Learning about, but not catching, largemouth bass

June 16, 2014 

Roger Willoughby and me have a lot in common.

Willoughby was the fictional fishing expert in Howard Hawks’ 1964 movie, “Man’s Favorite Sport.”

Willoughby was played by Rock Hudson, for whom I have never been mistaken. But, like Willoughby, I occasionally write about fishing.

I have written stories about race car drivers; surfers; divers; marathon runners; archers; marksmen; boxers; bull riders, other high school, college, amateur and professional athletes, actors, authors, singers, costumers, directors, theme park engineers, surgeons and brain experts.

I have done so without ever having been seriously mistaken for an expert.

But fishing is different.

I regularly get call from folks wanting fishing advice. I oblige by meting out pearls of angling wisdom without charge -- go where there are fish and go often.

Compare that advice to what you can learn from Chris Chavez and Ethan Howard, a couple of high school students who will represent North Carolina in the inaugural Bassmaster High School National Championship in July in Tennessee.

Talking to them about bass fishing is like consulting an ichthyologist, a meteorologist, a botanist and a physicist. Ask them about fishing and you will hear about lateral lines, oxgenated water, lake levels, brightness levels, recent percipitation, temperature, currents, depths, water color, structure and the relative effectiveness of a bass’ five senses.

A cane pole with bobber, hook and worm to them is about like a manual typewriter is to me. They have multiple rod and reel outfits that cost 100s of dollars. I have a rod and reel combo that set me back $19.50 about 10 years ago.

Their lures and supplies fit into a large compartment in Chavez’s 19-foot Stratos bass boat. My assorted plastic worms, one artificial lure, two packs of weights, a few hooks, a yellow stringer, a kitchen paring knife and three bobbers are an unsorted mess in a 1960s-era blue metal tool box with a 12-inch ruler on the top

The plan was to fish with the fellows and perhaps have a Roger Willoughby-ese experience of somehow luckily catching more fish than they did.

It didn’t work out that way.

My attempts before they arrived at Lake Wheeler were disappointing. One cast resulted in my lure landing on top of the dock, bouncing between the planks, and securely hooking the underside of the boards. The line had to be cut.

Later, what looked like a perfect cast actually was the knot failing and the lure flying off without the line. Fifty more casts, with attached plastic worms, resulted in not a nibble.

It was unlike another lake experience when my daughter and I on a youth trip were at the lake at sunrise. We had bites constantly, but landed nothing. Bobbers would disappear or be towed here and yon. But no fish.

“There is no fish in that lake who could get his mouth around a hook that big,” a veteran fisherman later told me when he checked my rig. Oh.

The guys arrived and the difference in our expertise was apparent immediately. They launched the boat and paused, checking conditions before heading for the opposite shore.

“The wind is blowing that way,” Chavez explained. “It sort of pushes the fish that way toward the shore. Plus you’ve got some shade.”

The fish will be facing East, Howard said, because bass don’t have eyelids and will be turned away from the setting sun. The afternoon rain has stirred up the water so they would be using dark lures in the dark water. Oh.

The fancy twisting tail on my pink and black worm with silver sparkles probably wasn’t a good idea either.

“The fish don’t want a lot of commotion today,” Howard said.

Their casts were things to marvel as they tossed lures into tiny spaces as they worked the shoreline. Every cast seemed to be within six inches of perfection.

Howard pointed to a submerged log. “If there is a fish here, he’s right there,” he said as he laid a black crayfish lure in perfect position. The fish bit, but got away.

“See where the small rocks on the shore stop and the bigger rocks start?” Chavez said. “There is a little point there. The bass will be there waiting to ambush the bait fish.”

The entire time they pointed to things in the water that were invisible to me. They noted the sun’s position and one time said if they returned a little later to an unfruitful spot that they’d catch fish. The conditions were changing, they said.

The boys fished without stop. Chavez caught a couple of two-pounders with his watermelon-colored plastic worm. Howard got one fish to the boat before he enticed the fish to jump for the camera. The fish threw the hook.

They had four rods each with lures that were rigged different ways. They continually switched outfits, trying to find what would work.

They fished for about 90 minutes. Howard probably made more than 300 casts and Chavez close to 100. They caught two fish. I had not wet a hook, taking notes instead and learning.

Two keeper bass in 90 minutes doesn’t seem very impressive, but at that rate they probably would win a lot of tournaments. Catching a two-pounder every 45 minutes for eight hours would result in 10 or 11 fish, a solid day of tournament fishing.

“The key is keeping your bait in the water,” Howard said. “You can’t catch fish if you don’t have your bait in the water.”

I will offer that bit of wisdom to my next caller.

But despite their expertise in fishing, the boys still were bound by some great cosmic law of youth. Throughout my life, every time I couldn’t get a lawn mower started or a car cranked and my Dad came to the rescue, the motor mysteriously came to life as soon as he arrived.

I thought of that when the motor on the bass boat cranked, sputtered, spit and died repeatedly at quitting time. The guys used the trolling motor to head back in. Chavez answered his cell phone and explained the problem to his father.

Chavez could see the certainty that was looming.

“I know it is going to be my fault,” he said after he hung up.

At the dock, his father climbed into the boat and turned the key. The engine purred.

“Now, what was the problem?” he asked.

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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