"He’s tops as a fighter," says this master fisherman of the small-mouth bass —"He never knows when he’s licked"
The Gamest Fish
"He’s tops as a fighter," says this master fisherman of the small-mouth bass —"He never knows when he’s licked"
OZARK RIPLEY with Dink Carroll
WHENEVER I hear a brother angler airing his opinion (a pretty continuous pastime these days) that the fightingest fish in the world is a muskie, rainbow trout, salmon, or even a pike, I have to pause and count ten. If I didn't I’d be sure to forget he was a brother and start in to shout him down, or walk out on him in the middle of his silly effusion, or maybe do something still more hostile. For he’s all wet when he makes these claims; wetter than the fish themselves.
The greatest fresh-water fighter, the fish that will give sportsmen the best fight pound for pound, is none other than the small-mouth black bass—old bronze-back. There just isn’t another fish in all the lakes, rivers and streams of the North American continent in a class with him. Believe me, because I know.
It’s part of my business to know most of what there is to know about the fish in Canada’s waters and the game in her forests. From early spring until early autumn I’m away on fishing trips. I’ve taken Atlantic salmon from the rivers of the Maritimes and Eastern Quebec, and bluebacks from British Columbia’s waters; worked the lakes and rivers of old Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba for trout, bass, muskie and pike; fished the galloping streams of the Rockies for rainbow and cutthroat trout, and set hooks in every kind of game fish that flourishes in this sportsman’s paradise. So I speak from experience when I claim that no Other fish in Canadian waters will give you the thrills a three-pound small-mouth will give you from the moment you hook him until he’s netted.
Only ten days ago I took a party on a quest for bronzebacks into the wilderness waters of the French River district. I had fished with them and hunted with them before, so we were old friends.
THAT FIRST night at camp we discussed fishing ethics.
The men on this party were veteran sportsmen who had learned that most of the six)rt in fishing comes when you have the fish, alive, on the end of your line, and not dead in the bottom of the boat. Though we were after bass, we elected not to use plugs. Sport is sport and there is no sport where the dice are loaded against the fish. A bass has a good chance to lick you if you give him an opportunity to spit the hook or smash your tackle. But if you use a big plug with ganghooks, his chance to escape is minimized, for in the frantic threshing of his fight for freedom he may hook •himself several times in the body.
We decided to use flies, maybe Ginger Quills or Brown Hackles, depending upon the weather, and tied on small single hooks. Barbless hooks, too. so that if we didn’t want the fish we could release him without injury simply by seizing his lower jaw between thumb and forefinger and disengaging the hook. We would take only as many fish as we could comfortably eat in the party. When I see those pictures of anglers with a great string of fish, I get a feeling of nausea. You learn several things about that man. You know he isn’t much of a sportsman, because the first article in the sixirtsman’s code is to leave something for the other fellow; and you know, too, that he’s a show-off.
After breakfast next morning we went out in pairs. A little below our camp site I paddled with Bill, my partner, along a stream that meandered through a reedy marsh. The freshness of early morning was on the river, the bush and the hills. The sun was just up, but already it came back warm off the water. The stream finally merged into a small round lake less than a mile long with a shore line of low' banks. The eastern part was too shallow' and full of rank weeds and bullrushes to promise much bass fishing. We follow'ed the left bank around where the water grew deeper and almost inky black. I prepared to cast and Bill sat back to w'atch, not in any particular hurry, luxuriating in the prospect of a whole day ahead to fish that lake. I shot my bug against a little rocky bank and in less than half an hour drew' out two nice small-mouths after a hard fight. Then I took the paddle and Bill had his turn.
He was in the canoe ahead of me w'hen suddenly, a few minutes later, he had a hard strike. I knew at once that he’d hooked an unusually large small-mouth. There was the slow, sure tension as the hook set and the line tightened, the rod bending like a buggy whip, the reel screaming, and then the flash and frantic leap of a huge bronze-back trying to shake the bug out of its mouth. It fell back into the water with a loud splash and headed for the bottom, boring deep, tugging, tugging with tremendous strength, and darting so fast in so many directions that neither Bill nor I knew its exact whereabouts until it broke the surface again in another of its spectacular vaultings above water. I turned the canoe as quickly as I could and held it close to the bank with the paddle, so as to give Bill plenty of proper fighting room.
Bronze-back was a rapid repeater in jumping, going out of the water with the speed of a rainbow but putting more ¡xnver in his punches. From the looks of him he might have gone six pounds. For twenty minutes the battle waged, Bill pitting his strength and knowledge against the power, the cunning and the great courage of the fish. That fish put up a fight that would stop your heart. He rushed all over the place, breaking the water in savage threeand four-foot arcs, and once raced right at the canoe and might have succeeded in passing clean underneath if Bill, reeling in like mad. hadn’t been able to turn him in time. It was fully fifteen minutes before Bill began to master the big bronzeback. He played him carefully, giving line slowly and reeling in rapidly, frustrating the fish’s frenzied efforts to get a few loose yards of line by keeping the pressure on. There followed another five minutes fighting, until Bill brought him finally to the side of the canoe with his sides heaving, his strength seeming gone, and with nothing left in him, apparently, but a few tired thumps. Bill thought it was all over, too.
“Hand me the net,” he called to me.
But somehow as Bill went to take the net from me the fish darted away from the canoe and got a couple of yards of loose line before Bill could jam his thumb securely inside the frame of the reel. It was enough for that bass. He leaped high out of the water once more, and went completely over the landing net that Bill was holding down over the water. The leader caught for an instant right where the handle joined the ring of the net. In that second old bronze-back broke the leader and raced away to freedom.
How can you help but admire a fish like that, and where will you find another that will give an equal display of fight? The answer, I think, is nowhere.
That day we must have hooked fifty bass, but we kept only four of them. They were biting everything we cast. Late in the day, when the sun began to die and the shadows lengthened, Bill took an old plug from his tackle box, stripped the hooks off it, and began to cast just for the sheer pleasure of watching the fish strike. He had come a long way and he simply couldn’t see too much of them.
The Gamest Fish
BUT ENOUGH about that trip. Let’s get back to a discussion of the merits of game fish. The way I’d rate them would be in something like this order: Small-mouth black bass, Atlantic salmon, ouananiche, rainbow trout, speckled brook trout and muskie. The best salmon fishing you’ll get anywhere is in the rivers flowing into the Gulf of St. Lawrence down by Gaspé. They’ll leap five and six feet in the air, break the surface frequently, spraying water in miniature showers. The ouananiche (landlocked salmon) is an acrobat and has been known to jump as high as ten feet out of water. Rainbow trout will also give you an aerial display and plenty of excitement. Last year we fished him and his companion, the cutthroat, out at Marvel Lake in the Rockies. A cutthroat will give you a short but intense battle. Muskies are big and, taken with a light line and tackle, provide enough excitement; but taken on hand lines and drowned from the back of a motor boat, as happens to be an all too common practice, there is no sport in it. They’re all grand fighting fish, but it’s the bronze-back that never knows when he’s licked.
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Yes, sir, there’s just something about a bass that gets most of my admiration. For one thing, he’s a good family man; far better, for example, than a trout. In spawning tects the fry, and drives away predatory fish. He’s no fool, either. If he strikes once and you miss him, you’ve lost your chance at him because he won’t come back. A trout, generally thought to be much cagier, will return several times.
Plenty of people will tell you that a muskie taken with a light line and tackle is the ultimate in fishing excitement. It makes swell reading, too, when the boys write about how the savage muskie got away on them by straightening out the hooks; but all that kind of talk means to me is that they were either poor quality hooks or the angler wasn’t playing the fish right. I’ll take a three-pound bass in comparison to a fifty-pound lunge any day.
Look at it this way. Let’s suppose you’re a fight fan. Now whom would you prefer to watch—Primo Camera or, say, Jimmy McLarnin? Camera, a lumbering giant weighing some 265 pounds, is undoubtedly the harder hitter of the two. But the little man, McLarnin, is far faster, much cleverer, infinitely more resourceful, and no one has ever questioned his great courage. It’s McLarnin who gets the nod because you know he’d give you more action in five minutes than Camera would in five hours. And for exactly the same reasons, I prefer to fish bass to muskie.
There are, of course, factors which affect the fighting qualities of fish, and you want to battle when they’re at their best. I’ve taken my favorite bronze-back when he came in belly up after showing nothing more than a mere flurry of fight. That was in midsummer, with the thermometer crowding ninety and the lake water warm as milk. Even the bass had been slowed up to the point of sluggishness. But get him in the clear, cold-water lakes and rivers of Northern Ontario and Quebec early in the season when he’s firm-fleshed and healthy, and he’ll give you all the fight you want; more for his weight than any of his finny brethren.
Sport Without a Referee
FOR ME, by far the most enjoyable part of fishing is what might be termed the hunting end of it. It’s what makes a resourceful fisherman. I find the bush exciting. I like to explore it for myself, make portages, put my judgment to the test by trying new waters. I like to think 1 can look at a lake or a stream and be reasonably certain about the kind of fish there are in it and just where to find them. I like to use my own judgment, too, in regard to flies. There are so many things to be considered ; the weather and the kind of insects you find on the water and so on. And I don’t like to take many fish because I learned a long time ago that very little of the sport in fishing lies in capturing the fish. Among other things, I like to give the fish a little edge on me by using small hooks and light lines; then if he beats me I can watch him go without bitterness. Or, better still, if I lick him I can set him free and feel exhilarated by my action.
“You know,” a friend once said to me“catching game fish is a real test of moral fibre. There’s no sport on earth as fascinating or exciting where there isn’t a referee. There is no referee in fishing except God. It’s you and the fish and God. There’s no human referee to make you act the part of the sportsman and give a game fighter a fair break.”
Morality? Why not? Sentimentality? I don’t think so. You’re looking for sport when you go fishing, and you won’t find it unless you imix>se certain limitations on yourself. You have to conceive of fishing as a kind of game, and you have to obey the rules even if there is no referee to enforce them. If you break them through ignorance there is no penalty; but if you break them knowingly the penalty should be in your own feeling of dissatisfaction and disgust with yourself. If you don’t feel this dissatisfaction, you may be sure you are no sportsman.
But six>rtsman or no sportsman, before you lay claim to the fighting championship for muskie or trout or salmon, for anything but the bronze-back, fill your packsack and head for those cold-water lakes and rivers up North. Put your fly over one of those battling beauties, strike just before he does, set the hook, and when you’re through with that next wild ten or fifteen minutes, I think you will have changed your mind.
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