I can almost see That bobber dancing, So I just dream to keep on being The way I am . . . -- Merle Haggard
I didn't think I was hearing right the first time they played that country song. Who would glorify fishing with a bobber?
Then I thought about the times I've sat on a bank in a boat, staring at a red-and-white float resting on a quiet pond, and seen my bobber start to jiggle and dance. I thought about the anticipation that float-dance engendered: What is that down there?
Bobber fishing is a poor man's dry-fly fishing, where the sensory delights are more visual than tactile. It provides one of the rare chances to actually see the series of events that constitutes a strike, the most exciting moment in fishing.
It's fitting that fishing with a bobber is one of the first things to do in the spring, when you are fired up and impatient. Once you've conquered the urge to set the hook, the instant you see the float move, you've reached square one in restoring the No. 1 virtue required of good anglers -- patience. s
I was reminded of that last week on my first full day out after the winter. A friend and I shared a tin boat on a little pond called Buzzard's Roost at Fort A.P. Hill near Fredericksburg, Va.
We were hoping to catch some pickerel and bass, this being the season when shallow ponds warm quickly and when large predator fish in those ponds can become suddenly and violently active.
The bites we were getting were less than earthshaking.
Gerry and I had five rods out, which made for a little comic relief when anything did happen. He was fishing three and I two, each with a minnow suspended about two feet below a bobber. We were drifting with the breeze across the middle of the pond, which is ringed with pine trees.
The pond is Y-shaped. The wind carried us from the bottom of the Y to the fork, with most strikes coming at the point where the three legs joined.
Knowing that, you try to get ready, but how ready can you be when you really don't know what's coming, or when, or on which rod? Vision and concentration narrow to the two floating objects: ewverything else washes away in a sea of insignificance.
"I think that's why we like this," Gerry said. "You forget everything else."
He caught three pickerel and a bass before I figured out what I was doing wrong. The fourth fish he caught I disregarded my rigs and paid attention to him.
When a bobber started to move, he gently picked up the appropriate rod. Down went the bobber. Up it came. Down. Up. Down. Up again. And down.
"Just wait until he's got it good," he said.
The little float went down and this time it didn't come back up. In his mind Gerry was counting to five. Then he lifted the rod tip firmly and felt the satisfying thrashing tug of a fish on the end -- another toothy pickerel.
Next drift I caught my first fish of the year by following his routine, which made the day a lot pleasanter.
The cardinal rule for early spring fishing like this is not to go far from home. March winds are so capricious and fish habits so unpredictable that it's usually a waste to schedule a major voyage before mid-April.
But there is wonderful local spring fishing for crappies in the Potomac and the Tidal Basin, so who needs to travel?
Crappies will take small minnows -- alive or pickled -- on a No. 2 or 4 hook, and they should be biting well for the next month. Two years ago my daughter and I caught 50 of them in an hour in front of the Watergate; the biggest was well over a pound.
The Tidal Basin near the gates that separate it from the main river (that's on the west side of the basin, not the gates to the ship channel) is a popular crappie fishing spot, and bass and rockfish are caught there in spring as well.
And Fletcher's Boat House always has a crappie hole marked off. Look for the stake marking underwater cover, 30 yards straight off the boat dock.
The mistake many bobber anglers make is using bobbers that look like mooring buoys. It scares the fish off when they have to drag a huge float down with their meal.
For fishing with minnows, you rarely need a float bigger than an inch in diameter.
Got it? Now be patient, count to five and hook him.