Looking back, I vividly recognize different phases of my life through bass fishing.
I guess it starts with my teenage years. Sure, Iíd fished earlier, but it was mainly farm ponds and family trips. Nothing against all that, but my most meaningful recollections of fishing always include isolation. Iíve never really figured out why.
When I was finally old enough to drive, I found myself immersed in a national forest near my home. There, Iíd mapped out a half-dozen ponds where I could escape the world and concentrate on bass fishing. Hidden gems found on an old Gazetteer. This was way before Google Earth and satellite images that make it easy. Iíd trek through the forest, hoping the little blue dot on the map was indeed water, accessible by foot and containing bass. Every now and then, it was.
I quickly became obsessed with remote fishing locations. There, Iíd spend hundreds of hours each summer discovering. To this day, Iím sure I could lead you down a muddy path through the woods to a place where I once landed a 24-inch bass from shore. I can still see the bait: a 7-inch hand-poured worm with a blueish vein running through the brown body. I think the weight was an eighth.
Yet, I canít remember the names of any of my college professors. Or most of the subjects, for that matter.
But I can still feel the way the air felt around that little pond, on those early spring days when Iíd hope I was in time, but not too early. Praying when you got out of the truck that the water didnít get too muddy when the ice went out, or that the ice was even off the pond all the way, because the back corner stays frozen in the shade later than the pond down the street. You donít even remember parking the truck, so you check again to make sure you didnít lock your keys in like last year.
From there, my mind always jumps to Lake Erie. There was a lot of time in between, but that next phase, the next story of isolation, comes when Erie was the place to be to make a few bucks. With little to go on from a brief pass through corporate America, and only a part-time gig working boat shows, local bass tournaments offered the chance for a weekend paycheck.
It wasnít long before I determined the best way to win was to find what no one else had. Erie was limitless at that time. No mapping chips. No imagery. GPS was a blank canvas just starting out.
I always think back to a particular day. There was nothing unique about it really, but I just remember how calm the lake was, and how I hadnít seen another fisherman and I was out there idling around in the summer haze so far from any land that the lake was really an ocean. And it was hot and the middle of the week and the only other guy I saw was on a Canadian net boat. I felt so alive out there. Nothing else in the world mattered.
That night, I laid down in the back of the truck. I hadnít had a shower or change of clothes, really, in a couple days. It started to rain and I slept with those crazy dreams, freezing until I woke enough to crank the truck and get a little heat. Maybe a week would go by and I wouldnít talk to anyone other than a quick "good morning" at the gas station.
And then a few years later Ė and a bunch more money on the line. The practice routine just about kills you. Thereís never enough time. But, after the meeting, the work would begin again and the clock would start ticking. Ten, 8, 6 hours. Four hours until itís time to get up, but the tackle prep just got finished and who could sleep at a time like this?
The lights out, you lay there again and again rehearsing tomorrowís performance. Alone.
Those days are behind. Now its noise and constant interaction. Itís networking and social and Zoom and connection.
But not tomorrow. Tomorrow is a boat ride down a river, on a day so hot that everyone else calls it by 11. Wrapped head to toe like a mummy. You bend over to pull out another rod and the sweat runs off your hat in a stream.
The rational fisherman would never even attempt it, knowing that the best chance at a bass is early and late. Everythingís tucked in this time of day. So you flip and flip, not really caring what you catch, just entranced by the sound of summer cicadas and the frogs enjoying their day, like you, without people or noise. Deafened by the silence. Interrupted only by a heron or a gator wondering what youíre doing there, instead of back in civilization with the rest of the people so apparently attracted to each other. Itís a dream-like time when you watch yourself from somewhere else. Somewhere above.
But then, like every other time, the clock runs out. Immediately, you check back and try to find more time for one more spot, or another day to come back. Back to the world that consumes the real you.
At the truck, I consider just pulling the boat out and sleeping it off. Service comes back to my phone, and Iím no longer alone.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)