Trout season was over at Pine Lake. In April, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife dumped several truckloads of hatchery trout into the lake. Throughout the first couple weeks, the fishing dock was constantly crowded with fishermen (shoulder to shoulder at times). The word “trout” was spoken in well over five languages constantly. The smell of Powerbait hung in the air over the dock when the wind wasn’t blowing and trout guts littered the beach. Eagles and ospreys circled overhead and frequently swooped down to steal fish off lines. Occasionally, a massive holdover could be seen swimming past the dock with a runt planter in its mouth.
Now it was the end of July. The water temperature was well into the 70s. Just about every hatchery trout had been removed from the lake, and the few remaining trout, the year’s survivors and previous years’ holdovers, were probably lying almost motionless near the bottom of the lake. The dock, which had been packed tight with fishermen in spring, was now occupied by just a few fishermen in the morning, before the crowds of swimmers arrived in the afternoon.
So what do fishermen at Pine Lake catch in the middle of summer? The remaining trout anglers plunk bait far out into the lake and wait with extraordinary patience. The rest poke around in the shallows with nightcrawlers, putting a decent number of perch and sunfish in their coolers.
This isn’t looking like your typical fish story on the Trout Unlimited site, is it? Put n’ take lake, no mention of wild trout, and bait fishermen filling their coolers (catch and release not such a popular practice here). Notice how a lot of fish stories on this site involve fly-fishermen catching wild trout and end with the fish being slid back into the water? I just thought I’d tell a different kind of story for a change. And it will get weirder as I start talking about bass.
Here’s the thing: everyone knows there are bass (both largemouth and smallmouth) in the lake. Bass stories go around on the dock all the time. But surprisingly few people actually fish for them. According to dock legend, the (unofficial) lake record largemouth was taken many years ago at the east corner of the lake on a live bullfrog tadpole (it was still legal back then). In the most common version of the story, the fish weighed seven and a half pounds.
Here in Washington, bass don’t grow nearly as fast as they do in California or in southern states because of the colder climate and shorter growing season. Even expert anglers usually consider a bass over four pounds to be a really large fish. Bass over six pounds around here are very rare.
I’m guessing the guy in the story had plenty of experience catching bass. I’m guessing he’d caught countless bass out of Pine Lake, probably many on bullfrog tadpoles, before catching the seven and a half pounder.
But the beauty of fishing is that just about anything can happen. I remember the day when I, at the time a complete beginner to bass fishing, almost caught a seven pound largemouth at Pine Lake. I started fishing from the dock at around 6:30 am (nice and early to avoid the heat and the swimmers). To give you a sense of how poorly equipped I was, I was using my light spinning rod, the equivalent of a five or six weight. Fitted to its handle was a small spin reel containing six pound line (for bass fishing, any line below ten pounds is considered light). I also brought my five weight fly rod (I’ll tell you in advance that I didn’t use it). Basically, since I had not yet bought a proper bass rod, I was fishing for bass with trout gear.
So how did I end up trying to catch a huge bass with my flimsy tackle? I went off tips from a couple bait fishermen and found the huge fish sitting in a shallow weed bed. It was at least 22 inches long, possibly even 24 inches, and I guessed it was around seven pounds (could be off). With a near perfect cast, I placed my lure, a small, green plastic worm, right above the fish’s head. Time slowed as the worm descended towards its target.
Then, there was the moment, the truly magical moment. There was no explosive strike. As the plastic worm neared its nose, the bass simply opened its mouth and inhaled lightly, even gently, sucking in the plastic worm. I pulled back hard, putting a steep bend in the thin rod, and for a second, I felt solid weight on the other end. Had I snagged? The answer came as the bass flicked its tail, giving the line a sharp tug that threatened to pull the rod from my hands. I gripped the rod handle hard. The bass gained speed and sprinted for deeper water, quickly dragging out line. The tiny spin reel screamed as line flew off. I thought the six pound line would soon break, especially if I pulled back in any way. I simply held up the rod and hoped the reel’s drag would eventually slow the bass’s run. Somehow, I manage to turn the bass’s head around (or it turned around on its own). Pulling back aggressively, I put tension on the line that neared its breaking point. As I slowly dragged the struggling bass towards me, it drew closer to the surface. Thrashing violently, it attempted to shake the hook. Surprisingly, I managed to keep the barbless hook in its mouth. The bass made another run, this time along the bottom in the shallows. Dust and debris rose through the water, and sunfish and perch scattered in all different directions. The tip of my rod whipped around like a twig. By now, the other fishermen on the dock had gathered around to watch the spectacle. Behind me, I heard comments on my light tackle and offers to net the fish.
The fight seemed to last a good few minutes. Gradually, the bass’s pulls weakened. Eventually, I was able to drag the bass towards the dock without too much resistance. I couldn’t believe it! I had actually tired out the huge largemouth with a whippy trout rod and six pound line. As I drew the bass closer and closer to the dock, I got a good, long look at it. I saw its lateral line, row of sharp spines on its back, eyes, and huge, gaping mouth. It looked simply magnificent. Suddenly, I felt a series of quick, sharp tugs on the line, and I pulled back hard but wasn’t fast enough. With one last effort, the bass thrashed right in front of me and shook the hook from its mouth. Slowly, it swam off, fading into the shadowy depths. If I had paid better attention or used a barbed hook, I would have caught it. But it didn’t matter. Seeing, hooking, and fighting this incredible fish was one hell of an epic experience, truly amazing and unforgettable.
Often, I am amazed by the strength and resilience of nature. Pine Lake is overstocked with truckloads of hatchery fish each spring and heavily fished by massive crowds, but as much as humans have messed with it, the lake’s ecosystem seems to remain healthy. Nature has still managed to produce incredible fish, like the huge bass. Because the bass stocking program ended years ago, I can be sure that this fish was born in Pine Lake and grew to its size in Pine Lake. It is truly a product of its environment. Whenever I get a fish on the line or in my hands, I feel a closer connection to the environment it comes from. This connection with nature is why I love to fish.
I know this fish story isn't about trout or fly fishing! But I just wanted to tell a story about one of my most memorable fishing experiences... :)
*Note: the smallmouth in the picture was caught shortly afterwards*