A Reverse Bucket List

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Over the past dozen years my writing has opened doors that enabled me to experience all sorts of incredible fishing trips. I’ve fished for peacock bass in the Amazon (twice, with a third trip on the schedule), tigerfish on Africa’s Lower Zambezi River, redfish in Venice and cutthroat trout in Montana. I’ve spent three days practicing with KVD on the California Delta and multiple days on St. Clair with a two-time PMTT Champion. I’ve taken off my shoes to fish in AMart’s boat on a private lake in Georgia, and I was there to see Rick Clunn’s most recent victory at St. Johns. Last year I made a trip to East Texas where I got to fish with four different Classic qualifiers (Keith Combs, Clark Reehm, Albert Collins and Lonnie Stanley) on three exceptional lakes – when two great days on Rayburn are the least productive days of the five, you can call it a trip of a lifetime.

In other words, lots of bucket list experiences.

I have plenty more planned, including a return to Venice in a couple of weeks, another Brazilian adventure next summer and a few more wildcards that are still in the planning stages. Once you’ve tasted the “trip of a lifetime” cocktail, it becomes an addiction. As long as my health is ok, the opportunities exist, I don’t risk getting fired from the day job and the checks don’t bounce, I doubt that the next big trip will ever be far from my mind.

Bucket list trips become a drug, and in order to maintain the high it’s sometimes necessary to top the last one, and that means always looking for places that are harder to reach, fish that are stronger, and scenes that pull you into the picture years after you see them.

The downside to this tidal wave of opportunity – if, indeed, anyone could find a cloud in this silver lining -- is that it occasionally leads to a situation where finding Facebook-worthy fish and scenery trumps the actual experience itself. While results matter, process does, too, and it’s easy to look down on less than world-class conditions as not worth the effort. I suppose that’s why my dream boat, purchased in April, has so few hours on it (Note to potential future buyers: this one has been BABIED]. It also makes it easy to bail on a bad situation, or to turn an otherwise fun day into a disappointment because it doesn’t measure up to its maximum potential.

That’s why this past Friday, despite being a bust by most conventional measures, was so important to me.

For the first time in a long time, I just wanted to spend a day in a boat by myself trying to figure something out. With a major storm approaching, I knew that there was a chance the fish would bite ahead of it. I also knew that they might not, and that my only takeaway would be wet clothing and a miserable drive home.

I woke early and had the boat in the water before 6:30, long ahead of daylight. There were no other trailers in the parking lot.

When I pulled the boat out nine hours later, I was still alone. Everyone else had been wise enough to avoid the incoming nor’easter, and that thrilled me, because although the fishing wasn’t all that good for me, the will to fish was reinvigorating.

From the start it seemed that things would be good. I caught a near 4-pounder on a Whopper Plopper 10 minutes after making my first cast. Then things got slow. And slower. I went shallow, deep and mid-depth. I graphed fish. I looked in places familiar and new. The result – very little. Two more small bass and a couple of half-assed strikes.

At 11 o’clock, as the rain intensified and the wind picked up, I slowed down to fish a brush pile I’d marked. Slowly. Then with reaction baits. Nothing. But then, like pennies from heaven, the surface started to be disrupted, but the splashes were more like cinderblocks than pennies. Stripers were busting all around me and it took two turns of the reel handle before my Plopper got smoked. That continued for maybe 15 minutes, my ability to catch them only limited by my ability to unhook the slimy suckers.

If I’d been fishing a tournament or practicing for a tournament, they would have been an annoyance, but I wasn’t, so I could enjoy the pull – as the flyrodders say, “the tug is the drug.” I wanted to see if I could handle them on lighter line, so I grabbed a spinning rod and fired out a 3-inch swimbait on a jighead. Hooked up immediately. That was a mistake, though, because it took so long to tire them that it allowed the school to dissipate. I caught a few that way, and then they were gone.

I stayed in the area, waiting for them to fire up again. Nada. I idled around looking for them and never found the stripers or the shad. No sign. They’d vanished, and had there not been little piles of striper scales in the bottom of the boat, I would’ve thought that I was delirious. I was not, though, just riding a high. I didn’t keep any stripers, but just getting bit, being in the midst of a frenzy that I’d neither planned for nor precipitated, will be one of my favorite memories of this year – and it happened close to home, in my own boat, on a nothing-special lake on a Friday when someone smarter than me would’ve stayed home.