Whip Finish


Ralph Long - May 5, 2014

The chest-high weeds were thick and held the heat to an oppressive level as I pushed my way towards the edge of the water. The pinelands of southern New Jersey in late September can get hot, and this week was no exception. I had stumbled on a small spring-fed pothole while scouting for archery season a few weeks prior, and had promised myself to check it out with the fly rod. On my first visit I could see swirls of what appeared to be larger fish all across the small pond, but the tea-stained water of the cedar swamps would not give me a glimpse of just what it was feeding below the surface. On top of that the weeds grew to the water's edge and nowhere would I find any sort of casting lane. So today I came prepared, toting my old donut float-tube and fins in order to get away from the bank.

Upon my arrival, it appeared my tube had made the ride through the briars and wait-a-minute vines since it still held air, which was a good sign to start the day. The only bad part of the trip in, were the masses of large yellow and orange striped garden spiders that were spread out across every game trail opening I crossed. As I rigged up I found myself wiping off nearly a half-dozen of the big lumbering critters as they clung to my waders and tube. Spiders are not my favorite bug in the world, but this particular spider is so commonplace that they become like a horsefly buzzing your head; more irritating than truly bothersome. I stomped out an area of weeds largest enough to set my tube down and ready my gear. I had worn my old Redball non-breathable waders for this foray, and now the effects of their durability had begun to collect its taxes as the dark brown material began to heat up inside. Feeling the heat grow put urgency into getting in my fins, with a much anticipated feeling of sitting in the cooler water. As I scurried about in my little cove, I began to laugh at myself. If you've never put socks on the legs of your dog as a youngster just to see how they will react and walk? Well, no need. Just go watch a tube fisherman move around in kick fins and try to get in his tube and into the water. Both the dog and the fisherman react and move in pretty much the same manner. Yet in the end, I found myself floating in cool water, dripping sweat and slowly finning towards the middle of the small body of water to take in my surroundings and rig my gear.

Not fishing my heavy bass gear today, I had grabbed my 5-weight Far-and-Fine on the way out the door. I didn't expect to encounter anything really huge in this little piece of water, so I rigged with a 9 foot 3X leader and looped on a 3 foot section of 5x fluorocarbon tippet. I decided to begin with a purple mohair leach with a purple marabou tail. Nothing too big, just tied on a size #10 standard streamer hook. Stripping out line on the apron of the tube, I could see the same swirls near the weed edges all around the pond. The bank was just out of reach from the center, but if I moved about 10 feet in any direction a simple haul would put me right on the weeds-edge. And that's where I began.

On my first cast the streamer hit in the thin algae a few feet from the bank. I gave the fly a slow count of 3 and then began my retrieve. On about the 4th strip my fly was hammered, nearly ripping the rod out of my hand as it caught me off-guard! Then after a couple headshakes, it was gone with my fly. "Holy Crap!" I said out loud with nobody but myself around to listen, "I'm going to need a larger tippet." I re-rigged with a slight tremble of excitement in my hands, looping on another 3 feet of 3x fluorocarbon and adding another purple leach. On my second cast of the morning my fly made it halfway back to the tube when it was again slammed from a large fish beneath the surface of the dark water. This time however, the leader held. And shortly into the battle it was apparent that I was playing a pickerel. But it was a large pickerel! As I finally wore it out and slid its duck-bill shaped mug up onto my apron I was surprised at its girth. I was looking at an 18 inch chain pickerel, with a body that more resembled a musky than a pickerel. Its belly was nearly 4 inches top-to-bottom and was a real brute that was obviously eating quite well amongst the cedars. Pleased with the catch, I am not a fan of pickerel for the table, so I bid the hefty little bugger good-bye and back into the water it went. I wondered just what else would be in here, as I spun myself 180 degrees to try the other bank. What else would thrive with teeth like that swimming in here? My answer came quickly, as the next 10 casts I landed 6 more fish nearly identical to the first. I was in 7th heaven as I grinned like a Cheshire cat with each fish. I believe I landed over 20 fish before a nature call and the need for water drove me back to the bank. By that time the heat of the day was peaking, so back to the car I went while planning my next visit to the little honey-hole. After storing my gear in the truck, I was sitting looking out the windshield waiting for the air-conditioning to kick in while drinking a lukewarm bottle of water. When there it was, another one of those big garden spiders lumbering across my dash behind the steering wheel! Quickly I escorted his creepy little 8 legs out of my truck in none-too-kind fashion. AGH….I hate spiders!

That was six years ago, and I still try to hit the "Spider Hole" a couple times a year. It's much more productive on wet years, as discovery has shown that it is really an overflow pond from a small estuary about 200 yards through the woods. It appears that in periods of properly timed high water the baitfish rush into that small channel, and then become landlocked. In those wet years, the Pickerel are huge and the fishing is great. On dry years it is average and the pickerel are thin. But there always seems to be plenty of spiders.

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