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The bass apocalypse

Hunched under the canopy of a large elm tree that sheltered us somewhat from the deluge, we waited for what seemed an eternity for the violent tropical storm to relent. We hadn’t even had a chance to wet our lines before the skies parted and the downpour began. The ominous grey clouds in the darkening sky painted a gloomy forecast as they raced over the treetops , as if impatient to reunite with the distant horizon. The torrential summer rainfall cascaded in vertical sheets that undulated across the waters surface,  now whipped with such wind-driven force that it bubbled and frothed like boiling water. Off in the faraway distance, thunder claps resonated and shards of lightning splintered across the sky in delicate fingers that spread out and touched the ground, momentarily caressing the earth in its electrostatic embrace. There was an atmosphere of instability in the air and optimism in our hearts and we hoped this was the weather pattern that would see a reversal of fortune in our hunt for the big bass that had mysteriously disappeared for the last two years.

As we sat under the grateful protection of the tree and waited for a break in the weather, we kept ourselves occupied eating sandwiches and drinking coffee  as we speculated about the mysterious disappearance of the big bass that we used to catch on a consistent basis almost every season for the last two decades. Where had they gone? So many big fish had been caught over the years that until it stopped happening altogether for no apparent reason we didn’t realize how lucky we had been, nor had we questioned our success as there was no failure to weigh it against and give it perspective. Theories formulated to explain the bass enigma abounded ranging from the plausible, logical, and usual suspects - changing water and ph levels in the last two years, increased fishing pressure with no catch & release being practiced, fertilizers from the nearly farm lands in the water table that has drained into the river, phosphorus from pig farming operations above some of the lake tributaries, industrial pollution, too many pharmaceutical chemicals being flushed into the river and altering fish libidos -  to the inane and ludicrous. Chief among the absurd rationalizations was a theory we termed the bass apocalypse, a worse case extinction level event where for some inexplicable reason there had been a massive die-off of all the big bass. Perhaps they had all died of old age. Nothing other than the tongue-in-cheek bass apocalypse theory could satisfactorily explain what happened to our once great fishing hole that each season produced fish that were uncommonly large for water this far north of the forty-ninth parallel.

After an hour the rain let up enough for us to finally get into the game and begin fishing. On Mark’s very first cast, a pike boiled at the surface but somehow missed the lure. Not long after there was another blast off the weedbed, this time the hook sticks and he reels in a six pound pike. A good start but not what we are here for – get with the program buddy I reminded him. A few minutes later and another pike greedily hammered the bait and as he is reeling it in a musky appeared from underneath, breaching like a submarine and followed it right up to the edge of the boat, eyeing it with a mixture of both malevolent intent and simple curiosity. It moved with the slow and deliberate grace and confidence of an apex predator, not at all disturbed by the presence of the boat, which it barely seemed to notice as it was focused on the erratic behavior of the hooked pike. It was so close to the boat we could have reached over and petted it like a dog before it instinctively sensed that it was in fact the hunted party and then vanished into the comfort zone and camouflage of the thick vegetation.

As a result of record precipitation for almost two full months early in the Spring, the water levels, which the year prior had been at a disconcerting twenty year record lows, were estimated to be close to four feet above normal levels. This was a year where was water everywhere and the fish were much more spread out and difficult to locate in any great numbers. The weed lines were also now submerged and harder to locate. As the water was higher it was more difficult for the sun to penetrate the riverbeds and there had been significantly less photosynthesis occurring early in the season so the deep water cabbage beds hadn’t fully grown and were next to impossible to locate visually - and that was where we needed to put our baits. Twenty years of fishing here had taught us a few basic lessons about this place. There seemed to be three immutable laws when it came to big bass. They were caught during high pressure periods of barometric instability, they were mostly all caught in the middle of the day, and the biggest fish were all caught on a deep water weedline pattern, often as deep as twenty feet. That being said we had also caught a few monsters in as shallow as two feet of water, at both dawn and dusk, and during stable weather patterns so despite what experience indicated to the contrary, there are really no set rules or best lures, only what the bass decide they want to do at any given moment.

The next few hours were uneventful, as we drifted uneventfully along where we thought the outside of the weed edge was located and while we did manage to pick up a few fish, they were mostly small fish that didn’t really warrant the trouble of a photo. That was soon to change. The sun soon reappeared, cicadas and crickets began to sound off in harmony and were soon joined by the giant bullfrogs that bugled their hidden presence in the tall reeds. We had stripped back down to shorts and shirts as we let the current take us through the channel between Ile de la Commune and Grosbois and another series of canals that formed the outline of the islands in the seaway. This archipelago separated the main river from the central shipping channels of the St-Lawrence seaway. The seaway side of the river, highlighted by the picturesque skyline of the city, formed a major shipping route of entry to the eastern seaboard and was always bustling with giant iron steamships that carried oil, grain, and other manufactured products from all over the world to the Port of Montreal. In the distance, on the inside of the green marker buoys that marked the channel, several ships were anchored in the current as they waited for their signal from the Port Authorities to enter the port with their pilot escorts and either load or unload their cargos.

The Boucherville islands, so named in the seventeenth century by seigneur Pierre Boucher who wished to honor of his families ancestral name, were composed of a small chain of islands located in the center of the river that had once been exploited for agricultural production by a French commune that inhabited the islands centuries before the archipelago became established as a National Park by the Quebec government. They were not the first to exploit the islands as the native Iroquois of the Hochelaga tribe had also used the islands as campgrounds during the summer months where they gathered birds eggs and harvested certain types of medicinal flora used in both their diets and traditional rituals. A few hundred years later and there was still plenty of wildlife that lived on these islands of great ecological biodiversity. At any given time one can expect to see Virginia deer, red fox, otters, raccoons and host of other mammals and bird life that use the sheltered islands for nesting. The many interconnected channels and coves are easily accessed by any fish coming from the main river and its waters were constantly being refreshed by the constant flow of current moving through, bringing with it fresh schools of fish that moved in and out to feed. It was a primary spawning area early in the year and in the summer the variety of both predatory and bait fish seeking both refuge  and feeding grounds in the maze of canals and bays was incredible. Bait fish were often seen being crashed to the surface in a watery explosion of a school of feeding bass or a musky. It always held fish no matter what time of the year.

The irrepressible inflatable nosed its way into no man’s land via a shallow channel that would ground most boats to an expensive halt, but then its path suddenly opened up into a huge hidden back bay partly covered with a colorful field of beautiful white lily pads and purple hyacinth that grew in the clear tannic water. Minnows  darted from under the boat in silvery explosions, like underwater fireworks. This was the golden hole. On the third cast near the familiar pads the top water bait was furiously inhaled and the battle was on, fought with great intensity at close quarters by both parties until the bass surfaced next to the inflatable and was lipped by my partner. In a rare display of apoplexy, he stared up at me with a look of wild excitement in his eyes before he pulled the fish out of the water and held it up it to my dumfounded scrutiny. It was huge and there was no doubt that it was perhaps one of the biggest largemouth bass we had ever caught, certainly among the top five in the last two decades. It was an ecstatic moment and like happy little children playing in the water, we both immersed ourselves waist deep in the bay and snapped some quick photos before releasing the fish back into the clear water.

The sky began to rumble its discontent once again and soon an even angrier set of dark  clouds loomed on the horizon and raced towards us at breakneck speed. The wind began to howl as it began to gust through the treetops, collecting leaves that spiralled off in dust devils that swept across the water. We had barely managed to get our rain suits back on before the second storm came crashing down around our heads. It was a monsoon like rain, a hard pelting rain that forced you to keep your head down and away as it hurt your eyes and stung your face. There was no sign of any clearing in the sky and the rain showed no signs of tapering. We decided to fish through it and kept stubbornly working our baits. In the corner of the cove there was a thick weed mat with a slight hole in the middle and Mark cast his Spro frog right next to the shoreline and began working it seductively over the thick mat. As it reached the opening in the carpet of thick mat it was suddenly engulfed by a huge musky that furiously tore through the mass of weeds, his line slicing like a knife through clumps of vegetation, leaving a trail of cabbage leaf that floated loosely upwards to the surface. The powerful runs tested both angler and equipment but in the end it was the angler this time that held the upper hand in this battle. The great fish soon lay next to the boat and we quickly unhooked it and held it upright in the water for a few minutes before it slipped through his fingers and swam away.

In almost robotic fashion, under the strong effect of fish fever, we continued casting like men possessed through the rain, working the weed line but without much result, other than disturbing some resident wildlife. An overzealous cast towards shore caused a  great blue heron to fly out of her refuge in the tall grass, and was obviously annoyed by our presence and none too happy with having to relocate in the deluge. She  screeched her discontent as she flew barely above our heads, beating the air with its huge wings that flapped like sails in the wind as she sought to break the gravitational bonds of inertia and its comfortable nest. It flew at low altitude over the water and landed a few hundred yards ahead, somewhere in the thick growth of broadleaf cattail that stood swaying along the edge of the shoreline. The unstable weather system continued to play havoc and barely a few minutes later the gusting winds suddenly died down and the menacingly dark clouds cleared gave way to a bright cerulean sky. Other than our clothes that were still drenched and a few inches of accumulated rainwater that swished around the bottom of the boat, there was nothing else to indicate the recent passage of a violent storm.

The next fish came as a total surprise. It had followed from under the weeds and then swam off somewhat disinterested under the boat. At first glance it was almost dismissed for a carp as it seemed way too long and corpulent to be a bass. Even a big bass. But then the profile and color wasn’t right for a carp and only then did the mental image suddenly register that it was indeed a gigantic bass. – bigger than any I had ever seen. It’s odd how our perception is conditioned by our experiences and how the brain doesn’t register what a giant bass that big looks until you have actually seen one that big as it tends to reconfigure conventional notions of perspective. Besides, as the little voice in my head told me, when was the last time you saw a carp follow a bait? The lure was flipped out on a hail mary hope and prayer that was soon answered and this time there was no hesitation as the fish nailed it almost immediately and raced out towards deep water. It quickly switched gears and changed tactics and remembering it was a bass, charged back towards the thick vegetation where it surfaced against the pressure of the rod, thrashing its strong tail wildly before taking a final dive into a clump of weed. With as much force as the ten pound mono could withstand, I reared back on the rod and began slowly reeling the heavy and indistinguishable clump that was part weed and fish towards the boat. A powerful shake of it’s leviathan head and final thrash towards freedom and the vegetation parted from the line and the fight was on once again. But the old girl as spent and save for a few more perfunctory head shakes, quickly rolled next to the boat. Mark looked up at me and shook his head in amazement as he muttered something barely intelligible about it being even bigger than the first one.

We found a shallow bay nearby and kept the fish in the water to revive it as we prepared the camera for some photos. Not a word was spoken between us as we were too excited by our good fortune and focused on both achieving the best results with the camera without causing harm or distress to the big fish. It wasn’t as long as the first fish but had a tremendous girth and a huge head and shoulders. She was the hunchback bass of the Boucherville Islands. After the photo session  we watched as she swam off under the dark cover some lily pads. The moment was celebrated on shore with a cold Heineken and soggy cigarette. We laughed easily, like we did in our youth when we first discovered this secret place, without a care in the world and living in the moment, living the dream and being free. The big bass were back and for a few moments we felt like kids again, transported back to a time when our lives were simpler, free of worry and responsibility. We waxed nostalgically about old times, friends that have come and gone out of our lives, some by choice while others by death, the rapid passage of time, and of course some of the other exceptional fish we had caught in this place. It was one of the best days and while only time will put things in perspective, we both departed with the feeling that maybe the day was a harbinger that marked the end of a long drought and a return to the good old days. At least we were now pretty certain that the giant bass zombie apocalypse had not yet come to pass.

 

 

 

 

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One Comment

  1. Jack Horowitz
    Posted September 2, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Another exceptional story that makes the reader feel like he is living the events as they happen. It is obvious that these fish were EARNED the hard way. If going through hell means you get rewarded with incredible fish, the individuals deserved to catch these amazing fish. Suffering through these storms and feeling the joy of landing huge fish was well conveyed in the writing as always by a very gifted author.

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