by Frank Ruczynski
Just minutes after completing my last blog entry, I grabbed my pole and walked down to the lake. As luck would have it, on my very first cast, I battled a 5+ pound largemouth bass to the bank. After all my writing about how it's not all about catching, it's funny how pumped I was after landing this beauty. While it may not be all about catching, it sure is exhilarating when that big girl strikes, bends the rod, starts pulling drag and goes airborne! 6/18 Adrenaline-pumping Beauty!
Late June into July offers some of the best freshwater fishing opportunities of the year, especially for largemouth bass anglers. Big, post-spawn largemouth bass are coming off their nests and extremely hungry. While targeting largemouth bass, you're very likely to come across some other types of green monsters such as gator chain pickerel and slab black crappies. After years of fishing in South Jersey, I'm still amazed at the size of some of the fish that live in our local "puddles."
As back-bay saltwater opportunities for large striped bass and weakfish continue to dwindle, the freshwater action for largemouth and pickerel fills in nicely. Options for catching bass and pickerel are almost limitless, as we've caught fish on everything from plastic frogs, rubber worms, buzz baits, and plugs to blades of grass, hot dogs, bread and banana peels. Whatever you choose, it's likely that if you present your offering well, a fish will end up on the end of your line.
When fishing for bass and pickerel, there are two types of fishing that I prefer: one is for numbers of fish while the other is for big fish. Top-water fishing is tough to beat, especially in many of our weed-choked waterways. If you fish the local waters, make sure to include some frogs, poppers, and top-water plugs like a Heddon Zara Spook – the walk-the-dog retrieve is deadly around lily pads. Make sure to have a rubber worm or jig rigged on another rod to throw as a follow up to any missed top-water strikes. Summer evenings are primetime to throw top-water offerings, but if you can cast close enough to cover, chances are you'll tempt fish at any time of day. Jake and I have been fishing the afternoon shift and killing them on Spooks. Some of the hits are mind blowing - you can see a v-shaped wake accelerate towards your lure and then explode on it! 6/14 Big Pickerel exploded on a Zara Spook
While top-water action provides great action and visuals, nothing compares to live lining big baits for green monsters. As much as I enjoy fooling largemouth bass on artificial lures, watching a 20-inch + bass inhale a 6 to 8-inch golden shiner or a hand-sized sunfish is thrilling. I've spent hours working over an area of the lake with artificial lures with nothing to show for it and then tossed in a shiner, sunfish or perch and had groups of 2 to 6-pound fish appear immediately at my feet as if by magic. If I could bottle whatever action/scent those baitfish put off, I'm sure I'd be a millionaire. Big Baits = Big Fish!
I came across the use of big live baits many years ago as a boy and purely by accident. I was fishing with night crawlers in front of a spillway when a big bluegill took my hook. Halfway through the battle, the bluegill felt like it got snagged. I tugged and tugged until it pulled free. As I pulled the bluegill towards my feet, I saw a big bass dart in after it. Shocked by what happened, I tossed the sunfish back out and it was grabbed immediately by the green monster. Again I played the fish, but in the end, I pulled the sunfish from the big fish's mouth. Looking back, with a little hook in the sunfish's mouth, I had little to no chance of hooking the big bass, but my adrenaline was pumping and I couldn't get the bait back in the water quick enough. I'm not sure I slept that night.
I returned to the lake more times than I can remember and I had that fish on for what seemed like a 100 times, but I just couldn't land it. I remember one day I had her to my feet before she spit the hook and sat in inches of water staring at me – my buddy, Andre, jumped into the water to grab it, but with one swoosh of her big tail she returned to the depths. Attempt after attempt, I just couldn't get her mouth into my hand. After snapping my 8-pound mono more than few times, I even brought my surf rod down to the lake. I had her on my surf rod, but she managed to spit the hook. Before the younger generation starts laughing, just remember we didn't have braided line, Google, YouTube, and all the other great info you're fortunate enough to have today – we learned on our own and sometimes it took us a while.
July 6, 1995 will always be a special day in my memory. It was the day before I was to marry my beautiful wife and the day I finally caught the green monster! I remember my fishing buddy laughing at me for tossing out a hand-sized bluegill. He joked, "Are you fishing for sharks?" Soon after he said that, the sunfish jumped put of the water followed by a big dorsal fin – my buddy had stopped laughing by now. The sunfish went crazy and then I felt the telltale bump of the largemouth grabbing its meal. I let her run for what seemed like five minutes, before setting the hook and driving it home. After a long back and forth battle and knowledge gained from prior mistakes, I pulled the gigantic bass onto the bank. My buddy, Glenn and I stood and stared in amazement. The fish was enormous and I remember Glenn saying, "Its eyes are bigger than yours!" I put the fish on a stringer, as I was sure I wanted to mount this beast. Glenn caught a sunfish and quickly had it rigged for live lining – if I remember right, he caught a nice 3-pounder a few minutes later. The park ranger and just about everyone else at the lake admired my trophy. As she sat there in the water, Glenn asked if I felt bad killing her. I thought about it for a few minutes and decided to let her go – we didn't have iPhones or digital cameras on us back then so I couldn't even take a picture of my prize. After I revived her and she swam away, Glenn said, " There is no way I would have let that fish go." We laughed about it and packed up to get ready for my big day. That was almost twenty years ago and I remember it like yesterday – that was my biggest bass to date and I have nothing other than a memory, but that's enough.
For some reason, live lining seems to be considered "cheating" by many of today's bass anglers. I assume some of the "pros" would mention (and rightly so) that the chances of gut-hooking a big fish are increased greatly when fishing with live baits, but after twenty years, I've figured out a few ways to minimalize the damage. First, I use big hooks - the larger the hook the better the odds that a big bass or pickerel will not ingest the hook – 6/0, 8/0 and even 10/0 size hooks are good choices. I hook the baitfish as far back towards the end of the dorsal fin as I can – many, if not all, big baits are consumed from the headfirst – having the hook further back into the bait will result in less deep hook sets. If the hook is swallowed and cannot be removed somewhat easily, cut the line and minimalize the stress on the fish. Finally, the big girls fight with everything they have so make sure to spend a good amount of time reviving them properly. 6/25 A live-lined shiner took this nice bass.
It's time for me to head to the lake to visit our local green monsters – lately it's been tougher to catch the shiners than the bass. If everything works out as I'm hoping, the fish will provide some fireworks this afternoon. I hope everyone enjoys some time on the water this holiday weekend. Good luck and stay safe!