Thursday, August 16, 2012

Still getting updates from here? Head over to!

I recently moved CB Fishes over to - if you're seeing this in your RSS reader, your email inbox, or some other way... You might want to update your info so you don't miss any new CB Fishes posts!

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As always, thanks for reading and tight lines!
- Chris

Sunday, August 5, 2012

CB Fishes is moving to!

Hey readers!

CB Fishes is moving! Blogger has been good to me for the past year, but I thought it was time for a change. I recently switched web hosts (I left GoDaddy for Dreamhost), got the domain, installed Wordpress, and moved the blog over there!

This site,, will still be here but all new posts will be on

I'm still working on setting up the "get CB Fishes delivered to your inbox" thing. If anybody uses Wordpress and knows a good way to auto-mail new posts via email, let me know! I'm still fairly new to WP.

Why did I decide to move?

I like Blogger; it's easy to use, easy to setup, and easy to customize. In some ways, moving to my own server running Wordpress is like making my own lures; I don't really need to, but by doing so I can learn a lot more about how everything works. I also use Wordpress for work, and I figured this is a great way to get even more familiar with it. Already I've learned some tricks I'll most certainly use on the job.

Warning: technical jargon ahead!

Also, I like being able to edit CSS files, install plugins via FTP; make quick edits via the command line... Lots of little geeky things that are somewhat unnecessary.. But I want to learn how it all works. Not to mention the fact that now I'm in control of all my data, whereas here on Blogger I can't really get to the actual php or html files. Hosting my own blog, I can backup my whole site with a simple scp or rysync command. I can even create cron jobs. It's pretty cool.

...end of technical jargon.

So from now on, head on over to the new! Pardon the dust while I get things tweaked...

Do you like the new design? Are you sad I'm leaving Blogger? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Big Will's Creek, Alabama

My alarm went off, shockingly waking me up. It was 4:30am. Maybe it was 5am. I was pretty sure it was Sunday, and I was in Birmingham, Alabama. It took a minute to realize what was happening, just like it always does. I was at Sam's parents' house, where'd I'd been staying since the previous Tuesday. In town for work, visiting ChartCapture HQ in Vestavia, Alabama; meeting many of my coworkers for the first time (that's what happens when you work from home) and generally having a great time.

Just like pretty much every day so far, we were going fishing. Perhaps more than the other impromptu fishing trips, this trip was going to be more of an adventure.

Sometime soon Scott and his son Alex were going to show up at the door, ready to hit the road. Sam and I quickly made coffee, gulped it down, and took stock of our fishing gear. I put some new mono line on my L.L. Bean ultralight reel, hoping I could escape the recent reel problems I'd been having. My $15 Meijer ultralight reel and the braided line I put on it were not getting along... Every few casts a bird's nest of epic proportions would spontaneously form, and my lure would splash into the shallow water, held back by the un-untie-able knots.

Scott arrived, surprisingly awake; Sam and I loaded our gear into his SUV. I strapped on my river shoes, plopped myself into the seat, and we were off. We were headed for Big Will's Creek, about an hour north of Birmingham.

I'd been surprised how quickly urban/suburban landscape of the city transitioned into rural Alabama. This was my first trip to the south, if you don't count a random trip to Georgia to get a dog when I must have been 8 or 9. I didn't know what to expect, other than a vague idea of southern culture and the idea that I needed to drink some sweet tea.

Sam and I had fished a bunch of places all around B-ham; the Cahaba River, Little Shades Creek, Big Shades Creek.. Perhaps some other ones. Unfamiliar with the geography and overwhelmed by the sheer number of rivers and streams winding their way through the appalachian foothills, it was hard to keep track. I was constantly surprised by how beautiful the landscape was in suburban Birmingham where I was staying. Not that I anticipated an ugly city, but the plentiful "mountains" (very very tall hills) and extra-green foliage everywhere made for some marvelous vistas.

Alabama mountains
These were things we saw as we made our way north/northeast toward our fishing destination. As the sun came up, fog meandered around the ever-present kudzu greenery which covered most everything in the whole area. Big bright green leaves, some kind of vine. Whole areas of hillside were blanketed with the stuff.

We stopped to get the necessities; ice, some more water, beef jerky, and another pack of beef jerky. I grabbed a little can of starbuck's something-or-other that promised multiple shots of espresso that in my early-morning state I was powerless to resist.

Soon we were close. Sam and Scott trying to get their GPS's to agree. Looking at the little purple lines and arrows, watching the blue dot bounce on Sam's phone, it was incredibly unclear quite where we were and where we were going. Our destination was Big Will's Outfitters in Gadsden, Alabama. It is not right off the expressway. It is not on a main drag. There are no bilboards for it.

We made our way up a mountain- and it really was a mountain- on a gravel and dirt road snaking around precarious-looking cliffs. Scott expertly maneuvered his SUV up the road that, to my midwestern eyes, absolutely did not seem wide enough to be two lanes. At one point a car going in the opposite direction flashed by my window and I was amazed. The whole thing was a bit like a roller coaster ride, in a good way, especially since I knew it would end in fishing instead of me throwing up into a bucket. Well, maybe both.

We passed a sign that said "Road closed ahead." I wondered if we might just fly of the mountain into the river. Wouldn't be the worst way to go, at least we might provide some structure and food for some fish.

What the sign should have said was "There used to be a real scary lookin' bridge going from one mountain to the other but that done broke and all that's left is a post-apocalyptic-lookin' pile of scrap metal perched above the river." The four of us sat there, staring at the mess of metal that was the only thing between us and our destination. Apparently.

Maybe the photogenic mist floating all around the mountains was messing with our GPS. Maybe we were just too far away from civilization. Either way, it was clear we had to retrace our steps back down the mountain. Pedal to the metal, we flew back down the thin and winding road, eventually finding the unmarked street we needed to take.

After a comedic scenic drive through the country, the ultra-green foggy mountains providing the backdrop to postcard-like farms, we caught a glimpse of a little sign. "Big Will's Outfitters" I think it said and an arrow. Might have just said "BWO." A few feet later there was a wooden paddle sticking out of the ground. Maybe it fell off the mountain and that's where it landed.

Finally, passing a couple of cows, we were there. As we passed the cows I couldn't help but simultaneously admire them and think about how good I bet they would taste. I bet they had nice lives out there in the country, free to wander around the fields, eating plants and stuff. There are probably worse ways to live as a cow, even if they end up as steak  and brisket eventually.

And then we met Josh, the proprietor of the fine paddling and fishing establishment. He was a good-natured dude who didn't mind we were quite a bit late for our paddling adventure. Josh had agreed to open up shop a little early so we could get fishing before hordes of pleasure-paddlers drifted down the river. His shop was adorned with the requisite "big fish" pictures, a few lures for sale on a couple lonely racks, and a bin full of multi-colored glasses keepers. You know, foam things that will prevent your glasses from sinking to the bottom of the river. Seems like something I should get, but I didn't. There was also a rack of t-shirts I already knew I'd be revisiting later.

We parked the car and transferred our gear to his van. A giant wooden cross rose from an otherwise empty grass field. At first I thought it was some kind of practical wooden device, serving some kind of paddling-related purpose I didn't know about, but then I realized it was just a cross. A Jesus cross. I suppose he was into fishing, from what I read.

I did manage one fish that day...
a spunky little redeye bass
Josh drove us and two canoes upstream to our put in. On the way he talked about the fish in the creek, what they liked, where to find them; he clearly knew a lot about fishing. I sure like meeting people who know a lot about fishing. It occurred to me that I was now in the south where, according to the internet, fishing was a big-time sport with big-time celebrities. There were bass fishing teams at high schools. Everybody seemed to fish. I liked it.

At our launch point we each marked our territory in the woods, rigged up our rods, and took the obligatory group photo. The creek (or river; still not sure which- I'll just call it a river) was pristine and brown. I couldn't tell if it was muddy or just off-color from clay deposits or something. I guessed it was the latter. Coolers, rods, tackle, and snacks in the boats, we set off into the river. Scott and I in the first, Sam and Alex in the second.

Immediately it was clear this was a different kind of water than I'm used to in the midwest. Like the rivers I'm used to fishing, the banks were lined with trees, rocks, foliage; the usual riparian suspects. Unlike my usual streams, there were towering kudzu-covered mountains in the distance. The river was the natural result of the valley- the water has to go somewhere. The water was cold, very refreshing after a few outings in bathtub-like water. I was sure the fish would appreciate it as well.

Looking down the river, I had to do a double-take when I saw two cows in the water. They were standing there, maybe cooling off a bit, their tails casually swatting flies away. We gave each other questioning looks, saying "What are *you* doing here?" As we approached they walked back up onto the bank and watched us float by. I'm glad they did, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to keep floating downstream. I was so enthralled I didn't even get a picture.

Scott and the first catch of the day
Scott was the first to hook up with a fish, one of the native red eye bass found only in certain areas of the southeast. Unknown to Sam and me until recently, the red eye bass is a distinct species from the other more familiar members of the black bass family (largemouth and smallmouth). It looks like a smallie, fights like a smallie, but also kind of looks like a spotted bass. They don't grow as big as their relatives, but they make up for it with their striking coloring. And their awesome red eyes.

Energized by tossing off the skunk so quickly, we got down to serious fishing. The four of us floated, fished, made adjustments with our paddles, and fished some more. Sometimes one would fish and the other would paddle, then we'd switch. The scenery was amazing, the river was awesome. The sonic landscape was just as surprising to me; not even a hint of an expressway. No cars nearby, no planes overhead, just the sound of cicadas and other bugs doing their thing in the agricultural land around us. It was a refreshing change from the usual roar of transportation-related sounds in Chicago.

Early on it was clear to me I was going to have one of those days. On of those fishing trips where everything goes wrong, where it's a struggle to cast, hard to hit the right spots, and lures are lost by the pound. The river was in no short supply of downed trees and branches. They were everywhere; whole trees lined the river, gnarly roots snaked down into the water. These all made for great fishing spots, but also lent themselves to stealing lures and snapping lines. The sometimes jagged bedrock on the river bottom didn't help either.

Scott doesn't fish rivers often, so I was doing my best impression of a river fishing guide. Putting him on the fishiest spots, those little pools near timber and rocks; suggesting he cast right next to that tree trunk, working the chigger craw in that particular way. I was overjoyed when he pulled out his first bass!

In the meantime, I felt like I was a total newbie fisherman again. Loosing lures after every few casts, my line snapping inexplicably; the trees and branches reaching out to catch my lures on otherwise nice casts... It was tough going.

The fishing was fairly tough, but everything else about the adventure was exceptional. It was great to get to know Scott a little more. We've been working together for weeks but never met in person until recently. The scenery was gorgeous. Our coolers were full of beer and sandwiches. Sam produced a flask full of whiskey from some unknown corner of his fishing vest. It was real good times.

We stopped to fish a particularly fishy-looking bend in the river. I told Scott how the outside bend in rivers is always deeper, sharing information that is fairly new to myself, as I cast like a four-year-old and lost another jig with a snap. I would have switched to crankbaits or spinners, but I left that box in the van at Sam's parents' house.

Scott's son Alex, on his way to becoming an expert angler at 13, is really into fishing. As I understand it he will sit for hours trying to coax reluctant fish from their hiding spots. Sometimes he gets frustrated, as we all certainly do, but he persists because he knows how great it is to hook into a nice fish. He has a great attitude about fishing; somehow he already knows it's as much about getting there and fishing as it is the catching.

Suddenly he got snagged, which was probably the first time that happened to him that morning. Then I heard "Dad, I think I got a catfish!"

Sam, Scott and I stopped fishing and turned toward Alex, who clearly had a fish on. A nice one. A nice big cat, go Alex! I thought. I dropped my rod and headed over to see the action- I think Sam and Scott did the same. Alex got the fish to the shallows, and we saw it wasn't a cat, but a VERY nice bass! I think Sam giggled. I most certainly did. Usually in these situations I perfume the air with my patented celebratory profanity spray, but I did my best to stifle that due to the younger ears. "Oh darn! That's big!" I might have said.

Alex got the fish up, lipped it, and the four of us stood there in awe of the GIANT monster he'd just caught.

Alex and the catch of the day- creek monster spotted bass
Well that right there makes it all worth it- to see the look on his face, holding that monster of a fish. Heck, I'm sure my face looked the same! That was an awesome fish. I seem to remember shouting a lot, congratulating him, my own fishing troubles melting away- so happy to see Alex with such a nice fish.

Naturally we all fished the heck out of that spot- I got snagged about 300 more times, which meant I got find out there was a deep whole where he caught the bass. In fact, I discovered a few deeper holes in the river. Water came up almost to my neck, but I was determined to unhook my snagged lures. I don't mind getting wet if I can learn a little something about where the fish hang out...

There were some spots downriver we worked; Scott got a few more, I got one; Sam and Alex were cleaning up over in their boat. At some point we looked at our watches and realized how tired we should be; although there were tons of fishy spots in the last mile of our trip, we mostly paddled over them. It was late afternoon, we were tired, and it was time to go.

I'll never forget the amazing scenery, the great conversation, and of course the single really nice fish from this trip; as I sit here in Illinois, part of me wants to go back to Alabama. The other part just wants to go fishing- right now.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I figured I would do some fishing last night, just around sunset. It was crazy hot, just like every other day recently, but I thought it might be fun to catch a couple topwater bass. I headed to the local pond, tied on my red and white topwater lure (zara spook?) and worked it across the water.

First catch on the red and white beck-spook
(back in Michigan fishing with my buddy Mark)
There was almost no surface activity. Any feeding was happening below the surface. Stubbornly, I tried every retrieve I could think of to coax the bass to the surface. Something I read earlier came to mind, something like "Find out what the fish want, not what you want to fish with."

I reached into my pack and pulled out a hotdog. I broke off a piece, strung it on a big hook, and carefully cast it out into the pond. I stuck the rod butt in a hole in the pipe and set to work rigging a tube on my other rod. I thought it would be nice to give the bass a break and see if any cats were around. (Read: the bass weren't biting the one lure I threw for 10 minutes so I'd fish for another species.)

Almost immediately the rod tip started to dance. Fish! I dropped my rod and grabbed the other rod from the pipe hole, but the fish was gone, and he took the hotdog. Fair enough, fish. Fair enough.

I put another piece of hotdog on the hook, cast it out, and started working the tube with my other rod. Some guys were making their way around the pond, clearly headed home after a fishing trip. As they walked by I said hello.

"Hey what do you catch in here.. catfish?" they asked.

"Yeah, and bass and bluegill" I replied.

"Bass!? There are bass in here?" They were incredulous. I wondered if I shouldn't have told them. Would they come back and leave their sh*$ everywhere like some other fishermen? I decided I shouldn't jump to conclusions and give them the benefit of the doubt.

"Yeah man," I said. "Lots of bass, mostly small ones [I measured with my hands] but there are a couple bigger ones."

"Oh wow, cool man. You ever fish for catfish?"

"Yeah, I've caught some nice ones here, one big one a few weeks back, around 27"

"Ok cool.. Hey you want some catfish bait?"

I appreciated their offer, but the main reason I haven't fished with any "catfish bait" is I don't want to touch a bunch of disgusting rotting meat or anything. Also I have plenty of luck with my own bait, but I didn't want to offend them.

"Oh thanks man, I appreciate it, but I've got some hotdog already."

"Hotdog? Man, you can't catch anything on hotdogs!"

As un-douchey as I could manage, "Actually the biggest cat from this pond was on a hotdog!"

Maybe they thought I was joking. They didn't seem to believe me, and took that as their cue to leave. I was serious, but I'm aware sometimes it's hard to tell if I'm being serious. We wished each other luck, and they headed on their way. I turned my attention back to the pond, where there seemed to be more activity happening than before.

The bugs were bad. The sun was down. It was dark. Mosquitos found every inch of my sweat-drenched skin and drilled. My jeans and hiking boots protected the lower half of me but it seemed to concentrate the bugs on my upper half.

After a while I gave up on bass fishing and concentrated on finding a nice cat. Any cat, really, I just wanted to catch a catfish. I wondered if they'd be more active than the bass with these insane temperatures and water like some tea that sat out for a few minutes. Warm to the touch.

And just when I was ready to pack it in, my rod once again became animated. Then it stopped. I grabbed it, waiting to set the hook... The movement picked up again, I set the hook (Jeremy Wade style, of course) and the fight was on!

I had set my drag pretty loose to prevent a fish from taking my rod and to make the fight more interesting. In the dusk light, I couldn't make out the fish yet, but it felt pretty big. My drag screamed as the fish took out line, heading to the bottom. Then it came toward me, almost tangling in a bunch of weeds- I thought I was going to loose it! I wondered if my drag should be tighter. I tightened it.

I saw the fish, a big channel cat, just like I guessed. I felt proud I could identify it by its fight. A great looking fish! Because of my light line and loose drag, I really had to work the fish to get it in. I couldn't just muscle it in, I had to wait until it was ready.

When it was, I grabbed it, took some pictures, and admired my catch.

Of course I forgot to weight it or measure it.
Right after I released it I pulled out my ruler.
I estimate about 28" long. Whoohoo!
I don't know why catfish get such a bad rap; they're really awesome animals. They're tough, they get big, and their whole body is a nose. They can smell better than some dogs. That's pretty awesome, I think.

I took the fish to the water and held it there for a moment, allowing it to get its bearings. It casually swam away, and it reminded me of an actual cat, its tail moving back and forth like it just didn't care.

Turns out, yes you can catch fish on hotdogs.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bowfin!...and why I'm done fishing for anything else

Charlie and his dad fishin'
I hooked the bluegill through the tail, just how Sam Bennett showed me. It took me a few casts to get it where I wanted it, but the third cast landed exactly where I thought there might be a fish. The sun was setting. Mosquitos buzzed around us. Charlie the six-year-old stood a few feet away, working on getting some more little bluegill. Leo, his dad, stood next to me doing the same. We were standing at the edge of a marshy pond, a pipe behind us spilling water from the bigger lake into this small pool. We saw huge ripples moving around the surface of the water. Something big was in there.

We were camping! We were camping fishing. As I've mentioned before, camping is awesome! I didn't grow up camping, but that's ok... When I was a kid I would have hated it. I spent a few summers at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp near Muskegon, Michigan, which was basically a bunch of music stuff set outside and in cabins and rustic buildings. I loved the music stuff, hated all the rustic-ness. The dirt and bugs. The smell of pine trees. Ok, I didn't hate that, but I certainly didn't like the outdoors.

A year ago we went camping with the Smerglias, which was my very first time camping. I loved it! Fishing was my gateway drug to the hardcore stuff of camping and the outdoors. A couple months back Claire and I camped near the Mississppi- and I caught the biggest fish I've ever caught to date. This time, I was a very experienced camper- with two other campings under my belt, I felt like I could probably live in the wild with nothing but a knife and a fishing rod.

Of course, that's not true. I got about 60 seconds into setting up our tent when Claire had to come help me. I can't identify poison ivy. Ticks still freak me out. When Walter had two ticks on him after five minutes on the campground, there was a little groan inside of me. I forget to drink water and only remember to go fishing.

Camping combines a bunch of things I really like: being outside, grilling, fires, fishing, seeing animals, being dirty... When I was a kid I didn't get too dirty or play outside that much. Now's my time to make up for lost time!

Walter the fishing dog
 The night before, I think it was our second night camping, we were on a mission. Charlie wanted to catch a big catfish. Leo and I were more than willing to oblige, although it was a struggle to keep the kid entertained while our rods stood motionless, connected to our stationary offerings in the water. We had nightcrawlers on the hooks, I tried some topwater lures, but nothing was going for the bait. I reached into my fishing backpack and pulled out a hotdog. I cut off a piece with my fingers and strung it onto a big black hook and cast it out into the water.

The dark was illuminated by our three headlamps and the glow of our little electronic devices. Even the possibility of big fish couldn't keep me entertained all the time; I checked my Twitter while I waited for the big one.

It wasn't too long before there was some action. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a rod wiggle. I looked up, squinting in the dark, and saw it wiggle again. Fish on!

I think it was Leo's rod, if my memory serves me he was the first to hook into a fish. He battled the fish, reeling it in, and soon we saw a little brown fish come out of the water. A bullhead?! With the help of Leo's fishing gloves, I lipped it, and it proceeded to bite down on my thumb like I was caught in a door. Ouch! Good for you, bullhead.

Charlie and I posed for a picture. Not exactly the giant catfish we were hoping for, but at least we were in the ballpark!

late night bullhead!
So they like hotdogs, do they? I suppose it's not that strange... I like hotdogs too. I usually grill mine, but I don't think any fish have little grills down there. Probably hard to light.

We swapped out the bluegills for hotdog on all the rods. The nice thing about the way we hooked the 'gills is they swam away, apparently just fine. Most likely they will become some bass's midnight snack... But at least they have a chance.

After a few minutes, we all zoned out, turning back to our glowing devices. Occasionally I noticed the dark sky filled with glistening little points of light, enjoying how dark it was and how many stars I could see. I think I even saw some satellites or planes flying really high.

And then out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a rod jump. I looked up, but there was no movement. "Did that rod just move?" I asked Leo. We stared at the rod, but it wasn't moving. I stood up slowly, approaching the rod. I looked at the rod tip, and in the dark I could have sworn I saw some movement there. I picked up the rod, and holding it in my hands I was sure there was a fish on. "There's a fish!" I whispered. And then I felt it again. I swiftly yanked up the rod- Jeremy Wade style- and the fight was on. Fish on!

Leo jumped up, Charlie jumped up; I handed the rod to Charlie, hoping he'd have the chance to fight and reel in a big catfish. This fish felt big for sure- if it was a catfish, it was most certainly a biggun. Leo held onto the rod while Charlie tried to make sense of the backwards reel (he was used to the closed-reel type reels that usually come with the crank on the left) while I jumped up and down giggling. Charlie had a big smile on his face. The rod danced around in hands; at one point all three of us were holding the rod, helping to bring in this giant fish.

When we got it close, I looked down into the water, trying to identify it. Oh, channel cat. Awesome! "It's a channel cat!" I said/shouted. We reeled it in more. "No, it's a bass! A weird looking bass" we got it all the way to us, and it hung there attached to our line. "What the heck is that!?"

We were looking at a fish none of us had ever seen. It was smoother and more tapered than a bass, but it had tiny barbels like a catfish, a huge long dorsal fin, and a little spot on its tail.


I quickly dismissed that idea, having studied "River Monsters" like it was my college major, knowing that snakeheads have way more patterning on their scales... And aren't found this far north, at least for now. I thought I knew what it was.

"Bowfin!?" I said, pronouncing it like it rhymed with "poe-fin." I still don't know how to say it. "Dogfish!?"

We giggled and high-fived, I held the fish in my boga-grip knockoff. I'd never seen a fish like this. I felt like we just caught a river monster! After a ton of pictures, we released the monster back into the water. We rebaited the hooks with the little bit of hotdog we had left (I had chummed the water a bit, I wonder if that's what brought in the fish...) and quickly googled dogfish on our devices to find out more about our new quarry. Almost immediately I found the Bowfin Anglers Group, a website dedicated to this awesome fish, and read every line of text I could find. So did Leo.

After a while, we ran out of bait, we were all pretty tired, so we made the hike back to camp. The whole way back we talked about how many dogfish there might be in this lake, and what they eat, and how big they get, and how we could find more, and the teeth they have, and how kind of scary it was, and how awesome it was, and on hotdogs.... We spent the rest of the night telling our wives stories of the monster we just caught and sharing facts we found on the internet.

And now, we were back out on the water. This was our last night camping, our last chance to catch a big fish. Leo had the idea to catch some bluegill and use them as bait. Earlier in the day, we saw a bass steal a 'gill off Leo's hook and devour it in a matter of seconds. It was one of the most awesome things I'd ever seen! I'd only fished with bluegill for flatheads, and wasn't sure we'd really catch anything here with them. Of course, I was dead wrong. Leo was right.

Right around sunset, we caught as many little bluegill as we could, and kept them in our little minnow bucket. We found the most- and the biggest- panfish in a shallow marshy area. The water couldn't have been more than 12 inches deep. In daylight, we could see every detail of the bottom of the pond, at least the area closest to us. Little panfish darted around. We caught a bunch of bluegill- Leo even caught a shiner! At least we think that's what it was.

So here we were, watching huge wakes and ripples move around the shallow water, wondering what those fish could be. We had a hunch, but couldn't be sure until we caught one. Leo guessed whatever they were, they were feeding on the plentiful bluegill in the little marshy area.

It couldn't have been more than a minute or two before something found my little bluegill. I felt a strong hit, just like when I'd been flatheading with Sam. "I got a hit!!" I yelled. I didn't feel any tension on the line. Did I miss it? And then it came back, perhaps circling around for the kill; the fish slammed into my bait like a freight train, I set the hook like I was trying to pull up the bottom of the pond.

Immediately, the fish knew it was hooked. It was not happy. 

The relative silence of the pond was decimated by more splashing than I'd ever seen or heard in my life. An octopus on speed would have made less noise than this. The fish almost pulled the rod right out of my hands. It made runs in all directions at once; there was so much water I'm surprised we didn't get soaked, as we were standing only a few feet away from the beast.

In the twilight, it was impossible to tell what it was. The rod bent over, I worried about it breaking. We were ecstatic! Leo and Charlie watched in eager anticipation, exclaiming, while I'm sure a steady stream of profanity flew out of my mouth. Charlie didn't seem to notice, he was intently watching the thrashing river monster we'd just hooked.

The fight was like no other fish I'd ever hooked into. It was strong. Although the giant drum I caught last time we were camping was huge and gave quite a fight, this fish was different. There was no frantic running around like a scared fish; this was calculated aggression against my hook. This fish wasn't running away, this fish was trying to beat the sh*& out of whatever had grabbed it.

The closer we got it, the more it thrashed. Once it was almost on us, we knew what it was. Another bowfin! Dogfish! Mudfish! Swamp trout! And a big one too. Much bigger than the one caught the night before. Maybe 30 inches long. And heavy.

I grabbed it with my boga-grips, and the three of us stood there admiring the fish, not sure how to proceed. Any movement on our end was met with muscular thrashing from the bowfin. Charlie had some unreasonable desire to put his fingers near its mouth, and each time the fish lashed out, trying to make a meal of Charlie's little fingers. We stared at the prehistoric fish. I was as scared of it as I was in awe of it. Even being gripped by a pair of metal fingers, I was sure the bowfin could kick my butt if it really wanted to.

Usually when I remove hooks from fish, I try not to hurt them. In this case, I tried to prevent my own fingers from getting bit off. I read 'fins can survive for 10-15 minutes out of water, using their primitive air bladder/lung to gulp air. They are extremely hardy fish. This one was clearly un-phased from our epic fight, and was still prepared to deal out retribution for hooking it.

The hook came out easily, and I thanked my lucky stars we landed the fish! Still nervous of the predator I held in my hands, we posed for some pictures. Definitely profile-pic worthy. Absolutely my favorite catch- ever.

What an amazing creature
After a few minutes of admiring our catch, Charlie's fingers wiggling dangerously close to the bowfin's mouth lined with little sharp teeth, we released it. It splashed into the water as if nothing had happened, quickly and powerfully swimming away.

We high-fived, excited by the incredible creature we'd just held, anxious to catch more! Now we knew what those wakes were- bowfin. There were at least four of them, swimming around dining on bluegill. It was amazing. In the dim light, the knowledge of what they were made it even creepier. I questioned the safety of my toes, so close to the water where these toothy animals roamed.

We tried some other spots, but weren't able to catch any more dogfish. I got a little bullhead later on hotdog, but that was the last fish we caught while camping. It paled in comparison to the incredibly powerful snake-like monster.

In fact, pretty much every fish I'd ever caught- ever- paled in comparison to the bowfin. I decided then and there to give up fishing for every other species. No more bass fishing, why bother with panfish (except for bait); trout will never see my flies again.

When I grow up I'm going to be a bowfin angler. I just need to learn how to pronounce "bowfin."

Even the biggest bass I've ever caught pales in comparison to this monster

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Claire caught a monster!

Somehow, Claire and I found ourselves standing in the Fox River at 6:30am on the Fourth of July.

I had planned to go regardless; as any faithful reader knows, I will forgo sleep at the drop of a hat to do some good fishing. The night before, Claire suddenly announced she wanted to go with me. She hesitantly asked what time she'd have to get up. I said 4:30am. She groaned.

We had packed the car, drank our coffee, said goodbye to Walter- standing there, confused to see both of us up so unnaturally early- and hit the road. After a short drive we were now in the river, fishing, just as the sun was coming up.

On Claire's third cast, she got hung up on some rocks, she thought. Then she started yelling "Fish! Fish!" I looked over and saw her light rod doubled down... and heard the drag sending line out to the river. "And it's pulling my line!" I yelled some celebratory profanity and waded over to her as fast as I could.

The fish broke the surface a few times as Claire furiously tried to reel it in. I caught glimpses of a big brown figure in the water. For a moment I wondered if she'd gotten a flathead, but it wasn't fighting like the ones I'd seen. Then I saw the snout of a smallmouth bass, but I wasn't sure how big it was.

I reached behind me, grabbing the new net I got for fly fishing, and scooped up the smallie. As it came out of the water I saw how big it was and probably released some more profanity. Holy crap. This was a big fish!

I was torn between admiration and jealousy for my wife, the big-smallie-catcher. I don't think I'd ever caught a smallie that big on the Fox. I got some nice fish on the Rogue in Michigan, but still. Claire, on her third cast, caught a monster. I lipped it, took out the comparatively tiny jig, and gave it to my lovely wife to hold.

Claire got a biggun
I busted out the tape measure (something I don't often do, but I wanted to know how big this one was) and it measured at least 16". It seemed like it should be longer; perhaps I measured wrong, maybe I have a bad sense of length. Either way it was a giant fish, and both of us were overjoyed. We placed the big fish back in the water, and a few moments later she came to and swam away in the splash of tail I've come to expect. I wiped the water off my glasses.

We celebrated for a moment, I changed to the fish/grub Claire was using, and started casting. We both got some hits, but neither one of us could set the hook. One hit I got, a sharp, single "TAP" cleanly cut off the tail of my twister. Could it have been a walleye? After a while I suggested we move upstream and see if we couldn't find some more fish. Claire reluctantly obliged, not wanting to leave "the promised land" of the big bass.

We worked our way upstream, occasionally getting some hits. I saw a guy fishing on the other side of the river, he was working his way downstream as we went upstream. That stretch of the river is wide enough I couldn't quite make him out, but I had a hunch who it was... based on the particular hat, the cigar...

"Are you Chris?" he shouted across the river. I said I was.. paused.. "Who are you?" I asked.

"Ken!" he shouted back, working his way toward us. Ken G! Ken G of Waterdog Journal and years of fishing the Fox- the same Ken who uses jigs with white twisters (which accounted for my first Fox smallie).

Claire and I fished our spot as Ken waded over to us. We started to get lots of hits, caught some fish; things were turning on. Ken came over and we met face to face, although in some ways I felt I already knew the guy. We'd exchanged messages and emails; I'd read his blog a lot, and I think he'd read some of mine too. It was good to meet the man behind the posts, so to speak. He asked us what all the shouting had been, and we told him about the big fish. Actually, that's not what he asked... he asked "What was all that 'oh #%^$ oh #%@$' about?" Apparently my voice carries down the river. Ken said he knew it was me by the beard and the laughing.

As we talked, Claire and I had clearly found a good spot to fish- the water on the surface was slightly different in this one particular spot, which is why I first cast there. Hit after hit came from this area, although as before we had some trouble setting our hooks. Ken said there was a dropoff right where we were fishing; some deeper water, apparently stacked up with smallies.

In the next hour or so, I hooked into somewhere around 15 fish and landed 8 or so. I lost count. Claire and Ken hooked into a bunch of fish too. All the fish I got were fairly small, but they didn't know it. It was a great time! Maybe even the best time I'd ever had fishing the Fox.

Pretty little fish
All three of us had issues setting our hooks, but we counted the ones we almost landed. All the smallies I got came from around the same spot, bouncing the 1/16oz jig and chartreuse grub/fish along the bottom, downstream.

After a while, we tried some other spots where baitfish were breaking the surface, but none of the big fish under them wanted to play. Eventually Ken headed back upstream and we headed back to our entry point- where Claire caught the giant. I tried busting out my fly rod, which I'd been carrying on my fancy (and heavy, now filled with river water) fishing backpack. I think I casted ok, at least in terms of hitting my targets, but I definitely have a lot to learn. I switched back to my spinning gear but it seemed the bite had dried up.

Smallie stash
Claire and I called it a day, at least a morning- we hiked back up the trail to our car. As we were leaving Panera I realized I left my fly rod on the grass by the car- we scrambled back to the park, and thankfully it was there.
On our way home, we stopped by the Dupage to check out the spot where Claire caught so many fish a few weeks back. We saw plenty of green sunfish swimming among the weeds and shadows in the extremely low and clear water... Exploring upstream of the bridge, we found an area that looked amazingly fishy. Right now the water seems too shallow for it to hold many fish, but my guess is with a little more depth that spot will be on fire! I can't wait to come back. I really like exploring new spots, although Claire is usually the one finding the spots.

I lifted up some rocks to see what was under them, and was intrigued to find crawfish scurrying away. Looking at the bottom of the rock, I saw tons of little shiny moving things I could only guess were the larval stage of some river bug. I thought about nymphs in fly fishing, those weird flies I don't quite understand yet. Maybe when these squirming puddles of mud things grew up, they would rise up threw the water, some of them being eaten by hungry river fish. Maybe that's what was up with nymphs...

Slowly wading, not really fishing, I found some really big crawfish. They were very pale, almost white, with pink around their head and claws. I reached down to pick them up, slowly, but not slow enough... With their characteristic backwards jumping move, they escaped my grasp, perhaps only to become some smallie's next meal. It occurred to me I should get some white tubes with pink tentacles for when I return to this spot...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Chris Ties Flies

Fishing has been a little slow lately. The drought-like conditions, the low water levels, the non-stop heat wave... These have all contributed to less than stellar fishing. Saturday I hit the Fox with Sam- he got 3 or 4, I got one tiny one.. But it was my first smallie on a crank!

My first fly... Messy and rough around the
edges, but....
Sunday morning I waded with Osprey (Rob) for quite a long time, but there was zero action. At the very end I managed to hook a tiny smallie for a split second on a white jig and twister. When the little fish threw the hook the whole Algonquin Valley resonated with my profanity.

Not sure what happened here
Over the weekend I got a fly rod! This was to replace the one that broke and I just returned it. That, coupled with the horribly uncomfortable weather outside motivated me to tie some ties.

Early yesterday morning I tied my first tie, and tied a bunch at lunch, and even more after work.

I stepped out for 15 minutes at lunch, fished the new tiny secret green sunfish pond, and got five. My first fish on a fly I tied myself! I stayed for a few more minutes and caught 4 more fish on the fly.

...It caught some fish!
Right around sunset, I headed for a spot on Salt Creek to do some more fly fishing with my new rod and new flies. It's a humbling experience learning something new like this; just when I think I have a good idea how to handle a spinning rod and reel, fly fishing happens. It's a completely different game.

I'm enthralled by this new world of fishing; the miniscule lures, the finesse and calmness needed to cast them, the infinite combinations of feathers, hair, and thread that are used to create them. I love making wooden lures, fishing with tube jigs, and tossing texas-rigged worms in front of bass... But I'm starting to love this too. I like the contrast between giant bass spinnerbaits and tiny flies can barely see, but somehow the fish can.

As I fished I had plenty of tangles, my fly line wrapped around my rod about a hundred times, the tiny flies with their tiny hooks got caught in tiny branches everywhere... To get a better angle I actually stepped in the creek, but quickly decided I didn't much care for the experience. I saw a little bass swimming around. At one point I had a black wooly bugger, I believe one tied and given to me by Mike Muston, right in front of the bass. I watched him approach, eat it, then immediately spit it out. Apparently I missed the hookset, but I was so enthralled just watching it happen, I didn't care.

I moved to a different spot and tied on a white fly I'd tied earlier. I've been following "recipes" for flies, in an effort to learn the basics before I try any fancy stuff. I've been trying to tie a wooly bugger, but I can't get it to come out right. I don't have all the right materials, so I'm improvising with what I have. This one is tied with goose feathers I found (for the tail), black yarn for the body (scraps from Claire), and turkey hackle (I think that's what it's called.. from my buddy Mark). I weighted it with some thin wire tied around the hook shank. It looks amazing in the water; it pulses and moves with the water in a way I've never seen plastic do.

I tried to make a wooly bugger...
As the sun set, I watched my little fly swim around the creek. I thought I'd have some luck with a white fly since I'd had so much luck on white twister tails in the same spot (even though all the baitfish seem to be brown). Turns out, I was right about the color! I saw a little bass approach the surface (my fly was just below the top of the water) and quietly slurp in my fly. Fish on! As soon as I got him on, I suddenly remembered I still don't know how to fight a fish or reel one in on a fly rod...

It wasn't much of a fight, it seemed like the warm water temperatures and probable lack of oxygen were messing with these fishes' mojo. Somehow I got the little fish in. I set down my phone, set the timer, and got some pictures of my first bass caught on a fly I tied.

My best impression of a trout angler holding a bass
A few minutes later, as the sun went down behind the trees on the other bank, a slightly bigger bass found my fly. This time I tried to focus more- despite my excitement- and try and remember what the internet told me about what to do when you're fly fishing and you catch a fish. I've been spending a lot more time learning about the casting part, I mostly forgot about the fish catching part!

I stripped line with my left hand (I'm pretty sure "strip" is the fly fishing term for "pull line in with the hand that isn't holding the rod") while I held the rod in my right hand and held the line with my index finger. I'm still not sure if I was doing that right, using my finger as the drag... When the bass went left, I moved the rod right; when he went right I went left. Soon he was tired, and I brought him in, awkwardly pointing my rod to the sky and struggling to reach the fish.

Fish #2 to fall for my untidy fly
After a while the heat and humidity was too much to bear. Somehow the temperature seemed to be going up after the sun set. I thought I'd do a few casts with my spinning rod that I brought just in case something happened to my fly rod. Apparently I'd forgotten how to cast a spinning rod, as my fingers caught the line, closed the bail, and my little jig smashed into the water like a bowling ball into a kiddy pool.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Chris and Walter go fishing

After work Walter came up and said we should go fishing at the pond real quick. I said "sure why not!"

We headed down to the pond and I tossed in a lure I carved today. I immediately snagged it on a stick. Oh well, that's how it goes. Walter sniffed things as I tied on another.

I tied on my newly painted flatfish lure- the one that almost caught some bass yesterday. I reeled it in nice and slow. I saw the green flash of a bass coming out of the shadows and attacking my lure.

Walter didn't know what to make of it. He licked the bass lips and then walked away, doing a small roll in the grass to scratch his back.

Then I caught another one, a much much bigger one, on the same lure. I showed Walter, but he just sniffed it and walked away. It must have been 16" or so- and fat!! but instead of congratulating me he went to smell something new.

That's ok, I know he likes frisbee a lot more than fishing.

Drinkbourbon and CBFishes go fishing

Anthony (@drinkbourbon) and I have been trying to do some fishing together for some time now. We've been corresponding via all the various internet ways like Twitter, Facebook; Anthony's got a blog, and it seems like we've got a lot in common. Obsessed with fishing, not sure how everything works exactly with the whole fishing thing, oh and did I mention obsessed with fishing?

I got to the pond a little while before Anthony, and had a great time almost catching a bunch of fish. I tested out some new lures I made, this time before painting them. I just wanted to see how they ran. A little crankbait I made with a plastic lip flipped over itself at any speed, suggesting I might need to change the lip position. I snapped on a weird looking lure I carved and finished with my new Dremel (that thing is freaking awesome). A while back I found a couple "flatfish" lures at Busse- I don't know if they're "Lil' Ikes" or "Flatfish" but the idea is the same. They were so unusual I wanted to see if I could make them myself.

The Beckfish (flatfish imitation)
I was immediately in love with the action of this lure. With a very slow retrieve, it wobbled a ton back and forth, so much so I almost took a swipe at it. On the second cast, I saw three bass come up and try and take it. One of them made it, got hooked right in the lip, but threw the hook in an impressive aerial display of power.

Well that was awesome. It confirms something I've been thinking and hearing from other anglers I respect a lot- it's all about the action. There was no paint, no eyes, no 3D holographic foil coating, no patented impregnated scent... Just some wood and some metal with some nice action. Maybe the bass apreciated the extra-smooth finish I was able to achieve with my new power tool.

I'm now the proud owner of a power tool
 I ended up catching a nice bass a few minutes later by dragging a t-rigged tube over some weeds and letting it drop down right at the edge. A big bass gobbled it up. Great idea Sam! Just like a frog but cheaper.

A few minutes later Anthony walked down to the water. Although we'd never met, we had corresponded a great deal via the internets, so we already went way back, so to speak. He started fishing, I did my best impression of a fishing guide and told him what had and hadn't been working lately. I kept my tube tied on, missing a bunch of hits and catching a few fish.

Anthony and I talked about our fishing background; how he grew up fishing, didn't fish for a long time, then recently picked it up in a serious way. We seem to have similar ideas about fishing- catching a little fish is still a fish; there's a big difference between catching one fish and zero fish but less between two and ten; we don't know why the fish choose to hit certain lures at certain times.

I managed to catch a few bass while we were talking, but felt bad Anthony wasn't getting any fish. I was the guide after all. It was cool to have somebody else around to take pictures- most of my fish pictures are from an arm's distance away.

After a few misses (the fish were biting really weirdly) he connected with his first CB's Secret Pond bass!

Anthony and a nice bass
It was a great time. The fish were certainly biting, although strangely. Most of my hits came from ignoring my lure for a minute while Anthony and I talked; then I'd have a bass on my line. No giant bulldozer hits, just a "gulp" and my line swam away. I suppose it is a cold front after all. I did, however, catch my second bass on my firetiger crankbait. I cast it out to the middle of the pond, let it sit for a few seconds; the bass inhaled it after two revolutions of cranking my reel.

Another fish caught by a hand-carved lure
We caught some more fish (I think I managed 6 bass total that outing on t-rigged plastics and my crankbait), talked about fishing, made a lot of casts; we each had some equipment issues, but it was a great time. Thanks for coming out Anthony! Next time I'll have to experience your secret pond.

Anthony and another sweet bass

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fishing in Kalamazoo

This weekend Claire and I were in Kalamazoo, Michigan helping my little sister move. Obviously I wanted to take the opportunity to do some fishing. I woke up at 5am EST (4am my time) on Sunday morning, headed to the nearest supplier of coffee (Starbucks wasn't open yet, McDonalds still did the trick) and made my way north to a small trout stream I'd read about on the Internet. I figured I could try for some stream trout for a while, then hit the Kalamazoo river since I'd be fishing very close to it.

There was supposed to be a street going to the stream, a street where I could park and not have to traverse any private property. Turns out this street was a dirt road, and it was closed. I spent about twenty minutes trying to find a way to get to the stream. Finally I found another part of it, farther upstream from the Kalamazoo, but it was clearly private property. The stream was about ten feet wide, and it most certainly ran through a series of backyards.

Well, I thought, I wouldn't be catching any trout this morning. I made yet another u-turn in the deserted country backroads and headed toward downtown Kalamazoo. Every now and then I'd stop and take a look at the map, trying to figure out some river access that wasn't private property. At one point I pulled into a seemingly abandoned industrial complex of some kind. There was river access, but it was behind very tall barbed wire fences.

I drove to a city park on the river, and when I got there I realized I'd actually fished there before. Last year, I happened to be in town and tried fishing from the bridge. Back then I didn't have a clue about river fishing (I still only have a clue, not much else) and was, as expected, skunked. This time I had waders, quickly made my way into the water.

A few years ago there was a major oil spill on the Kalamazoo, but cleaning efforts have been mostly concluded, except for a few stretches. There was no sign of the oil spill where I was; the river looked like a normal river. A lot more urban than I expected; reminded me of the Desplaines River in Chicago with its high banks that made me think of erosion. I was surprised by the depth and sandy bottom of the river. I was also surprised by the lack of current breaks in the form of rocks; there were some downed trees, and there was a bridge, and that was it. No boulders, at least as far as I could see.

I got some hits, then pulled out a monstrous 9" rock bass on a tube that immediately self-released from my hands. It was good to catch a fish- there's always a lot of (self-inflicted) pressure to catch at least one fish. After that I can relax a little.

Casting everywhere, I decided that if I were a smallmouth bass, I'd probably prefer an area with a rocky bottom and more current. The only place that existed was around the bridge, so I headed in that direction. I worked the downstream sides of the columns but no takers. Under the bridge there was a little riffle, and when I cast to it I was rewarded with my first Kalamazoo River smallie.

Pretty fish
Not a trophy, but a good solid fish with nice colors. I worked that area for another half hour, and when I decided to leave and find another spot, at least 10 tube jigs stayed behind, attached to various underwater obstructions. I couldn't retrieve them when I went to check out the spot, but I did notice a bunch of boulders; it appeared the smallies were hiding behind them. I also found a submerged stereo. I wondered if there were times fish gathered behind it, using it to hide from the current.

the "wet" knob on the reverb must have been turned up all the way (music nerd joke)  
I got into my car and brought up Maps on my phone. I wanted to find a place with more current breaks, more variation in water depth. The river was mostly straight near me, but there was one big curve in the river. I know from the internet and some experience that in river bends the inside bend will be shallow, the outside deeper. I also have seen that bends like that tend to deposit trees and other current breaks as the current changes, providing more places for fish to hide. I headed to the curve.

It took me a while to figure out where to legally park and how to get down to the water. On one attempt I stumbled upon some homeless people living in a tent under a bridge. I suppose they could have been camping, but it looked like they'd been there for weeks. I wondered what I would do if I suddenly didn't have a place to live; permanently camping by a river seemed like a perfectly reasonable solution. I wondered if they would ask for some fish if I caught any, and if I should give them any. I decided I probably would give them some, even though the water quality wasn't the best. A contaminated fish might be better than no food at all.

After some major bushwacking through a solid wall of foliage, I stumbled down into the river and saw exactly what I was looking for. Lots of rocks, boulders, downed trees, bridge columns, deep water, shallow water; Maybe it was luck or maybe it was me, but either way I found a great spot. My good choice was confirmed as a good choice when I caught another smallie hanging out in a bunch of riffles.

Kzoo river smallie #2
 I lost some more tubes, got a few hits, and really enjoyed the experience. I was fishing in downtown Kalamazoo, a half mile from the Union where I'd played more than a hundred gigs... But I'd never seen this spot, nor had I fished it. I wonder what other hidden jewels I miss as I drive over bridges.

I was almost out of tubes, so I thought I'd try another approach. I definitely use tubes and jigs too much for smallies; I've never caught one on anything else. I pulled out a gold and red spinner I made (with a paperclip for the wire shaft) and clipped it to my line. When I was testing its action in the water not two feet away from me, I saw and felt fish come up and nip at it! Awesome! I'd been standing still for a few minutes, and it appeared fish were using me as a current break. I had heard of that happening, but never experienced it myself.

So I cast out my spinner, downstream into the current break I was creating, and sure enough connected with a fish. Another rock bass. My first river fish on a homemade spinner! I made it extra heavy to dive deeper in heavy current. This seemed to be the perfect place to use it.

I made that spinner! First fish caught in my own wake
It took about 5 minutes to remove the treble hooks, but after a few minutes holding the fish in the slack water behind me, he came to and swam away just fine. As I was doing so some guys came upstream in a boat, giving me dirty looks. I wondered if I was in "their" spot. I asked them how they were doing, but they didn't seem interested in talking to me.

I caught another rock bass behind me, but couldn't coax anymore smallies. Nobody asked me for fish, nor did I see anybody in the tent. Maybe they were still asleep; it was early after all.

When the time came I made the reverse bushwhacking trip through the thick trees; it seemed clear to me not too many people fished this spot. At least not wading. I wondered if wading in the Kzoo was a bad idea after the oil spill; but I didn't see even the slightest indication of any topwater oil slicks or contaminated rocks or plants. I know that doesn't always mean it's clean, but I felt fairly protected by my waders. Except for the small leak they seem to have developed. I guess I'll find out...

Although I didn't do any trout fishing like I'd hoped, it was a good outing with some nice fish. 2 smallies, 3 rock bass. One of those guys was a GIANT! Not the best trip, but certainly not the worst. It's very encouraging to know that, at least in some circumstances, I can explore a new body of water and successfully find fish.

Friday, June 22, 2012

CB Goes Flatheading

We got to the river's edge, armed with two rods, two chairs, bait, and some beers. It was around sunset. Sam and I walked into the river, looking more like we were going to a barbeque than going fishing. Opening our camp chairs up and setting them down in the gravel, we were glad the river was so low. About an inch clearance between our butts and the water.

Put a green sunfish on each hook and Sam showed me the casting technique for getting the bait where you want it without it flying off the hook. Once our bait was swimming around in the water, we sat down, cracked open some beers, and got down to business. Waiting for the fish.

I can only imagine what we looked like from shore, or from the bridge above us; two dudes relaxing in some foldout chairs who must have mistaken the river for the tailgate party parking lot. The water flowed around our ankles as we held the long white catfish rods in one hand and a beer in the other.

It didn't seem long at all before I felt something at the end of my line. This wasn't the greenie swimming around, this was a definite hit from something... A few seconds later my rod tip started to bend toward the horizontal, toward the fish that had taken my bait. I stood up, Sam stood up, and I prepared to set the hook... Just like I'd seen Jeremy Wade do so many times before when a giant catfish had taken his bait, just like Sam told me to do. When my rod was parallel to the water, I quickly cranked the reel and pulled up on the rod, setting the hook into the beast.

It knew immediately, and with the full force of every pound of its muscular body, it fought. Suddenly, it changed direction, coming directly toward us. Standing in water up to my ankles, I wondered if the fish was coming to ram me. Teach me a lesson. Get me off its property. Out of its territory.

Once it saw us, with a burst of energy its tail shot out of the water, slapping down, propelling its streamlined body away. Sam tried to grab the lip, but the fish had other ideas. After another short run, and a few tries, Sam grabbed the line and lipped the fish. He pulled out a beautiful creature, built like a tank and painted in camouflage: my first flathead catfish.

I tried to stiffle my giggling; after all, Sam is a serious river fisherman and this was a serious fish. No place for giggles, this was hardcore. Flatheads aren't messing around, they know what's up.

Sam grabbed some pliers and worked on removing the hook from the flathead's bony lip- I stood there like a little kid catching his first panfish, holding the rod, not sure what to do next, but excited.

Suddenly the catfish made its characteristic roll, getting free from Sam's grip and splashing back into the water. For a moment it just sat there, but when Sam reached down to grab it, it swam away like a torpedo. I watched the whole thing, standing motionless, in awe of the animal I had just seen.

He guessed it had been 23/24", an average specimen for the river. Average!? That was a BIG fish, wider, heavier, and longer than 99% of all the fish I catch. It could literally eat any of the 17 green sunfish I caught earlier in the day. It did, in fact, eat a green sunfish I caught earlier in the day.

I congratulated Sam on putting me on fish, he congratulated me on my first flathead, and we quickly re-hooked, re-baited, and re-cast the line. It was on.

I tried to focus, but was too excited by what had just transpired. The one that got away, but we certainly got a good look at it. We drank some more beers, utterred some more words of congratulations, and then 14 minutes later another THUMP on my line. A few seconds of nothing. Then another THUMP and my line took off.

My drag squeeled as the second monster of the night took off downstream; even in the dark we could see epic splashes coming out of the water. I gripped the rod as hard as I could, the powerful fish- definitely bigger than the first- using every ounce of its muscle to take my line and get away.

Then my line went slack, and I realized the fish was coming toward me. Ramming speed! Man your battle stations!

I adjusted my stance in the water to something I imagine baseball players doing before they get a pitch. A giant rock-colored fish-shaped pitch. I don't know much about baseball.

I quickly reeled in my line, trying to keep the tension on the aquatic rocket that was barreling toward me, against the current, perhaps aiming right for my knees where it could knock me down in the water. I realized my iphone was in my pocket and wondered why I hadn't brought a waterproof container for it.

And then the flathead saw us, and took off downstream once again. Every second I thought it was going to rip the rod right out of my hands, but somehow I managed to hold on for dear life. Every chance I got, I reeled in the slack line, keeping the pressure on my adversary.

Not so much adversary, more like sparring partner. To me "adversary" implies a lack of respect or contempt for the opponent; I have a huge amount of respect for this amazing fish, and certainly didn't want to hurt it. I simply wanted to spar a little, get our picture together, and put it on its merry way.

I got it close enough (read: the flathead decided to come closer to us) and Sam grabbed it. After a quick grab of the pliers, he held the most badass fish I've ever caught. We checked for tags and clipped adipose fins- the DNR in conjunction with the Fox Valley Flatheaders is doing a study of flathead catfish in the river- we got out the tape measure and it came in at 27". Not my longest or biggest fish, but without question the heaviest and beefiest, and certainly the most badass. This time Sam got a picture for me. (Sam also did a write up about the adventure on

What a fish. 27" Fox River flathead catfish
I held the muscular fish, admiring it's beautiful patterns. Up close it looked to me a lot like brown trout skin, although not quite as colorful. Just as striking though. A dark brown background with little black spots of varying sizes. I can only imagine how terrified a little sunfish would be if the rocks underneath him suddenly floated up, revealing a veritable river monster.

We released the fish, and what a fish it was. Once in the water, it didn't swim away. It calmly parked itself between Sam's feet in the water, as if to challenge us to a rematch. After a few moments, it swam away, probably giving us the finger.

Thanks to Sam for landing
and documenting this awesome fish
with some pictures
We didn't catch anymore flatheads, although Sam had a few hits and misses throughout the night. Waiting for the fish to bite we spent some time tag-team-hunting the bullfrogs that seemed to be everywhere. We both caught some, but we figured they were to scrawny to keep. For a moment we considered using one as flathead bait, as our supply was running low, but then reconsidered. Maybe next time.

We watched a wake circle the area in front of us that was almost certainly a flathead patrolling its spawning grounds. It was a big, calmly swimming fish near the surface, slowly cruising the waters in front of us. There were carp and some bass jumping, but this was a different kind of wake. A big badass of a fish looking for a meal, looking for a mate, or both. Maybe looking to pick a fight with us, sitting in camp chairs on the edge of its territory.

After we ran out of bait, we packed it up and waded to shore in the dark. Our butts soaking wet, beers empty, and big grins across both our faces, we headed down the dark path that lead to my car. An awesome experience to be sure; and an experience it was. A different, slower-paced style of fishing than I'm used to, but with a big payoff in the form of a giant apex predator. I can't help but respect this tank of a fish, the flathead catfish. If we ever met face to face I'm sure it would kick my ass.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lunchtime greenies

Spoiler alert: I caught a big green sunfish
There are so many bodies of water. Seriously, go to google maps and check out where you live. All those little blue areas- there are almost certainly fish in all of them! At least that's how I feel lately, having discovered some exciting fishing in Salt Creek. I've been wondering what other bodies of water right under my nose are teeming with fish...

Today during lunch I strolled down the street to a tiny pond not even a quarter mile away. Last night on a walk with Walter I noticed a distinct lack of "NO FISHING" signs. There were only "DO NOT MOW! NATIVE GRASSES!" signs. Not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds like something I approve of. I am not a fan of the ridiculously manicured suburban lawns that surround me (including my own, which is maintained by the neighborhood association). Why not keep the native plants around? They are nice looking and perfectly at home in this climate. I bet they also give local wildlife a lot better homes than bushes trimmed into cubes and spheres. But I digress.

I wasn't expecting much from this pond- it's about the size of a basketball court, probably smaller. I don't really know anything about basketball or the size of courts it's played on. I casually walked up to the pond, tossed out a texas-rigged white twister tail, and let it sink.

Immediately I had a fish on. No setting of the hook needed. It hit the lure like a missile.

The next four or five casts were the same way. Every cast a fish. Small but incredibly aggressive fish. Awesome! A few casts went without a fish retrieved, and then I felt a giant tug on the line. Could it be a bass? It felt a lot bigger than the others.

I reeled in the biggest green sunfish I'd ever seen. It was a monster! Probably 9" long, maybe longer, and a mouth like a largemouth bass. This dude was considerably larger than every other fish I'd caught so far. A veritable giant. I've caught plenty of smallies around that size; in my book, quite a catch. Especially from a tiny shallow pond down the street.

9"+ green sunfish, my personal best for that species
In the next 35 minutes I caught a total of 17 green sunfish. I switched to a green t-rigged worm and continued to catch them, although not as many. I caught all sizes from the 9" monster to a little guy who inhaled the whole worm.

Over-achiever (the worm is longer than he is)
After the 17th fish, which is more fish than I've ever caught in a single outing as far as I can remember, I made the 2 minute walk back to my house to eat some lunch and go back to work.

Evening wade on a lovely little river

Near Salt Creek, 9pm
I'm a little obsessed with Salt Creek.

After my awesome wade Monday night, catching 11 green sunfish and catching a glimpse of a BIG fish, all I can think about is what lurks beneath the surface of that little unassuming creek. Until Monday, I assumed it was too polluted to support anything besides green sunfish and carp, at least in the section closest to me. Turns out, I was wrong!

I waded twice yesterday- a very short trip at lunch, and a longer trip right around sunset. At lunch I didn't catch anything, but got some hits from something and follows from a little largemouth bass. I saw tons of baitfish swimming around, little brown minnows all over the place.

Somewhere I read Salt Creek should actually be called a river, but for some reason the creek name stuck... I also read the original inhabitants of the area called it the Lovely Little River.

Although it's moving water, and in many ways just a smaller Fox or Rogue river, there are a few strange things that make it different. It's clearly not the healthiest river; for long stretches it's bordered on both sides by industry and overly-fertilized residential land. I don't know much about ecology or hydrology, but the Salt certainly has a different character than other rivers I've fished. There is a distinct lack of boulders and current breaks, although I could be missing seeing them due to the low water levels.

Probably the strangest thing is the weird step-like dropoffs from the shore to the main channel. Instead of tapering down nicely, there are steps that lead down to the deepest sections. That means if I'm not paying attention, I might walk off one of those ledges and drop a foot into a deeper section. That almost happened last night and it scared the $%#& out of me! I wonder if it's related to erosion or some human-influenced characteristic.

I explored a new section last night, and was rewarded with some very fishy spots. A short wade upstream brought me to an awesome looking area with a downed tree blocking off the majority of the stream. The main current cut through a five foot hole close to shore, then created one of the few current seams I've seen on the Salt. On the shore side, there were little eddies in about a foot of water- I bet that will be a sweet spot in higher water. The downstream side of the tree is much deeper water, and absolutely a spot that holds fish. There were some branches in the water, near some very tall undercut banks, all of which was underneath a bunch of low hanging trees. As I waded toward it I saw at least three fish porpoise, one jumped clear out of the water. It was big, although it could have been anything. In the dim dusk light I couldn't make it out.

I waded quickly, hoping to explore as much as possible before all the daylight went away. I'd like to say I threw my little white spinnerbait into all the best fish-holding spots, but in reality I just threw it everywhere. Some places I expected to find fish I didn't, and where I didn't I got hits.

When I finally connected with a fish- on my new light rod- I was ecstatic. I wondered if there was a little pike on the end of my line, my first pike ever. Turns out it was a little largemouth- a moving water largemouth, a fish I don't know well. This one fought like a little monster, like a smallie. All muscle, all spunk. I didn't mind that it was small, it was a great fish to me, caught so close to home in this seemingly hidden spot.

Another Salt Creek bass
A little farther upstream I got another one. This was awesome! If I pretended I didn't hear the the car traffic noise from a quarter mile away, and I blocked out the sounds of low-flying aircraft going to O'Hare, I might as well have been a hundred miles away in the wilderness. Wading, catching fish as the sun went down.

My spinner got hung up, and somehow I didn't have any more safety-pin style spinners with me. I tied on one of my homemade inline spinners, then a beetle spin, then just a straight up jig'n'twister. Although I didn't connect with any more fish, the wade was great.

The local wildlife was everywhere. I saw a big raccoon waddle away from me; I tried to pass quickly so it could go about its business. When I came around a bend in the river, two deer were standing in the river a stone's throw from me. They noticed me and casually trotted away. When it was almost dark, I noticed a tall figure in the middle of the river upstream from me. I squinted and realized it was a heron, or some kind of bird just like a heron. I was standing chest-deep in water, and this bird was towering over me (albiet far away). It must have been five feet tall.

I watched it, both of us standing motionless, until all of the sudden it flew away.

In one stretch with a muddy bottom, I spooked what I think was a carp in 6" of water. I thought about how great it would be to hook into a carp in this stream.

Eventually it was time to head in, as the use of my headlamp was necessary to see. I thought about the coyotes I'd heard coming from this particular area a few nights back, and decided to call it a night. After a slightly tense walk through very tall grass, I made it to a path and headed back to my car. But I'd be back to find out what else this little river holds.