Outdoors

Leaping bass excite this fisherman

Wildside column: The higher the jump the better

A 19-inch smallmouth bass, one of 11 lunkers caught in a recent six-day period, awaits its release along the Wapsipinicon River in Buchanan County.  (Orlan Love/correspondent)
A 19-inch smallmouth bass, one of 11 lunkers caught in a recent six-day period, awaits its release along the Wapsipinicon River in Buchanan County.  (Orlan Love/correspondent)

About wild bass jumping on the end of my string, I share the sentiment of the late Hoyt Axton’s “Wild Bull Rider:”

“The higher they get is a little too low for me.”

I recently had the opportunity to repeatedly observe the phenomenon when the Wapsipinicon River fell to wader-friendly levels during a comparatively dry spell that unfortunately ended a week ago with a storm that deposited six inches in my rain gauge and similar amounts throughout other parts of the watershed.

While some fish do jump for joy and others leap from the water in pursuit of food on or near the surface, hooked fish jump in an effort to dislodge lures from their mouths.

Other fish species — most notably, the northern pike — often will jump when hooked, but none jumps as frequently, athletically or with as much élan as the smallmouth bass.

The jump, an angling outing’s most exciting and dramatic moment, reveals the size of the quarry, presents it in all its red-eyed, flaming-gilled untamed glory and, through eye contact, allows fish and angler to take each other’s measure.

Experts advise squelching the jump with downward rod pressure to keep the bass from throwing the lure, which may be important to tournament anglers.

At times, however, I’d rather see how high the bass can jump and how vigorously it can shake its head than to maximize my odds of landing it.

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We’re going to release the fish anyway, right? And after the hookset, the initial thrashing and the jump, most of the fun has been had.

During the recent low-water interlude, I fished the Wapsipinicon a cumulative 15 hours over six consecutive evenings. I caught only 30 smallmouth bass, which was disappointing, but of them 11 were from 18 to 20 inches long.

The breathtaking jumps of the first two, a 19-incher followed by a 20-incher on my first few casts of the 2018 season, unleashed a surge of adrenaline that never quite subsided until a week ago when a half foot of rain foreclosed more such dreamlike action for the foreseeable future.

In my considerable experience fishing for smallmouth in Eastern Iowa rivers, I would estimate my lunker-to-caught fish ratio at no better than 1 in 20. I remain at a loss to explain the unprecedented 1-to-3 ratio and regret that the rising river has at least temporarily precluded additional research.

While Axton’s fictional character and I see eye-to-eye on wild bulls and jumping bass, we diverge when it comes to Eastern Iowa rivers.

During my last outing before the deluge, I seized an opportunity to explain my position to a pair of kayakers complaining that the river’s diminishing depth and slackening current were cutting into their fun.

From the perspective of a wild bass catcher, I said, “the lower it gets is a little too high for me.”

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