Decorous Techniques: A Review of Largemouth Bass: An In-Fisherman Book of Strategies (1990)
Look at the photograph below. It was taken by Dr. Solomon David, a biologist at the renowned Shedd Aquarium. Dr. David is not a scientist to miss the significance of this grouping, which he caught with his eye and then his camera. The fact of the matter is that it represents something many bass anglers wouldn’t easily admit: the Bowfin (Amia calva), Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) and Spotted Gar (Lepisosteus oculatus) co-exist in the wild. They share waters where they are born, they share food they chase, and they share graves. And here they are, hanging out like three old friends. Very old friends (well, at least the Gar and Bowfin are).
Why the photo, you ask? I posted it because I’d never seen the Bowfin mentioned without scorn in a book about Largemouth Bass. If you listened to Bass anglers, many argue for the eradication of the Bowfin (to be fair, others secretly confess they prefer catching Bowfin, but they chase Bass for the money). Anti-Bowfin-scorn is simply inherited ignorance. And that is where Largemouth Bass: An In-Fisherman Book of Strategies stands apart from the crowd….
Now, does a mere passing reference to the Bowfin make this a good book? Not necessarily. But sometimes a neutral mention, made without comment, will indicate that a book does not indulge in hyperbole, stupidity or myth. It simply states a fact, but implied in that fact is the scientific knowledge that Bowfin and Largemouth Bass share certain waters and a vital interdependence. A good Bowfin fishery makes a good Bass fishery, and vice-versa. And so when I came across the Bowfin in this book’s explanation of eutrophic or “old” lakes, and its graph depicting how the species overlap as those lakes transition to swamp, I was grateful. Look at the photo again: it visualizes the chart in this book. It isn’t just three fish hanging out, just waiting on a friend. It represents three apex fish that inhabit most of our warm water lakes, rivers and streams from the Mississippi basin to the Atlantic Ocean. A trinity, as it were (even if only one is truly worshipped).
The factual mention of Bowfin (and Gars!) on page 77 of the book also came early in a stretch of chapters that tipped the scale in the book’s favor after a very slow start. A note to the reader: this is a book does not start well, at all. I have always puzzled over how the sport of bass fishing has produced little in the way of great books. Furthermore, a complete survey of the literature on the subject has never been written, and it is a shame, because several good books exist in the genre, with many others containing excellent sections. Yet roughly 50 pages into this book, I was prepared to assign it and its paltry “history” of bass fishing to the category of excessively chatty bass books. Fortunately, I persisted a bit longer.
Decorum – a light touch – one expects little of it from an informational text such as this one. It is an anonymous work, thus making it difficult to assign agency or credit. What is to be noted, or that to which the reader must become accustomed after a disastrous start, is that this book’s writer or writers use the In-Fisherman style; to those familiar with the magazine, which combines fishing stories with practical, scientifically informed knowledge. It is a mid-Western style: pragmatic, attuned to empirical data, and even-keeled. But here the “I caught a fish” angle is toned down. One might describe this book as the anti-thesis to The Bass Fisherman’s Bible, which assumes a world with little Science and much Providence. Here the story is told in a clinical, detached manner, leaving application of advice to the angler’s individual situation. As the sub-title indicates, the focus is strategy over tactics, and as the book settles into this style, it pulls it off wonderfully.
As I noted before, the book begins badly, its first two chapters offering a very uneven and cursory history of Largemouth Bass fishing in America, one that I have noted (link to previous review) can be found elsewhere in more attractive form. Chapter 1 is focused largely on the sport’s innovators, from James Henshall and Buck Perry to Ray Scott and the modern B.A.S.S. tribe. Making an appearance here are the Lindner brothers, Ron and Al, thus giving the book something resembling shameless self-promotion a little too much (they founded the In-Fisherman publishing enterprise, and Al Linder authored another Bass book in the series). As I noted, I had nearly tuned out, but as the book’s fourth chapter began to describe the Largemouth Bass – its feeding habits, its physical shape, its senses and temperament – I began to notice another quality emerge, and it kept me interested until I reached chapter 5, where the Bowfin appears.
What was special about Chapter 5? Entitled “The World of the Largemouth Bass,” this chapter classifies the various waters in which bass exist, from those in which they struggle to those in which they thrive. Charts and graphs accompany the text to illustrate the main points. A general abstraction takes over, but it is an abstraction with purpose and, I would add, a subtle sense of style. By style I do not refer to the bloated anecdote that ruins many a good fishing book. That is an indecorous technique: hot air used to aggrandize the narrator at the expense of narrative and scientific detail. By style I refer to decorum and a subtle consistency that can transform a to-do list into the presentation of strategic options. Such a book must make the alchemy of fact into a story about choices the reader can make. With rigorous clarity, an easy logic, and an awareness of the reader’s encounter with new concepts, the book must keep the reader interested and informed. It is a very difficult balance to strike. Like any good fishing story, decorum requires that the reader feel as if he or she is hearing the story for the first time, fresh with the euphoria of the catch, and I doubt that the facts presented here ever sounded as fresh to any bass angler, even a quarter century removed from the book’s date of publication.
Take for example, chapter 8, another one of the excellent chapters that forms the solid core of the book. It is called “Reservoir Personality” and it describes artificial lakes. Stressing general features, citing scientific data, and offering flexible advice, the chapter explains how an angler might understand relatively stable features such as contour and topography in relation to variable features, such as water depth, clarity, temperature and current. I quote its penultimate paragraph:
“Ask professors of limnology and aquatic biology at a nearby university what they know about your reservoirs. Contact state fishery biologists for reports of fish population surveys and creel studies, investigations of food habits and other management activities. Talk with dock owners, guides and other anglers to identify other personality factors. Attend tournaments to get information from a variety of top anglers. Read magazine articles on pertinent topics.”
Note the paragraph’s organization: begin with the broadest data, gathered by experts in the ivory tower and in the field (the two often overlap, as the former generally train the latter). Study the data. Then proceed to the intermediary level, that of specialists who focus on more narrow topics. Transition from that knowledge to the population that observes it in its environment in business and recreation: dock owners, anglers, etc. Listen, and read about this experience- based knowledge. In sum, study the pattern from a distance, then narrow it down. Modify it, the books proceeds, and make it your own. Apply it, and practice; repeat for every lake. One cannot, I assure you, find a more coherently organized paragraph of advice in all the literature of bass fishing: it is basically a fishing lesson in deductive reasoning.
As I noted, the book’s strength is in its middle chapters, which focus on habitats. These are the “strategic” sections emphasized by the book’s title, and they set-up several chapters focused on tactics and gear at the end of the book. In those later chapters, mention of a lure’s function is paired in reference to types of water mentioned in the strategic chapters about habitat. One might take issue with some points here – certain lures have become obsolete, the description of in-line spinners is woefully short – but these later chapters are bolstered by what precedes them, and I would add that the chapter on spinner baits and their blades is the most informative ever written on the subject. In sum, the respective chapter groupings on habitat and gear work beautifully together, and it would be a mistake for readers to skip the strategic chapters in favor of the tactical ones. It would be like fishing without hooks on your lure. Skip the first chapters, if you will, but not these.
How do the chapter types work together? I return, in conclusion to the Bowfin’s mention. Imagine an old lake that has been left to its own life cycle. It is relatively small, maybe 25 acres. Unmanaged by busy humans, difficult to access, it seems an afterthought on your map. A question mark to fish, a hassle to reach. Having read the In Fisherman book, however, you would think that the lake’s advanced age has made it relatively infertile. Low oxygen, resulting from abundant vegetation that sucks air out of the water in winter, has increased mortality. But one day you come across an old article, and you note mention of natural springs in the air. Are there springs in the lake, pumping fresh water into it? You wonder. The map shows it is connected to other, productive waters, by way of creeks. Bass should be present, maybe other species. If the inflow of spring water and creeks has kept the lake’s fish alive in winter, bringing them oxygen and food, perhaps the lake is not barren. Perhaps it contains fish. Big fish. You speak with a local biologist who notes that old timers used to fish the place, but that it is seldom touched these days. Inaccessible to anything but kayaks and canoes, you gather your vessel and assemble the lures best suited for fishing vegetation, and set out to make the trip……..
♠ Special Thanks to Dr. Solomon David for permission to use his photograph in this post.
Post Script: Tournament kayak anglers will perhaps like to know that Largemouth Bass: An In-Fisherman Book of Strategies endorses the “fish for inches” tournament format. The book was clearly written with boat fishermen in mind, but in its last chapter it reviews mortality studies based on scientific data collected about catch & release practices. One paragraph, on page 320, makes a very strong case for the practice of near-immediate release using measurement, rather than weight as the standard for competition. This is an older book, and drawbacks it implies have since been overcome; for instance, the advent of smart phone technology allows for on-site uploads of measured fish during events, fish identifiers specific to tournaments are now used, etc. It’s a welcome mention of a practice that nearly guarantees the highest live release rate, and the earliest endorsement of the practice I have seen in print. If anyone has a reference to an earlier mention, please send it along to me.
Bibliographic Note: There are 2 slight variant editions of this book in print. Another edition is entitled Largemouth Bass, and it lists the names of the In-Fisherman staff on the books spine (the title page also lists the staff contributors). A curious difference is that page v of this variant edition contains a long epigram and also a cartoon depicting a parable about a grasshopper and an ant. The pagination and text of both books is however identical; I simply like to note the wrinkles.