I awakened before dawn on my last morning to see sunrise in a strange place. Thunder rolled in the far distance from beyond the dark lake just outside the windows. It was Saturday, a traveling day on which we would be making the journey home to my beloved Cabin Creek and our little holler-valley. We would be leaving the only far place we have ever visited to which I ever had a desire to return.
Northern Indiana is flat but with many woods — country I could grow to like. My only attraction to hills and steep land is that in our part of the country that is where the forests are. It is clear and treeless land that I dislike, so if nature plants plenty of trees on easy ground I am cool with it. Abundance of fishing water is another attractor, and Northern Indiana has that: numerous natural glacial lakes such as the one along which we spent a week of June 2008 during the last family vacation we will likely ever take.
That lake was called Pretty Lake and Ruvonna’s college chum Pam’s family owned a lot and cottage on it. Owning or having access to a cottage is the only way to fish these lakes without a boat. There is public access to launch on all of them but the remainder of the shore line is private.
“Pretty” was an apt description. Not a speck of weed growth marred the pristine surface. When I bought licenses I obtained brochures from the Indiana DNR describing the species of fish in each of the region’s lakes. Pretty Lake held bluegill, redear sunfish, crappie, walleye, yellow perch, Northern pike and of course Largemouth bass. But the surface was deceiving. I soon discovered that I could not fish a deep-running crankbait because just a few feet beneath the flawless face of Pretty Lake thrived a dense underwater meadow. At that seasonal stage it was a topwater lake.
The bite was slow that week. Fishing from the cottage dock I caught several bluegill, redear, yellow perch (my first), three minimum keeper 14” largemouths and two undersized smallmouths, of which Bob, the full-time resident who lived next door, said their presence in Pretty was a “best-kept secret from the DNR.” The panfish and the smallies took red worms under a bobber; the largemouths hit a white buzzbait.
As I watched it grow lighter the thunder ceased. “Why not?” I said to myself, recalling the Seals and Croft lyrics about never passing this way again. The jointed 6.5 foot Bionic Blade medium heavy action rod and Extreme reel — I had acquired the two-piece rod for easy transport on that trip — still had a solid black Arbogast Jitterbug tied on its line. It stood by the back door leading down to the pier, so within moments of pulling on clothes I was standing at the end of the pier. The lake was gray in the dim light and a sprite-wind dimpled the water 35 yards out. Using both hands for the cast I hurled the Jitterbug as far as I could out over the dark water. It landed in the dimples.
That cast was like a short line drive that dings off the bat only to thump into the glove of a fielder who is in perfect location to make the catch without moving. It was if the bass was waiting there under the chop because as soon as the bug hit water and I engaged the reel there was a subtle boil of water and it was “Fish on!” I worked the 19” bigmouth along the pier to the level shoreline and kept it only long enough to show the family and Bob and to take a photograph.
I was right about never passing that way again. We never returned to Pretty Lake and Pam’s family has sold the cottage.
Reverse time around 10 years to the Slough, which is what I called a long, narrow, shallow pond in the Wilson Bottoms area. Smartweed and hibiscuses edged the water all along the shoreline and the water was always brownish but clear of weeds. Much too shallow for cranks, this hole was a worm or topwater fishery. It was a hot July 3rd that I spent a fruitless morning tossing worms there before switching to a huge three-quarter ounce Heddon Zara Spook, a lure I had never tried before. The Zara is a cigar plug without a lip, but if you twitch it, it darts left-to-right in a zigzag. This is called “walking the dog.”
My first cast as a “dog walker” was short to the opposite bank and proved that the lure would indeed do fish-tempting antics when I twitched the rod, terminating in a violent breakwater strike three feet from the rod tip from an 18” three-pound bucketmouth. My second cast was long to my left to the center of the pool for a lengthy retrieve down the middle. As the “doggie” walked along, a v-wake began several yards behind as a fish attacked. I kept the dog walking as the wake closed and the fish took it with a sucking sound, much like the strike of the Pretty lake bass a decade later. This one was 21” and five pounds and stood as my my personal best largemouth for 17 years. A first time spook user and not a diehard topwater guy, but with two casts I had caught eight pounds of green fish!
I released the smaller one but a fellow asked me for the big one before I got it back in the water. Learned a year later he had it mounted with the date and his name on the plaque! Go figure some people! In the long view it didn’t matter much because the Slough and its fish were in for a dark future. The drought of ’99 dried it up to a few inches of muck in the west end where my catches occurred. It has refilled with water and been dug out to be deeper and I understand people have caught and put fish in it, but I don’t fish there anymore.
Nor have I had another strike on the Zara.
Summer means time for topwater bassing and there is no greater delight than a surface strike, whether of the smashing, spray-throwing sort or the subtle sucking intake, both of which I have described. The July 3 incident was an exception, but dim light — either of dawn or dusk or overcast days — is best for enticing Mr. Bass to leave the depths and cover to wallop a surface bait. And when he does, he wallops it indeed!
The Jitterbug is probably my favorite surface lure. It is easy to fish — just reel it at your chosen pace but not too fast, and it wobbles like a crankbait except that it stays on the surface. It is one of the few lures that has been around since I was a kid, as has the iconic Hula Popper, another time-proven Arbogast surface lure. Jerk it correctly and it makes a chug sound and spews water. A week ago post 9 p.m. this was more than a four-pound bass could abide. It shellacked a Hula right at my feet in the shoreline gunk.
Buzzbaits are spinners adapted to motorboat across the surface when you hold the rod high and crank fast. Realistic frog lures inspire bass attacks and work well in weeds but have a reputation for missing strikes. Propeller baits are another popular style of topwater. Heddon’s Tiny Torpedo has been catching gamefish for decades and is my favorite surface bait for creek fishing. It has a single propeller at the rear. Cordell’s Boy Howdy is a stick bait with a prop on each end, but I don’t see it in lure catalogs anymore. I have had strikes on propeller lures both by twitching and by running them in a steady retrieve. The Whopper Plopper is a hot new rear propeller bait that Donnie Gallagher swears by. I have one but have not yet worked up nerve to throw it. It is a pricey item!
Whatever style of lure you like, the beginnings and the endings of summer days are the times to go shallow and enjoy the thrill of a violent surface strike. Many ponds have become so weedy that surface lures are the only option. Even small bass are dramatic when they bust water!