The haze of a hundred wildfires dimmed the light of the mid-July sun overhead on the afternoon fishing trip as I drifted along the breaks of a favorite rocky lake. The orb’s all day orange glow made me uncomfortable as the effects of yet another heatwave crashing on the west drifted slowly across the plains, like the foam at the edge of a breaker trying to extend its reach up the beach. I looked to overcome the uneasiness in the places I usually encountered the smallmouth bass on the clear water body and found only empty boulder fields and rocky points to start. Even with the dimmed sunlight, only the young bronzebacks hung in the shallows where just a few weeks ago spawning sites buzzed with spring activity ahead of the sweltering summer.
While the gray curtain overhead provided some cover, conditions were still bright enough to see 15 feet down into the water, watching the brown points of rocks and boulders give way to green, weedy edges and the occasional cluster of stones below. After that, the water was a deep blue which obscured the bottom and I estimated that was where the bigger smallmouth bass were hiding, if not from the light of day, then at least from the prying eyes of anglers like me. Resetting my four-inch tube on its 2/0 worm hook, I backed the boat out from shore and cast in to where green met brown and let the lure fall down the break, counting down as I held my rod tip in a manner that eclipsed the orange circle reflected on the calm surface.
Far more secretive than their green brethren in and around the shallow lily pad fields, reed beds and clumps of weeds, the bigger smallmouth bass that I had encountered on the lake historically did not hang around up top long after the spring spawning efforts. As clear as the water was, they likely could make early morning and nighttime forays into the shallows for crayfish, plentiful young-of-the-year panfish and other food items in the low light conditions and those would be the ideal times to target them. However, the best time to fish is anytime you can, and it was evident as to where the smallies were not, and a change in location was necessary to make the most of my midday hours afloat.
Hopping the tube down the edge of breakline like some confused crayfish, out of its element and doing its best imitation of Clark Griswold looking for the main road back to the interstate in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” I felt the grip of weeds slip away and the slow scrape of gravel and stone replace it. My mind too slipped away from the concern of the smoky haze and humidity I was breathing in, as the offering felt like it was in prime, unseeable smallmouth territory at the base of the rocky break, and a hard tap on the line confirmed it. I reeled up a turn of slack and leaned back on the rod and the bite below barely gave way as a fish thundered out into the open water alongside the boat. I knew it was a good one as I cranked the drag to the left and the spinning reel paid its respect and considerable drag to the bass below.
Gaining a few feet, the fish came into view out of the blue darkness of the depths below and the ultraclear waters magnified its size. It has been a while since my heart jumped into my throat while fishing, but just on the edge of visibility, the bass looked to be two feet long, inspiring a rush of adrenaline. As I brought it up, it was still a respectable smallie with muscled shoulders, a thick midsection and an attitude to match as it plowed under the aluminum hull and bent my spinning rod in a full arch, before I horsed it back and after a few close-quarters jumps, dragged it into the waiting rubber basket of the landing net. The hook popped out of the corner of the large smallie’s mouth, and I marveled that it had even stayed put during the battle. The bronzeback taped at 17.5 inches, and was thick from head to tail, a solid find after adjusting my efforts on the hazy day. After a quick photo I turned it back and cast to the same spot where I missed a fish and then picked up a 15-incher.
As I moved along the stretch of islands on the lake beneath the odd red-orange light of the smoky afternoon, I repeated the process in other likely spots, managing a handful more in the mid-teens coming from the edge of where the deep blue met the sloping rocks, with the occasional cast into any nearby reeds and pads to pull a largemouth out for variety’s sake. Under the muted summer light, I finished out the chain of rocky spots with more than 20 bass, happy to have found them and to have brightened my day …in our outdoors.