In Search Of Shoal Bass
Editor's note: This blog installment comes from Fishhound pro staffer JR Mundinger.
It all started with a note on Facebook. It read something like, "Hi JR, there's a guy wanting to fish for shoal bass and I gave him your contact info."
Being someone who's only seen a few of these striped, bronze beauties from the weigh-ins at Lake Seminole tournaments, I wasn't sure where to go with this. The fellow's name was Matt "Royal Slammer" Price from Australia, who was chasing a dream to become the first angler ever to complete the IGFA Royal Slam in each category. Having already traveled to different regions of the Pacific Ocean to fulfill his quest, Matt had recently become the first Aussie to complete the Billfish "Royal Slam," along with only 93 others worldwide.
Matt's first couple messages didn't contain any of this information, but they peaked my curiosity when I found out who he was. I informed him I was working on "hooking him up," so to say, and would get back with him very soon. Matt wrote back to say he was on a schedule and needed to finalize the details for his 10-day trip to the States that included stops along the East Coast to chase shark,t and bass.
About a year ago I'd invited B.A.S.S. Elite Series pro Jtodd Tucker to do a show with me for New South Outdoors. While filming, the subject came up about running way up the Flint River to do another show on the ever exclusive Shoal Bass. After a couple phone calls, and three weeks of preparation, Jtodd and I met at the county line road just north of Vada, Ga. and made it happen.
Two weeks after my last online chat with Matt, he must have been getting nervous as I had several new message alerts I hadn't replied to. Finally I had some good news for Matt. JTodd had agreed to be Matt's guide for the day. Not wanting to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we were able to coordinate a tag boat and camera crew for the big day.
While hurricane Lee was making its way up the East Coast, winds ripped through the treetops as we prepared to launch the boats. With lack of summer rainfall the Flint River level was now at 2.6 feet – over 3 feet below normal. As we backed our jacked-up 4-wheel drives 30 feet into the river, I couldn't help but wonder what was next.
Those who've ventured that far up the fast waters of the Flint soon learn the need for boats that draft less than 5 inches of water. Boulders the size of mini vans, trees, rapids and a 7-mph current make for some of the most hazardous navigation one could ever encounter. After 45 minutes of a white knuckle, knee squeezin’, teeth grittin’, one eyed open, exhilarating boat ride, we arrived safely to our fishing destination.
In boat No. 1, a 20-foot aluminum Triton with a 115-hp OptiMax, was Matt, Jtodd and our producer Jason Lynn. I was in boat No. 2, which was an 18-foot Gator Trax with a 60-hp Yamaha captained by Fred Jones of Parkway Marine. Both boats were equipped with hydraulic jackplates and strong trolling motors to combat river conditions.
Several scouting trips by Jtodd had made the lure selection pretty easy. Topwater propbaits were going to account for most of the day's fishing, with jigs coming in a close second. My lures of choice were a Heddon Baby Torpedo and a 1/2-ounce Jigdinger in the nutter color tipped with a small plastic craw. My reels were Shimano Curados spooled with 15-pound Trilene Big Game line, mounted on 7-foot Deep South fishing rods.
It didn't take long for the action to start. Fred's first cast with the topwater resulted in a huge blowup, but the fish missed. Two pops later he came back and Fred hauled in his first ever shoal bass – a beautiful 5-pounder. Twenty yards downstream, Jtodd directs Matt's casts to high-percentage targets that will yield his prey. As they drift quickly toward an upcoming stretch of rapids, Matt casts near a large boulder. "Sput-sput-sput" goes his bait and Pow!, the fight's on. As Matt's first shoalie jumps three times like a marlin, he plays it like an expert. But alas, it comes unbuttoned.
What I'd read on shoal bass proved to be correct. Very acrobatic fish, they fight similar to a smallmouth bass of northern waters. Living in a current-laden environment makes these fish stronger than normal. A 2-pound shoalie will equal the fight of a 4-pound largemouth.
Frustrated, and now more determined than ever, Matt resumes his Kevin VanDam-like assault with cast after cast to more structure. With his accuracy and ability to use a baitcaster, you'd never know this was his first time fishing freshwater. Blowup after blowup all ended the same way. Was Matt ever gonna complete his mission? He's flown halfway around the world, spent thousands of dollars and now everyone had caught at least one fish. Everyone but Matt that is. And then it happens: "Pawoosh!" Another nice 2-pounder slams Matt's bait on the surface and again the fight's on.
This time Matt's the victor with one-eighth of his bass challenge complete. Even after two great leaps and a run downcurrent, Matt's fishing prowess prevails.
At the end of what would be one of my top-three fishing trips of all time, everyone involved was a winner. We caught over 20 fish and our best five shoal bass would total over 20 p[ounds.
Later that night Matt was making plans for the next leg of his journey. Three more days of fishing on three different lakes for five different species of bass. Finding transportation to South Carolina on a Saturday night is no easy task. Then Matt spat those magical words, "Hey mate, would you like to go with"?
What do you think my answer was?!
Cliff "JR" Mundinger was a yankee before he moved to the deep south 15 years ago. He calls Tallahassee, Fla. home and is currently the TV host of New South Outdoors. He also provides content for newpapers, magazines and various Internet outlets. He competes in bass tournaments and still guides for bass. You can catch up with him at FishTallahassee.com.