By Paul Crawford
Southeastern Staff Writer
"Doin' any Good?" (Of course that's the time-honored question every angler hears whenever he encounters a fellow angler on the water.)
"Picked up about five comin' down that grass line but they were all pretty small," I grinned back as I unhooked the second 10-inch bass I'd caught in the last five casts. "I was on threes and fours in here last week."
I noticed that even with my newfound friend working a worm in along a submerged row of hydrilla a few yards behind me, he was now drifting along with the 15 mph breeze I'd been riding. I suspected this was not going to be a short encounter.
The day was drop-dead gorgeous for anyone other than a fisherman. It was about four in the afternoon on the second day after a cold front which dropped water temperatures about seven degrees and had every bass in this part of Florida pulling their disappearing act. The blue bird skies were doing their part to ensure the bass vacation lasted as long as possible. It was only the surface ripples that created a "low light" condition and the absurdity of wasting a 70- degree day anywhere except on the water that had attracted me out of my post-cold front hidey-hole. I knew perfectly well that the Rule Book was strict on today's sole successful option: flipping heavy cover. But hey, today was about fun fishing and both 10-inchers and 10-pounders counted as "1".
I noticed my new buddy was precisely parallel snugly behind me as he responded, "Yeah, they're still in here but you have to slow down to get 'em. Do any good earlier?"
"I'm just getting out here," I volunteered. "You know, trying out a couple of new things. And you?" I wondered just what this guy was on if he knew you had to slow down but was keeping me covered in the wind like a rival's yacht in an America's Cup race. My attention was suddenly redirected by an overly ambitious 7-incher that had grabbed my bait and was presently making a beeline toward Miami. Just call me Dinky. Man, I've seen this movie before!
When last we left our intrepid hero (me) I had allowed an insidious new 3.5-inch swim bait to refocus my bass fishing endeavors from tournament success to introducing my grandchildren to the Joys of Dinks. Wildly successful in our Florida waters, the Yamamoto Swim Bait had a knack of giving you 50 fish days while simultaneously preventing anything much over two pounds from bothering you a bit. This made the swim bait highly suspect for tournament use but provided a perfect tool for Introduction to Artificial Baits for grandkids and others of high interest but short attention span.
Where the Swim Bait had more or less snuck through the back door in the Saltwater Series, today's new Swimming Senko enters through the Grand Ballroom having already accounted for Big Paychecks for the Boss who prototyped it on the professional tour last season. It clearly does look like a compromise bait to even the most casual observer, distinctly being our favorite little swim bait hitching a ride on the back half of our beloved Senko. The question I had was this: is the total package more than the sum of the parts?
Of course it would also be nice to try slow, fast, jerk bait style, walk-the-dog, front-weighted, mid-weighted, or any other presentation I could come up with. Still, even starting with very limited knowledge of rigging in the local conditions, it's always fun to be the first to show up at the ramp with a new bait that really works. Even in its first hour on my water, this thing worked!
Any illusions I had that my new shadow was simply trying to figure out what I was throwing were quickly dispelled as I reached the end of the drift and pointed the trolling motor to more open water. The presentation I was working on, derived from my Swim Bait experience, was a simple weightless Texposed rigging on a 3/0 Owner Wide Gap hook with the most basic chunk and wind retrieve that my grandson had taught me. Even though it seemed too simple, a straight retrieve with the tail working just under the surface appeared to out-produce jerks, pauses, drops, or top breaking commotion. It had the real advantage of covering a tremendous amount water; a privilege previously limited to crankbaits or buzz baits. But unlike the others, the Swimming Senko did not appear to require particularly aggressive fish, only that fish be in the area. At least it was great theory going in.
As I moved toward open water on my trolling motor, I was just a little surprised to see The Shadow forego trying his luck on my dinks but instead continue to chuck his worm while continuing parallel and only giving navigational way begrudgingly. Polite but assertive I think is the term. I'd hate to see him on tournament day. Suspicions of protecting a hot spot were calmed, however, when he explained he'd been here for six hours with two bites, one of them seeming to be a good fish. Well, you couldn't deny his persistence and determination. I kicked my tolling motor up a bit trying to respect his spot and move towards the scattered cover several yards out from our previous paths.
The familiar Boat Dance (as verses Bill Dance?) emerged while we chatted. I trolled forward, casting back at my own used water and The Shadow did the same, both of us politely ignoring our increasing speed as we went. I started to suspect the High Validity Value of The Shadow's information as he explained how he'd found this very spot a week ago Sunday boating several five to seven-pound fish. For my part I politely ignored the fact that I had cashed a 2nd place check that particular day in a pot tournament taking a nice 18 pound limit out of here over 6 ½ hours on a Carolina rigged Senko and flipping craws to the surrounding heavy cover. I didn't recall seeing him here that day, but hey, maybe I was concentrating too hard or had my days mixed up. Anyway, I tried to hide the smile as the Swim Senko seined up an almost respectable 13 -incher that I'd missed on my first pass. "Maybe they're starting to turn on," I commented.
Now this really was a textbook perfect place for this particular water level on the rapidly re-emerging Lake Toho. The mixture of reeds, knot grass and rushes dotted a three to five foot flat interrupted with scatter balls of hydrilla continually filtering the crystal clear water. You'd be hard pressed to find a better spot anywhere for sight oriented baits. The only problem I've had around crystal clear water is that, like its namesake, it's very fragile and shatters easily. A high wind stirring things or driving in stained water; a change in water level and therefore filtering capacity; season changes effecting weed mix or different growth rates in the vegetation changing the ratios; there are thousands of little things that can move your spot from the penthouse to the outhouse seemingly overnight.
In the case of this little honey hole it was fishing pressure over the last couple of months. The spot was unique but somewhat obvious meaning everybody and their mother found these concentrated fish and hammered them unmercifully, including of course my Shadow and me. Even in community spots, if the conditions are right, a new and different bait or presentation can almost make fish before your very eyes. When things come together such as they were doing for me that day, the smile almost had to be surgically removed.
Another activity with high Humor Value is the Boat Dance when approached with a suitable mindset. In this particular case, The Shadow was attempting to keep me discretely pinned against the reed line by racing to stay just ahead, slowing down so I couldn't cut behind, all while chunkin' a plastic worm as far ahead of his boat as possible, and a worm cast with ever-increasing velocity I might add. While The Shadow was doing a very credible job of occupying a hundred feet or so of water while not encroaching on me, I still had my not-so-secret weapons. The first fact in my favor was that the Swimming Senko casts like a dream even in a wind allowing me to cover as much water as anything you could throw. The second fact was that the Swimming Senko's slender profile easy slides through the heaviest of cover leaving a fish to be about the only thing that will interrupt your retrieve. And the third factor was my 109-pound thrust, 36v trolling motor with weed eater prop that will almost put my boat on plane in high. Current race conditions were leaving a very respectable wake behind us as we rocketed into the wind far faster than we had drifted down it.
We continued to chat as we scooted along into the wind. Never once did The Shadow ask what I was throwing or note that we were moving pretty fast for sluggish fish. Finally my trolling motor prevails and he abruptly turned towards open water and slowed down. I made good my escape from the bank and wasn't 20 yards off the weed line when a cast towards open water was rewarded with a healthy little football of about 2 lbs. "They must be turning on around here," I grinned towards the Shadow. Far from a friendly response, The Shadow pulled up his trolling motor, dropped the hammer on the big motor and did a fast idle drive by heading back for the dock - so much for the Brotherhood of Fishermen. Well, at least it gave me a more relaxed chance to experiment and I was ready for some nighttime action anyway.
I tried a number of different hook sizes with the Swimming Senko. For a solid hook, I liked a 5/0 Wide Gap Offset Owner or a 5/0 EWG Super Line hook. This was mostly due to the windy nature of the day. I could easily quarter the wind then let the wind loop whip the bait over the surface before settling down at a controllable speed. Since the tail provided plenty of drag I wasn't too worried about being balanced. I found that for best hook up percentage, especially with the dinks, a 4/0 Owner Worm Saver hook was hard to beat. It provided the casting weight but the pinned pivot of the front stake let them easily expose metal for solid hook ups. I'd been packing the Worm Savers as my favorite hook for presenting Kut-Tail worms like a soft jerkbait. I guess I'd better stock up since the Swimming Senko is destined to spend considerable time on my rod tip this year.
I was surprised at how many fish would chase it down in the wind and blast it as it slowed. Most were small and aggressive, but a couple of decent fish participated in the party. The best daytime fish came at dusk with a five pounder knocking it into next Tuesday. The bite slowed as darkness fell and I started to have my doubts if the subtle tail action would attract big nighttime fish. It was merely my impatience. I tied up a Black/Blue Flake version of the Swimming Senko (color 021) around 9:00 p.m. and the big girls came out to play. After the fifth fish between 3 ½ to just under 6 pounds I was convinced that at least for these conditions, the Swimming Senko lived up to all the billing.
At 10:15, I was on the trailer and heading home with ten or eleven legal fish having been in the boat up to six pounds and a slew of dinks thrown in to keep the entertainment value high. Not too shabby for a tough day on the water.
Now that we established that the Swimming Senko would work some places, the next question was how would it compare to good baits in less than ideal water? I tried to think of how to construct a fair test and hit on a rather brilliant idea (if I do say so myself). There aren't that many Senko specialists in Florida but one guy I knew consistently seemed to load the boat using Senkos. If my new bait could impress him, then we had something.
I put in the call to Imagination Guide Service and got hold of George Welcome. George is as good as it gets for guides around these parts. He was fishing his native Florida waters way before they even thought about the Mouse House. Along with Scott, one of his sons, the past few years George has been treating his customers to the fabulous bassing that Farm 13 has to offer. If there was anyone in Florida that spent more time with Senkos or had more confidence in them than yours truly, it had to be George.
After a quick conversation, George graciously asked me to share his boat on a scouting trip where we could put the new baits to the test. We picked what was supposed to be a rather windy, cloudy day that saw us starting out just behind a heavy night rain. The conditions cleared, the wind kicked up, and the day got predictably challenging. Rather than the 30 M.P.H. float around the Farm, we opted for Blue Cypress for at least a little protection from the wind. Blue Cypress is a rather under-pressured lake a few miles from its famous cousin. It is devoid of open water cover featuring a wide swath of scatter rim grasses and tannic stained water from the namesake cypress trees dotting the shoreline.
If you ever want to see fishing raised to an art form, watch George work a Senko through the grass. He opts for a very light 2/0 hook which help keeps the Senko on top for his walk-the-dog retrieve. It's simply beauty in motion and an irresistible target for shallow bass. He'd put three in the boat before I could blink. If you can bat clean up behind George, you've done something.
We worked the scattered maiden cane as we gossiped about old and new friends. We spent some pleasant hours discussing bass eyesight. George is a degreed Biologist and I am an Engineer so we're both rightfully entitled to be rather anally retentive about our passion for fishing. A brilliantly obvious lecture to no one was punctuated with fish crashing our baits out of the grass. I was having trouble keeping them stuck while George had his rhythm down perfect. Finally I calmed down and adjusted and we traded theories and fish for a very pleasant morning.
When we put it on the trailer, a dozen or more fish up to about 2 ½ pounds had been boated with us about tied on numbers and size for the day. Being a true professional guide, I suspect George took some finely timed breaks in the action to allow me to retain some dignity but I'll take it! I left some Swimming Senkos and the new large (5-inch) Swim Baits for George to field test for me and headed back to Orlando, excited as a kid at Christmas. The Swimming Senko hadn't out-fished the Senko, but had held its own with the Gold Standard for those conditions. What more could you ask for?
Since those heady first days, the Swimming Senko has proven itself in a number of conditions and has become my go-to bait for locating fish in shallow clear water. It works wonderfully in both open water and heavy cover with a retrieve my grandkids love. That it loads the boat is really a matter of perception. It will easily catch at least as many decent fish as anything else you can throw, but in addition will load you up with dinks. You never know what is going to hit next, just that it will hit with violence. With the mix of fish sizes, it seems like you loaded up the boat even when the actual numbers of tournament grade fish is good but not exceptional. But the fun factor is off the scale and the fish quality is such that nobody should start counting the money before you weigh in. Who could ask for anything more?