Largemouth bass are America’s Fish as much as the Dallas Cowboys are America’s Team. At their best, they strike aggressively, fight hard and possess voracious appetites — they’ll eat anything half their own size. They also exhibit a plain, understated beauty seen in most American game: mottled green and brown back and sides, white belly, a broad, black stripe down their middle. Yet, paradoxically, the vicious bass is sometimes a lazy, fickle bastard.
High summer can be a rough time to fish. As the season enters its dog days in early July, water levels plummet and water temperatures soar. Most larger fish head towards deeper water around the 10-foot mark, often in the middle of many ponds.
If you’re a pauper without so much as a johnboat to paddle — that is, yours truly — you’re often left on the bank with your rod in your hand, SOL, unless you rise before the sun heats the water.
I found myself at that moment in time on the morning of July 16.
I awoke, tired yet alert. I opened my eyes, lids unfurling like an old Persian hall carpet, fold flipping slowly over fold. Pitch black still filled my room, and no sunlight streamed through the thick, white slats of my wooden blinds.
Oh, to hell with this, I thought.
Knowing it was far too early for a Saturday morning, I flopped onto my left side to check out the red display of my digital alarm clock: 5:43 a.m. That clock is three minutes fast.
“Oh, to hell with this,” I repeated, thinking aloud this time. My torpor had vanished, despite only receiving a few precious hours of sleep. I was wide awake, and no technique on hand could hasten me back to Nod.
After a flurry of mental curses, I decided: Might as well go bass fishing.
By 6 o’clock, I’d rustled out of bed, slid into some shorts, scarfed some Cheerios and tramped down the trail leading to the pond behind the old Jefferson-Pilot property on Gate City Boulevard in Greensboro. A curling mist already wafted over the shallow cove at the pond’s entrance where I made my first cast, steam like fog over highland moors in the gray light of dawn.
There’s a term in film and photography referring to the times after sunrise and before dusk when daylight takes on a soft, peachy hue: “the golden hour.” There’s a “blue hour,” too, in the earliest part of dawn and last moments of dusk. That morning, I saw dawn on July 16 neither as golden nor blue, but silver — light flattened by the clouded sky.
It’s this silver hour when, during the hottest summer days, you can actually catch fish.
Of course, aside from knowing ideal conditions, fish behavior and which lures to use, there’s a lot of luck in fishing, too.
The last time I’d gone fishing was on July 4, with my co-worker Lamar and his dad. We hit Lake Mackintosh outside of Burlington a little after 2 p.m. White bass — not to be confused with largemouth — splashed in the shallows around the marina. Unlike largemouth, white bass often rove the surface in murderous packs during the height of summer, killing minnows for sport. On my first cast, I tossed my lure just behind the school and immediately had a fish on; we caught over a dozen fish in the first few minutes.
This morning, I was not so lucky. Not because I didn’t get a hit on that first cast; I did. In my dawn malaise, I’d forgotten to set the reel’s drag, so when I struck back to set the hook, line stripped off the spool and the fish threw the hook. More curses.
I walked toward the eastern side of the pond, location of the dam and a dilapidated dock. The water here would be deepest and coolest — more promising.
After I cast my curly-tailed plastic jig parallel with the dock, slowly retrieving the lure beside the wooden pilings, a bass attacked.
Bass do fight spectacularly regardless of their size. This one ran for the reeds lining the nearby dam to the right, but I pulled it back towards open water. Not to be outdone, the bass leapt, breaching the surface and shaking its head furiously in an attempt to toss the hook, to no avail. The fish then dashed for the dock pilings, but I worked it right and away. I had tired the bass considerably and thought it’d given up, but in one more desperate flight, the fish jumped, again trying to eject the hook from its jaw, then dove straight down towards a log jam close to the shore next to the dock. I pulled up in the nick of time as it drove its head underneath a limb, and I had the fish out of water in a few more moments.
The bass couldn’t have weighed more than two pounds.
I released the fish quickly, but it had shredded the jig’s plastic body. I switched to a shallow-diving crankbait and caught two others along the shore.
But the silver hour yielded to a golden dawn. Activity vanished almost immediately.
Once I’d returned home, it was only 8 a.m.
Summer days are too long.