If you were on the water at daybreak this past weekend, you know that it was a bit chilly.
I spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the upper Hudson River at sunup, and each morning and when we left the dock in Stillwater, it was in the low 40s, and considerably foggy.
Normally, I would wait until 10 a.m. or so, but these three days were very special; it was what I call the Civil War of Bass Fishing; a contest that has become an annual tradition.
For the past four years, Bert Wilmer, who I met back in the 1980s when he was a Navy dentist at the Milton Site and a member of the Capital District Bassmasters Club, has come north to join me in fishing. We were quite competitive then, and still are today.
When he finished his Navy obligation, he moved to Norman, N.C., where he opened his dental practice. We kept in contact, and about five years ago, we began our North vs. South Bass Challenge in the fall on the upper Hudson River.
However, he stacks the deck each year in these contests and brings a proficient fishing friend; which makes it a two-on-one contest. This year, he returned with Steve Austin, who is a very successful tournament angler in North Carolina.
Several weeks before their arrival, I received an email from Bert with a list of tackle I was to have ready for them. Rather than have them bring their tackle on the plane, they use mine; and they are quite particular with types of rods, including size and action and reels filled with different weight lines.
Sometimes, they do bring their own reels. Now I have eight tournament rod-and-reel combos, and they each wanted four rods, so guess who got to use the discount store fishing outfits I also have? They do, however, bring their own lures, but usually, they end up using wacky worms purchased at Saratoga Tackle, where I pick them up.
The rules are simple. It is based on the number of bass caught each day, and lunker bass is recognized, but not a determining factor in winning the overall event.
Three years ago, the original rules of one-on-one were changed to two against one, probably due to the bad beatings I was putting on Bert. He actually called pro angler and TV outdoors personality Hank Parker, who is one of his patients, and asked for help.
Also changing was “how I was allowed to fish;” I had to stay in the back of my boat when fishing. Now those of you who have fished bass tournaments know that being in the front of the boat is a great advantage because you get to cast “first” at whatever type of structure you are fishing.
They call this “back seating,” and it definitely limits the odds of the angler in the back of the boat to catch fish. Bert actually showed me a line in my boat that I could not cross when fishing. It worked! Here is the play-by-play.
The starting point was a small rocky point I pointed out to the two southern boys, who, using the trolling motor they put in the nose of my boat, conveniently got within their casting distance, leaving my end of the boat out in the open water.
The smallies were there, and Steve quickly hooked and released several nice 15-inch smallies. To increase my odds, my suggestions for where to fish quickly changed to shorelines where I would at least get a shot at the good bass cover “after” they fished it.
As usual, when we get together, the trash talk is continuous and adds to the enjoyment to the day, and it lasted all three days.
It was about mid-morning when Steve definitely showed his fishing talents, hooking and releasing at least eight largemouth bass in just a dozen casts in a shallow weeded area just 100 yards from one of the anchored dredging barges.
He was using a Reaction Innovation’s five-inch soft plastic Skinny Dipper paddle tail rigged with a 6/0 weighted Gamakatsu hook. This is something all bass anglers should make a part of their bass kits. Bert and I managed to pull a few largemouths out of this same area before the action slowed.
Moving on down the river, the two southern gentlemen standing in the front of my boat hooked and released a number of largemouths and even a few smallies, while I picked up the smaller ones they left me. Our combined tally at the end of the day was a total of 71 bass and a handful of pickerel. Steve caught 35, Bert 22 and I had 13.
Temperatures were in the mid-40s again, and the fog was heavy when we made a seven-mile run downriver to an area where I knew there was a sunken abutment in 20 feet of water well out from shore that always holds smallmouths. When I stopped the boat, I pointed out to Steve and Bert exactly where the abutment was located, and after I had hooked and released three nice smallies, they realized I had misled them on the abutment’s exact location.
Next stop was a short mile run to another rocky area with surrounding weeds, and there were quite a few largemouths hanging very tight to shore. I pitched my Stik-O-Worm to every rock and piece of wood I saw and caught some nice three-pound largemouths, and I also took a few smaller ones dragging the wacky worm behind the boat. Bert called it trolling, but I called it survival. Because I was unable to fish the good water due to the boat positioning. I was told to stop whining. This North/South bass competition can become quite cutthroat, as you can see.
It was on this same shoreline that Steve hooked a beauty, and I was forced to net the fish for him. It was truly a trophy, tipping the scales at over five pounds. Not too long after that, he hooked up with an even bigger bass, that when I saw it roll on the surface, we knew it was in the six-pound class. Unfortunately, it got itself tangled into some sunken brush or rocks and broke the line.
When this day ended, we totaled 50 bass, and somehow, I won the total count. The winner would be determined the next and final day.
Now, sometimes, you have to use your competition’s weaknesses, so the evening before the last day, we made reservations at Cliff’s Country Inn on Route 9P in Saratoga Springs.
These boys like to eat, and my wife and I watched Steve and Bert each devour their 16-ounce rib of beef with all the trimmings. This much good food and a few cocktails should have slowed them down getting up early and setting hooks, but it didn’t.
Because of their early-afternoon flight home, we were only going to fish until noon, and therefore stayed within a few miles of the launch. I was able to hook and release two small ones at our first stop to grab a quick lead.
Steve’s Skinny Dipper was hit several times in the shallow weed area we were fishing, but I think the bait was a bit too big for the size fish that were holding there. But the Stik-O-Bait wasn’t, and I took advantage of that to keep my lead.
Now when you are fishing rocky, weedy waters with occasional laydowns and you are in the back of the boat, there are several things you can do.
One is laying down on the raised platform and using a spinning rod to skip your baits underneath overhanging trees and under docks. This worked for me several times, and resulted in some nice largemouths.
On several occasions when Steve or Bert got bites and missed, I was ready to follow up with a cast right to that spot. Another “trick” I used was when they got hung up on wood or rocks and were trying to retrieve or retie their baits, I would cast into their water or drag and twitch my Stik-O-Bait behind the boat.
Several times, I also caught bass in the back of the boat, dragging. I say dragging because trolling is not allowed. Speaking of not allowed, I caught Bert putting a live night crawler on the hook with his wacky worm; but all he attracted were sunfish and rock bass. I should have disqualified him.
In one of the heavy laydowns and weed areas Steve hooked up with a big northern that we got to see, but not for long when those sharp teeth cut his line. It was all of three feet long. During these three days, Steve caught large and smallmouth bass, sunfish, rock bass, chain pickerels and walleyes, and only needed the northern to get what I call the Hudson River Slam.
Time was running out, and we had caught a total of 32 bass — Steve 10, Bert six and I had 16, which made us all even.
One last cast was taken by all of us, and Bert hooked up with what he said was a monster smallmouth. He was definitely a fighter and made several tail-walking maneuvers over the surface of the water, but the net man, me, was unable to get the net under him, and he pulled free and could not be counted.
Once again, the annual North-South Bass Challenge on the Hudson ended in a tie. If only I could have gotten the last fish of Bert’s into the net. Well, there is always next year.
If you are looking for some good fall fishing, I recommend the upper Hudson River. You can launch your boat at Stillwater and start fishing your way north. My bait choices are the Bass Pro Shop Stik-O-Baits fished wacky style on a 3/0 kahle hooks and their 41⁄2-inch Sassy Sally Swimbait with an XPS eighth-ounce Swim Bait hook.