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While the largemouth goes by many different names, there's never really any question as to who he is. He's the same forthright guy everywhere, a buster with a great hunger, with eyes larger than his very big stomach. He has an appetite that will make him try to swallow anything from a mouse to a manatee. The hungrier he gets, the madder he gets, and when he's mad he looks mad all over. His scales stick out, his fins beat violently, his lower jaw juts out more than usual, and his eyes get as red as a mad bull's. He bristles. He is full of a hot headed desire to knock the heck out of anything that goes by. So your popping bug, or other feathery fooler is near, and boy, oh boy, does he sock it!
The farther south the largemouth is found, the bigger he gets. Wherever he isn't ice-bound, he feeds most of the year round and down in lower Georgia and Florida he is sitting at the dinner table all of the time. They grow big in Texas, too, and that state rightly boasts of the outsize hunks of bassy fishflesh that swim its waters. This was brought home to me once when I fished with Andy Anderson of the Houston Press. That day Andy and I were casting away, talking up a storm and in general having a good old get-together.
"Gosh!" cried Andy, suddenly. "Did you see that?"
I looked in time to see him with one foot on the gunwale, one arm on a tree branch, like he was going to climb up to get away from something.
"What?" I stammered, thinking of snakes and sea serpents. Andy pointed. I looked, and where he was pointing I could still see the receding waves that could only have been pushed up by a monster bass.
"Come down out of that tree," I said, "and cast back there." It was a tough place to put a bug but Andy did it. In fact he did it eleven times, and then, deep down, something moved. Two small whirlpools showed on the surface, about two feet apart.
"He'll hit soon," I said. "Throw on back. He just swirled down deep."
"Probably just a little one," said Andy.
"Little!" I shouted. "Did you see how far apart those little whirlpools were? Only a big bass makes swirls like that."
My excitement was beginning to get Andy. His next cast was a bit off line but he brought it carefully back, tried again and made a bullseye. The bug had hardly lit before the water flew apart as that big bass rammed his wide open mug through the surface, inhaled the bug, turned and tore across the top, headed for the sanctuary of a maze of criss-crossed tree branches just under the surface. Andy put the heat on, leaned back on his rod, and held. The tip bounced down to the surface, hung there, then as the bass slowed, the pressure brought him to the surface and Andy got him coming our way. He looked like 20 pounds to me.
Even when I put the net under him and lifted him into the boat, he still looked that big.
"A fair fish," said Andy. "Let's put him back."
"I don't mind putting him back," I replied. "But what size do you call a big fish, in Texas?" "Wal," said Andy. "We call anything over 15 pounds a big fish. This one's only about nine." I kept mum because I didn't want Andy to know that any largemouth over five pounds seemed very big to me. But this was Texas.
When he does get over ten pounds, the largemouth seems to be all mouth and gut. His maw looks as big as the entrance to the Luray Caverns. And when he's big like that he gets a bit lazy, often basking like a walrus, or lying around moping in the shade of a log or a lily pad. On hot days when the sun moves around, he changes his position just enough to keep up with his shade patch, making even that small move under protest and you imagine you can see him grumpily wipe the sweat from his brow with a limp fin.
In order to make such a lazy bass hit, a lure must be played very slowly-in the case of a popping bug, with long pauses between pops, and many changes of pace to arouse his interest or anger; and in the case of a streamer, with a tempting, flirting action.
But when he is hungry, you just can't take the fly away from him. And if he's a brackish-water largemouth, as well as being hungry, he's twice as rambunctious as usual. There's no more evil tempered fish than the bigmouth in brackish water. The sea seems to add a little salt to his disposition and when an angler disturbs his slumbers or merely interrupts his train of thought as he lies among the weeds, he may expect that fish to come up with wide open mouth to fix that pesky noise maker. He'll even come back a second time if he's mad enough. And it isn't hard to make him mad enough.
Many times I have fished Currituck Sound out of Poplar Branch, North Carolina, working the islands and little lakes among the marshes. The fish in there always seem ready, to the point that they'll almost climb a bush to get at a lure. On one trip there, I saw the swirl of a big fish right against a bank.
"He's grabbed a soft crab," I thought.
My guide eased me into casting distance. My cast started off all right but it went too far and hung on the reeds that grew up from the water, directly above where the fish had struck. I pulled back with the rod, the bug came loose and jumped a foot onto a single reed, then slipped three or four inches down it. I pulled back again, and up the reed went the bug, like it had hands. That bass came out then for that bug and I fancied I could hear his jaws bang together as he tried and missed. When my nerves stopped jumping I pulled some more and that bug started swinging, monkey like, from reed to reed. And below it, sticking his ugly old head out and following it, was that bass. He kept after it for six feet, and then it fell to the water. He busted it quick and as I set the hook he jumped, fell over a bunch of floating grass and pulled free.
I sat down till my heart began to give an all quiet signal again. Then I cast back there, just to see if perhaps that 12-pounder was still anxious for that bug. He was. He took it on the first cast, as soon as it hit the water, and I landed him that time. He weighed 7 pounds 5 ounces, a far cry from the 12 pounds my bulging eyes had imagined him to be. But he was still a good, walloping big largemouth.
Largemouth are easy to finger. No use to waste time working stretches of flat beach, unbroken sandy places, muddy flats devoid of vegetation or cover. Old bigmouth is out with the things he likes to eat. He's hanging around under or alongside moored boats, docks, logs, fallen trees, channel markers, rafts, pilings, drop-offs, grass beds, both secure and floating along banks and under rocks. Once in Shirley Mill Pond in Virginia, Moses Nunnally showed me just how accurately the largemouth can be spotted. Moses took me out on the pond and pointed out what he called "hurdles."
"We put a pile of cedar bushes down there, held by four poles to keep them from floating away," he explained. "Looks something like an underwater race track hurdle, and it provides just the sort of spot where bass like to hang out. Cast four feet beyond that stake to the left, and exactly two feet out from it. That's where he'll be."
My cast wasn't quite exact, but it was close. I didn't even have time to pop the bug. There was a swirl and I struck. A big, wide mouth showed for a minute, then the big bug flew back at me. I had only nicked him.
"Too bad," said Moses. "A six-pounder." He started the motor. "But there's another one right over here."
We moved farther down the shore. "See that lap?" said Moses. "What's a lap?" I wanted to know.
"It's the top half of a tree," he explained. "Cut off so it falls in the water. Makes a swell place for fish to hide."
"That one?" I asked, pointing to a freshly downed tree lying against the shore.
"No," said Moses. "The one beyond that. That's a new one that you are looking at. Next year it will be just right. There are about 200 of them in the pond right now, a few that fell naturally, but most of them we chopped."
"Put the bug right in beside it," he went on. "Bob lives there." Seeing the look I gave him, Moses laughed. "Bob's a sevenpound bass," he explained. "I know him so well I have a name for him. Of course there's just a chance he won't hit, but he's there."
Bob was there. And Bob hit. He was a well-stacked seven pounds, a top conditioned largemouth. We had drifted a considerable distance from the lap when I put him back but Moses told me that he'd go right back there, and be there the next time we came by.
"Suppose we had put him back farther away," I said. "How far would he travel to get back to where he lives?"
"I know two bass named Peggy and Jock," he said. "They used to live on a point down the lake. Each time I caught them there I'd carry them to the other end of the pond in the live well, and then release them. But the next time I came past their home point, there they would be.
"I caught them so often," he added, "that I guess they began to wonder where their home really was. They moved down the lake where I was always putting them back, and now I catch them there and bring them back to the point, and they swim right back down the lake again."
"Just a couple of mixed up kids!" I laughed.
But there was nothing mixed up about the way Moses could spot those fish, and that's the way largemouth are-if you know where they like to live, and if there are fish in there at all, they'll be where you expect them to be.
Largemouth go for a big lure. Especially the weighty old timers can't be bothered with small stuff. They only stir their stumpy fins for an article of food big enough to bulge their bellies. They like the large popping bugs and streamers and bucktails and they like streamer-spinner and bucktail-spinner combinations. But while these big lures bring lots of hits, the angler must use caution in presenting and playing them. When the fly hits the surface, the nearby bass will start swimming away, but invariably he will turn back after a bit and look to see what has fallen there. If the lure is quiet, like a bug that has dropped and is resting, he will come back and generally grab it. Sometimes if he is a little suspicious, a slight quiver of the bug will chase his fears away. But always, after making the cast, be sure to rest it awhile before beginning to play it-whether using streamer or popping bug.
With the bug, a good half-minute rest before giving it the first pop pays off, especially during the warm months. The majority of strikes come when the bug is not moving, but resting quietly on the surface. Sometimes a bass will see a lure coming through the air, move under it and grab it as soon as it hits, but usually they want to look it over carefully before picking up their knives and forks. Glutton-like, they want to bolt it down in a hurry, but gourmand-like, they want to savor it a bit, and they want to be sure it's not tainted meat.
A streamer should be allowed to sink almost to the bottom in shallow water, or a good long time if it's deeper, before it is started back. And even if the first cast doesn't produce, a second, or a third, back to the same spot will bring a hit. The largemouth is not the hardest fish to make hit a fly but he can go down, like any other fish, and being the stubborn creature he is, when a bigmouth is down, he's really down.
Even a veteran angler usually fishes far too fast. One quick cast, a fast retrieve, and away he goes to the next likely spot, never realizing that the fast retrieve gets the lure out of there too soon, maybe just when the fish is getting interested. A bass wants to think things over a bit, he wants his suspicions lulled, he wants to be convinced that the fly is really something good to eat.
During the hot months the lure can hardly be played slowly enough. I've waited a full minute, and never less than half a minute, before giving a popping bug action. It seems an hour, when you want hits, but it's that way or else.
School bass behave quite differently from the singles. At Welaka on the St. John's River in Florida, schools of largemouth cut the surface up as they feed on shad minnows, and along with the bass, sticking their long, slender snouts out and feeding at the same trough are beaucoup needlefish. They like shad minnows, too.
"A.P." Oliver knows the first name of every bass in that area. Besides being a fine angler, an excellent guide, and a student of fish behavior, A.P. is fun to fish with. Not much misses his keen eye and usually when other fishermen are drawing blanks, A.P. is boating fish. When I fished with A.P. we were go miles from the river mouth, yet there was still tidal action. We cut the motor and soon saw fish working a short way off.
"Do they always school here?" I asked.
"Generally from October to April," A.P. said. "But in 1952 they were thick around here all year."
We were close to the breaking school now. I cast a popping bug to a spot where I had seen a rise. By the time the bug hit the surface, I saw top water disturbance only 10 feet away.
"They move fast," said A.P. "You gotta get to them in a hurry."
But before I could even pop that bug, a two-pounder hit and came on out, shaking his head so hard that he threw the insecurely hooked tenite bug a foot into the air. When it hit the water again, another bass was waiting and gobbled it fast, jumped, and also threw the bug. I looked at the hook, but the fault wasn't there. It was my fault.
I cast and had another hit and this time I pulled in a threepound fish. As I took the hook out, an inch-long shad minnow pulled out of his mouth, then another, and another, all fresh, all swallowed within the past few minutes.
"Can you beat that!" I said. "Here's a guy stuffed to the hilt, so full that he's making like a machine grinding hamburgers, and he still wants his plate refilled!"
I threw him back into the water and when he hit he disgorged at least half a dozen more shad minnows. These last were a bit more of the chum variety-a bit used, so to speak.
Another school showed suddenly, thrashing the top 20 feet away. They sounded, and I cast uptide from where they had showed.
"That's the wrong place," A.P. advised. "Cast downtide from the fish. They follow the shad minnows that swim with the tide, and hit them from behind."
Sure enough, they showed again ten feet farther downtide, going away from us. A.P. started the motor. My nerves jumped. "Hey!" I shouted. "Hadn't we better row after them? The motor will put them down."
"Not these school bass," said A.P. "It doesn't work that way here. The motor doesn't scare them, but if I were to cut it and start rowing, then they would go down."
It was hard to believe, but that's the way it is. "Look," I said. "It's raining over there." A white line showed on the surface a hundred yards away where raindrops were slapping hard into the water.
"That's bass," A.P. said. "Look at them feed."
The disturbance was in a straight line for a hundred feet and altogether there must have been two acres of water jumping up. As we came nearer we saw that the water was being splashed a couple of inches high as the bass, completely berserk, rammed open-mouthed into tightly packed, frenzied schools of shad minnows. We could hear the sizzling sound when A.P. cut the motor, and now and then we saw a minnow knocked high in the air. It was vicious. These might be school fish, but they were the same old extra hungry, extra big eaters, the same old largemouth black bass.
Then everything went down and here and there patches of foam were left, so it looked like the circus grounds after the tents are down and gone, the scattered pieces of paper, the bits of cardboard cups.
We left the school fish then and worked the shoreline for big stuff under stumps and floating vegetation. And while the school fish were mostly small, there are some bass in that river that will pry your eyelids wide open. You never know what will happen, or when. It's bass fishing that keeps you guessing, and it certainly keeps you casting because if you want action, the school fish will furnish that, and if you want size, the huge hunks along the shoreline will provide that.
One Bass school all over the south, in the TVA lakes, in big rivers in Texas, and in the bigger lakes and rivers of Florida. On Lake Okeechobee they are continually moving into the bays and along the shoreline to spawn. For nine months of the year they keep moving in, furnish fishing, spawn, and then go back to the big part of the lake where it is hard to find them, hard to get a hit.
On one trip to Lake Okeechobee with Captain Bill Johnston of Clewiston, we took his charter boat, the Seven Seas, towed a couple of skiffs, and ran down to Moonshine Bay. The water was from two to five feet deep and reeds stuck up everywhere and pepper grass lay on the surface in great patches. This type of fishing called for a weedless attachment so I tied on a popping bug that was ready rigged that way. It had rubber legs, a yellow tenite body, white bucktail tail. I cast it out, and started it walking across the surface. It looked alive and it didn't walk very far before a mite of a bass flew up and hit it. That bigmouthed youngster wasn't eight inches long.
We worked all the open spaces in the reeds, all the little pockets that looked bassy enough to hold ten-pounders. We fished for 15 minutes without a strike aside from that junior edition. Then I dropped the bug on the pepper grass and a five-pounder tore up and engulfed it and dove for the bottom.
After that almost every time we dropped a lure on that pepper grass we had a hit. The bass would come up, grab the bug, jump once, then dive and tangle in the grass. We would have to row over, catch hold of the leader and pull gently, bringing up a huge wad of grass with each fish. Half the time the bass would be entirely covered with grass and weeds and wouldn't even kick as we took the hook out and dropped them back in. With their heads buried in all that greenery they must have thought they were hidden from us.
The next day Bill took us to Fisheating Creek, also near Clewiston. It was a bassy looking place, pretty enough to make us want to take pictures of it, with or without fish. There were great live oaks with wide limbs dripping with Spanish moss. Rimming the creek were huge cypress trees, thin trunked at the top, fringed with leaves, and tapering outward fast at the butt, like the skirts of a Seminole squaw. On the ground, all around, were cypress knees. The early sun slanted through the trees, sifting through the hanging tendrils of moss and cutting through the leaves in shafts. The morning mist rose from the water like incense, giving the whole thing a cathedral atmosphere.
But we shook our heads briskly and soon shapes of huge bass covered the picture, shattered the calm. We were bass hungry. We dashed for the water. Bill and Hoite Agey took the boat and Dave Roberts and I slipped upstream along the shore. Dave eased into the first nice looking bit of water and I went on until I came to a round pool rimmed with water hyacinths. It looked like what I wanted.
On my first cast, the big yellow popper had hardly hit the water before the surface was smashed into a thousand particles. A bigmouth jumped, shaking his head, gill covers flaring outward, red gills showing, the big yellow bug showing, too, in the corner of his mouth. He was a five-pounder and fought like double that. I took three others from that pool before moving upstream.Fisheating Creek lazed through bottom land in a million twists and turns. I had to wade the creek a dozen times and still wasn't very far from where we had parked. The fishing was terrific.
I stayed at it till dark and had to use my flashlight to get back to the car.
As we put our rods away, we talked over the day.
"Best bass fishing I've had in a long, long time," I said. "I even had to kick them aside as I waded."
"Yah!" said Hoite. "I can see you kicking bass out of the way."
"No fooling," I said. "Once I felt one bump into my leg and I kicked him."
Hoite laughed. "The next time you feel something bump into you in those hyacinths," he said, "brush it aside with a 15-foot pole. That was a cottonmouth you kicked, for sure."
In the autumn, in the colder parts of the country, largemouth seem to go on orgies of eating everything within reach, every-thing they can stuff down their wide throats, as if to store up fat to tide them over the winter months. For a while, then, they seem to hit harder and fight harder, and for the angler it is one of the best times of year to be out. The bass lose a lot of their summer sluggishness then, and are ready and willing to chase after a fly. They hit so hard and so often that the lucky fisherman who is in on those days comes to believe that he has discovered the all time secret of catching bass. And then the next day they are down, and he begins to understand. This was their last mighty binge, just before curtains, and as the cold continues to work on them, only a deep, slow-moving streamer or bucktail will get any response at all.