The largemouth bass increasingly is a man-made fish in man-made water. Hatcheries and dams transported the native bass from its brooding origin amid swamps and sloughs to the glittering confusion of rooster tails and tournament trails. The change was not all bad; indeed, this high profile on massive public waters throughout the Lower 48 established the largemouth bass as “America’s fish.” It is the most important sport fish in the country. Based on the annual tonnage of products and public relations, no other species comes close.
But something has been lost in the transition. The largemouth is not at its best when plodding and milling in open water. The “peck” of a 2-pound bass on a Carolina-rigged worm off a main lake point in 15 feet of water is not what makes the fish great.
What makes the largemouth great is its furious drive from gloom and shadow to maul a surface plug as big as a Chiquita banana. Within its native habitat of shallow bottom and thick vegetation, the largemouth bass is a supreme predator and a magnificent challenge.
The best way to go one-on-one with unreconstructed bass is to step from behind the screen of bass-boat electronics and wade into the heart of the experience. The first and last hours of the day are prime, a return to the darkness of the swamp.
A waist-deep stealth mission against a hushed horizon brings intimate and elemental contact. The moss-covered bottom feels spongy as bubbles of oxygen hiss and pop with each shuffle. The water feels vital, and the near bank flutters and bounces with life-a leopard frog launches with a startled squirt and a slider turtle slants from a log. A displaced blue heron croaks irritably overhead. And, off the point of reeds, the surface humps with the faint promise of a heavy fish.
This is close-quarters combat with a casting rod; you work tight, using the quiet approach and low profile for a surgical strike. The topwater plug lands with a feathered plop alongside the reeds. You wait amid the green and gray and gold until the ripples ooze back into the lake. The lure floats motionless, with froggy eyes peering over the silver glint of a poised propeller.
Still, you wait. Something violent is close. The rod flicks a chatter and twinkle into the lure. And the surface just detonates. You jump. A pair of unseen wood ducks jump. The hooked bass flails sideways into the air and, against the glow, you can see the heavy jaws and the bold gills and the killer eyes.
The moment seems larger than life. And this, minutes from darkness and far from the nearest Carolina rig, is the secret thrill of bass fishing.