Day 5: Guadalupe and northern largemouth
I imagine I'm preaching to the choir when I say there are few things that get an angler's heart racing like a bass exploding on a topwater bait. On Lady Bird Lake in Austin, I had a 5-pound northern strain breach on my plug like the Red October. Perhaps there is some truth to the saying, "Don't mess with Texas." This bass didn't play around.
With just two species left and the BASS Slam unattainable thanks to finicky Tallapoosa River redeyes, we were off to Texas to land the widest spread of the basses: the northern strain largemouth and the less prolific Guadalupe bass.
First stop: Austin, Texas.
Our original schedule had been fouled for some time due to unforeseen delays, so we had to nab a northern in a hurry so we could move on to the Guadalupe. The best place to try for a northern would be on Lady Bird Lake, adjacent to Austin. The water was fairly dark, so we could get away with heavier casting gear, and it would pay off for me.
I had my Florida setup, the Fenwick/ Daiwa Zillion/ P-Line, and anything less would not have been stout enough to tame that Texas bass. The ferocity of the strike left me stunned, resulting in a late hook set and only one of six hooks in the bass' mouth. Unfortunately the bass made right for the only submerged tree that side of the lake. If this bass had been hooked on anything less than my 14-pound-test P-Line, we would've been without a keeper northern and ripe for endless ribbing at the office.
Hall found some smaller fish next to some bridge pilings. His Shimano/G.Loomis worked wonderfully, while Horton worked the banks taking in the scenery of the city. I was throwing a Don Iovino Splash-It II (a popper) in a bluegill scheme to the shore when the bass inhaled it. Catching that fish early on meant we could skedaddle to the Guadalupe River to get acquainted with Texas' state fish.
The Guadalupe River was an interesting milky-green color, which Horton assumed (correctly, we'd find out later) we would make for some funky-colored bass. The stained water meant I'd stick with my go-to Fenwick/Daiwa combo, while Horton and Hall switched to Abu Garcia Revos with 15-pound-line and Tactix rods. The heavier gear would pay off in the sometimes-swift current of the Guadalupe.
Yum Dingers carried the day, taking most of the fish we caught in the river, even the one Guadalupe bass we caught. I caught him in the middle of a bend of the river by casting from the sandbar to the opposite bank and sliding the worm into the water. I let it sink as far as it could, where most of the strikes came from. Hall and Horton each got a few smallmouth and Guadalupe/smallie hybrids. The scenery of the Texas hill country river rivaled the Tallapoosa.
To sum up the trip from a gear guru's perspective, we fished a lot of different waters, which meant a variety of combos were necessary. Personally, I went into the Slam loath to use spinning gear, but this trip taught me the importance of being a well-rounded angler and an appreciation of being proficient with all kinds of outfits.
If you plan on attacking the Slam in one trip, take extra gear. Take more than what you'd expect to use, and then put some more in. Nonstop loading and unloading will eventually claim some gear, be it rods, cameras (ouch) or even you. Keep your gear varied, too. You've seen the different rod/reel types we used, yet it still felt like our packing was Spartan.
Three suggestions: an ultralight or light spinning combo with 5- or 6-pound-test for the smaller streams and species; a medium action spinning combo with 10-pound test should take care of dingier water; and an all-out 14- or 15-pound-test casting combo is needed for the bruisers Florida and Texas offer. Take plenty of line and terminal tackle as well.
As the trip wore on, the damage became costlier:
Nikon D70 camera, the second most expensive piece of electronic equipment we had, excluding computers. This will leave us up a creek for some photos
I can't find my Citizen watch (sorry, Dad)
The Torqeedo finally succumbed to the rigors of shallow, rocky streams and way too much loading and unloading. Sure, it's German-engineered, but not quite James Hall-proof
Thanks for following along, and we hope you get a chance to catch every species of bass. Even through I only caught seven of the eight, it's an amazing feeling to have nearly mastered the black bass.
Day 4: Smallmouth Country
The small confines and clear water of the Flint River meant light spinning gear was in order once again. Where we were, the river was never any wider than 25 yards across, and most of it was closer to 20. I used Ray Scott's Sportackle rod spooled with 5-pound-test Berkley Transition line, which would create a problem later. Hall threw his Shimano/G.Loomis combo, and Horton employed his Shimano/Berkley Tactix once again.
A local tipped us off that stickworms — we had Yum Dingers — worked well, as well as Zoom Flukes. I started the day with a Fluke to no avail, but changed when Horton landed a 12-inch keeper smallie on a stickworm. He caught it on the edge of some water willow in current by letting it sink and flow with the current. Other fish were caught in eddies and off logs and rocks.
There was no shortage of fish, I think we had more than 20 total, but keepers were few and far between. What little cover there was proved problematic for my dainty combo, I lost one keeper in some grass, not dissimilar to fishing in pads. The fish managed to spit the hook and snag me. At the upper end of our wade, I hooked into a fish that was easily over 20 inches. This thing was really big for such small water. I swear it had shoulders and hair on its back. After a brief fight, my ultra-light line gave way to the fish's pressure and the Flint's current, leaving me with plenty of smallmouth, but no keepers. Them's the breaks.
It has been nice wading creeks, and the Alabama mornings couldn't have been nicer to wake up to. By nine o'clock, there were clear skies and it was about 75 degrees with trees shading most of the river. Back home in Florida, I heard tornado watches and gale-force storms are moving through daily, and by nine it's approximately 95 degrees. One other note, while Crocs are great, they're not the best for river wading or climbing steep river banks. Get yourself some felt-bottom fly fisherman's shoes, the chilly waters smallmouth call home will wake you up faster than Hall's high-octane coffee.
Tomorrow it's back in the kayaks for the Guadalupe bass.
Kayaks are perfectly suited for some of the fishing we've been doing, while wading was preferred for the steep hills and short walks to river edges other times. Hall is in a hulking La-Z-Boy plush Hobie Cat Pro Angler, the 'yak alone weighs more than 100 pounds. I'm in a smaller Shakespeare model which is best for tight maneuvering, and Horton is in a sleek Wilderness Systems Tarpon 140 that can test your balance in rough water. The Tarpon is best for open areas, but all in all the mix of 'yaks is a good one. Heck, Hall's has a Torquuedo, a trolling-motor style motor that on a low setting can hold him in current as Horton and I look for logs or rocks to prop up against. The three of them with 10 or so rods, three tackleboxes, boots and a Yeti cooler make for some interesting packing and even more interesting looks as we go down the road. Not to mention our rolling Toyota Tundra advertisement.
& I'll be back soon reporting on the best gear for the Guadalupe bass.
Day 3: Seeing red
The Florida, Suwannee and shoal bass collectively took almost 10 hours to catch, while nearly eight hours over two days on the Tallapoosa River left us without a keeper redeye. The days weren't a complete wash, however. Plenty of spotted bass were caught and Hall and Horton have a newfound appreciation for life.
The section of the Tallapoosa River we fished is situated between a dam on the upper end and a waterfall on the lower, meaning the fish are isolated and unexposed to motorboats. Tallassee resident and redeye guru Roy Fincher is now retired and lives on the banks of the Tallapoosa. His connection with doctor Steve Sammons of Auburn University had us hopeful of fooling a few of these finicky redeyes.
Shaky heads work well; I caught seven or eight fish, all on a 1/4-ounce All Terrain Tackle Jigs Mighty Jig tipped with a 4-inch Yamamoto Kut-Tail worm, both in green pumpkin. I had my best luck making long casts to calmer seams in otherwise rough current. Throw upstream of your target and "mend" the line like you would fly fishing. Mending is flipping your line upstream as the current pulls a bow in it, otherwise hook sets will be impossible. This keeps the bait moving at the same speed as the current for a more natural presentation.
While jigheads work fantastically, bring lots. I lost close to 10 and think I stepped on twice as many. I was using the same combo from yesterday: a Fenwick HMX casting rod with a Daiwa Zillion reel spooled with 12-pound-test P-Line Fluoroclear. This is on the stouter end of tackle selection, but I feel more comfortable zinging a baitcaster than lobbing a spinning outfit when casting accuracy is at a premium.
Horton caught his fish on a 6-foot, 6-inch medium action Berkley Tactix rod with a Shimano Stradic reel spooled with 8-pound Vicious fluorocarbon. He was throwing a 4-inch Berkley PowerBait hand-poured finesse worm with a 1/16-ounce Tru-Tungsten screw lock bullet weight. He got two non-keeper redeyes.
Hall's spinning outfit consisted of a Shimano Sustain reel spooled with the same Vicious line and same terminal tackle as Horton. Hall caught two spots on a Berkley Frenzy Minnow bait by throwing to shoals and letting it drift down with the current. He was using a G.Loomis Bronzeback rod.
Stay tuned, as tomorrow we go for the smallmouth bass.
Additional casualties incurred:
Sony Handycam, including all our footage, thanks to a leaky boat bag
Near death experiences: 2
Hall's left sandal, which made for an odd combination of Croc and sandal
More terminal tackle
Hall's phone is on the fritz thanks to a lost back cover
Day 2: Shoal and spotted bass
We arrived at Albany, Ga., with a few hours of daylight left to try for a shoal bass or two. After a stop at Fred's Bait and Tackle for some gear, we were off to a tributary of the Flint River.
A friend and local — Dodd Clifton — recommended white and chartreuse spinnerbaits tipped with several inches of a bubble gum-colored Zoom Trick Worm. The only fish landed was a 15 3/4 that fell for a chartreuse and white Booyah Boogie Bait with a trailer hook. I was using a 7-foot Fenwick HMX casting rod with a 6.3:1 Daiwa Zillion baitcaster spooled with 10-pound P-Line Fluoroclear line.
The weird thing is, that same fish hit the bait five times before I got a hook in him, even with the trailer hook. He was holding in a hole in the middle of the river and came up each time I brought the bait across the hole. We paddled back to the truck just after dark just beating the hordes of mosquitoes that were alerted to our presence. Wanting another shoalie, we returned the following day.
We launched at sun up and headed downriver and shortly after Hall hooked a 14-1/2-inch shoalie on a black/red flake 3-inch Berkley Chigger Craw with a 1/4-ounce Tru-Tungsten screw lock hook.
"I pitched it into the current and let it drift into an eddy, and then he hit it," Hall said.
Hall landed another shoalie then it was time to head to the Tallapoosa River near Tallassee, Ala.
The section of the Tallapoosa we were on was wide, swift and deep. One of Horton's biologist cohorts, Dr. Steve Sammons, professor of fisheries at Auburn University, recommended small baits for the redeye — both topwater and soft plastics. Wading was no easy task, but heading out across the Tallapoosa was our best bet for a redeye or a spotted bass. Everyone managed several spots, but Hall managed to keep a spot on long enough to be photographed. He caught his spot on a Berkley Chigger Craw rigged on a jighead with an exposed hook. Tossing it just beyond an eddy and working it back into the slack water proved to be the ticket.
Since we didn't get a redeye today, it's back to the Tallapoosa to try again tomorrow. The redeye could be the most challenging for us, and from what we're told, small baits and ultralight spinning gear are preferred.
Covering as much ground as we have can be brutal on your gear. Here's what we've run through so far:
Rods broken: 1
Crocs lost down river: 1
Fish lost: Plenty
Injuries: Horton's right knee and left wrist; Hall's head (might have preceded trip)
Stay tuned for the gear that got the redeye and smallmouth.
Day 1: Florida largemouth and Suwannee bass
Fishing in different parts of the country calls for different types of tackle. Heavy cover requires heavy line and stouter rods, while casting a small plastic craw with a 1/16-ounce weight demands light spinning gear. Casting gear was best suited for the small public lake off Highway 27 in Clermont, Fla., as the fish were (supposed to be) bigger and the cover heavier.
Although many fish were caught, James Hall's keeper fish was caught on a Lake Fork Trophy Tackle Ring Fry, but a Spro Dean Rojas Signature Bronzeye Frog worked well, too. Hall was using a 7.1:1 Abu Garcia Revo reel spooled with 15-pound-test Berkley Trilene XT and a Berkley Tactix rod.
"I was working a Ring Fry in a trough between the Kissimmee grass and the lily pads, essentially the pad edge," Hall said.
The smaller Suwannee bass of the Santa Fe River meant lighter spinning gear was in order. Every one of the BASS Slam crew notched a Suwannee, and every one fell for a 3-inch green pumpkin Berkley Mud Critter. Horton's 15-incher fell for that bait rigged with a 1/4-ounce Tru-Tungsten screw-lock sinker.
"I threw it into a low-hanging tree limb in the middle of the current that was surrounded by debris," Horton said. "That created the perfect habitat."
He used a Shimano Stradic reel spooled with 8-pound-test Berkley Transition line with a Berkley Tactix rod. After nabbing a few Suwannees, it was time to head north again.
Next stop is Albany, Ga., for a shot at the shoal bass.