Human Patterns: The Kitchen Mystery of Lake Chickamauga

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If you can find the pantry, you will find the hungry bass. Think about the first hour of your day. At some point, you went into the kitchen and ate some food. And you followed the same hallway to reach the kitchen, and ate at your favorite chair, drinking coffee from your favorite mug, etc. Now, if you were a bass on a big lake like Lake Chickamauga, you would know that, at this time of year, that bay has frogs and bugs in it, and that point has a ball of shad on it, or that lay down is a good ambush point to wait for a meal to swim by it. Wind, thermocline, pressure and light are other factors, not to mention moon phase, water temperature,  and water levels. They are the basic ingredients of fishing.

Most anglers know this as “pattern fishing.” Roland Martin famously defined a “pattern” as follows:

“[a pattern is] the exact set of water conditions such as depth, cover, structure, temperature, clarity, currents, etc. which attracts fish to that specific spot and other similar spots all over the same body of water.”

A pattern in this sense is a web of changing phenomena. Understand the pattern, and you will find hungry fish. Why? Because fish are creatures of habit. But we are too. And one thing Mr. Martin left out of his puzzle is the human element of the pattern, and the things we learn from other anglers. Here is the story of the puzzle I figured out on Lake Chickamauga prior to the KBF Trail and Pro Series tournaments held there last week.

When I arrived at the house we rented, Cory Dreyer and Jody Queen were catching fish off the back dock. They were decent fish that were aggressively feeding on bait and frogs in the evening. A boater came by and talked with us, and at one point the words “Nine Pounder” and “Pop-R” escaped his lips. I learned two things at that moment, but I also had a question: where did the fish go when they weren’t eating? That is to say – where was the bedroom, relative to the kitchen?

Chick KBF Trail June 2019 (11)

(Backwater near the house. Photo by Henry Veggian)

Larry Anderson and I launched nearby the next day. To reach the water in the bays and cuts around the house, we had to cross a large river channel and navigate a maze of sloughs. It was windy, the water temperature had dropped after a cold front and the water was high. I picked up a few more clues along the way. First, the fish were reacting quickly to baits, or not at all. Out on the the main points, the fish would grab a crankbait near deep water as soon as I turned the reel, or ignore it. In the shallow areas, several times a bass followed my topwater lure, only to stop the chase. I would paddle by and see the fish as it spooked and swam off in a hurry. This told me the fish were a bit sluggish after the front.

Second, I started to figure out that fish were orienting toward the main creek channel that headed out to the river channel. I caught them near islands and quiet pockets along the channels, and I started to suspect this was the hallway from the bedroom to the kitchen.

Finally, we saw another kayak angler, a local. He was not in the tournament and he had paddled a pretty long way to reach the area. And so Larry and I left the area confident we could catch small limits there, but not feeling very good about its potential to produce bigger fish. But something was drawing those fish, and those anglers, to that spot.

I spent my second day scouting Lake Chickamauga from a launch 35 miles from the house, in a bay of the main lake, looking for a bite in the grass and fishing in a different style. I didn’t find much, so I headed into town to think and have a look around Dayton. I visited tackle shops and studied the lure types. While driving back to the house I went into an old tackle shop we thought was abandoned. It was open, and the owners were also tight lipped about certain areas. Farther down the road, I saw another kayak angler launching from a primitive launch on the bay near our house. I spoke with him – he was the 3rd person who did not mention a certain area that had my attention. That area turned out to be the kitchen I was looking for.

I drove to Chattanooga with Larry that evening, and we noticed low cloud cover and the big moon. He then said “the wind will be calm all morning tomorrow.” At that moment, I knew what I had to do. When I told the guys I would be launching off the nearby road and fishing the back bay near the house, one of them asked “Are you serious?” I don’t blame them – Cory and Brian and Jody had taken Cory’s bass boat into the back bay, and only caught one fish. And that boat could not go where I was planning to go in my kayak.

Tournament day.  It’s  4 a.m. and the house is empty, except for one person. I’m still in bed, snoring and dreaming of big fish. I wake up at 5:30, head for the kitchen, then drive the short way to the dirt launch. Two local kayakers are launching on the back side of the bay. I know then that I had guessed right: there were fish in the coves back there, farther up the creeks into the woods.

I launch behind the locals and land my first fish, a 16”, within minutes. The two locals had gone up one creek, but I follow another, and I am catching good fish the entire way. At one point, one of the locals paddles up to me because, as he said, “I’m surprised to see you moving that lure so violently, and want to watch.” His name is Josh and he seems like a good guy, affable as well as generous with information about fishing. He’s a bit confused my technique, I can tell. When I’m not whooping it up and talking to the fish, my Pop-R can be heard half way across the bay. But I’m pausing it longer, too, because I remember what had happened 2 days prior. When I twitch it after a longer pause, there is almost always a bite.

Chick KBF Trail June 2019 Local Angler josh (47)

(Josh, the Friendly Local. Photo by Henry Veggian)

Having dialed in location and the cadence of my presentation, the only thing left to do is catch fish. Josh and I fish together on opposite sides of the channel for about two hours, exchanging stories and fishing tips. I have a solid limit by 7:30 a.m., and when Josh crosses over to my side of the creek, I put down my rod and watch him cast and retrieve. He is throwing a weightless worm and twitching it a bunch, catching decent fish. I don’t care that he cut me off, because the water is growing clear and the channel shallow, and besides, I’m not very territorial about fishing spots. I am considering a return to the deeper water when I see a splash about one-eighth of a mile past Josh. It is the far end of the cove, and a big splash. The water is gin clear and only about one foot deep, so I paddle quietly. There is another splash, and another. I keep my eyes on the spots.

When I left that cove, I had three of the best five fish I would catch, including a 20.50” kicker fish that smashed my Pop-R when I brought it over the small channel in about 8 inches of water. If that back bay was the kitchen, the top of the cove, where the creek channel entered the bay, was the dining room.

Chick KBF Trail 2019 henry June 15 Fish (107)

(Catch, Photo, Release. Photo by Henry Veggian)

I caught more fish on the way out but the clouds were breaking up and the wind was starting to blow. At 10 a.m. I took a break to upload my fish and charge my phone battery where I had parked, and I wasted too much time there. When I launched again, I landed only one more fish in the final 3 hours and lost a few decent bites that possibly cost me a better finish. The fish had cleared out – they had followed that creek channel out to the bigger water, like a lazy dad looking for the couch after a good breakfast.

It had been 2 seasons since I finished in the money at a large KBF tournament. Along the way I had some chances and near misses, as well as a number of very bad days. But lately I’ve been fishing loose, letting my senses guide me while on the water, but also off the water. This past week, success was determined as much by what I didn’t hear or see, as by what I heard and saw. The results have been good – five straight finishes in the money over the past month. I’ve been fishing hungry, and it feels good.

If you have ever cooked much, you know it’s best to go slowly. Assemble the ingredients. Mix them in order, and take your time when heating the food to avoid over-cooking. Use local ingredients, too, because they are fresh and they taste better.

And when it’s ready, share the meal with some friends.

©Henry Veggian 2019

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“Seasonal Heat”: Temperature, Strategy and Tactics at the 2019 KBF National Championship

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A big storm is rolling in as I write this. There is thunder in the distance, so the yard work I neglected for fishing is out of the question. The sky is darker than a crow feather, the air is yellow with pollen and only a fool would venture outside. It’s the sort of dramatic weather that makes us paddle hard and fast to reach safe harbor.

Experienced anglers know that weather plays a large role in influencing how fish feed. To some, it is equal to or even more important than moon phase, or the animal’s biological clock, or even bait selection. But where can we draw the line? How subtle can it be? Does the sky have to look like a Hollywood special effect to make us think how weather impacts a bite? No – Sometimes the smallest margins make the biggest difference.

That’s especially true when bass spawn. I noticed something remarkable about water temperature while bass fishing the 2019 KBF National Championship in Louisiana, and I’d like to explain how it affected the bite, and also my strategy and tactics at the event.  It was a subtle difference,  but I hope it will help people figure things out when fishing new water this time of year.

First, a note about “Seasonal Heat.” I borrowed the phrase from the Roman poet Virgil, where it appears in book 3 of his Georgics. In that section, the poet describes a springtime mating season. In the translation from the Latin I quoted, the animals and fishes “rush madly to the furnace.” That’s a hell of a line. Love – we’ve all been there.

Of course, “heat” refers to two things here. One is the mating instinct, the other is the weather. Both were a factor at the KBF National Championship in Shreveport-Bossier City between March 23-30, when more than 450 qualified anglers reached the eligible lakes. Bass were in various stages of the spawn: some had recently left beds, some were near prospective beds, while others were still hanging around looking for a date.

Wind and rain had stirred the lakes and there were buds on trees when I arrived. By the end of the week, everything was in bloom and plants had crossed the seasonal threshold. I won’t soon forget watching a Louisiana season appear in the span of a few days. The weather fluctuated, as it tends to in springtime: a few mild days and cool nights, a hot day, then a dip back down a few degrees. And it was those little dips that determined a lot more than I expected.

First, a bit of context. I have qualified for and fished in all 4 National Championship tournaments. In a total of 8 days of competition, I have never been skunked. In the first 6 of those days, cold fronts blew over Kentucky Lake. In 2016, I placed in the money during the KBF Open on a beautiful, warm Friday, and landed about 30 fish that day. But a cold front arrived the night before the championship and I managed only 6 fish (anglers needed five over two days that year). In 2017 & 2018, I simply couldn’t find a consistent bite. In each case, cold water got colder, and fishing was tough.

As a result of those cold fronts, I had never managed to put a good bag on the leader board at the National Championship. Now, it’s partly my fault – slow, cold water fishing is one of my weak points as an angler. When I reached Louisiana and found water temps consistently over 60 degrees, I was happier than a bead vendor at Mardis Gras.

Like most experienced anglers, I approach new water with a method: I split big water into smaller, more manageable areas. If I find a pattern in one of those, I try to replicate it in other, similar areas (B.A.S.S. legend Rick Clunn has written some great things about this approach to breaking down a lake, by the way). If I can’t find a consistent pattern, I look for indicators that might tell me that the fish are doing something unexpected, or maybe moving into a predictable pattern.

That is what happened in Louisiana – I found two indicators of potential patterns, but I wasn’t sure which to target. One pattern turned out to be a warm day pattern, when fish were aggressive, the other a cooler day pattern. It was ultimately the seasonal heat that helped me decide. Here’s how….

On the first day of practice, I found warm water and active fish, but the water was also pressured. I also found slightly colder water nearby by. Reasoning it would warm up, and its fish had seen fewer lures, I focused on the second, slightly colder lake.  By doing so, I developed an understanding of its structure and behavior, or its personality. And if you can figure out a lake, you can figure out the fish.

I noticed something about the lake over the span of three days: every day when I launched, the water temperature dipped or rose by two degrees. So on day 1 of scouting the water temps were 65 or higher, on day 2 they were 63 or higher, on day 3 of scouting they were 64 or higher. That little difference of 2-3 degrees affected the bite in a very big way. On the slightly warmer days, I found fish that were aggressive and shallow. On the slightly colder days, they backed off the same spots by a few yards, and became less active.

On the night before the first day of competition, I sat down and drew a lousy map on a sheet of paper. I made an arrow indicating wind forecast and placed marks on the spots where I had bites while pre-fishing. Based on those factors, I asked “Will the temperatures be warm enough at first cast so I can count on the fish to be shallow?” Sure enough, the pattern pointed to slightly warmer and more active fish.  As a result, I selected a narrow flat, about one-eight of a mile long, with a creek channel running parallel to it. There was also shade on the bank, limited shoreline structure, and a very strong possibility that it would be protected from the wind for at least most of the morning. I didn’t second guess it – I knew they would be there. How many fish would be there was another matter. I was in for a surprise.

I reached the spot 10 minutes prior to first cast, and waited. I landed my first fish, a 16.25”, and followed it shortly after with a 14.50”. Not big fish or hard bites, but a start. And then I lost a fish, and a second. I landed a third, but it was only 11” and too short for the board. And then I lost another, and when it jumped into the rising sun, I saw what I noticed with the others: the fish were short striking the lures and barely getting hooked. But I was on them and too excited to stop and adjust (that was a mistake) –  I would take a 50% landing rate. But then I lost 2 more good fish, and knew I had to adjust. In all, I landed three and lost five along that single stretch of bank.

I was distracted by a conversation with the tournament director for a while, and then the wind started to pick up. I had to return to my starting point and repeat the pattern with a new lure. I worked my way half way back to the starting point, making a few casts, but then I ran into two anglers and close friends of mine who were fishing there. I let them alone, and paddled elsewhere. I only managed one more fish.

The next day, the water temperature dipped two degrees. The fish moved off that flat, back into the channel, and I struggled to get bites. If I had landed those 5 fish – my guess is it was a good bag in the 85” range – I would have adjusted for day 2, but instead I fished for Big Bass. On day 1, however, I had them right where I wanted them; the fish simply beat me. But here is the important thing: the lake and the weather didn’t.

What you need is time: a solid 3-4 days to scout and fish and understand both the water and the weather in relation to the fish.

During pre-fishing, I saw many anglers come and go. They were lake hopping, looking for bites. Some had found a pattern on one lake, but wanted to test it elsewhere. Others were simply scouting. Others still were worried, because they couldn’t figure things out.  As a result, most of them did not end up giving themselves a chance. As I said before, that was nearly me – but I gave myself a chance by focusing on one lake, breaking it down carefully, and then making a strategic decision based on the water temperature patterns I had seen. The plan worked beautifully until the fish showed up.

What’s the lesson? It isn’t “Don’t hop around lakes like a frog hopping at puddles.” That can work sometimes, but probably not at a multi-day event like the National Championship. What you need is time: a solid 3-4 days to scout and fish and understand both the water and the weather in relation to the fish. During more stable seasons, it’s an easy task, but in early spring, it’s another story. Why? Because subtle variations in water temperature can help you figure out how the fish will behave. A difference of two degrees – not ten, two – determined whether fish would be on the flat I chose. Barely noticeable to us in the dry air, that slight variation pointed to whether fish were willing to move up near spawning flats or back away when the temperature chilled just a bit. It was simply the seasonal heat.

© Henry Veggian 2019

The Big Picture: Behind the Scenes at a Fishing Photo Shoot

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One day last summer, at the height of the best topwater and deepwater bites of the year, I received the call asking me to attend a photo shoot and to be a representative kayak angler for an article in Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. My first thought was “I’m gonna stick a state record at the shoot.” It was a selfish impulse, but an honest one. Who wouldn’t have it? I could lie and tell you I smashed ’em, or that I lost a big one, or that as soon as it was over I went to another spot and landed a biggun. All anglers are liars, anyway, but there are witnesses in this case. Here’s what really happened at the big photo shoot: I caught a skunk. Zero bites. Not even a wayward Bluegill.

Maybe I’ve been fishing for too long and the sun’s worn through my skull, but I just don’t care if I don’t catch fish. I’m just grateful to be alive and that’s usually enough to make my day. But the article attached to the cover shot in this post represents our sport so well that it made me grateful for something far more important, something much bigger than the little thrill of seeing my grizzled mug on a magazine cover or the disappointment one might assume when looking at a cover that is, in some way, a reminder of a bad day of fishing. I’ll come back to that point…

Back to the big photo shoot: when I woke up that August morning, there was a light fog. I was sure I was gonna catch fish. The photo-shoot’s location was also ideal. My hubris only expanded:  “Perfect – I know it well. It’s on now” At first light, the lake was slick and there was fog on the water. After discussing where I should paddle and fish, I launched and went to work.

I started to worry after the first cast. Nature often tells us what kind of fishing day it well be. On this day the only birds around were some fat turkey vultures ominously perched in a tree, and they were unusually lazy. I didn’t see a single duck or kingfisher, not even an egret. The birds, let alone the squirrels, were quiet in the trees. After fishing around the first cove, I noticed that, despite the muggy air temperature, the bugs were few and fish weren’t rising. The reptiles and amphibians also took the day off. It quickly became apparent that we humans were the only animals in an active mood.

I reasoned moving water may help, so I left the quiet cove and paddled  for the channel, where I finally spotted a rising fish. It could be a carp or a brim, but it was movement. There too, nothing. I fished a grass line and something followed my lure for a moment, but I may have been having hallucinations. Can this be happening – it’s my big photo shoot, and I can’t catch a fish? And then I gave myself false hope: “keep doing what you are doing,” I told myself, “the universe is saving its best for last. You’ll finish with a bang.”

A few hours later, and still without a bite, I told the journalist and photographer to follow me down the road a ways. I had a back-up plan, an ace in the hole.

It didn’t work.

Back to my earlier point: being featured in a great publication creates the illusion that you are the big fish, when in fact it was an editor or a journalist or both who did the work of getting you in there. If you look at the history of our sport, it was writers who made it. From Izaak Walton writing the first famous book about fly fishing (1653), to Dr. Henshall writing the first book about bass fishing, to Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway and Francesca LaMonte co-founding the IGFA, it’s a sport that lives and grows by stories told with words and images.

And so the honors for the cover and article don’t really go to me or Jerry, the other featured angler.  They go to outdoors writer Mike Zlotnicki and the photographer Thomas Harvey. Mike is an expert journalist with a gift for picking up the bits and words of our lives into a story. He seeks out characters. He listens for the cadence of their speech, and hears the story beneath the quotes, luring it out like an angler who persuades a fish to come out and take the bait. The cover photo of the magazine is also a work of art, with many of the same decisions about perspective and tone behind it. Thomas is a professional who will do whatever is necessary to get the shot: following me up and down the lake, he climbed rocks and waded into the soup to get these great photos. He’s an expert not only with his equipment but with the craft: light, composition, angle, etc. Where a journalist can record and review the moment, ask follow-up questions and dig a bit more, a photographer only has one chance to get the shot. If the cast isn’t perfect, the fish won’t take.

And also to Wildlife in North Carolina magazine, one of the best outdoors publications in the country. There were many purchases I could have made as soon as I moved to North Carolina, but one of my first was a fishing license. When I bought the license, the store clerk handed me the printed regulations booklet, and I read it front to back. It was well-organized, well-illustrated and well-written, and I remember thinking “these folks have their act together.” Not long after that, I subscribed to the magazine, and I’ve even gone to the library and read through back issues I didn’t have.

You might be thinking “Old Hank is rationalizing a bad day on the water.” I’ve been fishing for nearly a half century and a bad day of fishing is about as troublesome to me as a broken cookie in the box – I don’t count them and I’m still gonna eat them. Looking back, I realize that I spent a good deal of time admiring Mike and Thomas as they did their work, and we talked quite a bit on the lake. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have much success, but it was worth it because in the end the article wasn’t about me. It was about our sport and our country’s great fisheries and the people who run them. Most of all, it’s about the people like Mike and Thomas who tell the great stories about them.

Support your local wildlife commission in its work. Every state has one and most publish a magazine. To subscribe to Wildlife in North Carolina, click here.

All text by Henry Veggian © 2019

Photo by Thomas Harvey, © 2019Courtesy of Wildlife in NC

Recent Product Reviews

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I struggle writing in  this genre, but I enjoy it, too. Here is a sample of recent product reviews I wrote. Let me know what you think!

  1. The Wilderness Systems Kayak Krate

https://shopgetoutdoors.com/blogs/get-outdoors-blog/review-of-the-wilderness-systems-kayak-krate

2. The Yak Attack Leverage Net

https://shopgetoutdoors.com/blogs/get-outdoors-blog/from-kentucky-lake-to-toledo-bend-fishing-overtime-with-yak-attack-s-leverage-net

 

Video

Memory, Fishing and Stalled Fronts: The May 2018 KBF Armed Forces Challenge

I’m writing this while sitting on a bench in downtown Raleigh waiting to meet up with a friend after a concert. It’s 11 pm and I am barely awake, having fished from sunrise nearly to sunset today, as well as the previous 2 days. This is a post about fishing and exhaustion and memory. There’s a little video evidence of what I discuss in the last paragraphs:

I should write this down before I forget. And when I say forget, I mean I am “wipe the memory slate clean, MIB gadget” tired. I fished for something like 30 hours this weekend and I feel like a tray of lasagna that’s been heated up one too many times. But there is something about exhaustion that can sharpen your focus, narrow down the world. That’s how I managed to jump back into 1st place late on Sunday. It didn’t hold, but that isn’t the important part.

First, congratulations to “Florida” Jerry Burdine and Matt Kasparek for besting me in the KBF Armed Forces Challenge this weekend. I also want to thank Jonathan Lessman and Richard McMichael, as we exchanged leads in a great dog fight over all 3 event days. I saw Jerry’s name high on the leader board every day, too, so he had to grind it out like I did. It was a battle, and he made the “leap” as I call it, with a great final day that put him ahead of the leaders.

This three-day event was not on my schedule because I had other plans. So I buckled down to improvise, adapt to a constantly shifting bite and fish through some bad weather. In the end, I landed fish on three different patterns, using a variety of lures. Day 1 was dominated by swimbaits and crankbaits, a chatterbait produced my best fish on Day 2, and day 3, well, you’ll see…

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Lead into Gold: A Review of Kenn Oberrecht’s “The Angler’s Guide to Jigs and Jigging”(1982)

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Lead into Gold: A Review of Kenn Oberrecht’s “The Angler’s Guide to Jigs and Jigging”(1982)

 

People sometimes ask me “Hank, why do you read these old fishing books?” My answer is “Shakespeare.” Awkward silence generally follows, or someone accuses me of being a professor.

Let me explain (that’s what professors do, after all). First, there is no such thing as an “old book.” Every book is new the first time we read it. And just like any other book, we ease into it, fit our mind to its author’s style in the early pages, slip into ideas and characters that it presents, etc. We all remember the first time we read Hamlet in high school. It was like learning a new language. If you stuck it out you were rewarded with a mighty drama about choice and regret.

Second, there is no such thing as a “fishing book.“ That’s just a phrase we use to describe writings composed by people who spend a lot of time holding fishing tackle around water. What we call “fishing books” are really just books that explain how a person thinks through a specific type of problem. The central premise of every fishing book is basically “How can I trick and catch a living animal that cannot directly be seen (most of the time).” As such, fishing books are really books about the art of tricking an aquatic animal. Or, if you prefer, books written by people who think too much about fishing.

Does thinking ever get “old?” I hope not. And what would life be without choices, or regrets? I wouldn’t want to know. For one, the fishing stories would be few and far between.

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A Bucketmouth for the Bucket List

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You may be wondering about the title. “Bucketmouth” refers to a Largemouth Bass, a big Largemouth Bass. A “Bucket List” is of course something we keep, checking off an item or two if we are lucky, or we endure. But there is more to this title. There were many options to consider as I drove through the scrub forest, swamp and farmland, watching the horses on ranches run and the slow rivers roll.  And it came to me then because I started thinking about the great Western films in history. I was thinking specifically of a little known Spaghetti Western by an Italian director named Damiano Damiani, a film called A Bullet for the General (1968). Set during a revolution, it is a film loaded with counter-revolutionary plots and surprises of all kinds. Damiani’s film is one of the best Westerns of its time, and it ranks high on my list of favorites. It’s a complicated film about complex people in crazy times, and as I came to the trail head of a complicated trip, it seemed to point in the direction I wanted to go as I tried to answer the question “How do I explain what happened on that lake?”

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Fly Fishing for Bowfin

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Here is a well illustrated and informative post from Isaac’s Fishing Corner, a fishing page I follow. In it Isaac describes fly fishing for Bowfin (note his use of larger flies and a strong leader, but also a lighter 5 weight fly rod). There is not much available about fly fishing for Bowfin in the fishing literature so this was a welcome sight from Bowfin Country.

I can clearly remember the first time I ever saw a Bowfin: I was fishing a little irrigation ditch that ran through some corn fields when this strange looking fish slowly surfaced and gulped some air before disappearing back into the muddy water. As soon as I saw that fish I knew a new obsession […]

via Fly Fishing For Bowfin — Isaac’s Fishing Corner