It Started with Bite Me (Bait Shop)
I fished the Mississippi down by LaCrosse, WI with family years ago. Often hooking some monster Northern Pike, Sheepshead, Catfish, and Bass. Bassmaster continuously puts the Mississippi pool 4 down to LaCrosse in the top 100 lakes noting the number of high-quality bass it offers. Along with praise of the Mighty Mississip' from an angling family member, I decided it was the perfect place to up the ante.
Morning-of I'm still recovering for the fishing/fatbiking marathon of the week. I expect fish to be catch-able any time of day on the Mississippi so I take my time in the morning. After a breakfast, some morning weekend fishing shows, and coffee I start the short journey west towards "Vikingland" (as my daughter calls it).
I approach the road lined with various boat landing options. A few, likely frustrated, Minnesotians are behind me as I slow for each landing. I give them a creeper stare assessing the water, landing, and number of boat trailers parked. After passing a few, I find the perfect one. No boat trailers and a gravel landing. Perfect for a kayak.
Some people consider paradise white sand, palm trees, blue water, sunny skies, a beach chair, and their favorite cocktail in their hand. Mine is a backwater difficult for boats to access. It has copper water, both banks lined with algae, fallen trees in the water, and plentiful vegetation just under the open water. It is surrounded with the sounds of crickets, bullfrogs, horseflies buzzing by my ear, and top water blowups in the distance. I'm in paradise and eager to give my favorite lure, the frog, a workout.
In awe of the plentiful frogging spots, I begin by running the frog over the algae mats. I try my typical patterns. A faster retrieve followed by a slower, typical, hollow-body frog retrieve. The floppy legs on a Lunkerhunt frog allows me to do both. I'm able to cover more water while determining the preferred presentation-of-the-day. I work my way deep into the woods. I'm in narrow, shallow, waters that made the movie Deliverance come to mind. I quickly shook the thought away as I continued to work the water in an attempt to locate the fish.
With no luck, I mix things up and move back to the main channel in this area. Hoping the current is holding fish, I work a Texas-rigged Senko around the timber and vegetation with no success. A group of recreational kayakers come by. As per usual, my FeelFree Lure draws some distant internal comments followed by a series of inquiries once they are closer. "Wow - that is quite the fishing rig!" "I can't believe you can stand up and fish on a kayak!" "Man, I would love to watch you haul in a big fish on that thing right now! (Me: Yeah, me too)" "So what kind of kayak is that and where can I get one????"
The wind wedged me in an algae mat while answering the questions from curious fellow paddlers, so I take it as an opportunity to cover some more water with the frog. This area is the picture-perfect frogging area. Had it not been for the tough bite elsewhere this week, I would have been perplexed. I paddle upwind and up-current and spot more water through a thick algae mat that winds deep into the woods. Boats have definitely not been back there recently, and the thick forest shields it from the wind. I rely on my Bending Branches Angler Pro paddle to propel me through the thick mat.
After a short paddle, I'm out of the wind and in the shallows. The water is covered in algae atop underwater vegetation, the banks littered with down trees. The water is in the high 70s and the water about 3 feet deep. Frog perfection.
A few casts in, the water blows up next to a down branch. I hesitate to allow the unknown fish take the frog before I set the hook. After what seems like an eternity, I set the hook. My topwater rig (Ardent Tournament Baitcaster with 50lb braid and a Denny Brauer Topwater Rod) yanks the fish up to the top of the water immediately. It is a small, but respectable bass. My setup dragging it across the water like a tube behind a speedboat, the fish makes a Matrix-like twist and tosses the hook. Frog fishing is a love-hate relationship. I love the action a frog brings. There is nothing like a topwater blowup from a monster bucketmouth. But the visual bite puts the anger at a disadvantage requiring precision hooksets. Due to physics of the bite, always difficult.
Having cause a commotion, I move deeper into the woods and toss the frog under low branches into some grass growing out of shallow water. A couple twitches of the frog produces a massive topwater blowup. I give it another eternity, and set the hook. I can feel the fish pulling. Hard. With a smile on my face, the line quickly stops. With the confidence you'd expect from someone fishing from a kayak with 50 pound braid, I give it a firm pull. The line begins slowly moving. It seems lighter. Perhaps the fish got knocked out on a log? I see a small wake in the water followed by a large chunk of vegetation and a few sticks. The fish wrapped me around some timber and spit the hook. I spent the last half of the epic battle fighting wood and weeds (we've all spent time battling snags, rocks, logs, and weeds). I realize the same fish isn't going to bite again but spend a few casts trying different retrieves while crossing my fingers and toes. No luck, I move deeper in the woods.
I continue working the grass and mats with no luck. I switch to a poppin' hollow bodied frog and spend a bit of time working the same area with no luck. Knowing I'd increase my odds of hooking into a Northern Pike, I tie on a Livetarget Sunfish. I have had my eye on these lures for a long time. Having seen many bass chasing bluegill and ignoring other lures, I figured they would be perfect. This lure is a hollow body lure that looks like a bluegill. You work it on the surface like an injured/dying bluegill. When I visited Dakota from Bite-Me Bait and Sports Shop, he told me they worked well and were ultra-realistic. Well, he was correct.
As I work the lure through the mat, I hear an odd noise. I look to my right and watch an owl swooping down from a tree. A beautiful creature not often seen in the middle of the day. As I admire it, I realize it is headed for my lure. I attempt to pull my lure out of its path. But it is too late and the owl too swift. It grabs the lure. In shock, it takes me a second to realize what happened. I then release my spool. The owl had crashed into the water. It awkwardly, but casually, floats in the water. He is staring at me like Robert DeNiro stares at his enemies (in any movie he was in). Sure the owl is ready to exit the water and rip my face off with its razor-sharp beak and talons, I slowly grab for my clippers to cut my line.
As I'm about to cut it, the owl takes off and flies/swims its way to shore. It flies behind a large tree, it appears to have tossed my lure. I give the rod a pull and learn my line is tangled in the tree the owl flew around. A few pulls and I'm able to free it and the owl flies into the branches of a low tree nearby. At this point, I realize the owl is not in pain and not looking for retaliation so I need to cut the line as close as possible to mitigate the chances of the owl becoming tangled in a tree until it frees itself from my lure.
I quietly paddle ashore and cut the line. Immediately the owl takes off from the branch into the woods. I take a few moments to inspect the area. I never leave fishing line behind. Other animals can get tangled in it. I'd also like to find my lure if the owl dropped it. I find some line, but not the lure. Still in awe, I'm relieved the owl and I both got away safe. The owl showed no signs of pain, just confusion, so that is good. I make a call to the Wisconsin DNR to report the incident. They agree I did the best I could and I confirmed the owl flew off. Had the owl been trapped, they would have sent someone to help rescue it. They did notify the local wardens so they would be aware of the incident and owl should they receive reports or find it. You can watch the events unfold here: https://youtu.be/xgmDvBSKycU. After sending a few unbelievable texts of the occurrence, I refocus. I'm down a lure, but the owl and I got away safely. Time to find a bucketmouth.
My angling family member called me when I texted him the owl news. Obviously, he was curious to learn of the event right away. After recounting the events verbally, he gave me some ideas of spots to catch fish (he is familiar with these waters). I make my way in one of the suggested directions.
On the way to my new destination, I come across a channel with current and long grass just under the water's surface. The water depth is 6-8 feet. The frog is not the meal of choice today, so I decide to mix it up. While visiting Bite-Me Bait and Sports Shop, a rack full of beautiful lures caught my eye. The owner, Dakota, told me the story of Alex Piontek, a 7-year-old who designs these lures. He and his dad hand-craft them and sell them. Alex, at 7 years old, also fishes tournaments in an older boat painted like the General Lee against other anglers in top-of-the-line bass boats. An amazing story. I immediately grab three of different colors.
I decide to toss the James Gang Lovertail 2 with a bluegill skirt. This high-quality skirt preceded by an inline spinner and followed by a weighted hook and paddle tail, is beautiful. The spinner shines in the water, the blue, purple, yellow, and black skirt flutters behind, and the paddle tail looks like a flapping tail. Best of all, it is weedless so I'm able to run it through the long grass in the copper water.
Second cast, I get a hit but I miss the hookset. I continue working the grass and timber, getting numerous other hits. I'm unable to land them. They are that cannot inhale the hook (I'm able to see them because I'm burning it just below the surface through the top of the grass to leverage the sunlight adding extra flash to it). My voyage to the new destination is abruptly stopped by down trees. Exhausted, I grow tired just thinking about how to navigate around the barricade.
I give into the wind and current, allowing it to carry me back out into the main channel. On my way out, I toss the Lovertail 2 against the timber where I had the first hit. I'm running it through the grass and it abruptly stops. I slowly pull as it feels like a snag. Then it moves. I set the hook and start hauling in my prize.
I become quickly excited (as you can see in the video of the encounter here: https://youtu.be/Cg8hR_lI4hk) once I see the flash of the side of this beautiful bass. I attempt to draw my net, but fumble. Heart pumping and adrenaline running through my veins, I'm able to flip the toad onto the deck of my kayak. The battle isn't fished, the bass continues fighting for a self-release. After calming the beautiful creature, I stash my net and draw my Hawg Trough.
Eager to see how big it is, I put the bass on the trough and hold it firmly. I quickly adjust my TourneyTag holding my tournament identifier and snap a picture. Taking a few moments to admire this 19", fat, beauty I provide video commentary and release it to make more tanks.
Happy with my catch, I decide to succumb to the wind blowing me back towards the boat landing. I paddle to shore where a guy is bobber fishing. I initiate the traditional landing small talk with, "Catch anything?" The guy responds, "No, not yet, you?" Prepared for this response, I already had a smirk on my face while I replied, "Yeah, an owl." Being a fisherman he had expected the typical, "Just some small ones." reply. Instead, he did a double-take, "An owl?!?!?!" He listened to the cliffnotes version of my story while I pulled my kayak out of the water. I then answered the usual series of questions about my FeelFree Lure, wheeled it to my vehicle, loaded it, and headed for home. Eager to see what my camera captured.
This whole adventure started with an invitation from the owner of Bite Me Bait and Sports Shop. He invited me to come check out his shop. I am also a mountain biker and prefer the knowledge, service, and prices of small shops. This was no different. The owner, Dakota, is an intelligent, kind, helpful, passionate, individual. His shop is impressive. Fronted with a large bass eating a man (check out his Facebook page here for a visual: https://www.facebook.com/bitemybait/), the inside is just as impressive. He is armed with the biggest selection of plastics I have ever seen. He carries top name products of every kind, and has an impressive selection of handmade lures. I thank him for sharing Alex's story and introducing me to his lures. Had I not visited his shop, I wouldn't had such a tale to tell. It started with Bite Me Bait and Sports Shop.