Largemouth bass fishermen are a curious breed. They go to the quietest, remotest place and light it up with a 200-horsepower outboard, blasting around at 60 or 70 mph. They find a great place to fish, then race home to tell everybody, so in a few weeks a creek that was all but untouched is a booming tournament site with dozens of boats roaring around.
Still, you have to give bass anglers credit. At least they get out of the house and look for new places, and after they've had their fun they generally leave a creek or river no worse for wear. Bass anglers are the very foundation of the catch-and-release movement. It's hard to find one who takes a single fish home to eat.
Instead, they've developed a strange custom of holding bass captive. Every bass boat has a live well tucked away under a carpeted hatch cover, into which aerated river water is pumped. Each keeper-size bass caught is plunked in the dark, cramped well and left to ponder its fate till quittin' time, when it's pulled back out and dumped back overboard.
At tournaments, the fish are weighed before they're released so someone can be declared a winner. But the practice is so ingrained that most bass anglers keep their fish in live wells whether they're in a contest or not. That way they can show off the catch to other bass anglers as they zoom around from spot to spot at highway speed.
The more you think about it, the stranger it gets. It's probably best not to think about it at all -- just sit back and enjoy, which is what I was doing on the ageless Rappahannock River last week when eagles started jumping out of the trees.
"There's one," said Teddy Carr, who works for Ken Penrod's Life Outdoors Unlimited guide service. "There's another. That one's a juvenile."
He was carving slalom turns, schussing upstream five miles from Leedstown to Green Bay as the tide rushed out. The banks of the broad river below Fredericksburg are hardly developed at all, with thick, jungle-like forests crowding the banks. There are plenty of snakes and almost no houses.
Carr pointed to a cirrus-streaked summer sky where a big bird dressed in a tuxedo circled and flapped, its wings showing the funny little upturn at the tips peculiar to bald eagles. Alongside the mature bird with its bright white head and tail was a gray-brown juvenile, almost as big.
"There's another," said Carr, pointing upstream at another mature eagle. A few moments later yet another juvenile lifted off the treetop from which it had been surveying the river for a tasty morsel to kill and eat.
Some days it seems like every other tree along that stretch has an eagle in it, said Carr. But we hadn't come all the way to Virginia's Northern Neck to bird-watch. "Green Bay," he announced with a sweep of his hand. "We ought to get 'em here."
Shep McKenney, my boat-building buddy from St. Mary's County, Md., had arranged with Carr to take us fishing on the tidal Rappahannock. He'd hoped it would be like the bass fishing he remembered as a boy on Back Bay near Norfolk, where huge submerged grass beds harbored largemouths that came roaring out of the vegetation to smash topwater flies.
By the time we got to Green Bay, we'd spent a long morning casting flies and shallow-running crankbaits and spinnerbaits along a marshy shoreline near Leedstown. All we had to show for it was one 3 1/2-pound largemouth in the live well and another about the same size that spat the hook with a spectacular leap right next to the boat. McKenney, meantime, had caught and released four or five feisty catfish that slammed his white spinnerbait.
Green Bay is Carr's low-tide hot spot, where ebbing water exposes sand and mud banks littered with fallen trees, stumps and other debris. Bass hang in the shallows, waiting for minnows and the like to wash out of the emptying marshes beyond.
We were halfway along a prime bank of exposed tree trunks and roots when McKenney, still fishing a spinnerbait, reared back and set the hook on a hawg of a largemouth. It tugged and pulled and he tugged and pulled back. Then, just as the one I'd managed to lose earlier in the day had done, it went airborne a few feet away from the boat, spray flying and glittering in the sunlight, and spat the hook.
"Good fish!" said Carr. "That bass had to go six pounds."
"Six?" said McKenney. "By the time I get back to the ramp, that fish will be eight pounds, and he'll be 10 or 12 by the time I get home."
Maybe that's why I'm so put off by this live-well thing. When we got back to the ramp a couple of hours later, McKenney's fish was half again as big as it was when he caught it. Meantime, the 3 1/2-pounder we'd kept in the live well hadn't gained an ounce.
Largemouth fishing is entering high summer phase, when bass bite best early and late in the day. As submerged grass beds emerge in the tidal Potomac, Rappahannock and other local rivers, topwater lures fished near the edges of the beds can produce exciting strikes and big fish.
Some local guide services: Life Outdoors Unlimited, 301-937-0010; Reel Bass Adventures, 301-839-2858; Potomac Guide Service, 301-840-9521.
CAPTION: Guide Teddy Carr displays a 3 1/2-pound largemouth bass caught on the tidal Rappahannock River and soon to be placed in the boat's live well.