Stirring Strikes

Stirring Strikes
Fish hooked awkwardly like this pull harder. What a treat!

I have often stated that lure chunkers like me are ultimately motivated and excited by the act of making fish strike. Fooling wild creatures into confusing a plastic plug with an easy meal satisfies our urges most thoroughly. I like to fight my quarry too; pleasant is the surge of a hefty specimen forging a sharp bend in my feather-light Laguna rod.

But really, unless the trout is of exceptional size, I just want to get it off the line so I can throw my lure back out there and make another one strike. It's why I prefer lures that lend themselves to finesse presentations; I want my subtle efforts to directly impact the attitude of the trout enough to stir them into biting what I'm offering.

Sometimes, a bite is impossible to detect, and a fish is hooked before I realize I've had a strike. At other times, the strike comes in the form of a violent attack. I've had trout nearly loose my rod and reel from my hands several times since I switched to braided line. When a big speck makes a full on rush at a Corky heading straight away, the hookup can seem like grabbing the tail of a runaway racehorse.

My fishing time is spent trying to harness ten pounds of snaggle toothed, gold crusted, polka dotted, eye pleasing power. The most interesting and memorable part of the fight against magnum trout often occurs in the moments just after the hook is set. Mighty fish often display an acrobatic, head-shaking style when responding to the pressure of a hookup. They can move with shocking speed and make unpredictable runs in attempt to remain alive, wild and free.

When I think back over my years of fishing for trophy trout, several unforgettable events inevitably come to mind; most involve strikes, hookups and initial reactions made by big fish.

Below are details related to some of the craziest strikes and fights I've ever seen.

I recall catching a prize-winning trout off a tiny reef tight to a sandy shoreline in West Matagorda Bay in an August Troutmasters event. But what I remember most about that day is the fish I hooked but didn't land. She was the twin to the one I took to the weigh-in. I'd caught the first fish at the tip of the shell hump, and after stringing the twenty-eight incher on the sandy beach, I walked back into the water and began casting past the reef and working my Super Spook through the spot again.

Every mullet that swam toward the reef would turn, leap and flee before passing close to its end. I knew this likely meant there was another fish sitting where the first had been. On the third cast, she rose like an apparition in a bulb of water right under my long white plug, but she didn't commit enough to stick.

I thought I'd lost my chance at her, but I continued to cast back to the spot anyway, hoping she'd give me one more opportunity, and she did. On the tenth cast, she raced off the edge of the oysters with her mouth wide open and jerked my plug off the surface, creating a bright white splash and making a swooshing sound audible over the summer wind.

I raised my rodtip as quickly as I could, and she reacted by turning back toward the reef and thrashing violently in place, her whole body writhing vigorously. Before I could pull her off the shell, she put her head down and I saw her wide black tail stick straight up out of the water when my line fell limp. She'd broken me off on the reef.

Then I knew the agony of watching her swim around with my Spook stuck to the side of her broad purple head. I hope she was able to rid herself of the heavy plug, since she deserved to live after making such a noble and effective effort to disconnect herself from me.

Another colossal trout escaped after a battle between us, but the memory of my tricking her remains with me to this day. I hooked her on a calm, foggy morning, the last day of February, 2005. Two customers and I had been struggling through a slow bite in the slick conditions, but we'd already managed to catch two five pound trout and two thirty inch reds. I knew there were some giant trout in the area and had told the guys that if the wind started to blow just when the moon began to rise, we'd have a chance at a lifetime-best fish.

I'd almost given up on the spot and was heading toward the boat to move to another location when I felt the first hint of a coming breeze brush my cheek. "Keep fishing," I told the others. "The wind just started up and we're not going anywhere at the moment." Right after I said that, a steep wake appeared behind my baby trout Skitterwalk and a bronze back and head showed in a sphere of foam when a redfish tried but failed to pick off its meal.

A few casts later, I saw a trout that looked to be about four pounds do a somersault in the air after attempting to arrest my steadily walking plug. Chuckling, I gave the fish a second chance to come back and attack on that cast, but when it didn't, I reeled quickly in and threw back to a spot perhaps three feet past the site of the original strike and worked the floater through the area. Within inches of the other miss, a virtual volcano of Baffin salt erupted and I watched, amazed, as a trout that looked more like a tarpon blasted out of the water with my Skitterwalk dangling precariously from her lip.

She jumped repeatedly, danced on her tail and shook her torso like a gymnast on steroids while I and my wide eyed clients watched with open mouths. I did all I could to maintain pressure despite the antics of the frenetic creature as she ripped this way and that, leaving a trail of foam and muddy water behind her. After the initial spasm, the fish swam straight at me so fast that I couldn't keep slack out of the line; I had to actually step aside to prevent her from bumping into my legs.

When past me, she began circling steadily away. Hoping to prevent her from turning freaky again, I applied light pressure on her, as is my usual way. She'd gone perhaps seventy five feet when my rod lost its bend and my plug bobbed up to the surface. My heart and stomach then churned as one, and I spent most of an hour trembling, cursing and feeling sorry for myself. I still deeply regret the loss of that fish, but I also realize I was privileged to have witnessed the show she put on after I teased her into taking a bite.

I was able to coax my first thirty inch trout into striking twice. She missed my bone Spook initially, but when I reeled in and threw back at her, she struck again and felt the curve of sharp steel pierce her lip. The blowup of that fish was basic; a textbook ball of foam appeared around my plug, accompanied by the "kablooj" sound a wide mouth makes when cupping water. What was incredible about that catch was the immediate and impressive reaction the nine pounder made when she felt the weight of me and my equipment.

She shot into the air like a rocket, gracefully flying ten, maybe twelve feet to the side, reaching a zenith a full two feet above the gently rippled waters of Baffin Bay. When she landed, she continued racing sideways, seeming to scoot over the surface like a crocodile, slithering and spraying up a sparkling curtain of droplets. The fight of that fish was short-lived, her first attempt at escape so forceful that it exhausted her in a couple of minutes. She rolled on her side and came to hand easily in the end.

The only trout I've ever killed for mounting purposes, she now hangs on the wall above my computer screen. Earlier this year, I caught and released a fish that I'll likely remember forever as having made the strangest and most exciting strike I've ever seen.

We were fishing in crystal clear waters in a dense fog most of the morning, and had caught plenty of fish when the veil lifted to reveal a bright winter sky. I could see then that we were standing in a school of various kinds of fish of different sizes. I spotted some oversized drum, several slot reds, shoals of nervous mullet and dozens of speckled trout too.

Though we'd caught fish under the mists on a variety of plugs, the worm became more effective after the sun came out. I tied on a blue green, glass minnow lookalike, then found myself tossing at the edge of a wide grass bed and catching small keeper trout on nearly every cast.

On the unforgettable pitch, I watched a group of four or five trout gather around my lure. Tickled, I began reeling it a little faster, happy to discover that they'd chase when I did. When I had coaxed them to within about fifteen feet of me, I stopped reeling and let the lure drop, then hopped it sharply back up among the fish. One snapped at it, and I raised my rod to set the hook, but the lure slipped past the fish's lip.

So I hopped it up and down again and another of the fish went for it. That time, I set the hook and watched as the lure dug into the side of the trout's lip. My rod doubled over in a full flex before the hook came loose again. When it did, the straightening graphite whipped the worm right up out of the water in front of me.

Suddenly, on the left periphery of my vision, I glimpsed a silver flash and in an instant, a five pound trout leaped out of the shallows and snatched my worm at least two feet clear of the water's surface! When she tackled the lure mid-flight, I felt a jarring thump, as if my soft plastic had been whacked with a baseball bat. I was already laughing when she splashed down, thrilled by the unlikely event I'd witnessed and happy to pull back as the fat, frightened fish made her spastic attempt at a getaway.

It still baffles me how the fish timed the attack and intercepted the fast-flying worm with such precision. I spent the rest of that day replaying the scene over and over in my head, chuckling out loud as I did. I doubt I'll ever see such a high-flying strike again. Of course, I can't take any credit for a precise presentation in that case. I was the lucky beneficiary of the effects of strong urges that sometimes control schooling fish.

Catching an airborne trout is cool indeed; that statement needs no analysis. But when I do analyze the details of these events, they illuminate some conclusions. I'm reminded that it's important to make repeated casts to a spot once a fish is located. Secondly, these anecdotes show that a fish watching others eat will usually join the frenzy, also that big trout can be caught in the presence of smaller trout.

I've heard trophy trout experts assert that big fish can't be caught among small fish, that the big girls are loners and the search for them often involves leaving schools of lesser fish, but I believe the opposite. Sometimes, catching a bunch of small fish will attract the attention of bigger fish in the area and competitive urges then might make them easier to entice into striking.

It is often simple to attract the attention of fish with a lure but harder to trigger them to strike. Triggering strikes is the most important part of the lure chunking/fish catching equation, once fish are located. Junkies like me are never more satisfied than when fish verify the correctness of our efforts by opening their lips and biting what we present to them.