Calling an audible for fish No. 500

The spring-like stretch of weather we enjoyed in early November in Wisconsin was projected to come to an abrupt end, thanks to an approaching cold front. I knew I had to get out bass fishing one more time before the smallmouth bass likely went into winter mode for the remainder of the year. 

I took an early lunch break and drove over to the local bait shop where I acquired roughly 18 large fathead minnows. I got back in the truck fully intending to head to the flats, a spot where I had enjoyed some decent success the evening prior. But as I headed back east, my mind began to wander.

As things stood, I had 481 fish for the year. I was quickly approaching the old bike trail, a spot that had been quite polarizing throughout the season. When it was good, it was one of the best spots I had in my pocket. But when things were slow, you could be in for a long day. 

Given how active the fish at the flats seemed to be, I decided to take a gamble that they would be even more active in a spot that was just as shallow and featured even slower-moving water. If there was a chance that I could haul in 19 fish on lunch break, this was the only place I could think of to make that happen. 

I told myself I would give it 10 minutes to feel out the situation. I didn’t even bother bringing my water bottle or my full tackle box down from my truck. I descended the stairs and got to work. 

Quickly, the fatheads on bottom rigs began producing bites. However, the first few fish were easily able to skirt the hook. 

After an early snag, I decided to switch one of the rods over to a weightless minnow setup. That proved to be the ticket. At first, the bites were nearly instant. Bronze flashes began appearing from the deeper pockets almost as soon as the minnow began its initial descent. In short order, I was up to six fish. 

But it became apparent that I had a problem. Thanks to the vigor of each strike, my fish-to-minnow ratio was all out of whack. A few of the more aggressive smallies were able to rip the minnow off the hook by the tail, avoiding the barb and swimming away. The fish that stuck hit the bait so hard that it drove the minnow up the shank of the hook and onto the line. During the ensuing fight, the minnow would rip off the line and float downriver. 

At this point, I still had my doubts that 19 fish in this short timeframe was actually an attainable number. But it was beginning to seem like more of a possibility. 

As I reached into my dwindling supply of fatheads, I scooped up the largest minnow in the bucket. It was easily double the size of the second-largest minnow in my possession, quite possibly triple. While it was highly unlikely that the smaller bass I had been catching were up to the task of inhaling this monster minnow, I reassured myself that a much larger bass, should one be in the area, would probably find this quite tempting. 

I tossed a short cast downriver into the small pocket in front of me. As I began my series of short pops, the minnow came into view. Lo and behold, a sizable smallmouth appeared from behind a rock near the bank and began steamboating its way toward my bait.

I saw the flash, felt the tension, and set the hook. Connection! The fish screamed toward the middle of the current and took a hard left back downriver. One more big head shake and it was gone. 

It was a perfect microcosm of my day to this point. No trouble finding fish, plenty of trouble keeping them hooked. 

After I was done feeling sorry for myself, I dinked and dunked my way to 13 fish before my minnow supply ran dry. Even as this hurdle presented itself, I already had my mind set that I wasn’t leaving this spot until I had my 500 fish for the year. 

The way I saw it, I had three options: I could swallow my pride and head back to the bait shop for more minnows (though that would take precious time I didn’t really have. Remember, I was on lunch break). I could run to the local gas station and scoop up some nightcrawlers and hope enough fish were in full-on summer mode that I could cross the finish line that way. Or, I could dig in my tackle box and try to find the right artificial bait. 

No matter which path I chose, I was likely headed back to my truck. But before I made the trek up the hill to the parking lot, I rifled through my fishing backpack. And there it was: old reliable – a black and silver floating Rapala F7. The OG of stick baits. The subtle wiggle action matched with an appearance that closely matched the minnows I was just using made this a no-brainer. The second I saw that lure, I knew it was my best chance to pull this off. 

So I tied the Rapala on and got to it. I began by working the pocket that produced most of my fish. I was just utilizing a simple straight retrieve at a relatively slow pace, as I worked against the current. 

The first cast produced a fish. And let me tell you, after 45 minutes of losing fish left and right on a single hook, it was sure nice to be fishing with a pair of treble hooks.

Two casts later, I hooked up again. Four fish to go. I was going to reach my goal. I could feel it in my bones. 

But then the action slowed down. Twenty or 30 casts passed without a strike. I began second-guessing my technique. I switched things up to start-and-stop retrieve. Give it a few cranks, quick pause. Three more cranks, quick pause. Maybe an added twitch here or there if the situation warranted. The change of pace quickly yielded another fish. 

Things promptly slowed down again. My head was spinning at this point, second-guessing everything from my bait choice, to my retrieve, to my location. Could the well really run dry this close to the finish line?

I scored one more fish on the straight retrieve before I decided to head downriver a bit. I had not pulled a fish out of this portion of the river, but I had seen plenty of action there when I witnessed a handful of smallie feeding frenzies during the summer months. 

After a few casts, a nice fish emerged from the depths and feigned a sluggish attempt at a bite in the general direction of my lure. It missed. I started to become concerned the fish were shutting off. Rain was imminent and the temperature was dropping slightly. 

I slid downriver to a place I had moderate success at in the summer. I had a hunch the rocky shoreline structure was still holding fish. 

I began the retrieve on my first down current toss and almost immediately felt weight. Bingo! One to go. 

Another toss to a similar position yielded a quick bronze flash and a missed connection. I began working the slower pockets to no avail. I then put the bait in a seam between the current and the slack water and there it was. Fish No. 500 made its way to shore. It was by no means a monster, but it was undoubtedly a trophy to me. 

I snapped a quick picture and sent the fish back on its way. Even though I needed to get back to my desk, I tossed out one final cast. And, sure enough, it came back with a fish on it.

Twenty smallmouth bass in the course of lunch break in mid-November. Definitely not the way I expected to cross my desired fish count threshold. 

Ironically, one of the places I found the most difficult to solve throughout the season proved to be the key piece in me reaching my coveted milestone.

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