Cracking open the storage tub gave a bit of a pirate feel. The label indicated logbooks inside, and there they were, much like I’d packed them away years before. Sure, there’s a little excitement taken out when you uncover treasure that you’d buried yourself, but I always welcome a trip down memory lane. My life in fishing has been one of many chapters. What started as an obsession with neighborhood ponds later transferred to Ohio lakes, then the Greatest of lakes, until coming to rest in the backwaters of central Florida.
I’d logged each episode. When clearing my life of a previous chapter, I’d always retained the logs, invaluable for the information and experience contained within. And I’d reviewed logbooks from others: notes jotted down by my father, the obscene accounts of a California big bass hunter in the heyday of Castaic, even a few excerpts from a finesse guru with a knack for infallible data collection.
Our best chance to become better fishermen is through time on the water. The use of logbooks is a close second.
I can’t begin to explain how valuable this information has been. Throughout my period as a Great Lakes tournament competitor, I would review my catch records every evening before a tournament or important practice period. Every time.
Looking back now, some 20 years later, I recalled how a friend and I landed a 27-pound stringer of smallmouth on a day when only a hair jig would get a bite, the fish ignoring our favorite tubes and blade baits. A few years later, that would solve a problem a lot quicker. I see where I “sight-culled” in a big tournament, in too much of a hurry to dig out my scale, later losing by less than an ounce. That wouldn’t happen again. I reviewed how I logged run times, allowing myself to maximize my fishing day based on conditions, even “practicing a run” once across 60 miles of open lake.
I noted the catches of others as they spilled the beans on the weigh-in stage, leading me to look in a little different direction a few years later. I see how the big lake would muddy on certain sides of islands, and clear up quicker on others. How St. Clair bass spit up crawdads around the full moon of September, drawing every bass in the lake to one particular area. There’s note of a spot where I won two big tournaments – occurring eight years apart – and never caught a bass from the reef anytime in between. Good thing I checked my notes.
When I first got my hands on the trophy hunter’s logbook, I was overwhelmed. How would I quantify or pattern something that lasted 30 years? Computer software was the obvious answer, and I first took on the tedious role of logging the logs. A few things initially jumped off the pages. One, giant bass catches seemed to nearly always go in streaks. Periods of time when the big bass guru and his buddies would log incredible catches; three 10-pounders in one day, or five fish weighing 55. A nine-day stretch that never went without a double-digit fish. At first, I assumed this was due to effort; dedicated trophy hunters making hay when the sun was shining. But later I found the same streaks around the slumps. Full days without a fish. A whole week with just one 4-pounder. Recollecting, I’d been there myself.
And, while I’m certainly not going to profess that I found the key to unlocking the big bass mystery, I did come across one undeniable factor: the moon. As we’ve discussed time and again within our bass fishing culture, the phase of the moon, without a question of a doubt, can indicate the chances of coming in contact with a giant bass. After logging decades of catch records for my big bass buddy, I found that the vast majority of the catches in his boat occurred around positive phases of the moon: full, new or the exact day of the quarter phase.
I’d known this, or wanted to. But the logbook confirmed it.
The power of logging fish catches is a result from our own deficit in thinking. In just about everything we do, human beings have a tendency to tell themselves what they want to hear. As bass anglers, as we experience positive results, we mold those into a pattern or rule. And, by the end of the day, our top experiences have a tendency to overshadow the others. Then, by the conclusion of another season or two, the memories take over and overshadow what may be statically greater, in terms of fish catches.
For instance, I’ll never forget that day with the hair jigs. But, after review of a decade of notes, I can see, without question, that I caught far more fish on other lures at that time of year. The experiences just weren’t as cool.
For a while, I put everything on spreadsheets. True, it’s the best way to keep organized. I can even go in and grab certain files based on date or location, further refining my search for the answers. I keep photos in the same file folder, adding to the info. Often, it’s the notes beside the catch that lead me down the right path, although not always instantly.
I see here a record of a small lake I visited and caught nothing. Assured the bass population was low, it wasn’t until I found an area with vacant beds that I began to question my thinking. Two years later, I’d be back, though much earlier in the season, and hit the jackpot on aggressive cruisers in the same area. The lake is now my pre-spawn favorite. Where those fish go afterwards, I still don’t know.
In Florida, the seasons have a tendency to blend together. A note about schooling bass came with the headline “should have been here yesterday”. It seems I was always late to the party, the newly located bass getting much more difficult to catch after a week or two of pressure. Not so any more, Thanks to the log, I’m out scouting each year in February, often a little early, but occasionally right on the money.
I’ve found springtime bass move shallow around the same calendar date, regardless of temperature. I’ve noted how smallmouth actually prefer wood before they gather on rocks. I’ve recorded how big Florida bass bite best around suppertime. How emerald shiners show up after the first cold fronts of August. When the mayflies hatch first, and last. And the overwhelming best time of day to fish the Ohio River.
I’ve often thought perusing my logs was simply a way to get myself excited for the next trip. But each time, I find something that leads me in a direction I’d have otherwise forgotten. Analytics are very powerful, especially when combined with the intuitive and emotional ideas that fishing often brings.
The bass is an analytical creature, really. No matter how badly we try to complicate this sport, all living things (other than humans) are really just the result of their environments. For a bass to become successful, it must reach maximize size the quickest, reproduce, and continue to maintain itself. Everything it does will be influenced by those bylaws.
Most often, we interject our own feelings or opinions on an animal that simply doesn’t have any. In the end, it ruins us. Bass don’t want to think or feel anything. They simply want to eat and make little bass. Through it all, they try to avoid being caught or eaten themselves.
The biggest bass, in fact, follow the strictest set of rules, as it’s made them the most successful. It would be in our best interest to learn those rules and follow along. And, if you’re like me, you'd best write them down.
If you’ve never used a logbook, there’s no bad time to start. True, you can’t get the trips back that you’ve logged only in memory. But, when future forays are recorded and laid out in front of you, you’ll find you often can.
(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.)