She had not tasted steel nor plastic since her fourth year
bass pond
Photo: Chad Shmukler

The old bass turned toward deep water on this late spring day. The familiar droning sound was the only thing that made her anxious at this stage in life, and it put her on the move. Without hesitation or thought, she slowly sank and casually finned along the point toward deeper water in the creek channel. She swam directly underneath the metal-flaked bass boat, mere feet from the angler aboard it. Eluding this pursuer required stealth as opposed to speed.

In her ninth year, she was the apex predator in this small lake. The rigors of the spawn had passed, and the last few days were spent replacing lost calories. Normally, she was selective about prey. She preferred a large meal, following the golden rule of predation—energy gained must be greater than energy expended—but the warming water temperature had changed that. A faster metabolism and an explosion of food choices made her less finicky. Several species of fry, just hatched young fish, were an easy meal. They schooled tightly in a writhing ball of protein, which meant that even a poorly executed attack provided a mouthful. It also meant a full stomach without an energy burning hunt. This was why she had stationed along the point before the droning sound had moved her. The prevailing south wind worked like a conveyer to push schools of fry in open water to her chosen ambush spot.

The lair she occupied appeared to be a remarkable example of strategic planning. It was no product of intelligence, though, only cold-blooded predatory impulse and the whims of springtime weather. A large lightning struck willow had succumbed to gravity and soil erosion. Its final resting place wedged tightly between two large rocks deposited here during the lake’s impoundment. This created a buffer for the water and the creatures blown along with it by those southerly spring breezes. It was a perfect collection point for tiny microscopic life forms and the schools of fry that fed on them. The big bass hid among the tangled roots and the boulders as she waited on the prey to come to her.

An ancient suspicion had served her well in youth when a quick shadow or sudden noise sent her fleeing for the safety of thick cover, but as she grew older and larger an overwhelming confidence had eclipsed her sense of self-preservation. Her confidence was driven by physical size and her temperament—there was simply nothing in the water for her to fear except for that sound.

The scars in her mouth told stories of past escapes and one capture, but those had happened a long time ago. She had not tasted steel nor plastic since her fourth year. But since that last capture, the droning sound caused unease. She moved without hesitation when the droning approached too close. Not a logical response, it was an involuntary reaction. It was instinct.

Long after the metal-flake boat was gone, a jon boat eased along, parallel to the shoreline. The murky water was peppered with stumps and logs, and a lanky boy pitched a soft-plastic bait to each of the targets. His concentration focused on the millimeters-thick fishing line connecting him to the underwater world.

A precious free Saturday afternoon had presented itself, and he had scraped together enough change to rent a battered old boat from the lake’s only baitshop/boat dock. He was in high school and the rigors of school, homework, and a job took their toll on his outdoor interests. Thankfully, school was out for the summer. The only thing standing in the way of daylight-to-dark fishing was the dreaded summer job. But the job meant money. Money bought reels and lures. Money paid for boat rentals.

The boy’s earliest memories were of holding a cane pole with his Grandpa, stringers of bream, and old Folgers cans full of worms. Watching red and white floats bob in the ripples had taught him the meaning of patience. Watching the float dance on the surface taught him the meaning of preparation. Setting the hook as the float disappeared under water taught him the meaning of satisfaction.

As the boy grew older, he learned new tactics and it was on this path that the boy became obsessed. An old yellow jitterbug gurgling along and the smashing explosion of the bass sealed his fate. The struggling largemouth came to hand and the boy worked the hooks loose. He held the glistening fish at eye-level before releasing it. As he watched the bass disappear into the depths, a part of the boy’s soul disappeared with it. The fish swam free. The boy was hooked.

As the years rolled along, predawn bike rides to the lake became a summer routine. It was a four-mile ride with a rod and two tackle boxes on a bike with no basket or storage. It was a ride the boy was compelled to make at every opportunity.

And so, here he was on this warm June afternoon.

The gentle lapping of lake water against the sides of the boat provided rhythm for his casts and retrieves. An occasional paddle stroke kept his heading as he quietly fussed about not having saved enough money to rent a trolling motor. This wasn’t how the pros did it or even the weekend tournament anglers. But, motor or not, he was on the water enjoying this overcast day and he was nearing a favorite casting target along the rocky bank.

The big bass had returned to her haunt after an hour suspended in the deep water. She nabbed a small crayfish as it scuttled between the boulders. As she settled into the mass of branches, a distinct “plip” radiated through the water. The nerve endings along the length of her body, the lateral line, picked up the vibrations. Her predatory excitement was building.

She sensed movement. The pattern of movement signaled prey and she gained a bearing through the vibrations. As the creature drew closer, the bass became rigid. Her fins flared, preparing for the vacuum of water that would suck the unknowing prey into her gaping mouth. This would be bonus calories—a large meal delivered to her front door. She could barely see the form of the creature through the murky water as it wriggled in front of her, but it did not matter. Her exceptional hearing marked its location precisely. The massive jaw opened as her gills flared wide. A sudden displacement of water carried everything in front of her immediately into her mouth, including the hook imbedded in a length of purple plastic.

Focused on his line and lure, the heavy thump of a strike was still jolting to the boy. Like a shock of electric current, it caused his mind to go blank. But his years of experience overcame this lapse in conscious thought. Without hesitation or reasoning, his left hand turned the reel handle to take up slack in the line, and the rod whipped upward in a violent motion.

It was an involuntary reaction. And though it was learned behavior through a lifetime fishing, it was something very close to instinct.