COLDWATER — I was fishing a jig with a swim bait trailer, but was retrieving it more like a crankbait than a jig, No pumping, lift-and-drop action. Just cast, let it sink, retrieve slowly.
I felt the jig stop as though it were hung up on weeds, but when I shook it, it shook back.
So I swatted it, hard, and it bent my medium-action rod into a veritable parabola.
When I reeled it in — the fish stayed deep and didn't come to the surface until it was upside the boat — my partner, Greg Mangus, announced: "you're going to need help with that." "That's better than five pounds, easy," Mangus said as he hoisted the long, fat largemouth. "That's the kind of fish you catch on that bait."
Mangus — a Hoosier tackle rep and lure maker, who has the good sense to do the bulk of his fishing in Michigan — told me he'd been spanking the bass, good ones, for several weeks.
"This is the time of year you catch the biggest fish," said Mangus, 63, who's had a reputation for being among the best tournament bass anglers on the Michiana scene for many years now. "Now and at ice-out. But at ice-out it seems like you catch more numbers. This time of year, you're catching bigger ones."
We'd been working a 10-foot deep, weedy flat when the fish hit, but when another half hour went by without a bite, Mangus decided to make a move. He took me to a hump that was surrounded by deep water but came to within feet of the surface. I had a bite — this one cracked it, unlike the first, which was just there — and I swung and missed.
"Sometimes this time of year you've just got to keep reeling it until it feels heavy," he said.
Minutes later, Mangus tied into a fish that looked every bit the equal of mine, maybe even bigger, but it jumped off at the boat. But he connected on the next one — a solid four pounds if it weighed an ounce — and followed that up with a fish that would have gone about a half pound better.
I'd had reason to believe we'd do well; Mangus said we would. I've known and fished with him for about a decade and a half and do not remember a time when we didn't put together a pretty good string. But we had around 14 pounds for three fish and that's good bass fishing anywhere this side of Cuba.
Bass anglers have long pursued big bass as winter approaches, the popular theory being that the fish are feeding up for the winter. Mangus adds an additional thought: "I think they're eating more during the day," he said. "I think in the summer they feed a lot at night."
I stayed with the swim jig. Mangus played around with a blade bait, an Erie Darter (a spade-tailed grub), and a crankbait (deep-diving C-Flash), but it seemed like the swim jig was the ticket.
"You want to experiment every day," he said. "Basically, you let the fish tell you what they want. Crankbaits are good this time of year, but it's a day-to-day thing. You can't count on a crankbait every day."
At our third stop, Mangus tied into a horse. I walked up to the front deck to lip it for him, but when it made its appearance, I had to go to option two: it was a big, toothy pike. I grabbed it under one of the gill covers — we hadn't brought a landing net — and hauled it in. Mangus asked me to put it in the live well as he had a buddy who loves to eat pike.
Our day corresponded to a warming trend, which Mangus said was both good and bad. Good, obviously, because it made it more comfortable to fish. But not so good because, Mangus said, the bite was slower than it had been.
"Last week we caught 15 big ones, from around three and half to five pounds," he said. "But two weeks ago we had a little warming trend and we couldn't hardly get a bite. The fish seem to like it when it's really rotten." What impressed me most was where we were catching them. Instead of concentrating on the deepest water in the lake, Mangus was fishing relatively shallow.
"You can catch them anywhere from shallow to deep this time of year," he said. "It all depends on what's going on on that particular lake on that particular day. Deep is relative."
We kept moving, concentrating on structure elements — channel turns or humps — that came up significantly from the surrounding depths. Most of the bites came as the jig came down a slope, but well before it was in deep water.
We caught a fish or two — or sometimes none — every place we stopped, but never banged a bunch in a row, as you sometimes do this time of year. But what was striking is how consistently good they were. I had one that was short of the 14-inch size limit (a fat, chunky thing, nonetheless) and Mangus boated one that was probably just shy of three pounds. But the rest? Big 'uns.
"You catch the biggest fish that are in the lake you're fishing this time of year. At some lakes it might be two- or three-pounders but here. . ."
He didn't have to finish. He caught one that he slapped on a digital scale. It read: 5.12 pounds and was about the same size as the one I caught first. (I'd put it in the live well hoping I could get a photo of a pair of good ones.) I asked Mangus what our best five would weigh. He guessed around 23 pounds.
"It's a Saturday and how many boats have we seen?" Mangus asked.
Not a one.
There's lesson in there somewhere.