A small entry into one of the many logbooks we have kept over the years – sometimes meticulously, sometimes quite haphazardly – makes mention of an afternoon outing on one of Louisiana’s southern bass lakes. At first glance it was nothing startling or of any particular significance, but that was until we noticed that the word “pole” was heavily underlined wherever it was noted. So of course we just had to take a closer look – besides, we had nothing better to do on one of those days when an icy south-wester blows in over the bay and blankets the mountain in thick rain and mists.
This particular entry had its beginning low down on a page, and it was not until we flicked over the page that we saw just what a spectacular day of bassing it had been – no fewer than six bass over ten pounds were recorded, with “several” in the four to eight pound class. So good had our catches been that we had evidently given up counting the number of fish, taking the trouble to record only significant fish. If that’s not bassing to dream of, then what is?
But to get back to the word “pole”. As we pored over our logbook entry – it had obviously been scribbled while on the boat so the writing was haphazard in places and it took a bit of deciphering – it became clear that our guide had made extensive use of a push pole. “We were surprised!” is another entry, and that jogged our memories of what turned out to be quite an extraordinary afternoon’s fishing.
After a typical southern lunch of fried catfish, hushpuppies and beans we had taken a ride the few miles down to the lake from the motel, courtesy of the friendly motel keeper (who we must add was quite intrigued, to say the least, by the two “boys from Africa” who had come all the way “jest to ketch sum o’ our bassies”) and when he unloaded us at what appeared to be the launch
site (it was nothing more than a clearing in the thick forest with a very sick looking jetty sagging on its stays in the shallows) our guide for the afternoon was already waiting for us, lying back in a wooden skiff that at first glance appeared to date back to the Civil War – not that he was all that imposing either, with a battered cap (the Americans insist on calling a cap a “hat”, but no matter) sun-washed Stetson above an unshaven face, burnt out stogie between the lips, faded jeans and cut-off waders. But he was affable enough, maybe in his late thirties or so, and by the way he had us load the skiff evidently had done this thing many times before. Significantly no one went near the jetty – everything was loaded with the skiff’s bow resting on the bank.
Off went the motel keeper, we were on board and waiting to go, when the guide turned around and started off to the first line of trees. “Fergot ma pole!” he exclaimed.
We looked at each other in surprise. “A pole – what pole? Are we in Venice - is this a gondola..?” But he was back in a minute, clambered aboard and used the pole to push off the bank. Then he sat down, pulled on the outboard and at last we were off.
By American standards this was not a big lake, but it was a real lake, not a dam, with the forest all the way down to the shoreline, and gulleys, inlets, all sorts of water weeds and so on providing more than enough bass holding structure and cover. To us “boys from Africa” it looked like a bit of bass heaven, but our guide kept the skiff going passed all this until maybe a mile further on he turned the skiff (it did not have a leak at all, we were happy to note!) shoreward and cut the motor.
“You fellas all rigged..?” he queried. Those years the very first bait to be tied on was something like a River Runt, Lazy Ike or a leadhead. Our guide gave us a quizzical look. “Nah,” he muttered and scratched in his tackle box (it was actually a metal toolbox). “Here, take these,” and he handed us each a black tube bait and slider hooks. Well, who were we to argue with local know how? We tied on those sliders and mounted the tubes and were just about to make the first casts when he waved a hand and stopped us. “Whoa boys!” he exclaimed. “Gotta get into position first!” With this he poled the skiff to the bank and held on to a overhanging branch.” Let things quieten down a bit,” he answered our enquiring looks. “Them big bass don’t like strange ‘appenings around them – we have to be quiet and become part of the scenery. Jes be patient.”
So there we sat, rods in hand, straining at the leash, but he was quite laid back, blowing smoke rings from the stogie that was now even shorter. Maybe twenty minutes of agonised waiting later he stood up, grabbed his push pole and began poling the skiff about four or five meters parallel to the bank. “Go for it boys,” he said. “cast them baits up front, let ‘em sink and pull ‘em back slowly.”
Which we did, working the baits in and around and in between all sorts of water plants, twitching them up and letting them sink. The sense of anticipation was almost painful – any second we expected to be smashed by a big bass!
And so it was – it was all we could do with our twenty-five pound outfits to wrestle those bass back to the skiff, where our guide certainly showed his skill in boating them. The photos he took of us are slightly blurred, but so are the ones we took in between all the excitement of that afternoon. In black and white, those photos are quite faded now and we hardly ever take them out, but they do evoke marvelous memories!
Not once during the entire afternoon we were fishing did that guide even look like he was going to use the main motor (there was no sneaker), using only his push pole to move us slowly along the bank. “You gotta be quiet” he said many times over as he pushed us from spot to spot. Using a pole gave him another advantage, an advantage that we clicked on only that night back at the motel: his pole was marked in feet, so he knew all the time in what depth water he was, and we were hardly ever in water that was more than four feet deep. Of course he knew that lake intimately and had over the years discovered where all the bass holding spots were. But even so, he never used the outboard to rush from one spot to another, and even though using the pole required some physical effort and was slow moving, it did force us to fish each spot thoroughly, allowing us all the time needed to make repeat casts, and it paid off handsomely!
In one inlet, gulley, call it whatever you want, he took the skiff to the middle of it. Here it was just on three feet deep, and on both sides it was even shallower. “Where them baits of you?” he asked. “Give ‘em a throw or two!” We did, and we each boated a ten pounder in that particular inlet. He then poled us out, explaining that all the “natural things” in that particular spot were now disturbed and needed time to settle again.
We must have covered much more than a mile of shoreline, and as mentioned before, we caught a “whole mess of fish”, to use an Americanism.
It was only when the dusk closed in that he started the outboard and headed back to our launch site.
“You fellers ever use the pole back home?” he asked as we said our goodbyes. We had to be honest and admit that using a pole to quietly position the boat had never entered our minds. Back home our boat did not even have paddles!