July 25, 2008

On the trail of the elusive largemouth black bass

BALLARD POND, Hector, NY, USA - To say I am on the trail of black bass is probably a odd mixing of expressions. Fish live in water, not along trails, though you do have to take a trail in most cases to get to the water where the fish live.

Never mind. It's too early (7 a.m.) to try to explain all that.

But two days ago, I decided to try my luck with my fishing gear at a pond on Searsburg Road, the trail (Road! Road!) to Ithaca, over which we drive often on our way to Ithaca's doctors, dentists and various stores.

Home of the big bass
Ballard Pond - home of the big bass

The Hector/Valois area has lots of small ponds, which are - by reputation - filled with largemouth bass, fish that don't seem to like the cold waters of Seneca Lake. My fishing efforts in Seneca Lake have been mostly unsuccessful, except for catching one small rock bass off the end of the dock. And that bass was way too small to keep.

I rarely catch any fish. Fishing for me has always been about the serenity of sitting by the water, watching the waves, listening to the wind (and the occasional roar of a jet ski) and contemplating the universe. Actually catching fish is such a small part of my equation that it hardly figures at all.

So why not just sit by the water and watch the waves and listen? Why go to all the trouble of hauling a fishing pole around?

Just try it.

People will come by and ask if you are all right, depressed, or in need of someone to talk with. And if you say, "I just like to sit and think," you will trigger a knitted brow of concern and soon your family will begin making worried calls to other family members and before you know it, little pamphlets from doctors will begin mysteriously appearing on the coffee table: "Ten Signs of Depression" or "What to Do when your Spouse seems Sad."

Trust me, just carry the damned fishing pole. You don't even have to bait a hook.

Big bass
The bass on the shore

All that aside, I decided to try grab some serenity at Ballard Pond, taking along a trusty styrofoam container of earthworms for bait. Rabbits bounded around the pond while I cast my line and I was outnumbered 100-1 by huge bullfrogs, who sounded the alarm wherever I stood on the shore of the 1/3 acre pond. It was very Thoreau-like and I wondered if I should re-read Walden this summer.

And then, after about an hour of watching the trees sway in the wind and counting the fauna, my red and white bobber began bob-bob-bobbing around. Each time I would yank the line and each time, no fish, a sign, I was sure, that the pond was filled with small sunfish who love to snack on earthworms but who are generally so small that hooking them is difficult.

I was watching my last cast when the bobber disappeared underwater and the line began peeling off my reel as if I had hooked Bruce the Mechanical Shark from the movie Jaws. And suddenly the serenity of watching the rabbits and frogs and listening to the wind turned into a short contest between me and what turned out to be a 17 1/2 inch largemouth bass.

I mention that number not to brag (though a bass that large in a pond that small is sizable). I mention it because it matches the largest freshwater fish I have ever caught. The last time I caught a 17 1/2 inch bass, I was 10-years-old, fishing off the dock at my Aunt Ethel's house. Why fish there? Well, partly because the fishing was always good and also because my aunt would clean and cook the fish on the spot.

Michael with bass
Another big bass - 50 years later

I was totally unprepared for actually landing a fish at Ballard Pond. My newly purchased stringer was still in a neat plastic wrapper. My fish bucket was safely stored - at the house. I did have my Leatherman pliers, lucky because the hook was firmly set and required mechanical leverage to remove from the mouth of the fish.

So I tossed the fish in the back of our Jeep (in a Costco bag, how's that for mixing metaphors?) and drove back to the house, the bass flopping around.

The fish is cleaned and waiting in the refrigerator for breakfast today, though in a cosmic sense, I am somewhat sad that I yanked this magnificent fellow out of the pond. But here in the country, you eat what you catch or kill. With what I keep reading about global warming and various looming environmental disasters, we might all want to consider nature in a new light.

Cleaning the fish was an interesting experience, too, as I was clueless how to actually fillet the fish once I got it home. The basic 'cut-off-the-head-and-gut' routine I remembered. But dealing with the rest of the bony bass was something I only vaguely remembered - and my best knife for such things is safely in some storage unit somewhere. Perhaps Mexico. Perhaps Sacramento. Perhaps in the back room of the house here. (Oh no!)

John Bills came to my rescue - with his electric carving knife - and promised to give me a lesson on how to clean fish, circa 2008 should I land another.

Technology, it seems, has advanced even in the cleaning of fish in the past 50 years.

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