worried about the signs. But I have to admit, every time I heard a branch crack or a squirrel jump I expected to turn around and see a shotgun-toting Tea Party member wanting me off his property.

Mark told me I should cross the river where there were a bunch of riffles, or a little rapids. I slowly and carefully made my way into the water a little upstream of the rapids, noting how much warmer the water seemed than the Thornapple yesterday. I'd been told the Thornapple was spring fed, and always super cold; either way, the Rogue didn't seem so bad. Looking down into the water, I was absolutely shocked with the water clarity- I could see all the way to the bottom; the water was crystal clear! NONE of the waters I fish in Illinois are crystal clear like this. I don't know if it's pollution, or mud, or the type of bottom... But this was incredible. The bottom of the river was covered with rocks and millions of vibrantly colored leaves recently dropped from the trees. It looked like a quilt, a myriad of bright colors shining up from the bottom. But I didn't see any fish there.

I snapped a Mepp's gold Aglia onto my swivel, thinking that might entice whatever trout or salmon happened to be lurking in these waters. I'd recently read about maggots, skein, and even nightcrawlers being successful on the river, but I hadn't stopped at a bait shop to get any of these things. Also, I didn't have any bobbers. So I was sticking with what I had, which was an assortment of inline spinners (store-bought and homemade), crankbaits, and jigs.

The flow of the river was pretty strong, much stronger than any stretch of the Fox I'd experienced. I started to get nervous, but I persevered; maybe the rapids would be better, I thought. I looked downstream and saw nothing but white water, flowing quickly over big boulders. It was pretty exciting- looking around, as far as I knew I could have been in some remote stream in the Colorado rockies; with the boulders, the pine trees, and the knowledge that there were trout in these waters. The roar of the rushing water filled the air. If there were any cars or trains or planes around, I didn't see them or hear them. I knew there were houses nearby, but I couldn't seem them either. I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, in a good way!

I stepped into the rapids, and quickly felt the pull of the current. At this moment I was incredibly happy to have my improvised wading staff. Although it was just a broom handle with a hole drilled into it, a rope threaded threw the hole and affixed to me with a caribeaner, it prevented me from falling over in the water. I wasn't used to so many huge rocks, and it was challenging to navigate them while dealing with the very strong current. I took tiny steps, trying not to lift my feet too far off the bottom: when I did, they felt like underwater kites and were pushed by the current.

Every now and then I would pause, wondering if I should turn around and cross somewhere else. I looked around and realized I was already in the middle of the river, I might as well continue. I kept moving, slowly, every few steps almost falling over. I started to sweat. This was a workout- I could feel my entire lower body working to keep me vertical. I'd probably feel this tomorrow! Thank goodness for the wading staff. It saved me more times than I could count!

Finally, I was in a few feet of the opposite shore, when I almost stepped into a deep hole between some rocks. I quickly pulled back, using my broom handle to steady myself, the adrenaline shooting through my body. Whew! That was close! I paused, gathered myself, and carefully continued. At last, I was standing in a foot of water on the other side of the river. I walked downstream, closely following the shore, until I got to an island Mark told me about.

Here the bottom seemed much more sandy, and I sank in a little when I waded out to the middle. I was pretty sure smallies liked gravel or rocky bottoms (not sandy bottoms like this) but I wasn't sure about trout or salmon. I was also pretty sure there weren't really any smallies here, so it didn't matter what I knew about them! I scanned the water, trying to make some sense of all the currents I was seeing. There was clearly one big current coming from the rapids upstream, clearly identified by a line of bubbles quickly traveling down the river. I wondered if any opportunistic fish might sit right in the slower water right next to the faster water (I think that's called a seam...) waiting for a meal to go by. I cast my spinner upstream, and reeled it in right along the seam, just fast enough to keep the blade spinning.

I fan cast the area, eventually casting downstream and retrieving upstream. I'd had much more luck doing that for smallies, even though it didn't make sense to me (if the fish are facing upstream, seems like they'd be less likely to see food approaching from behind). I got hung up a bunch of times- especially casting upstream- but managed to keep my lure. 

After a while, three guys in kayaks came down the river. Two of them seemed like they'd never been kayaking before, and were spinning around and bumping into each other. It was pretty funny. When they saw me, they tried to give me a wide berth, but were unsuccessful. I didn't mind, I know it can be hard to control a kayak! I told them I hadn't caught or seen any fish; one of them said there were lots of fish in this river. I just hoped I could find them!

I continued downstream, slowly wading and casting in what I thought were good places. Places where the water spun in a circle, seams, on either side of riffles, all around boulders; I didn't see any fish jumping, and I didn't see any fish under the surface. Although I wasn't wearing my polarized sunglasses, I had no problem seeing all the way to the bottom. The leaf-patchwork and rock bottom was beautiful to look at, although there weren't any fish. I was surprised I didn't see any baitfish, especially in some slow moving water under tree branches close to shore.

At one point, moving to a good location, I had to wade through some deeper water. Until this point, I thought the water wasn't too cold, and had even taken off my sweatshirt because I was too warm. There was a very particular point when the cold water swirled almost to my waist and I changed my opinion. I decided the water was extremely cold.

Over the course of an hour or two, I slowly waded downstream, and threw a variety of different lures. A few different crankbaits, some Sims spinners (they cast so nice, and seemed to reach the bottom more easily in the faster current. I'd heard trout and salmon might hang out near the bottom....), and some other inlines. I also threw a little homemade spinner that had a bullet weight for a body. It also was able to stay deeper, closer to the bottom, although nobody was interested in it. I wondered about color selection in this water; I was pretty sure in clear water, you should use more natural-colored lures since the fish can see them better. On the other hand, it seemed like most salmon and trout lures where brightly colored and absolutely NOT natural-looking. I'd have to do some more research about this.

Casting to many VERY fishy locations, I started to get frustrated. I hadn't seen a single fish, certainly not any big steelhead or salmon swimming around. No fish jumping, no little baitfish swimming around. I did see some bugs on the surface of the water, but was not able to find any small fish eating the bugs. What gives?

Thinking I wouldn't have any more luck, I decided to head back upstream toward the car. I could cast along the way, but I didn't expect to get into any fish. I made my way to the shore, and started walking upstream on a path. The forest was extremely beautiful. Although the rain had stopped earlier, everything was covered in just enough water to make it shine and glisten as the sun shown from behind clouds. The leaves were tremendously vibrant, covering every square inch of the forest floor. The sound of rushing water was all around me.

I saw a guy fly fishing near where I'd originally entered the water. I had fished there, and got nothing. He was standing only up to his knees in water- could there really be nice trout or salmon swimming around right there, around his legs? I have a lot to learn, apparently. He said he had a nibble, but had only been there a few minutes. I told him about my skunk, and continued up the river. 

I reached the bridge, near where I parked, and noticed some interesting looking water upstream. Mark suggested the river downstream was better, but I hadn't had any luck there. Maybe I'd try working some of the water on the other side of the bridge. Making my way along the path, I saw the river seemed to split; it looked like a little creek joined the river here. Hmmm, I thought, I think this kind of spot might have some fish...

Turns out, there was at least one fish here
The bank was extremely steep, and slippery from all the wet leaves, but I somehow managed to get down to the water. I stepped in, 4" of water barely covering my boots. I figured I would fan cast the area before going deeper. Who knows...

To my left - downstream- the water flowed to a bunch of rocks, which after a small rapids traveled down and met the main branch of the river. To my right, the water was slow, a slow stream seemingly coming from the forest. Having lost my #2 Mepp's Aglia on a branch earlier, I snapped on a #2 Black Fury. I'd had a lot of luck with these lures lately, even though I was pretty sure they were supposed to be best in low-light conditions. This wasn't a low-light condition- it was about noon, and the sun was up in full force. The clouds were dissipating, and it was turning into a really nice day.

I cast downstream, my spinner landing inches from the edge of the rapids. I reeled in a bit, and let it fall. I began reeling again, when I felt was was absolutely a hit. A hit!! This was no snag, this was a fish investigating my lure! After all that wading, crossing rapids, and I got a hit only a few feet from my car. Sweet!

I cast again, trying to get to the same spot. I got it pretty close, but no hit. I cast a third time, this time much closer to the original spot, not even 3" from the edge of the rocks, the mini waterfall. I must have let the spinner fall to the bottom, because it got stuck on a rock or some leaves. I casually began to reel it in, ready to clean off the treble hook, when there was a splash, and I saw a fish. A fish! On my line! It wasn't leaves, it was a fish!
Like a jolt of electricity, the adrenaline started pumping and suddenly I was completely focused on the task at hand. I had a fish on! There was NO way I was going to let this one get away. I quickly reeled, and soon realized it was a tiny fish on the end of my line. There was no real fight, it was like reeling in a bunch of leaves. When the fish got closer, I saw it, and literally yelped for joy. 

I knew it was a trout. I had seen pictures of this kind of fish, although I couldn't remember exactly what type it was. As quickly as I could, I got the fish over land (I was only standing a foot from the bank) so I wouldn't lose it. I had to get a picture of this one!

I dropped my rod, and held the fish in my hand, getting the hooks out of its mouth. I yelped some more, wanting to jump up and down with joy. "Holy $&*@" I said way more times than necessary. It was a tiny fish, and hadn't given any fight to speak of; but I had caught a trout, on a cold Michigan stream, while wading. It was like some Hemingway novel, or some "Pure Michigan" commercial. It was awesome! I was beyond ecstatic. 

This was by far, hands down, the most beautiful fish I'd ever caught in my entire life.

I caught a brown trout!!!!
In my mind I tried to go through the thousands of fishing web pages I'd seen in the last few months, trying to remember trout identication, to put a name with this fish's face. It definitely wasn't a salmon or steelhead; I was pretty sure it was either a brook trout or a brown trout. I seemed to think one of those was the state fish of Michigan. This was great. Michigan is awesome. The night before, Claire and her family and I had gone to a Bell's Beer dinner at the golf club. Besides drinking way too much delicious Bell's Beer, I'd also won a raffle for a Two Hearted Ale baseball cap. Not only was that my very favorite beer, but there was a trout on the beer label- and the hat. Since I was wearing my new Two Hearted Ale trout hat and caught my first Michigan trout while wearing it, I decided this hat was now not only my favorite hat ever, it was my lucky trout hat.

I took about 60 pictures in quick succession (ok, more like 15) not wanting to hurt this little guy. He was such a good looking fish, and I wanted him to grow up to be a bigger good looking fish. Every few seconds he would squirm, and I could feel nothing but muscle on this fish. I wonder if that's how all river fish are, since everything in their world wants to push them downstream. It's like constant exercise- no wonder they're all ripped!

After 30-45 seconds of pictures with my new buddy, I put my phone back in my waders, and bent down to the water, carefully putting him back in the stream. He didn't do anything but sit in my hand, so I moved him forward in the water, running water through his gills. I'd heard of people killing pike by moving it forward and backwards in the water, apparently suffocating it (I guess gills don't work backwards). I did my best to only move this trout forward in the water, reviving him. After a few seconds, he suddenly realized he was back in the water, and swam off.

I stood there, in awe of the amazing fish I'd just caught. Although it wasn't a 10 pound steelhead, or even a 1 pound fish, I landed a trout while wading. I felt like a real fisherman- with waders, a thick unkempt beard, and a hat and an iphone library with trout on it.

I worked every square inch of the entire little stream, but was not able to locate any more trout. I really didn't understand why a little fish like that would position himself so close to the edge of a little waterfall. Seemed like any momentary lapse in concentration and he'd be pushed over the falls by the current. I moved a little farther upstream, again going above my waist in very cold water. Again I didn't think the water was cold until it reached a certain point. Now I was cold!

It was early afternoon, I was cold, and I was hungry.. and I'd had in my mind a completely successful fishing outing. I waded a roaring, rocky, beautiful Michigan river and caught a trout. That was really more than I could have asked for on a rainy Sunday.

I crossed the river, this time NOT at the rapids (which I found much, much easier to do), and reached my car. Very satisfied, I pulled off my waders, untied my boots, and broke down my fishing rod. A few short minutes later I was headed back down 131, the foot heaters blasting, my iphone photo library filled with pictures of a single beautiful trout.

Another shot of my first brown trout
(note the bell's two-hearted ale hat, with a trout on it)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chris catches fish on homemade lures

Wanting to take advantage of the incredible weather, I left the house a little early today, my sights set on the pond. My goal: fish exclusively with homemade lures, and catch some fish on them.

The first one I threw out was my first hand-carved lure; my imitation of a jitterbug. I took a spoon from Flaco's Tacos, broke off the spoon part, and screwed it in the front of the lure. I painted the wood with model paint, affixed the screw things that hold on the split rings (eyelets?) by screwing them in by hand, put on the hooks, and added eyes. I spent about 3 hours carving the little piece of balsa wood with an X-acto knife, sanding it down, and carving it some more. And I wasn't even wearing flannel!

My impression of a jitterbug
First cast, I was impressed by the action in the water. I don't understand why, but when I retrieved the lure, it weaved back and forth like a fish. I expected it to just come straight toward me, but I guess the spoon made it wiggle. I realize now it was an extra large spoon, which pushed a TON of water. Watching it, it sure seemed like a good thing- any fish anywhere NEAR the pond could have heard it splashing.

Second cast, it hit the water with a big splash, and I let it sit for a minute. I looked down at my reel, trying to make sure I didn't have any line issues, when I heard a splash. I looked back up at the pond, and my lure was gone! My line started moving. Fish on!!

I knew it was a largemouth- it broke the surface and I saw its profile. I estimated it was 10-12" long, not a huge fish but average for the pond. It was fighting strongly- although nothing like the smallies yesterday. My drag was lose, so as I tried to bring the fish in, I tightened my drag... Maybe that was a mistake. About five feet away from me, my homemade lure in its mouth, suddenly all the tension went away and the fish disappeared into the water. 

It took me a minute to understand what happened. I looked at the end of my line and all that was there was a screw and the spoon, no lure. The short screws in the soft wood were no match for this powerful fish! I stood there, ecstatic that my lure caught a fish, but devastated that a fish was swimming around with a bunch of wood and metal in his mouth, and I couldn't get it out for him. I hoped that  the lure would work itself out his mouth, I'd heard that could happen. I'll admit, I wasn't too happy to immediately lose a lure I'd spent so much time making... On the other hand, I could make more, and I had the knowledge that it would catch fish. Just have to make sure everything is very sturdy.

My torpedo imitation.... not awesome in the water
Next I tied on the other topwater lure I'd carved: this one was supposed to be my impression of a Hedon Torpedo. I carved it, glued aluminum foil, scratched in a scale pattern with a paper clip, added eyes, painted gills, and added the hardware. I'm not going to lie, it looked pretty bad in the water. The propellor blades on either end didn't actually hit the water- the wood sat too high in the water! After a few casts, I decided to go back to the drawing board on this one. The action was lame, if I were a fish I wouldn't be interested.

I unhooked the silver lure and put on another one: yesterday I got the idea to make a lure with a soda can. I cut out some metal from a Coke can in a rough fish-like shape, and ran a wire through it. I used an old torn tube jig for the tail, and again added a scale pattern using a paper clip. I wonder how much of this detail is lost on the fish and only matters to the fisherman.

This looked SWEET in the water
I thought it looked AWESOME in the water! I've never seen a baitfish dying, but this sure looked like how I'd imagine it. The tube jig tail provided an awesome action in the water, and the silver coke can added GREAT flash. I could see it reflecting from deep in the murky water. Only problem was the huge amount of weeds that collected on the lure! I'd have to try this one in open water for sure.

I snapped on my Jackson Pollock Rattler - my first beer cap lure. I drilled two holes in it, attached split rings, put 3 tiny split shots inside it, and folded the cap. Added a tiny treble hook, some nail polish, and that was it. This one did not look amazing in the water, it seemed too heavy... It fell very quickly; I wondered if less weight would provide better action. I wouldn't have to wait too long- I have a few beers a week and have been keeping all the caps.

my Jackson Pollock rattler
Now it was time for the lure I was really excited about- my impression of a Mepps Black Fury. The Black Fury had been very successful for me in lots of water, especially the pond. At the craft store on the weekend I scoured the aisles for bucktail, and ended up buying a pack of fake feathers. At least I think they're fake. I don't have a fancy fly-tying vice; I just held the hook in my hand while I used light wire to tie the feathers on the treble hook. I attached it to a split ring to the hook (the idea was to provide more movement to the dressing) then added the rest of the hardware. One of my new brass bodies, a red bead, a white quick-change clevis, a green bead; then I twisted the top of the wire into an eye.

On my commute I got the idea to use a sharpie to customize my lures, an easy way to draw patterns and add color. At home in my makeshift lure-making workshop (right next to my music-making workshop) I got the idea to take a black sharpie to a brass blade and make a Black Fury-style pattern. I think it looks pretty good!

This casted pretty well and looked incredible in the water. It only took a little pull to get the blade spinning, and the dressed hook moving around in the water even made me hungry. There was a lot of space for movement of the hardware along the wire shaft; I wondered how much that contributed to the great action of my lure. Standing on the pipe watching it move in the water, it seemed pretty similar to a Black Fury... maybe even better.

My imitation of a Mepps Black Fury
I reeled it in, and cast it out again, this time to the middle of the pond. It fell, and then, BAM! Fish on!

There was a giant splash, and from across the pond I saw the outline of a big fish. It was thrashing around, water flying everywhere. A few weeks ago I caught a giant LMB from around the same spot- on a Black Fury #3 - but this fish seemed different.... And I had a hunch on what it was....

My suspicion was confirmed as it broke the water again, and I saw the body of a catfish. A catfish! On a spinner! That I made! AWESOME!

I was giddy with excitement! I hoped it wouldn't break my lure; this was worth a picture for sure. I brought it close to the pipe, and I saw it was a big fish. A BIG fish. I am pretty good a lipping bass and treating them nice so as to not disturb their protective slime coating, but I really can't figure out how to deal with catfish. Especially one this big- I certainly couldn't hold it with one hand. Normally I do everything I can to treat the fish as nice and gently as possible- after all, I am the one who hooked them in the mouth with sharp metal! The least I can do is release them unharmed.

But with a catfish, particularly one this big, I'm at a loss. I suppose the best thing to do might be lay down some a wet garbage bag on the ground, and put the cat on that while I unhook it, perhaps wearing gloves to grip the fish. Today I didn't have a garbage bag, or even gloves. So, as carefully as I could, I placed the catfish on the wet grass, hoping to quickly unhook it, take a picture or two, and return it to the water.

20" catfish caught on my homemade lure
As soon as I set it down I saw that my lure was buried deep in its mouth. I was worried...! Added to that, the fish was incredibly feisty, and never really stopped jumping around. I took a rough measurement, using my rod as a guide.. I estimated this fish to be at least 20," and maybe even fatter than the 24" I caught two weekends ago at the same spot. Trying to hold the fish still between my legs- completely aware of the toxin-filled dorsal fin inches from my ankles, as well as the sharp treble hook inside the angry fish's mouth- I tried to unhook the beast. Tentatively putting my hand in its mouth, certainly not forgetting what happened the last time I put my hand in a catfish's mouth, I did everything I could do to get the lure out... to no avail. It looked like only one of the hooks was actually in the fish, but it was in there pretty good.

After spending a great deal of time trying to get my lure out of this amazing fish, I realized it just wasn't going to happen. The longer the fish was out of water, in the grass, its slime coming off, the worse off it would be. I hoped that the lure would work itself out. I was beside myself; I felt so bad for hurting this fish, and even worse for not being able to remove my hardware. I guess that's part of fishing- the goal of the sport is to grab fish with sharp objects; there's no way around that. I certainly don't want to inflict pain on fish for the sake of dishing out pain, but normally I can live with hooking fish in the lip. This case was not so cut and dry, and I felt bad.

As carefully as I could, I carried the fish over to the water, and put it in the water. Without any hesitation, it splashed and returned to the deep, my awesome lure attached.

I had to leave to catch my train. As I collapsed my rod and put my tackle box back in my backpack, I worried about my catfish friend... On the other hand, everything I've heard and read has told me catfish are survivors- maybe there was a good chance this one would be ok.

I made it, and it caught a fish!

Chris wades the Fox and catches smallies

Ready to hit the water
It was Sunday, our actual wedding anniversary, and again my awesome and lovely wife said I should go fishing. What did I do to deserve this amazing lady?

I quickly packed the car, grabbed my still-wet boots, and hopped in. I was off! There was no question where I should go- I was headed back to the Fox. I pushed the pedal to the metal, headed to my rematch with some Fox River smallmouth bass.

Just as I parked, another car came in the lot and parked near me. A lady come out, and noticed me putting on my waders. "Looks like we have the same idea!" she said, as she pulled out her own pair of waders from her trunk. We talked for a bit, I told her that tubes had worked yesterday although I couldn't hook up. We wished each other good luck, and I quickly hiked down to the water. There was plenty of water for us to share; on the other hand, I wanted to get back to the spot where I had so many hookups the day before! So much of the water upstream had been unproductive- I wanted to stake my claim on that particular stretch, and land some of those beasts.

This time I headed downstream on the trail, and instead of getting lost in the woods I quickly and efficiently made my way to the open area by the strange machine building. This was the spot where I caught my first smallie of 2011, and the spot where I left the water the previous evening. I fan cast the area- with my green tube jig of course- and entered the water.

On my third cast in the water, casting downstream (which many people say will absolutely just not work) I hooked into a smallie. Yes! It was on! I was determined not to let this one get away. The fish took the tube in about the same place the big smallie took it the night before- about 40' downstream. I set the hook, and the fight was on. I got the fish close to me, and somehow after becoming airborne multiple times, the hook was still securely in the fish!
First fish caught while wading!

Carefully, I held the fish close to my waders, and lipped it.

Success!! I landed a smallie, in a river, while wading. I had just accomplished what was for me a huge achievement, and it was only my third cast. Fishing is awesome.

I reached into my waders, pulling out my old iPhone which I had tied to some shoelace and caribeaner'd around my beck. I wasn't ready to bring my newer phone into the river- if I slipped and dropped it, it would be a disaster. So I found my old iPhone, which still took pictures. My newer phone had a camera on both sides, making it easy to take self portraits while holding fish. My old phone on the other hand was equipped with just a single camera, making it very difficult to get a good shot. It was also prone to blurriness, and it was hard to find the "take a picture" button with my wet index finger. Somehow I managed to get some shots.

I took the tube out, and carefully placed my friend in the water. Unscathed and unfazed, he immediately shot away, like the powerhouse of muscle he was. Like a torpedo.

Casting some more, I hooked into two more of his cousins, or brothers, or sisters; but couldn't keep the hook in. This was an absolutely great time! It really was more of a battle with these fish- there was no certainty even if I found them and hooked into some fish that I would be able to land them and get some pictures. It was exciting, and difficult. The payoff was huge, if I could manage it.

And I did, again! A smallie took the tube on the drop, and ran for it. Somehow I set the hook, and after what seemed like a long battle, my thumb was on its lip and I was taking our picture. I tried to hold it with my other hand, to get the full picture of its body, but it got wise to my grip and deftly jumped back into the water. Fair enough, fish, fair enough.

What a fish
I slowly worked my way upstream, letting my wading staff float in the water as I fished. I was feeling more confident wading, although I was more comfortable knowing it was there if I needed it. Farther upstream I saw the lady in her waders, fly fishing. Fly fishing!? I wondered if you could use tube jigs on a fly rig. I guessed not; I couldn't see what she was using, but I was pretty sure it wasn't a tube jig.

I worked every square inch of the area with my tube jig, every few casts bending the hook back into place with my pliers. There were many rocks, which were taking their toll on my hooks! I wondered if they were dulling the hook point as well, which could be preventing me from good hooksets. I didn't have my hook sharpener with me; I'd have to bring that next time for sure. I ended up breaking the hooks of two of my tube jigs from so much bending them back and forth! I have lost very few lures do to over-use; most of them get stuck and I can't get them back. It was nice to be able to pocket the "used up" tubes instead of covering the riverbed with lead and plastic. And maybe I could recycle them into some new lures....

The lady and I talked a bit, I told her about my catches; she said she hadn't had any luck yet. She was working her way downstream on the other side of the river, I was going upstream.  I was having a good old time in the river- it was just warm enough to make the cold water rushing around me feel very refreshing, I was catching smallies. The past few weekends I'd fished pretty much the same area of the Fox- I was getting a feel for the constantly changing river, and some good spots along this stretch.

And then, another! This was a great day fishing. Over the next hour or so, I hooked into more smallies; some of them made it to my fishing album... Some of them threw the hook and swam away. All caught on the good old tube jig- and I only lost 3 or 4 of them. I used three different colors and sizes, and they all landed fish for me. I wonder if it's not just the color or size but how I was working them along the bottom that was triggering strikes.

Biggest one of the day (~12"..?)
Once again, the sun began to set, and the air began to chill. This time I was actually getting cold, standing in the icy water while the air temperature sunk. I worked my way back to my original entrance to the river- back by the strange machine building. (I don't know what it is, or what else to call it!) I fished a small stretch of the river for a few hours- perhaps I should have traveled more, but I was extremely satisfied with the outing! I emerged from the water, cast a few "last casts," and headed up the trail. The almost full moon shined through the trees as I hiked back to the car. Today my hookup score was 3 for 6, which was a big improvement on yesterday's 0 for 8.

Fishing is awesome.

As I walked, I wondered when everything would be too cold for me to wade... November? December? What if I packed on the layers? Would anything bite in frigid water? I need to find out, because this is awesome.

Maybe THIS one was the biggest...

The One That Got Away (0 for 8 on the Fox)

The River
My wife and I celebrated our one year wedding anniversary this weekend. The weather was as nice as it was a year ago when we got married- unseasonably warm, with beautiful leaves changing everywhere. We had a nice dinner Friday night, I surprised Claire with an iPad (!!!) and origami tulips (the first anniversary is supposed to be the "paper" anniversary... so I googled origami and I was off). On Saturday after breakfast and some errands, being the incredibly awesome wife she is, Claire suggested I go fishing.... and make use of my "anniversary waders" (which is what they are, and I'm required to call them). She didn't have to tell me twice!

A short 45 minutes later, I was making my way to the water in Lippold Park on the Fox River. I felt extremely outdoorsy- waders, camo hat, fishing gear, broom handle wading staff, big bushy beard (I've been letting it grow out) and heavy-duty L.L. Bean boots. I headed to the spot where Leo and I fished the previous week, where I landed the big smallie. Sounds like a hip-hop name. The big smallie.

Anyway, I made some casts into the water where I was going to enter, and after a minute I slowly crept into the water. The last (and first) time I waded, I wore jeans and froze my a** off... But this time the air was much warmer, although I didn't know about the water. I was wearing long underwear under my waders, which turned out to be the perfect match for the cold water. I was completely comfortable standing in the water. We'll see how this goes when it's 40°F out; but with a 75°F air temperature, it was awesome.

The river level was lower than it was last weekend- it seemed to be a really nice level to wade. I really appreciated visiting this spot a few times when the water level was extremely low; I now had some idea of what lay under the water. Rivers are crazy- always changing, filled with all kinds of currents and pools and riffles and flats and drops... Makes ponds and lakes seem super boring! Even if I end up being a "river angler," I'll never forget my lake-fishing roots.

The view from the water
On the end of my line I tied a 4" white twister tail on a 1/16oz jig. That landed me some smallies 3 weeks ago, and the 1 big one last weekend. It apparently was the go-to lure for smallies, at least that's what the internet seemed to tell me. I worked my way downstream, in many places the river more like a pond than a moving body of water. I tried to find some moving water, which turned out to be farther downstream. Instead of bushwacking my way through the forest, I slowly and carefully waddled down the river. It was a little slower, but much less frustrating; far fewer hangups on trees, or spiderwebs in the face.

I got to what seemed like a promising spot- a place I'd caught some smallies a few weeks back, where I had "wet-waded" in my boots about 20' into the river. This time the river was higher, and the water obscured the little underwater peninsula... but I knew it was there, and I knew there were deeper pools around it. I began casting, getting plenty of hangups but for the most part I was able to get them free. Then I noticed a lure in a tree, about 10' from shore. Hey, it was mine from 3 weeks ago! I waded over to the jig'n'twister, hung in the tree like a Christmas ornament, and liberated it back into my tacklebox. It was nice to get a lure back, and even nicer to pick up my litter.

I continued downstream, having no luck at this spot. Another guy was wading near me, and he didn't seem to be having much luck either. Although I wasn't catching any fish, I sure enjoyed being in the water! It's a different perspective, standing in the water, surrounded by the current (and probably some fish). I can't believe I didn't get waders sooner. This was awesome.

A few minutes later, I found myself near a branch in the water that had given up smallies on more than one occasion. I threw my jig'n'twister, but got nothing. On a whim, I pulled out my old favorite- the green tube jig. The lure that had given me so many great facebook pictures; the lure that had landed me many nice bass throughout the spring and early summer; the lure that I used almost exclusively until the past month or so. I tied it on, cast it, and let it fall to the bottom. And then...

Fish on!!

It took me by surprise, and immediately threw the hook. A greenish-brownish flash flew out of the water, and returned with a splash. It was on! My first hookup while wading!

I continued casting, and hooked up again. I found it difficult and disconcerting trying to maintain tension on the line while my rod was so close to the water. As much as I enjoyed being splashed in the face by a smallie throwing my hook a few feet in front of me, I would have much preferred a few snapshots of the two of us together.

Can you spot the jig'n'twister?
Again I made contact, my line swimming through the water, the smallie on the other end almost swimming in a circle around me. This was fantastic! If shore fishing was like archery, wading was like hand-to-hand combat. It seemed like my quarry and I were on more equal footing, so to speak. I was in their house, in their territory. Something about it seemed more sporting, and definitely more exciting. There was always the chance of the current knocking me over, or tripping on a rock, or a brazen fish swimming around me like a rebel fighter tying up an imperial walker. I liked it!

After I stopped getting hits from the branch - and working all angles of it - I moved on downstream. I experimented casting upstream, and downstream, and perpendicular from the shore, and everything in between. Every so often I would hookup, but could never keep the hook attached to the speeding rocket of a fish that was at the end of my line. It was incredibly exciting, but also incredibly frustrating. I was beginning to understand the appeal of wading for smallies. With largemouth bass, if I hooked into one there was usually very little chance of it throwing the hook. The fight was over before it started. With these fiesty river bass, hooking into them only meant the battle had begun- there was no certainty of any new facebook profile pictures! I had to work for them.

It reminded me of difficult video games I played growing up- I was often frustrated, trying to beat the same level over and over again, but when I finally did it was that much more satisfying.

I kept moving downstream, and kept hooking up. I did everything I could to maintain tension on the line, to no avail. I tried a few different lures- a white spinnerbait, back to the jig and twister, a homemade inline spinner, a white Sims spinner, but I didn't get a single hit on anything but my good old green tube jig. Ok then, I thought- if that's what you want today, that's what I'll throw out!

As soon as I switched back to the tube, I got more hits. I remembered the whole reason I started using tube jigs was I wanted to catch smallies, "pound for pound the gamest fish that swims," but only caught LMB. Turns out the places I was fishing didn't have smallies! Now I was standing in a veritable smallie apartment complex, and was slaying them, at least in terms of finding them and hooking up with them.

Close to sunset, close to the strange machine building where I caught my first smallie of 2011 a few weeks back, I got yet another hookup... but this one was BIGGER. I could feel it. It was definitely a smallie- but it seemed to move more slowly with more force. I kept the tension, and managed to bring it closer to me. It had taken the tube about 40' downstream from where I was standing, and somehow I was able to bring it up to me. Yes! Yes! This is it! I reeled it in, my rod more like the letter "U" than the letter "I," a big beast of a fish on the end. As it came closer, it seemed to suddenly notice me standing in the water, and it intensified its flight. It swam around me, and I swiveled in the water to keep the tension.

Suddenly it burst threw the surface of the water, showering me with splashes, and our eyes met for a split second as it hovered three feet above the river. Its magnificent red eyes stared into my blue eyes, taunting me. As if in slow motion, as it slowly fell back toward the water, I saw the tube jig slide out of its mouth. The monster- I guesstimated at least 14"- hit the water like a cannonball. With a powerful flick of its tail, it once again splashed me with water, and was gone.

Amazing! My heart was racing, the adrenaline was pumping- this was it. This is why these fish are so awesome. I would take a small fish that fights like this over a lunker LMB any day.

I quickly recast and hit the entire area, but nobody was interested. I wondered if all the commotion had scared the other fish away. It was getting dark, the sun was setting behind the trees, and I knew it was time to go. It was time to head back home. In the few short hours in the river, I hooked up 8 times. I kept thinking 0 for 8, I think you write it 0-8. Next time I would improve my score. This really was like a game.

Although I would be returning empty-handed (more like empty-photo-libraried) it was an incredibly fun outing. These fish were something else.

I was skunked, but it sure was pretty

Friday, October 7, 2011

A pair of weekday bass

The second and bigger bass of the day- caught on a Sims Spinner
Got up a little early so I could hit the pond this morning. Coffee, OJ, bagel, some cereal (a huge breakfast compared to my normal morning sustenance of black coffee and nothing else); hopped on the bike and was at the pond in no time. Although it was 6:15am, it was still dark, and I liked it.

Saw a few little splashes topwater, so I figured I would try some of my own topwater. Threw out my cork lure, which some folks called a "Mardi Gras Popper." I saw a bluegill follow it to the pipe. A few fish - bass, I'm pretty sure -  actually took a swipe at it, but missed. Awesome- that means there's hope for it! Wonder if I should add a second treble hook to it to get some hookups...

Switched to a yum power worm, texas rigged, and managed this little guy. He fought like a much bigger fish:

Continued working the worm to no avail. Last week Dan Sims- of Sims Spinners- sent me a few of his famous inline spinners. What a generous dude! I immediately proceeded to lose the white one on a branch, seemingly the only branch in the whole pond. I rarely lose lures in the retention pond, it sucks to lose one of those nice spinners! I tied on another one, a dark purple with white dressing, and threw it out.

The sun was rising and beautifully illuminating the varied colors of the trees. The sky was like a perfectly calm, crystal-clear pond itself, which contrasted with the dark and weedy pond I was fishing in. Of course there weren't any bass in the sky, so I was fishing in the right place.

A few casts and I kept getting tons of weeds, and I was having some line issues. I was using a swivel, but I began to think it was just the crappy line I got at Meijer. Perhaps I shouldn't skimp on good line- that is my only connection to the fish after all. I should try out that Fireline stuff. It's just so damn expensive! (Not to say I don't like Meijer- quite the opposite- I love Meijer! I can get all my groceries, including obscure Mexican ingredients, and stop by the fishing aisle and get some gear, all in one store.)

Third cast, it hit the water and suddenly got stuck... in the mouth of a hungry bass! This one was much bigger than the first, but surrendered immediately. I reeled it in like a big log. She (?) wasn't a monster, but calling her a hog wasn't a huge stretch. About 14" long, I had confirmed for myself what everyone says: Sims spinners catch fish.

Returned her to the water, and continued casting. Nobody else wanted to play, and soon I had to head to the train to attend to my adult responsibilities (i.e. work). A nice, short trip to the pond, and this time the fish cooperated to some extent. I considered this my apetizer to the main course of hitting the Fox sometime this weekend. The weather is supposed to stay perfect, and I definitely want to get in some more river fishing now that I have a pair of waders. 

I'm sure I can fit in some fishing in between celebrating our one year wedding anniversary this weekend, cause I have a pretty awesome wife.

Thursday morning bass thumb

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

24" Catfish caught on topwater! And a nice largemouth

Leo and his first Illinois fish
After we consumed many huge slices of Chicago-style deep dish pizza, Leo suggested we go back out to fish. It was about 10 or 10:30pm I think, but it seemed like a great idea to me. I put my long underwear and warm clothes back on, we grabbed our gear from the mini, and walked off into the darkness headed for the pond.

I've fished the retention pond many many times, often on the way to or from the train on my commute.. But I'd never fished it at night. It was about 45°F outside, a little bit of light coming from the waxing (?) moon, but we had a headlamp and a flashlight between us. After a short 1/2 mile walk, we arrived at the spot- really the only access to the pond not protected by a thick wall of tall grasses - and began casting. Leo stood on the pipe - the prime spot on the pond, and I stood a little to the left, on what I think is a pipe that the other way. The other day I'd seen water running into it, which was a new thing.

I knew there were many many bass in the pond, and hoped Leo could hook into some! A silver roostertail on the end of his line, he began casting. I opened my tacklebox to choose my weapon- I found my go-to night-fishing lure: a big black spinnerbait. As I was tying a big'ol' palomar knot, I heard splashes and saw Leo had a fish on. I dropped my rod and turned on my headlamp, and ran over to Leo and his fish.

Leo unhooking his catch in the dark
After a short fight, he got it out of the water. A bass! Not the biggest largemouth to come out of there, but definitely not the smallest (I had the dubious honor of catching the smallest a few days back - that 4" largemouth that took my homemade inline spinner). It's always hard taking pictures in the dark, but of course we always have to document each catch. Leo's first Illinois fish! It was also his first fish on an inline spinner. This pond is good for firsts- I was so happy Leo got a fish, and his $5 for a 24 hour fishing license had been put to good use.

I began casting the black spinnerbait into the darkness, waiting for the plop and then reeling it in. Leo mentioned how strange it is not being able to see your lure or where it lands. Night fishing is a strange thing. A few months ago I snuck into a secret location, threw a very similar black spinnerbait and hooked into the biggest bass I'd ever seen. Fighting it in the dark (this was before I had a headlamp) was a strange and new experience for me, and it was relatively difficult. I ended up landing the beast, and taking a few subpar pictures of it on my iPhone camera.

Back to the pond, I was quickly tiring of cleaning off pounds of weeds from my spinner. I decided to switch to topwater, mostly to avoid all the weeds below the surface. I also knew that topwater could be a successful night-fishing technique, but never had too much luck with it. I grabbed my white and blue jitterbug (I had the black one somewhere and would have chosen that, but couldn't find it just then) and tied it to my line. At least that would float on the top and avoid all the weeds! Maybe it would catch a nice bass too.

Leo switched to a nightcrawler under a bobber, in the hopes of catching something else- perhaps a bluegill (which I hadn't seen here in weeks) or a catfish. I'd heard there were catfish in there, but I'd never caught any or seen any swimming around in the dirty brown water. Perhaps they'd come out at night?

I cast out my jitterbug, waited about 10-15 seconds, then slowly reeled it in, stopping it every few feet and letting it sit. Leo casted out his crawler-bobber rig right in front of the pipe. We were astonished nothing was biting it! As we talked about the lack of action with the live bait, I absent-mindedly cast my jitterbug out, letting it sit motionless for long periods of time because I was staring at Leo's bobber. It didn't make sense- where did all the bluegill go? Why weren't any bass taking the nightcrawler? Weren't there supposed to be catfish out at night? It was strange. I began to get sleepy, losing focus, and thinking about my belly full of delicious Giordano's pizza.

There was an incredibly huge splash to my left, out in the water- "Whoa!!" I yelled. So there were fish here! I was excited that there was some activity, and even more excited when I heard my drag screaming and realized whatever caused the splash was on the end of my line. "Fish! Fish! FISH!" I yelled. My drag filled the air with agonizing sounds of its buzzing, the monster on my line thrashing around, jumping, like a cannonball being repeatedly dropped in the water. My heart raced, I was suddenly completely awake. I hoped my 10 pound line wouldn't snap, and the monster fish wouldn't throw the hook.

"Please don't throw the hook, please don't throw the hook," I said, not sure if I said it out loud or not.

I brought in the fish closer, my rod becoming a horseshoe instead of a straight line. At first I thought this was a big largemouth, but the way it was fighting was not like other largemouths. And it was strong- VERY strong. I strained to see the fish, but my leadlamp was off and there was very little ambient light. I couldn't see what it was.

I managed to bring it closer to shore, about 2 feet in front of me, but I paused before lifting it out of the water. I still couldn't tell what kind of fish it was. I was seriously worried my line - or rod!- would break as soon as I pulled up to get this guy out of the water. Throwing caution to the wind, I lifted my rod up, feeling the full weight of this beast on my line, and successfully got the fish on land. Normally I try not to let fish touch the ground, lest their protective slime coating get brushed off - I want these fish to survive, and grow bigger! I wasn't prepared for the weight of this fish, and it dropped down onto the ground.

Even now, as Leo hurried over with a flashlight, I still didn't know what it was. My best guess was still a big bass.. And then Leo shined his light on the fish I'd just caught:

Note the size of the jitterbug. This was a big fish, at least for me
A catfish!!!????

I was shocked. I thought back to my jitterbug- a topwater lure that floats on the surface. I let it sit, motionless, for at least 20-30 seconds as I stared over at Leo's bobber. I wasn't providing any action to the lure, and that's when the fish struck! Not only that, but everything I knew about catfish is they have a tremendous sense of smell and taste, prefer real bait (dead or alive), and most importantly hang out at the BOTTOM. I knew this pond pretty well- the spot where the cat smashed into my lure was at least 4-5 feet deep, if not more. That meant either the cat was cruising the surface, or was enticed up by my lure. My non-smelly, plastic and metal lure, sitting completely still on the surface. Crazy!

Either way, I'd never heard of anyone catching a catfish on a topwater lure!!

With Leo's help, after a few tense moments we were able to get the treble hooks out of the monster's mouth. We were able to get them out without hurting the fish too much, something I was thankful for considering it was sitting on the ground while we de-hooked it. In my wildest dreams I never thought I would catch a big catfish like this fishing topwater! I had toyed with the idea of doing some catfishing at the pond, but I would have brought some garbage bags or something to set catfish on to remove the hooks.

We stood there admiring the fish. I was incredibly excited, pretty sure I jumped up and down a lot, and a huge amount of celebratory profanity escaped from my mouth.

I didn't have a ruler on me; we positioned Leo's tackle box in such a way that we might be able to figure out the length later... Then I realized I had tape at 24" on my rod. I taped it there a few weeks ago, 24" being the legal limit for northern pike. Perfect!

I held the rod next to the giant catfish, and it turned out to be exactly 24". Awesome!

At this point, I knew what I had to do- I needed to do the classic big catfish pose for the camera! Being mostly a bass fisherman, the way I usually hold fish is by lipping them- I didn't even think about holding the catfish horizontally for the picture- maybe that would have been better for the fish.

At any rate, I reached down, trying to get my fingers inside the gigantic and muscular catfish mouth. Could this be a bad idea? Putting my fingers in its mouth? Ah what the heck. It will make an awesome picture. I finally was able to get my fingers in its mouth, its thick gums like sandpaper, scraping on my thumbs. I lifted it up, and was amazed at its weight- even the biggest bass I'd ever caught I could lift with one hand... I could barely support this guy with two arms!! I had no idea how much it weighed- no scale yet - but it was a lot.

I gave Leo my phone, and he got ready to take a picture... But my headlamp was on, washing out the pictures. I asked him to turn off my headlamp, of course my hands were busy inside the mouth of a huge angry catfish. My headlamp is weird and has a turn knob for the light, and Leo was trying to press the button (which of course does nothing). I was so concerned trying not to drop the fish I couldn't put into words how to turn off my light.

I put down the fish for a minute, turned off the light, and picked it up again. Leo snapped some pictures, we both chuckled, we couldn't wait to show this to our wives!

24" of pond catfish- caught topwater on a jitterbug
Right after the last picture, as if on cue, the fish strongly bit down on my fingers, causing me to drop it into the grass. Its rough mouth ripped into my skin, causing one of my thumbs to start bleeding. I think some more bad words happened around this point.

I had it coming
After hooking the beast with some sharp pointy hooks, dropping it on the ground, and generally greatly inconveniencing this mighty fish, I didn't blame it for biting me. It had every right to bite me, and was surprised it hadn't earlier. In fact, I had it coming to me.

I figured at this point we were even.

Applying pressure to my thumb, the bleeding stopped quickly. It was time to get our friend back into the water. Leo offered to pick up the fish and get it back into the water - I wasn't exactly jumping at the chance to put my smashed fingers back in its mouth. Now that's a real fishing partner. Leo picked up the fish, and carefully returned it to the water. In an instant, with a powerful splash of its muscular tail, it was gone into the dark water.

This fish had been the longest, heaviest fish I'd ever landed.

With Leo's help, we got the hooks out, got some great pictures taken, and returned the fish to the water, seemingly healthy and doing fine. I definitely couldn't have done it alone! I probably wouldn't have left my lure motionless on the surface if it weren't for Leo's bobber. Thanks Leo!

We fished for a while longer, but got no more hits, no more splashes, and no more bass or monster catfish. All in all, a great day fishing; I'm glad Leo talked me into some pond night fishing! As we walked back to my house, I cradled my throbbing thumb, so happy to have a fish-inflicted wound.

I feel like a real fisherman now.

A Nice Fish on the Fox

The beautiful Fox River
This past weekend we had some family visiting- the Smerglias from Ohio came to visit. Well, another way to put it might be Leo Smerglia convinced Kim, Charlie, and baby Meg to come to Illinois so Leo and I could go fishing. Either way, it was a great time- we did in fact go fishing, we caught some fish, and had good-ol' chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Great weekend!

We spent Saturday afternoon walking around the Brookfield Zoo, seeing lots of animals pooping. We saw a dolphin show, had some BBQ, and did other zoo stuff. Once we finished our tour of the zoo, Leo and I hit the road while the ladies and kid and baby headed to Ikea. It was a few hours before sunset, and we needed to get Leo an IL license, get on the water, and catch some fish before we had to be back for pizza time with everybody.

I don't drive much- I bike to the train, then walk or ride a bus to work. The only time I really drive is on the weekend, specifically when I'm going fishing. The thing is, most of the time I get up super early so going way over the speed limit is completely possible (no traffic). This was not the case today- the roads were packed with cars, cars oblivious to our burning desire to get on the water and catch some fish. Weaving around cars, you know- Chicago-style - we finally made our way to Walmart near the Fox River.

Of course we parked near the entrance farthest from the fishing department. We booked it across the floor until we got to the fishing gear. Nobody was there, so we had to go on a search to find an employee- we found one stocking pink dolls in the little girl aisle. Turns out he was the fishing guy too. He came over to the fishing register, and a few long excruciating minutes later, Leo was a legal Illinois fisherman. At least for the next 24 hours.

Hopped back in the mini, pedal to the metal, and soon we were at the park on the Fox. Of course I missed the entrance, like I always do, so we turned around and finally made it in. Jumped out of the mini and put on our gear. I forgot my wading belt in the garage, so I wouldn't be wading today. I'd heard the flow was very fast due to all the rain; and anyway, I wouldn't want to leave Leo on the shore while I was in the middle of the river catching all the fish!

We hit the trail and were in a few moments on the river. It was so high! The last few weeks I walked out to islands, the low water level allowing me to follow rocks from island to island. Today the river was the highest I'd ever seen it (in my 4-5 weeks of experience with the Fox.. which is nothing..) and it was moving quite quickly. It did make it easy to see all the different kinds of flowing water; of course I'm still not sure about the vocabulary. There were fast moving parts, slow moving parts, and parts that slowed due to obstructions on or below the water. There were some areas where the water went in a circle, at times flowing upstream. That's pretty crazy!

I tied on a 1/16oz jighead with a 4" white twister tail - seems to be the surefire lure for the river - and I think Leo had a spinner or a spoon. I stepped out into the water, walking on rocks that quickly descended into deeper water- I found a hump that was only a few inches under water, about 10' out from shore. I stood on that, giving me a good location from which to cast. Leo was on the shore, casting out to the river.

Bewildered by the complex water flow patterns I was seeing, and not sure where I should cast, I tried to get my lure in the fast moving water and retrieve it so it went through the slower moving water. My first cast I was quickly reminded of how frustrating it can be to cast, and then immediately have your lure shot like a rocket downstream, away from your target. Second cast, I threw it upstream, so it would go where I was hoping there'd be fish. Third cast, I did the same, then let it drop to the bottom in slower moving water between two faster moving sections. At first I thought I snagged a branch, but as soon as I saw the fish launch from the water in an explosion of bubbles and spray, I knew I had a fish on!

"Fish! Fish! FISH!" I shouted. Looking back, I tend to yell a lot when I get a fish on. It's very exciting for a new fisherman like myself.

Leo came over to see the excitement. I knew what the fish was- it was a smallie! And a big one too, at least for me. I knew their pattern's now, and had an idea how they fought. This was no ordinary bass: this was a muscular, ripped, aggressive river smallmouth bass. After a few runs up and downstream, toward me and away from me, my drag complaining, I was able to reel it in and get it over land. On the third try I was able to lip it, as it violently shook its tail trying to swim through the air.

This was a heavy bass! This was by far the biggest smallie I'd caught, perhaps ever, and seemed like the strongest. I stood there admiring the green patterns of this fighter, astonished that a big fish like that went for a tiny little twister tail. I wondered if it had to do with its tiny mouth (i.e. small mouth) or it was stocking up for winter.

Nice smallie! Biggest one I've ever caught
Either way, I caught it! I snapped some pictures, ecstatic, and carefully released it back into the flowing water. In the blink of an eye, with an incredibly strong tail movement, it was gone.

I was really happy for a few reasons- being the psuedo-fish-guide, I had successfully found a spot with at least one fish for my out-of-town guest! If there was one smallie, maybe there would be more, and Leo could hook one. He said he didn't think he'd ever caught a smallie. I really hoped he would today!

Turns out, it was not to be. As the sun moved lower and lower in the sky, and we tried a variety of presentations (twisters, inline spinners, tube jigs, etc) it became clear our outing was a one fish outing. I felt bad Leo hadn't caught any, but there was always next time. After many lost lures, many broken lines, and many hopeful hits that turned out to be tree branches, we had to go. A phone call from my lovely wife got us quickly packing up our gear and heading toward the mini.

A great, short outing; at least we hadn't been skunked! Perhaps there would be more fishing in our future- Leo was legal for another 20 or so hours....