BERRIEN SPRINGS — We left the launch ramp at Shamrock Park, motored upstream toward the dam, and fund a boat anchored right where Jim Romine had planned to start. He moved to the side and we noticed the other boat — which left the ramp about two minutes before us — hook a fish.
“Guess we’ve got to get started a little earlier,” Romine said. “They caught our fish.”
So we started downstream, Romine on the oars, me tending the rods, running four plugs in the current. It took us 45 minutes to connect and the fish gods were smiling on us. The fish — a bright chrome hen in the 9- to 10-pound range — went through a series of gyrations that we both thought might dislodge the hook, until I brought it upside the boat and Romine netted it. As soon as he lifted it out of the water, the plug pulled out. It had straightened out the split ring.
“Must have been a bad split ring,” said Romine, who is most particular about all of his gear.
Particular may be too soft a word. Romine wants everything — everything — just so.
For instance, he repaints all of his lures. None of the factory colors suit him. He removes the belly hook. “It allows those plugs to vibrate better and it really doesn’t change your hook-up percentage,” he said.
Romine adds a second split ring to the remaining hook — “It allows it to swing more freely and you hook up more,” he said. “I’ve even started removing the belly hook from my bass plugs.”
Romine removes the decal eyes from the plug and puts a pair of them on the underbelly, because he thinks the fish home in on the eyes and he wants them closer to the hook.
Forty-five minutes later, downstream from our first fish, we hooked another. This was a bigger fish — I guessed it in the 11- to 12-pound range. It barrel-rolled a couple of times, twisting itself up in the line and was much easier to subdue than the first fish.
We finished the drift and Romine decided we should fish a hole several miles downstream that has been good to us in the past. There was less flow there, so Romine swapped out not only the plugs — switching from Fat Fish to Mag Lips — but the rods, too. Romine carries two sets of rods and reels (as well as a spare for both sets): shorter, stiffer rods for fast water; longer, slower rods for soft water. His theory is that in the fast water, things happen fast and you have to get the hook in them immediately. In the softer water, the bite might be more casual, he thinks, so he wants to give the fish a chance to start swimming off with it and the soft-tipped rods allow that before the hook bites. That’s a lot of gear to carry in a 16-foot boat but the proof, I guess, is in the creel.
We fished for a little more than an hour in the softer flow without a take, then motored back upstream from where we’d caught our first fish. As we approached, one of the rods bucked in the rod holder but was gone before I could get hold of it. I immediately reeled in; Romine wanted to check the hook, running it over his fingernail to see if it bit. If it hadn’t, he said, he’d have replaced it (he replaces all of the factory hooks on his plugs with Gamakatsus).
“I never sharpen the hooks,” he said. “When you put a file on it, it weakens the point. If I bend a hook, I’ll straighten it out, but I never sharpen them.”
We missed the fish just because it happens, he said. “There’s always a drop-off from the take, to the hook-up, to the net.”
A short while later we hit another fish. It was a dandy — in the 12- to 13-pound range.
“I wish we hadn’t wasted that hour in that other hole,” he said.
Oh, well. The pros will tell you the decisions you make on the water is the single most important factor in your success.
We went back to where we’d started and re-set the plugs. Romine runs them about 50 feet from the boat.
“I used to be really determined about counting the number of times the line runs across the reel when I set the plugs, but unless all of your reels are spooled up the exact same way, they’re not out the same distance anyway,” he said. “And if you think about it, nothing in nature occurs in a straight line.
“And I don’t buy that theory that you back the fish down the hole and then catch them on the back end. You might catch them at the back of the hole, but that’s where they were. If you’re running a plug downstream and it bothers the fish, all it has to do is move a little to the side and it’s past them. And if you have the plugs at staggered distances, the fish might move off from a plug, encounter another one, then get irritated and strike it.”
Romine adds scent (Berkley Power Bait Trout Attractant that he dilutes with 50 percent baby oil) to the crankbaits’ lips. The oil keeps the scent on the bait longer, he said.
“I’m a firm believer in scent,” he said. “They say a hound dog can smell 1,000 time better than a man and a fish can smell 1,000 times better than a hound.”
I don’t know about any of that. What I do know is the wind switched, the temperature dropped and the bite disappeared. We fished three more hours for nada.
“Maybe we should go the Man(istee) next week and give a try,” Romine suggested.
What do you bet I go?
Bob Gwizdz is a longtime outdoors writer and has also worked in public affairs for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.