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The Channel-Bass

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

"The blessing of St. Peter's, master, be upon all that hate contentions, and love quietnesse, and virtue, and go a-angling." IZAAK WALTON.

INNES RANDOLPH has described the channel-bass or red-drum in verse :

" Long as a salmon, if not so stout, And springy and swift as a mountain trout."

Any one who has taken the fish will recognize the faithfulness of the picture. The poet is too modest ; the fish is often longer than a salmon, and far more active than a trout. In truth, the marine fishes have so long been caught with heavy hand-lines that their true game qualities have never been fully appreciated. Let the trout-fly fisherman take a bonito of six pounds with the rod with which a six-pound trout has been successfully landed, or attempt to catch a seventeen-pound yellowtail or kingfish with the correctly appointed salmon rod, which has taken salmon of similar weight, and the relative qualities of the two will at once be apparent. To land a twenty-pound yellowtail with a long salmon rod would be a matter of hours, at least such was the opinion confided to me by an old fisherman after a day's yellowtail fishing in California. Laymen are prone to scoff at the technical names of fishes. They care little that the channel-bass is of the genus Sciaenops,, and that it is known among all nations as Sciaenops ocellatus, the latter term referring to the spots near the tail. The actual necessity of this common language name is emphasized in this fish, which has so many titles, local names from Virginia to Texas, that the would-be historian of the fish is amazed, and the travelling angler more so. Where I caught the fish at the mouth of the James River, the dug-out fishermen, who cruised around the oyster beds in their rakish crafts, called the fish the drum, and I at first supposed they meant the big drum, the bass drummer of the finny tribe.

At the mouth of the St. Marys, Georgia, my boatman, who was a city father of a neighboring commonwealth, took me " red-bass " fishing. The boy who collected fiddlers for me in the swamp on the way to Fort Marion, Florida; confided to me the best " spotted-bass fishing-ground in the vicinity. When I reached the St. Johns and cast my luck among the genial pilots of Pilottown and the shadmen of Mayport, I was told that in the mouth of the river I would find the finest channel-bass fishing in America. This was bewildering, but the end was not, as on a trip to Jacksonville I met an old friend, N, who had advised me by all means to take a run down through the Indian River country to catch " red-horse." Another friend who lived at Tampa invited me to go over and try the " reef-bass." While talking over the fishing outlook with an angler in New Orleans, he asked why I did not take a run to the coast and try the Poisson rouge ; while at San Antonio, Texas, I was regaled with stories of the big Pez Colorado to be had down at Aransas Pass and all alongshore. What a diversity, what a plethora, of sport these titles open up to the mental vision of the insatiate angler ! Yet everywhere I found the same fish was meant ; namely, Scicenops ocellatus. It will come to this:

The question what to term this fish may be argued elsewhere. I am going to call it the channel-bass, first, because this name appears not to be applied to other fish, and secondly, I have noticed that the majority of anglers and sports-men prefer and use the term, which is the very best of reasons. In casting over in my mind the best channel-bass fishing I have enjoyed, the St. Marys and the mouth of the St. Johns rivers and the beach out from Pilottown, Florida, crowd and elbow to the front. The mouth of the river is an interesting place, especially at Mayport, where the sand-dunes at the time of my last visit were migrating, and one fisherman's house was almost completely covered. In the morning the housewives would be seen sweeping out the sand from the walk as they would snow. Some of the buildings were on stilts, and it was almost necessary to take a running jump to reach the door of one hostlery. The boatmen, Americans and some Minorcans, and their descendants, were nearly all in the shad business, and many fished the, mouth of the river habitually. The water over the bar was often very shallow, so that schooners laden with lumber were sometimes obliged to wait for a combination of high tides and an east wind to blow the water in and up; so shallow was it at low tide that I saw a gigantic sunfish ground as it wandered in, its struggles attracting so much attention that it was ultimately caught. This shallow water created a heavy sea, or rip, which was more or less uncomfortable at times; but by anchoring on the edge of the channel, and fishing at the slack tide, much sport was enjoyed, while, up the river, in smooth water, there was an excellent " channel-bass ground," very popular with the anglers who came through from Fernandina in boats or from up the river. So fierce was the tide that almost every one used hand-lines and sinkers, and even then the latter would often apparently rise to the surface ; but at slack water I fished with my rod, which was about eight feet long, of greenheart, weighing twenty-four ounces ; the line, a number twelve cuttyhunk, tested to pull twenty-two pounds, and hook about the size of a 7/0 Limerick, though the boatmen used something much larger. The bait was mullet and crab.

We started in at the ebb, and anchored in a place selected. In a short time the tide, rushing against the incoming sea, created a singular rip, unpleasant to look upon, which seemed to merge into a heavy-breaking sea farther out. We picked up a few small bass by casting up-stream, using pipe-sinkers, but in a marvellously short space of time the bait and sinker would pass the boat and lie at the surface. Several sharks followed up the mullet trail and afforded some sport. The shad fisherman, who had never seen a five-foot shark killed with a line of that size, confidentially informed me that " he'd have been dogged ef he'd 'a' b'l'eved it, ef he hadn't seen it."

Gradually the current slackened, and then suddenly my reel gave tongue, and in a few seconds I was engaged in sport that was sufficiently exciting to satisfy the most exacting angler. Out into the midstream the fish went in a splendid run, having all its own way, the tackle being too light for any immediate protest, and it was two hundred feet distant before the thumb brake began its deadly work and I turned it. Then it shot across the water in the opposite direction, never slacking or giving up. Now the reel would gain twenty or thirty feet, and the gamy fish would spring forward and turn downward, sounding with an impetuosity that was irresistible, making everything hum with the soul-stirring zip-zip-zip ! of the reel, which so truly echoes the exact movement of the stricken fish. The gamy creature would have joined forces with the current and towed us out to sea but for the strenuous efforts of the boatman; and so, ever fighting, making a brave show of resistance, the fish came in, cutting the water with splendid side rushes, growing shorter and shorter until I had it on the quarter, its burnished sides flashing in the sunlight, and as it turned and lay upon the surface, I saw why some call it the red-drum, as a red golden iridescence caught my eye as though for a second the fish had blushed. I passed it forward to the mercies of the gaffer, who, with a clean-cut lift landed and held it up for my inspection. It was a most attractive fish, weighing between thirty and thirty-five pounds, which had engaged our attention a minute per pound, according to the boatman.

The channel-bass bears a strong resemblance to the California roncador. The body is long and well proportioned ; the back perfectly arched from the tip of the nose to the base of the tail ; the nose blunt, mouth opening parallel to the ventral line or bottom of the fish. The head is long; eye small ; dorsal fins low, the second dorsal being long and beautiful. The tail explains the gamy nature of the bass, being a large and powerful organ. The color of the fish is pronounced bronze above, silver and grayish below ; over all a reddish iridescence, caught when the fish is seen at an angle, making it a resplendent creature immediately after the catch. At the base of the tail is a single black spot, about as large as the eye. On some fishes there were several of them, and I noticed that some of the negroes called the fish " two eye " for this reason.

In the South the St. Johns is one of the best localities for channel-bass, though I have had excellent sport at Fernandina near Fort Marion. It is found in the deeper portions of the channel, and I took large specimens later from the beach on the Pilottown side, where the water is deep near shore. This locality was equally famous for large sharks, strikes from this game being about two to one of channel-bass. One hooked with a heavy shark line, which I had made fast to a heavy log, carried the latter down the beach and nearly dragged me into deep water, a lucky chance changing the programme. In a word, sharks are to be expected here. On the St. Johns the channel-bass appears with some regularity in June, and in this month, and in July, the angler may expect large specimens running up to fifty or sixty pounds, the fish attaining, if current report can be relied upon, seventy-five or eighty pounds. The largest I have seen weighed sixty pounds. In August and September, in the St. Johns, the fishermen expect a second run of smaller fish ; and the sport is good until November. Anglers are told that they can be caught later. Possibly individuals have been, but I have religiously fished the mouth of the river in January and did not take a channel-bass. My boat-man insisted that they were there, and intimated that they had been taken, so I concluded that while luck was with me in the summer I was a poor off-season fisherman. The average-sized fish taken in the rivers of Florida is from twenty-five to thirty pounds, and there is a remarkable difference in size and tastes in different localities. I tried several " spinners " in the mouth of the St. Marys, but did not have a strike ; yet on the Indian River I understand, on the excellent authority of Dr. Kenworthy, the dean of the angling fraternity of the South, that this method has been very successful. I have seen a yellowtail hooked with a tooth-brush handle metamorphosed into a jig; yet this fish refuses a spinner. There is no accounting for tastes even among fishes.

Surf fishing for channel-bass is an exciting sport. One morning in riding down the long and beautiful beach of Amelia Island, Florida, which was seemingly covered with snipe and plover which rose into the air in silvery clouds as I galloped along, I came upon a group of anglers who had a tent in the brush and were fishing for channel-bass. The wind was offshore, the surf low at the point they had selected, and they waded out from shore at low tide, and with heavy cast-lines and sinker tossed their bait far out into what appeared to be a school of channel-bass, which made so gamy a struggle that more than once two men seized a line and with shouts of victory ran plunging over the waves up the sands. Doubtless the heavy normal surf here would not permit it, but if an iron pier could be run out over the breakers, the rod fisherman would have some remarkable sport. The admirer of this fish will find it almost everywhere along the Indian River, but I never saw it on the reef in the vicinity of Key West, or farther west. It is reported as abundant on the west coast of Florida and in the Gulf states. Mr. Silas Stearns states that they appear in this locality in March and April. They seem to congregate about the mouth of inlets at this time, sometimes going in at once, again hovering around outside. They come in large schools which soon break up. In October and November they leave. Following around the Gulf, we come to what is probably the greatest fishing-ground for channel-bass in this country the region around Galveston and Aransas Pass. Here the fish is omnipresent, the best fishing being from May to November. This section of the country is comparatively little known to the angling fraternity, but abounds in large numbers of game fish of many kinds, channel-bass being large and gamy and the common fish of the country.

I fished for them here in the inner bay of Aransas in shallow water, the bass congregating in the shallow holes, taking shrimp bait with avidity. Another excellent location was on the Gulf side of the island, where one could wade out and cast for bass in the surf with a light black-bass rod. I had good sport with small ones up to ten pounds. It is not necessary to go to Florida or Texas for fine channel-bass fishing. In South Barnegat Bay, at Harvey Cedars, some of the finest fishing can be had at times, especially in September, the fish running large, catches ranging from fifteen to fifty pounds. The luck of Harvey Cedars is a trite saying among the anglers who know it well, and the fine fishes taken here illustrate the singular fact that there are many famous fishing resorts along the Atlantic coast near New York for some reason not so well known as far inferior places many miles distant.

As game, the channel-bass recalls the striped bass. It lives upon crustaceans, mollusks, and sea-worms, and has been seen to root and tear up the weeds in shallow water in its search for food. This explains its presence along the line of surf in the shallow waters of the great sandy beaches of the coast, the home of numerous bur-rowing crustaceans. While an oceanic fish, it enters rivers, being caught as far from the sea. as Jacksonville in the St. Johns, and according to Dr. C. J. Kenworthy, in Crescent Lake and Lake George, Florida, where large fish are taken with a spinner. As to their spawning habits, Mr. S. C. Clark states that the channel-bass spawn in the Indian River, Florida, in August and September, the young fish being found there at all times. The adults appear at the inlets of Florida in January and February, and remain until August, spawning there in the shallow bays, leaving or going to sea in October. Dr. Jordan reports young measuring two and a half inches at Pensacola in April. This gives the Indian River region a channel-bass season, of nine or ten months, about equivalent to that of the yellowtail of the Pacific.

As a food-fish the channel-bass is of great value, those up to ten or fifteen pounds being of excellent quality, the older and larger fish better adapted to the angler, though I have eaten a large channel-bass, seined on the St. Johns, that was beyond criticism. The economic value of the channel-bass can be realized by a glance at the catch and returns of various states. In North Carolina, in 1888, 140,000 lbs. were taken, valued at $3800. South Carolina took out 50,000 lbs., valued at $1600 in the same time. Georgia, 20,085 lbs., valued at $470. Florida, 404,557 lbs., valued at $11,000. Mississippi, 140,000 lbs., valued at $6000, and Texas, 838,000 lbs., valued at $32,761. From this it will be seen that Texas, where the fish is known as redfish, is the headquarters for channel-bass and offers an interesting and profitable field for the angler.

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