Fishing is a curious pursuit. Any outing might deliver delight, surprise, or disillusionment. Satisfaction in fishing comes where you find it or make it. It’s a fitting metaphor for life.
Last week, through an outdoor-themed role I fulfill as volunteer, I fished a lake on military property in central Pennsylvania that is not generally open to the public. Our committee’s gathering would take place in a lakeside building, but we were invited to bring a kayak and tackle to fish the lake’s big and abundant largemouth bass around the scheduled meeting.
As encouraged, I arrived the evening before with my fishing kayak tucked into the pickup bed. The late afternoon heat was stifling, and a merciless sun cooked the scent of spread manure from surrounding fields like a pungent stew. It did not seem a promising evening for catching bass. But these bass are rarely fished for and therefore naïve.
I paddled along the brushy shoreline, lobbing soft-plastic grub- and tube-style lures tight against the cover. Almost before the splash had settled the line would tighten and move off, slow but determined, sure sign of a big bass. When a bass takes in this way, you wait a few seconds to be sure it’s maneuvered the lure into its lips, then set the hook. Next comes head-shaking acrobatic mayhem as the fish jumps all around your boat, trying to spit the hook. It’s close-in, exciting bass-catching. As required, I released all I caught.
I asked those in charge if I could return early next morning and fish before the meeting at nine. It would be cooler then, with no intense sun baking the lake. The fishing, I assumed, would be even better. The authorities were gracious and urged me to enjoy myself. They’d be there to open the gate at seven.
That morning’s outcome shows why fishing is a curious pursuit. Conditions were ideal—cool, overcast, with a mist over the surface, which was still as a mirror. The bass “should” have battled one another to get to the bait, yet I fished the same stretch of shoreline where I’d caught bass in last afternoon’s swelter and couldn’t get a bite.
Meanwhile, very large fish were occasionally jumping and splashing at the middle of the lake. I was pretty sure I knew what they were and ignored them at first. But the bass’ total disinterest made the big leapers tempting. Generally, I stay closer to shore in my kayak; the fishing is typically better there, and, well, I just feel more comfortable within an easy swim to dry land.
But there were these big jumping fish, and I wasn’t catching a thing. So, I paddled out through the mist to the middle.
A big school of those fish were cruising around at the surface, sucking some unknown tiny food source off the top. Their tails and fins were almost shark-like jutting up and slicing the film.
I’d tied on a 4-inch plastic worm rigged “wacky” style, which means it’s hooked through the middle, the ends dangling. For bass you fish this bait with little twitches of the rod tip, then let the worm settle. Bass seem to “like” it because it’s different from other lures they’re shown. But not today, so I’d at least try it on these new targets.
I cast the wacky worm to the center of the cruising school and the line went taut, then moved away stolidly, as if it were hooked to a submarine.
I lifted the rod and the fish ripped away in a run that doubled the rod over on itself. I had the reel’s drag set too tightly for a fish of such power, and the sudden jerk nearly capsized my craft. I backed off the drag and the reel screeched “ZZZZZZ,” as the fish ripped off more line.
Whenever the fish was perpendicular to the beam of my boat, I couldn’t tighten the drag and gain line, because its sudden runs threatened to upset me. Only when I maneuvered so the fish was directly to my front could I tighten the drag to gain line. But in that position, the fish pulled me all over the middle of the lake. Sometimes when I got it in closer it would bang against the hull from beneath with startling force.
Then it started to rain, which had not happened there, I was told, for about three weeks. After you get accustomed to the wet, it’s an amusing thing to be pulled around a strange lake, through pouring rain, by a fish you haven’t even seen.
Finally, at a point that made me late for my meeting, the beast tired and I got it next to the boat. It was too big to pull in for a photo, so I just reached over with pliers and torqued the hook from its rubbery lips. It was a carp, maybe close to 30 inches long and all muscle. Carp, in some parts of the world are highly prized game and food fish, but not here. They’re the second-class citizens among North American fish (they’re not native, but have naturalized with great success), I know. But when nothing else is biting, try one sometime for the sheer thrill of it, even if it makes you late for a meeting, which you must attend dripping wet.
Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.