Fish are biting, but nobody is chasing them.
Both parts of that equation were evident last weekend at the Pan-American Fishing Championship at Lake Hamilton. Teams from the United States, Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico and South Africa caught bass on a difficult lake about any way you can catch them. Larry Nixon and Joey Cifuentes won the tournament catching schooling bass on topwater lures. Stephen Browning and Hannah Wesley caught them using a variety of methods in shallow and mid depths.
Had it not been for the tournament, few anglers would have been fishing. Pleasure boaters, skiers and tubers were still out in force, but recreational anglers haven't been active in months.
On Sept. 7, we enjoyed a few hours of phenomenal fishing on the Buffalo River at Hasty. We encountered only one other person, and he wasn't fishing.
On Thursday, I was on my way to enjoy a few hours of evening fishing in my kayak at Lake Atkins. We haven't heard much about Lake Atkins in a few years. It was the hottest spot in Arkansas about 10 years ago, and anglers predicted it would produce the state-record largemouth bass. It didn't, and the lake faded into obscurity.
I was just past the Mayflower Exit on I-40 when Mike Romine called. Using hands-free technology, I eagerly answered the call from a dear friend that I haven't seen all summer.
"Driving to Lake Atkins to try to catch a fish," I responded when Romine asked what I was doing.
"Aw, heck!" Romine replied. "I'm about to leave the house to spend a few hours at [Lake] Maumelle. I was going to see if you wanted to join me."
"I can sure do it," I said. "I'm not too invested in this trip. I can get off next exit, whip it around and get there right about the same time you do."
Of course, we traded the obligatory, "You don't have to do that/it's no problem at all," repartee, but fact is Romine and I don't turn down invitations to fish together. We might not catch a thing, but we will have fun.
As predicted, we arrived at West Rock Marina at the same time. We launched, and within minutes we were on the north side of the lake fishing some of Romine's favorite haunts. It looked like it was going to be an epic evening when Romine caught a bass on the first cast with a 1/8-ounce white Stanley spinnerbait. He caught two more quickly, which opened a cascade of trash talk.
"That's why I like fishing with you so much," Romine said. "I never mind whuppin' some [posterior], but I never whup anyone's [posterior] as bad as I whup yours!"
It would be more funny if it weren't true. Romine catches fish when we're together. I do not. This was setting up to be another page in the same book.
After those first three fish, the action stopped. I threw a soft plastic frog into small patches of inundated grass, but the water was too shallow and the light too bright for the grass to hold fish. The three that Romine caught bit away from the bank about 4 feet deep. The lake is about 2-3 feet low, so all of the usual bankside cover is high and dry.
We fished the north side of Big Island, which drops steeper into deep water, but we caught nothing there.
The next stop was to a spot on the south side of the lake near AR-10. There, Romine activated his LiveScope sonar and found a giant school of crappie. He tied on a 1/16-ounce white marabou jig, but the wind was too stiff for Romine to hold the boat on station. He grumbled about his trolling motor and threatened to get one with a anchoring feature that will hold a boat stationary with GPS technology.
Meanwhile, the waves made the boat pitch violently, forcing Romine to do a soft shoe routine from gunnel to gunnel on the front deck.
"Want to fish the old bridge on the north side?" I asked. "There's always fish there this time of year."
Minutes later, we were in a cove on the north side, but far from the bridge. We appeared to have chosen well because bass broke across the surface chasing shad. Romine continued catching fish with his spinnerbait. A stiff east wind put a hard chop on the water. That was an excellent situation for a topwater lure, so I threw a Whopper Plopper at every breaking school. Romine had cornered the market on 12- to 13-inch bass. His smallest was about 6 inches. I hoped the topwater would catch bigger fish.
The bass ignored the topwater, but they continued hitting the spinnerbait. Romine held a 7-0 lead and was on his way to a rout.
To that point I had thrown a topwater, a square-bill crankbait, a larger white spinnerbait with a large gold willowleaf blade and a small silver Colorado blade and a plastic frog.
"I've got some more of these spinnerbaits if you want to tie one on," Romine said. That would have been sensible, but pride would not permit it. Instead, I tied on a 1/4-ounce ball head jig and a clear, pearl-tinted paddletail swimbait. I started catching fish immediately. I whittled the score to 7-3, and then 7-4 as a magnificent sunset washed across the Ouachita Mountain sky. Most were 12-13 inches. One was about 6 inches.
"Man, listen to that wind!" I exclaimed. "It sounds like ocean surf hitting that point. And if were on the ocean, I'd be fishing the lee side of that break line where that shallow water is churning up the surf. Uh, huh! Come on witcha bad self! That's where the speckled sea trouts are gonna be! That's where the redfish is gonna be! Gonna be some snooks in there with them. Even some flounders. Can I get an amen?"
"Amen, brother! Let's do it!" Romine said.
As expected, bass were feeding all over the point. Romine and I caught them in fast succession. When the action slowed, we trolled back to the schooling fish in the cove, caught them until they sounded, and then bounced back to the fish on the windy point.
The bite stopped at dusk with the count at 14-9. I had been soundly outpointed, but it didn't seem like a thrashing. We had figured out productive patterns on our own terms, and we were both quite content.
"Ready to call it?" Romine asked.
"Let's call it great!" I replied.
"I'm really glad we did this," Romine said, extending a hand of friendship. "It does a soul good. And to think, people gonna miss out on this great fishing trying to kill a deer."
"I'll put in my time chasing deer, too," I said, "but I think I'm going to spend more time this fall doing this."