Outdoors

A fishing trip to 'Lunker City'

Wildside column:

Orlan Love poses with a 19-inch smallmouth bass he caught Sept. 3 on the Wapsipinicon River. It was the last of a dozen
Orlan Love poses with a 19-inch smallmouth bass he caught Sept. 3 on the Wapsipinicon River. It was the last of a dozen big bass he caught during a 17-day interlude in Lunker City. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
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My recent sojourn in Lunker City, a not quite mythical realm where big smallmouth bass leap and thrash, provided welcome respite from the cares of 2020.

Though not an actual place on the map, Lunker City exists. You’re in it when you know a giant bass could greet your next cast.

From Aug. 17 through Sept. 3, I caught 12 smallmouth bass that met my 18-inch lunker standard and at least that many near lunkers and mini-lunkers.

I caught the last of the dozen on Sept. 3, just days before a weeklong rain ended the drought of 2020, which provided a three-week window to fish the Wapsipinicon River in chest waders — my preferred method.

Though ended by a foot-and-a-half rise in the river, my lunker interlude lasted longer than I thought it would, and it was fun while it lasted.

To put that in historical perspective, 12 lunkers would have made a good season in the bygone days of low summer river flows, when you could wear out a new pair of waders every year. My current pair, four years old, barely leak.

At the river’s lowest ebb, just before the rain started on Sept. 6, I waded across in three spots, the water never once wetting my waders above the knee. At one of those spots, I crossed from bank to bank in ankle-deep water, which helps explain why the only boat I saw during that 17-day interval was powered by a jet-drive outboard.

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Of the 12, I photographed 11, which would not have happened in the days before cellphone cameras, when the burden of a full-size camera was more than I cared to bear on an extended wade-fishing outing.

I elected not to photograph the 12th because I caught it in plain sight of two anglers in the jet-driven boat, and I did not wish to give them the impression that the occasion was my first time in the end zone.

Since my cellphone is not readily accessible inside my belt-secured chest waders, in order to photograph a fish I need to land it on shore, where I can unbuckle my wader belt and dig out the phone.

From my mid-river vantage, this entails coaxing a big, strong, unwilling fish from a rock bank on one side of the river to a sandbar on the other side.

When you hook a big smallmouth in shallow water, it almost always goes airborne once or twice to let you know the stakes of the battle. Then it becomes a tug of war.

Rather than depend upon my reel’s drag to buffer the fish’s powerful runs, I simply walk toward the fish to relieve strain on my tackle whenever the bass has the upper hand.

When, eventually, I sense the fish has tired, I pressure it into the shallows and, with momentum on my side, sweep it onto the sandbar, where I can contain it until I free my camera phone from my waders. My friend Dave Patterson of Atkins calls this final stage of the battle “breaking them to halter,” which is an apt description.

As much as I appreciate the scenery and serenity of time on the river, I tend to take for granted the natural beauty of the setting and have never considered it alone as sufficient to declare an outing successful. It’s fishing, after all; you need to catch a lot of fish, some big ones or both.

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Bites were scarce during my visit to Lunker City, but the disproportionately high percentage of big bass more than compensated for the total absence of “many fish” outings.

The high point of my Lunker City visit occurred on the evening of Aug. 24, when I caught two in two hours, and the following morning, when I caught two more in a different hole.

When catching a lunker will be the measure of your success, having one under your belt with more time yet to fish feels like playing with house money.

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