The most difficult freshwater fishing of all is fly fishing for trout. Too hard for me. The second hardest is fishing a plastic worm for largemouth bass, which used to be too hard for me. Then, all of a sudden last week, I could do it.
"It's impossible to teach somebody," said Glenn Peacock, a bass fishing guide. "You can talk all day but if they haven't got the feel for it, they can't do it. Most people don't know what you're talking about, anyway. They don't even know how to put a plastic worm on a hook."
When you don't know how to fish a plastic worm, everything about this erudite skill seems a little weird. Some of it seems weird because it is.
One of my early bass fishing expeditions was on the Potomac in Washington with a guy named Buddy Norman.For a while we fished crankbaits, which are little plastic plugs with a big lip. The lip causes them to dive deep and wobble. Fish gobble them up.
But this cold December day the bass were unimpressed. So Norman suggested switching to plastic worms, rigged Texas-style with the point of the hook buried in the body of the worm so it could slide over rocks, tree stumps and other obstacles without snagging.
He caught a bass but nothing was happening for me. I kept flinging it out and working it back across the bottom, but never got a tap. Meanwhile, the worm was getting ragged.
I figured that was normal wear, but Norman noticed that it was tattered and torn and asked if I didn't want a new one.
"I guess so."
"Well, do you think you'll catch anything with that one, the way that looks?"
"I guess not."
"Then change it. Remember, you must have confidence in your worm."
Those seemed like words to live by. "You must have confidence in your worm." But I didn't really understand what he meant until the other day, when everything finally came together.
Until then, in five years of serious fishing I had caught exactly one fish on a plastic worm, and that was a pickerel that leaped clear out of Lake Kissimmee in Florida to swallow my purple Whopper-Stopper in midflight.
If anything ever struck my worm under the surface, I never felt it. As late as this summer, this pathetic string of failures remained untarnished. I spent a whole day in June fishng the Potomac below Woodrow Wilson Bridge with bass fisherman Carlos Sellers. First I extracted from him the promise that he was a spinner bait man and only fished plastic worms when nothing else worked.
Of course he picked a day when nothing else worked.
At one point we stopped in a cove and Sellers directed an assault on 50 yards of shoreline that was roughly akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Bass were bunched up so thick they were attacking the plastic worms on every cast.
His casts. I never got a hit.
It ws in the deepest anguish of my disgrace that day that I got the hint of what was going wrong. Sellers pulled his boat up next to a stump in the water, cast his worm in, waited a second and said, "There he is." He set the hook on a lunker.
"How did you know?" I asked him. "You never retrieved it an inch."
"When I cast in there the worm never stopped. It hit the water and kept going, so I knew something had hold of it."
The key, I have now discerned, is that bass will rarely strike a plastic worm while it's being retrieved. Almost always the strike comes when the worm is falling, either after the cast or during "drops" in the slow retrieve.
It's hard to feel the pickup unless you are attuned to it, and I was doing all my attuning while I was retrieving, when the strikes never came.
Sellers gave me a hint about striking the fish as well. When you feel the first bump, he said, reel in the slack immediately and set the hook hard.
"People are always telling me, 'He only bumped it twice,'" Sellers said. "That's right, twice -- once when he bit it and once when he spit it out."
But as Peacock maintained, it's not something you can teach someone. Last week on the Nanticoke River some deep, primeval instincts surfaced and suddenly I was the plastic-worm man. I pitched a purple Fliptail drenched with Lunker Lotion into the murky depths of the stream.
When the first bump came I locked the hog handle on my bait-casting reel, engaging its high-speed buzzing gears, took up the slack and set the hook with enough force to "cross his eyes," as the Santee-Cooper guides put it.
And what do you know? There was a fish on the other end.