Catching miracle fish

All of us have caught a bass or two that stand above the others — key fish that somehow made a difference … and not necessarily our largest. 

After more than 30 years of competing at the highest levels of tournament fishing, I can recall numerous fish that helped to determine an outcome. Fish that pushed me to the top of the leaderboard or helped qualify me for year-end championships.

Among them were a few catches that I would consider miraculous. Fish that proved so critical, they helped define my career.

Here are some short stories of just a few.

Borderline bass

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I frequented the St. Lawrence River to compete in various tournaments along the Canadian border. One such event was the Canadian Open out of Kingston, Ontario. 

During the final day of the 1991 Open, I was in position to take the title. All I needed was a solid catch to get me there.

That event was special as it included some of the best anglers from both countries — guys like Denny Brauer, Tom Mann Jr., Randall Romig, Jim Bitter, Bob and Wayne Izumi, Wil Wegman, Rocky Crawford and Big Jim McLaughlin.

Well, sometime in the early afternoon of the final day, I went to a bedding smallmouth that I’d found in practice — one that was in the 4-pound range. That was a giant back then, and I knew if I caught it, it would anchor an already solid stringer.

In an effort to avoid spooking the fish, I launched a tube jig on a lengthy cast just past the bed. And, for whatever reason, the fish wouldn’t bite. It just looked at the lure anxiously. Considering my options, I picked up a jerkbait to try next. Back then, we didn’t have Senkos or drop shots.

As I began working the lure, I could see the fish reacting to its every twitch. It was hot, but it wouldn’t quite commit. 

As the jerkbait entered deeper water, the fish sank out of sight. Believing it would return to the bed, I retrieved the lure as fast as I could to grab another rod. When it reached the side of the boat, I dropped the rod and turned to pick up another … and, just as I turned to make a cast, I noticed the first rod bending and bouncing, going over the gunnel. The jerkbait was gone. 

Instinctively, I grabbed the rod in my free hand and pulled back. 

The fish immediately skied 3 feet out of the water, slinging my jerkbait out of its mouth. Before I could even react, I saw a net come out of nowhere and scoop the 4-pounder before it fell back into the water.

It all happened in the blink of an eye.

My net man was a young Canadian kid with lightning-fast reflexes … and really good instincts. 

After putting the fish in the livewell, I asked him how he was able to get there in time — grabbing the net in the process. He said he didn’t know. He just saw the bouncing rod and my reaction and went for the net instinctively.

Keep in mind this lad was 15 feet to the rear of the boat and the fish jumped at the trolling motor, yet he somehow dropped his rod, grabbed the net and covered that much ground in what seemed a fraction of a second — not only reaching the bow in time, but scooping up an airborne smallie that had thrown the hook.

To this day, I still can’t fathom how he pulled it off. And what makes the story even better is the fact that I went on to win the event and my first Canadian title.

Crazy eights

Some years later, B.A.S.S. held a tournament on Lake Eufaula in Alabama. On the last day of that event, I was sight fishing for a huge female on a bed in the back of a creek. Having already put 16 pounds of fish in the livewell, I knew this one would easily put me over 20 … if I could make her bite.

The minutes seemed like hours, but I finally got her to take a shot at my lure.

The battle was cinematic. She jumped several times, scaring me more with each leap. Finally, when I got her boatside and thought I had won the battle, I realized she was foul-hooked just outside the jaw.

I wanted to cry. I sat there, holding a fish pushing 9 pounds, knowing I had to release her. It was heartbreaking.

After letting her go, I retied and looked to see if she had returned to the bed, but she was gone. So I put the trolling motor on high and headed for the opposite side of the creek … the whole way gritting my teeth and mumbling expletives.

Once I reached the far bank, I pitched into the first laydown I came to and, believe it or not, I hooked up with another 8-pounder.

This one ripped through the brush and thrashed across the surface, and when I finally got her boatside, my partner grabbed her just as the hook fell out. When I examined her more closely, I could see a second puncture mark just outside her jaw.

Was this the same fish I had just released? No way!

Dumbfounded, I put her in the livewell, culled my smallest fish and trolled back across the creek to see if the bed was still bare. 

It was, and to this day I wonder if it was the same fish.

Three strikes you’re …

While practicing for a Bassmaster Elite Series event on Lake Seminole in Florida, I located a big female locked on a bed in Spring Creek. She was paired with a good-sized male in 3 to 4 feet of water in a field of lily pads. He looked to be 3 or 4 pounds, the female was twice his size.

When I returned to the fish on tournament day, I got the boat in position, Power-Poled down and looked to see who was home. Sure enough, the big female was still there, suspended slightly above her bedmate.

Believing she was 6 or 7 pounds, I took the time to re-tie before making my first cast. Once ready, I pitched a green-pumpkin lizard to the backside of the bed and watched as it sank. Before it reached bottom, the big female inhaled it.