We waddled into the tiny stream with a clumsiness that only cumbersome chest waders can inflict, until a sudden flash of silver in the shallows froze us in our plodding tracks.We gazed down into the current rushing past our feet.
A bulge broke the surface. Inches ahead of it, a tiny silver shiner leapt like a miniature salmon above the water. Sunlight caught the flanks of the panic-striken minnow as it searched for wings to flee from the large mouth moving in below, but gravity prevailed. The minnow came down lightly, in range for a second lunge by the predator. The bass, pale green from the cool autumn waters, scooted toward the shiner and stabbed accurately, and the drama reached its climax. Minnow clenched firmly in his jaws, the largemouth now realized how vulnerable he was in the shallows and also seemed to notice the two anglers peering at him. He turned and swaggered slowly off, as if embarrassed by the revealing glimpse he'd given us of the life and death theatrics of his daily existence.
The event epitomized the unique appeal of small-stream bass fishing, even though we had yet to place the first cast of the day when it occured recently just 20 miles from Washington.
Fishermen often see bass chasing minnows, but in the world of small-creek angling, event are played out so close up that they take on special, intimate meaning. The bass and minnow were practically bumping the rubber toes of our waders when they completed their escapade in the shallows. We seemed not to have front-row seats for this drama, but to be actually up on stage with the players.
In small-stream bass fishing casts are short and crisp; strikes come close, sometimes at your feet; brawls with fish ensue with little line off the spool, and water from the splashing quarry may drench your brow. When a bass chases down some hapless minnow, it's not a quarter of a mile away, across the surface of a huge lake, but right before your eyes.
The lack of wariness shown by this bass also suggests that the stream draws little angling pressure, in spite of being within half an hour's drive of Washington -- another appeal of small-stream fishing. While bass boats swarm over the big man-made impoundments, and canoeists flock to the broad smallmouth rivers, few bother with the tiny warmwater creeks that lack the famous names and publicity from magazine articles.
Seclusion is no mean value in itself for most anglers. To find it within half an hour of home is doubly rewarding.
The lack of pressure also makes streamside bonuses much more common: It's not at all rare to see a family of mink padfooting along the banks in single file, a coon pussyfooting through streamside brush or deer coming down for an evening drink on small, secluded streams where motorboats can't venture.
There are plenty of such intriguing little bass creeks within a 50-mile radius of Washington, dozens more if you go slightly farther out. It just takes a bit of searching to find them. Largemouths or smallmouths may be the quarry, depending on whether you go east or west and whether the creek is fast and rocky (smallmouth) or sluggish and weedy (largemouths).
You may well pass over one or two on your way to and from work. If not, then on drives to distant, big-name lakes you surely cross a number of such small, neglected warmwater creeks.
Asking at small country stores and bait shops can often yield a cornucopia of information on little bass creeks worth trying. Topographic maps, available from the U.S. Geological Survey's Map Distribution Office (1200 South Eads Street, in Arlington), will provide many prospects for leter exploration. Certainly some of the waters, particularly those close to town, will have been polluted, channelized, dredged or otherwise ruined for fishing, but a surprising number will still hold a rich supply of bass.
Find the water and the work is done -- the rest is fun. Since these creeks are so small, locating the fish is never a problem. Five or six well-placed casts can cover whole pools. If the bass are there, they'll seldom prove reluctant to strike.
Wading is the only satisfying way to fish these tiny bass waters. A boat fits in a small creek about as well as an elephant in a bathtub. With November's cool waters, however, you'll need chest waders and probably want long johns on beneath them.
Fish upstream, to come at the bass from their "blind side," and probed deep pools and sun-warmed shallows with short, accurate deliveries. If there's room for backcasts, a fly rod and weighted streamers will work well. On warm days a cork popper can still draw a surface strike or two.
Due to the tight casting quarters, most anglers will prefer to go with ultralight spinning gear on the small creeks.Seldom do the bass range above three or four pounds, and most will be in the 1/2 - to two-pound range. Toothpick-thin rods and four-pound line are perfect for such fish.
Lures can be narrowed down to a few proven standbys: Small spinnerbaits in crayfish colors, curly-tailed grubs in white, smoke and purple, silver Mepps spinnersand the floating Rapala in 2 3/4- or 3 1/2-inch sizes. This latter thin balsa plug imitates the action and shape of the bass' primary food (minnows) so accurately that it's usualyl the top producing lure. Work it with twitches on the surface, like struggling shiner, or reel it in slowly and steadily.
Small-stream bass often feed suprisingly late in the year, and barring a drastic drop in temperatures, action should continue through much of November.
If prospects of solitude astream and abundent bass close to home sound attractive, slip on a wool sweater and waders and search out your nearest warmwater creek. You might startle yourself with the quality of angling you find.