Never trust a weatherman.
There was time in my life when I took pride in my ability to predict the weather. Growing up in the Midwest and spending an extraordinary amount of time outdoors, I’d seen the good and bad of placing faith in the local forecaster. Often, I found it more reliable to take matters into my own hands.
The Great Lakes are famous for weather events that happen far offshore and never materialize on the mainland. I can remember dozens of times when short-sleeved Sandusky visitors played at Cedar Point while those of us on Erie donned hooded sweatshirts and double rainsuits. Coming into the ramp at the end of the day, we’d strip down and hang our wet gear all over the trailered bass boats, like box car-riding hobos. Quite the scene.
In any case, a guy with a little know-how and a good dose of experience could watch the sky around that area and get a handle on what to expect. Storms generally moved west to east, fronts came from the north and southwest winds brought mild air and summer thunder. You had some warning.
Any knowledge of the weather or its predictability went out the window when I moved to Florida. Here, danger can come from any direction. Quite often, it rains on my house and not across the street. Literally. Hurricane season is six months long, and I’m the only guy I know who’s been through a tornado.
So, when it comes to fishing, you have to be ready for anything. That’s a house rule I reminded myself of as I shivered on Orange Lake.
I had debated leaving behind the flannel shirt with a forecast of 65 and sunny but, staring down a misty 48, I was thankful to have it. If only I’d packed better.
Now, you’re not supposed to complain about the weather when you bass-fish in Florida. I hear this all the time. Visitors sing the same tunes. “Could be worse.” “At Least it’s not snowing.” “Hey, it’s 16 degrees right now in Milwaukee.”
I don’t care what the weather’s doing in Milwaukee. Had I been going fishing in Milwaukee, I’d have packed more than a flannel shirt. Had I never listened to the weatherman, I ‘d have dressed like I was in, well, Milwaukee. One look outside should have clued me in.
There was nothing to do about it now. My companion had two days to fish, then it was back to a snowstorm. Fish, we would.
The first fish was a chain pickerel, known as a jack around here. Back when I was a kid, guides would take pride in killing jacks and you’d see a few floating from time to time, before the gators got them. I don’t kill any fish unless I plan to eat it. Even then, for a minute, I feel bad for some. But that quickly goes away.
I love to eat fish. And I must admit that bass fishing now competes for my attention with saltwater fishing, where my primary goal is to supplement my freezer. This double interest is common practice among Floridians. Most hardcore sportsmen I know in these parts dip their toes in both fresh and saltwater. And, like most of the other guys, my bass bug seems to bite the hardest this time of year. It finally turns cold. Those days you’d wish for as a kid, where the sky is baby blue, winds are calm and the sun warm, remind me of how much fun it can be when a bass picks up a worm and swims toward the boat.
Winter is prespawn. Orange Lake is the place to catch the biggest fish of your life. I told myself this over and over while slightly shaking. Today certainly wasn’t a day for the tourist reel.
I’d spent time in my life in climates so severe, you wouldn’t believe my stories. You haven’t been cold until you’ve ice-fished when it’s blowing 25 and temps hover around zero, no shelter or windbreak but your parka, miles from the nearest tree. That, my friends, is cold.
It’s also cold when you stand in waist-deep water in the middle of Lake St. Clair in January, waiting for a duck. Or when you spend a November night casting into the darkness from the Huron pier in Ohio, hoping a school of behemoth walleyes would come along to break the monotony, which happens only often enough to call you back the next night. You blow the ice out of your rod tip every other cast.
So bass fishing in Florida is much less severe, by those standards. But it was damn cold today.
The first bass was a quick 2-pounder, followed by a small fish turned bigger half way back to the boat, and suddenly we had a 5-pounder on the board. That was good sign. Worth a quick picture on a day like this.
Even in the crappy conditions, the fish seemed to be biting and we’d found a spot out of the wind, milking it for all it was worth. There were ducks everywhere, mostly divers and ringnecks that came from somewhere around my old stomping grounds to again haunt me. These birds are easier to dismiss than mallards. Mallards will call to you at night, in your dreams, gigantic masses dropping from the heavens against a backdrop of light snow. You’ll hear them; swear to God that they’re outside the bedroom door as you drift to sleep.
Walleyes won’t call to you. Surprisingly to most, smallmouth bass never called to me, either. But Orange Lake still does.
We needed a boat move and that required a run through choppy waters. I gave that up some time ago, my boat now a rattly aluminum without even a way to strap the trolling motor. But we went for it anyway and the new area gave us hope. It had potential. Lots of water, a mass of sloughs running this way and that. Not surprisingly, we were the only boat around, with the exception of a noisy airboat probably shuttling hunters in appropriate attire to a blind where a Thermos of coffee would pull their hands from their pockets.
Back to reality, as something large was chasing my partner’s shiner. Water sprayed as the fish positioned the big bait against the bank. Then, the giant bass, oblivious to the dreary day and dropping water temps, made a summer-like surge as she crashed through the flooded reeds and water willow. The fish engulfed the shiner, immediately heading for deeper water as my partner’s line drew tight. Streaking across the rear, from starboard to port, line lifted over the outboard as it cut through the water at a rate only seen when pursuing the saltwater greats, the surge of the massive tail stooping my angler over, the rod now pointing horizontal as the monster pulled.
From reaction, I considered the danger in allowing the bass to take the flex from the rod but, before I could bark advice, the fight was over. The hook had pulled.
Our entire day, the nasty wind and spitting rain, the miserable boat ride and prayers of a warmer coat, all had been vindicated, then lost, in 20 seconds.
We’d keep at it. Never would the sun poke through, or the temperatures moderate. For a brief minute, the wind would subside, leading my partner to reflect on how things may be coming together, only to return with a vicious howl that put us both turning our backs.
Better than Milwaukee, yes. Where the dreams and existence of that giant bass were created.
(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.)