We should all be so lucky to fish small waters, and fish the same small waters often. Time and time again Ixve said that our affinity with a certain river or small lake helps us take stock of the resource, to treat it respectfully and to see what a conservation ethic can do in terms of keeping the fishery viable. Not only that, but the bonds formed with the fish in that body of water begin to border on friendship when we see them on our lines again and again.
It isn't unusual to encounter smallmouth bass repeatedly, as they are very territorial and aggressive. On the Sheyenne River, my home water, I've met many such fish. From my boat my friends and I have been introduced to a great number of "the locals."
Of greatest renown was Ol' 1975. She was a beautiful bronzeback, my first brush with twenty inches. I caught her first when she was 19.5 inches. We danced twice that summer, both times under an overhanging elm tree near an intake valve near the Fish Hatchery north of my hometown. The next summer, we met three more times. I would knock on her door with a leadhead and a twister or a crayfish-colored tube jig, and she would be quick to knock back with a vicious strike and a jump.
In time, I introduced my trusted friends to her, and I would see her dance again three more times that season.
The next spring, she was gone. On nearly every trip that summer, I sent out a line to her old haunt to see if she would answer with the vigor of seasons past. But there was no strike, no bump, not even a slight tap, and I grew concerned. In time, I would hear the story of an angler who had caught a large smallmouth from under that same tree the previous fall and ended the dancing around the cement slab. I couldn't be sure that the smallie that went on the wall in the story was Ol' 1975, but my heart sank because I knew, deep down, that she was.
Those seasons where we met Ol' 1975, there were other smallies on that stretch of river we became familiar with. There was ****** Ford, a light-colored bass, camoflauged with a set of old cement steps in the water near a small creek and One-eyed Willie (in homage to Goonies) a smallmouth with, you guessed it, monocular vision.
The Black Spot
Just as we could tell Ol' 1975 by her size and dark eyes, another bass, nearly two hours away became just as recognizable. My brother and I spent the summer after my final year of school chasing bass under the docks on the south shore of Big Detroit Lake in Minnesota. "Spot" became a familiar bass. At around 19 inches, she was an easy mark, especially with polarized glasses on.
A black spot, about the size of a quarter, square in the middle of her back, led to her oh-so-creative moniker. Her bulldogging runs and uncanny ability to wrap our lines around dock posts and boat lifts and break free made each meet-up a challenge. When we did land her - three times out of probably six or eight hooksets that summer - it was a cause for celebration.
Many days, she would reject outright the bait that hooked her the time before. If ever there was an educated bass, it was Spot. She would move from dock to dock, as if to elude us and get one cast farther away, until August faded into September and the population of bass under the shoreline docks moved away from their shallow haunts. Since then, I have yet to see that tell-tale spot on the south shore.
18th Hole Heroine
Finally, one of the more memorable meetings, again on my small home river, occurred at a secret spot where walleyes stack up like cordwood in late spring and big fish are not uncommon.
My friend and I from our seats in the well-worn family canoe bounced jigs and minnows through a deep pool. A subtle hit and a hookset from the front of the craft signaled the fight was on between my friend and a big fish. When all was said and done, he hoisted a 28-inch walleye for the camera and lowered it into the water.
Forty-five minutes later, I would do the same. This eight-pound 'eye just couldn't resist the post-spawn offering of a fathead minnow on a chartreuse jig. We would return to the spot ten days later to catch her one more time, the tiniest fleck of white adorning her tail as she smiled for the camera and slipped back into the current to enjoy another summer on the Sheyenne.
These fish all hold special places in my photo albums and in my heart. Those memories were multiplied by successful catch-and-release angling, and that practice assured me I could always see a friendly face few days later…in our outdoors.