Tim Mead Fishing
John Bales pulled into the parking lot, boat in tow, a few minutes after I did. And here’s the dangerous part. John and I had never met and we were about to put two crusty old anglers into a single boat and go fishing.
Phil Bloom, President of the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA), arranged for us to fish together a day before the annual OWAA conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Via email and a phone conversation, John told me to meet him at Sylvan Lake, northwest of Fort Wayne.
“Have you ever gone Spoonplugging?” John asked over the phone. “That’s what we’ll do. I’ll show you how to map a lake and we’ll talk about the impact of weed killing chemicals on our lakes here.”
Spoonplugging was developed years ago by Buck Perry, then a faculty member at North Carolina State University. He designed lures not quite spoons and not quite plugs which allowed him to fish varied depths with precise control.
Well I remember the first time I ever heard of Buck Perry. He came to Michigan to tout his method, claiming he could catch big fish from lakes “fished out.” Mort Neff featured Perry on Neff’s TV show, “Michigan Outdoors.” The show was a must see at the Mead household. Neff filmed Perry launching his boat at Lake Washtenaw, near Ann Arbor. According to Perry, he had never seen the lake before. At the end of the show, Perry lined five largemouth bass on the pier (before the days of catch and release), all over five pounds. This guy must be on to something.
Spoonpluggers start trolling. It is a way to map the bottom of a body of water. Bales tied on a small Spoonplug and began moving along the bank. As the lure banged the bottom, he sped up. He moved the boat in and out, marking the breakline, the spot on the bottom where there is a change in depth. Then he changed lures and did it again. Gradually, he mapped the structure, the bottom of the lake and any unusual features which distinguish it from adjacent areas.
As we fished, Bales reminded me often, “It’s all in Buck’s book, we call it the Greenbook. Everything I know I owe to Buck Perry. I’m not telling you anything that’s not in the book.” Perry’s book is Spoonplugging: Knowledge is the Key to Fishing Success. My well-marked edition is copyright 1973.
“What we’re looking for,” Bales explained, “is the contact point, the spot on structure where big fish moving from deep water where they first hit the structure.”
Bales told me, “Spoonplugging teaches more than trolling, though mapping by trolling is the beginning step. Once the structure is mapped and contact points located, casting may be the best way to catch fish bunched up. And it’s not just using Spoonplugs.” Indeed, later in the day, Bales and I began casting drop shot rigs along a long ridge, right at the edge of a drop off – a breakline in Spoonplugger talk. Bales said, “I found this ridge trolling a Spoonplug, noting when it banged the bottom and when it ran free. Having Spoonplugging knowledge tells you how to use other methods.”
Years ago, fishing Conmee Lake in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, Craig, my then adolescent son, and I found a hump a hundred yards from shore when our trolled Wally Divers banged the bottom. How deep the adjacent water nearby was, I have no idea. But the hump was about eight feet below the surface and, no matter which direction we paddled, when our lures began to bang the structure, we caught walleyes ranging from two to four pounds and pike from five to eight pounds. We did it all afternoon.
Why not, you ask, not get a hydrographic or topographic map from the state natural resources agency? Or simply use a modern depth finder, the sort not available to Buck Perry when he started all this? Bales’ answer to those questions was, “Trollers can find the hot spots in half the time. By moving in and out on a trolling path, changes in depth of structure are more noticeable than they are moving in a straight line. Depth finders sure help, but there’s a lot to be learned banging a lure on the bottom.”
Over the last thirty years, plus or minus, Bales has noticed a decline in the big bass in his area. As we launched, he said, “This lake used to be pea green. It was a big bass lake. Schools of big bass.” The lake, and many others like it at different times, was drained and restocked. According to Bales, the lake never fully recovered.
He believes systematic poisoning of weeds is a major factor. He said, “As the lake shores become developed, home owners don’t want to look at weeds. So they petition the State and the State issues a permit allowing private companies to come in and spray the weeds. The weeds die, reducing cover for fish and consuming oxygen as they die. A few years ago, zebra mussels showed up in most of the lakes around here. And they made the water clearer and the weeds grow deeper. The weed killers love it.” Zebra mussels facilitate deeper weed growth because they are filter feeders and the clarified water permits sunlight to penetrate deeper into the water column.
“Folks don’t really know, I don‘t think,” Bales said, “what the extra effects of poisoning weeds may be. A few days ago the weed killers were here spraying the weeds. Later I saw a woman in the yard and her daughter was swimming in the lake right where the chemical had been put in the lake. That can’t be a good thing.”
Spoonplugging is alive and well not just in northern eastern Indiana. Spoonpluggers have big get-togethers to share techniques and, as is common with other anglers, tall tales. Buck’s Baits, the name under which Spoonplugs are sold, and the famous Greenbook are available at bucksspoonplugs.com.
John Bales claims he’s a teacher, not a guide. And if you never Spoonplug again, you’ll be sure to learn from John. He’s at email@example.com. I recommend him.
Oh, yeah. John and I got along great.
Last updated on August 25, 2018