North Coast Angler
"Blueberry Bass"
By Stephen Papows
Blueberry Bass
I awake in utter silence, restless in my bed. The soft light of pre-dawn filters through winter's breath etched across frozen panes. The traffic sounds are muffled, sparse as they are this time of morning as my wife sleeps soundly next to me, her rhythmic breathing like a metronome. Without even looking I realize it must be snowing. I've always been a light sleeper and a habitually early riser. Attempting to drift back to sleep usually doesn't work for me. Times like this I find myself reminiscing about last year's fishing season and some of my favorite fish. Fishing with artificial lures involves a certain degree of strategy and thoughtful presentation to be successful. It's this chess match that brought me to thinking of a crafty striper, not large, taken in June on light tackle. I named this fish "Blueberry Bass."

The sun rose from a glass flat sea, a filtered red disk promising a hot day, ahead Robbie, my brother-in-law, and Erik, a newcomer that season, were my partners in crime, so to speak. My brother-in-law, was already an accomplished surfcaster in his own right. Erik, a freshwater fisherman in his early life, was still adapting to the salt. As we waded, thigh deep in the water off our first chosen beach, I couldn't help but notice how much his casting had improved. A newly retired teacher, Erik finally had the time to focus on his true passion, fishing. I'd taken an instant liking to him. His enthusiasm was infectious. I had to admit I was a bit jealous of all the free time he'd have on the water. Having him around helped me to focus on all the little things one must do to be successful. As I helped him, so he taught me. Robbie and I both needled him, good naturedly, as we progressed from beach to beach. In our small cadre of surfmen, it was important to possess a thick skin.

The red sun had foretold a warmer than usual day and this was quickly proving to be the case. Lack of wind and the gin clear water made fooling fish difficult. At each spot we managed a meager take of small bass, mostly on topwater lures. As the water warmed in the shallows, working our offerings deeper in the water column proved to be only marginally more successful. I decided to try one more spot before we called it a day. Cressey's Beach is a coarse sand crescent on Gloucester's rock-strewn inner harbor. True to form our first carefully placed casts produced small fish. Our rods were St. Croix Tidemasters, beautifully light, matched with Van Staal reels spooled with ten pound line. This combination made catching even the smallest of fish enjoyable. The hot day was beginning to take its toll on us. Breathable waders are a great invention but after hours of walking, one can still overheat. I wondered if the bass were feeling the heat here in the shallow water.

Glancing to my right, towards the comer of the beach, I noticed a shadow edge, cast on the water, from the high, tree-laden hill behind it. Here might be some relief from the climbing sun. This small pocket was also sprinkled with seaweed-covered rocks, one in particular, quite large. Perhaps a few larger bass may be cruising this area, looking for lobsters. I exited the water and began to make my way towards the shaded area. Looking back I noticed both my partners up on the beach talking to an early morning dog walker. Moving parallel with the largest boulder, my eye caught a glint along its right side at water level. Staring intently through my polarized sunglasses, I caught the glimmer once again. It was the very tip of a fish's tail about three feet out from the rock face. Next, the seaweed, cascading down the boulder, twitched ever so slightly. A smile slowly crossed my lips. I'd witnessed this behavior many times before. This striper was crabbing, sticking its nose among the seaweed, sucking up the small green crabs, hiding in its folds. While snorkeling, I'd once watched a pair of forty pound bass plucking large crabs off of an underwater cliff face in a similar manner. This action reminded me of children, circling a blueberry bush picking the fruit. Hence, the moniker, "Blueberry Bass."

Presentation would be critical in this clear water. I opened up my small Piano box and scanned its contents. I fully expected to get only one cast and it would need to be perfectly placed to avoid spooking my quarry. My first thought was to select a soft plastic and simply cast it on top of the seaweed-covered rock. Once the bass was focused on feeding, I could simply wiggle it through the weed and let it drop naturally into the water. Perhaps this approach might possibly give me a second cast if it was refused the first time. Then my eye caught the bright orange underbelly of a small, blue and chrome popper. It was June, and most, if not all of the female green crabs were ripe with orange roe. These eggs reminded me of the jeweled "protein rich" salmon roe that the Alaskan brown bears love to eat. I snapped the lure on and prepared my cast. Aiming for a spot on the opposite side from which the bass was feeding, I let fly, feathering the line to soften the impact. The bass felt the vibration along its lateral line, moved away from the rock and then slowly turned back and resumed feeding. I took up slack from the cast and glided the plug, slowly to the edge of the seaweed. I let the lure stay perfectly still till all the ripples died out. My intent was to let this striper feed his way around until the plug was in his visual window. Then I would simply wiggle the rod tip slightly, imitating a female crab darting for cover in the weed. The bass slowly circled and noticed the floating orange belly of the plug. I wiggled the rod tip and the lure trembled, ever so slightly, skating into the tendrils surrounding the boulder. God, I thought, I ruined it! The plug fouled in the weed. Before I could decide what to do, the fish struck with a tremendous splash and tail slap. My rod bent over hard and the drag screamed, loudly. There was no need to set the hook. I looked down the beach and yelled loudly, "Fish on!" but Robbie and Erik were already running towards me. The bass headed for another boulder field farther out, full of nasty, barnacled rocks. Quickly, I waded out to the large rock, put the rod in my mouth, and grabbing two fistfuls of seaweed, hauled myself up. My feet gained purchase on its craggy top and I held the rod, high overhead. All the time, the sweet sound of the drag echoed in my ears. Now I could gain proper scope on the line, preventing cut-offs. This fish was in its prime but perched atop the rock, I felt I had the upper hand. Rob and Erik waded out as Erik laughed, "You should have seen your ass sticking up in the air while you tried to climb that rock!" Rob asked, "What is it? A bluefish?" I yelled, "No, it's a nice bass!" and I recanted the story of watching it feed in the clear water. Suddenly, the line angled up sharply and the fish rolled on the surface. "Wow! That fish is a long way out," said Rob. Sounding, the fish headed to my left towards deeper water and the drag spoke, once again. I lowered the rod parallel to the water and pressured in the opposite direction. Slowly I began to gain back line. Changing rod direction, first left, then right, I steered my quarry around the underwater structures. The clear water made this a much easier task. Now it was time to get off my perch. I handed my rod to Robbie and lowered myself, carefully, back into the water. I grasped the outstretched rod and slid the fish slowly towards me. She rolled, her side catching the sun, flashing sliver and iridescent green through the water. My breath caught as I grasped the tail and held tight. Bending over, I gently removed the small plug from the fish's mouth. Posing for a few snapshots, I returned the fish quickly to the water and gently revived her. Slowly, my "Blueberry Bass" swam away out towards deeper water. I smiled and envisioned the snow falling outside my bedroom window and happily drifted back to sleep.

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