After five decades of fishing, my favorite fish to catch continues to be the freshwater black bass.
I’ve fished in many of the lakes and rivers in New York state and caught very nice large- and smallmouth bass. When I’m asked for my favorite water, my answer is usually, “Whichever one I’m on.”
However, in Florida, where I am now, my answer would be the St. Johns River. This river is 310 miles long and winds through or borders 12 of Florida’s counties. Additionally, it’s one of only a few rivers in the United States that runs north.
For the past four years, our good friends Bert and Laura Wilmer have visited us for a few days in mid-March, and one of those days, Bert and I spent a day with Tommy Collins, proprietor of Great Day Guide Service (www.greatdayguideservice.com).
Bert, who was a Navy dentist at the West Milton site in the early 80s and a member of the Capital District Bassmasters before he finished his tour, moved to Denver, N.C., to start his own practice. For followers of the Bassmasters, Bert is a good friend of Hank Parker, Bassmaster Classic and outdoor TV host. Bert and I fish two one-on-one bass tournaments every year, one in Saratoga Springs, the other on the St. Johns River.
The winner gets to hold the Rebel/Yankee Bass Challenge trophy for the year. Not to brag, but this trophy has been on my mantel for the better part of the dozen or so tournaments we’ve had. But this year, I got a scare.
Tommy’s credentials are quite impressive, as is his attentiveness to his clients while fishing. He acted as a fishing guide and tour director, explaining various points of interest to us throughout the day, including some very encouraging fish tales, one of which was about the eight-plus-pounder caught the day before from his boat on the St. Johns River.
He’s a dedicated catch-and-release guide who practices CPR (catch, photograph, release) and has been fishing for 54 years. We fished from his 22-foot, center console, custom Sea Chaser with a 150 hpr Honda four-stroke outboard. All his equipment was top of the line — Pure Fishing’s Fenwick graphite rods, Abu Garcia spinning and bait casting reels, all filled with 65-pound-test SpiderWire. I know what many of you are thinking: “65-pound test?” The structure of heavy weeds and brush/trees and on the St. Johns requires a tough line, and 65-pound SpiderWire has the diameter of 14-pound-test mono.
ON THE WATER
We met Tommy shortly before daybreak, launched on the St. Johns River and headed south for a place called Deep Creek. Air temperatures were in the mid-40s, a bit chilly during the 25-minute ride. Once inside the creek, it warmed up considerably. I was amazed at how deep this narrow creek is.
Several miles into Deep Creek, Tommy positioned the boat about 25 yards from the shoreline and dropped stern and bow anchors. We were going to still-fish with a bobber and big shiners hooked through the lips with a 5/0 circle hook. This is one of the typical shiner rigs used in Florida. When the bobber disappears and line begins to strip from the open bail reel, the adrenalin starts to flow.
As Tommy baited our rods, he casually mentioned that chances are we would likely have a visitor — Pete — watching us fish. “Pete’s been watching me fish this spot for about three years now,” he said, and followed with, “He’s an owl.” Sure enough, within minutes of dropping anchor, out of the woods glided Pete. He perched about 20 feet up on a cypress branch over the water.
I don’t think my bait was in the water 15 minutes before the bobber took off and disappeared about six feet from shore.
“Count to seven or eight, tighten the line, and pull firmly. The circle hook will do the rest,” Tommy said.
The technique worked, and the battle began. In and out of the weeds and subsurface branches the fish darted, but that 65-pound SpiderWire did its job and Tommy slipped the net under my four-pound largemouth. “First fish,” I yelled to Bert, and followed with, “one-nothing.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something in the air, and when I turned, there, 10 feet over the water, was Pete. With talons open wide, he plucked the dead minnow my bass had regurgitated off the water and flew up into the tree to enjoy his meal.
While Tommy was re-baiting my hook, Bert’s bobber disappeared and after doing the countdown, he set the hook, but caught no fish. Looking at the shiner, we could see the tooth marks on both side of its body, “Probably a gar pike,” Tom said. Gar pike are numerous in the river and that long narrow mouth full of teeth is hard to hook up with. I should’ve brought my bowfishing equipment. Maybe next year.
When my bobber disappeared 10 minutes later, I didn’t say anything and quietly reeled it in. When a three-pounder flopped next to the boat, Bert whirled around and congratulated me. Even after I caught Nos. 3 and 4, he still congratulated me, but added a few friendly explative remarks. I also had a run of misses I couldn’t explain. I told Bert I missed them on purpose.
Each time we caught a fish, Pete the owl picked the dead minnow off of the top of the water. One of those picks was less than five feet from me, but I never had a chance to catch him on film in the air.
The next fish to come aboard required a touch-and-go battle for Bert. When his 10-inch shiner and bobber went down, it looked like a torpedo under the water as it disappeared into the brush and got tangled. There were a lot of anxious moments of Bert holding the rod high and Tommy doing some careful hand-lining until the bass got loose. When I saw the fish enter the net, I yelled, “About four pounds” but I knew better. On the scales, it weighed in at six-plus, and there was a lot of picture taking.
It was time to move, and we said goodbye to Pete and moved across the creek to an area with similar structure. After missing one on my first cast in this new water, I hooked up with another nice one, and Bert boated a good one. And guess who found us and perched in a big branch over the water — Pete. I guess that he was full because he never returned after picking up Bert’s dead minnow.
Bass No. 6 didn’t come easy, I missed three in a row that pulled the bobber down, but when I set the hook and felt them, they got off. Each bait was missing scales — could’ve been bass, gar or the heavy sub-surface brush cover I had tried to pull them out of.
The battle with my No. 7 began no more than three feet from the shoreline, and it headed for the thick stuff just before I set the hook. Keeping a tight line, I got lucky and was able to maneuver it out into open water and into the net. It was another nice three-pound-plus bass. I found out later that about four feet from shore, the water depth drops to 10 feet. Bert also had a few encounters with missed bass or gar before he boated a nice 31⁄2-pound bass.
When we anchored, Tommy told us this was one of the narrowest parts of the creek, and it had several good points that created pockets of still water in which the fish like to hide. But despite several hits, neither Bert nor I were able to boat a fish. One of my misses came while I was using a giant shiner that was continuously on the move as soon as it hit the water. When that bobber went down and the line started peeling off of my reel, I was excited and yelled to Bert that his six-pound big bass was in jeopardy. But I spoke too soon. I set the hook, felt a heavy pull and lost him. I want to convince myself it was a big gar, but I’ll never know.
The final score was 7-2, but who’s counting? Although I beat him in total weight, he had the biggest bass of the day, and I think I’ll let him have the trophy until he comes to Saratoga Springs in June.