How to win boat-side brawls

Catching fish when they swim near the fishing boat can be difficult. Fishermen have to contend with the position of the boat and the fish. The process of hooking bass, walleye, muskie and various billfish is described.
Just 15 feet from our boat, the bass exploded on my surface plug, showering the emergent trees in three directions. I reared back on my stout seven-foot rod to set the hooks as the giant swirled on top in the five-foot-deep water. The big fish felt the sting of metal, dove toward the bottom, and then headed skyward.

This huge bass wasn’t a largemouth, but a 16-pound peacock bass that wanted to tear up anything in its way. My guide, Juan, gasped, “Grande pavon,” at the sight of the peacock’s broad triple-striped side and opened his eyes wide and dropped his jaw. I was too excited to blink. The bass swam toward the boat and under it as I reeled frantically to keep a tight line.

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I thrust the rod toward the brushy bottom, praying that this giant wouldn’t become entangled or straighten the heavy-duty hooks that had been harnessed on the Jerkin’ Sam topwater plug expressly for my Venezuela trip. I was confident that the 30-pound-test line wouldn’t part unless it was grated against some of the flooded hardwoods that surrounded the boat.

The peacock exploded on the opposite side of the boat just a few feet off the gunnel as I worked the rod’s tip below the trolling motor and brought it up once again to fighting position. I put some more pressure on the brute, but it was heading pretty much where it wanted. The bass bulled past Juan’s outreached net and into another treetop at the bow of the boat. It then became tangled in the branches but shortly swam out–the same way it had swum in. The monster again rushed into a brush top off our stern, and this time steady pressure didn’t work the fish free.

We waited for two minutes for the bass to swim out of the cover. Finally, Juan decided that time was running out and stripped to his underwear. I was not surprised when he jumped overboard and was thankful for his willingness to go hand to hand with my trophy fish. I’m not sure if the guide was thinking about the plug’s two super-strong trebles that were hanging out of the jaw of the still-powerful peacock. He simply dove straight down for the fish.

My steady pressure on the bass all of a sudden made it move, and when the peacock came out of the treetop, I held my breath as it passed Juan without one of the hooks making contact. When the huge head of the bass erupted from the surface beside me, I jabbed my hand toward its jaws without a thought of the lure’s dangerous adornments. I put a lip lock on the fish and hauled it over the side. Juan’s head bobbed to the surface in time to see my capture, and his grin confirmed his satisfaction with the events despite his bath.

This boat-side battle took place in the flooded jungles of Venezuela’s Lake Guri, the second-largest impoundment in the world. We were in the wooded “Monkey Cove” arm off the main lake, a short distance from the beautiful Guri Lodge and hydroelectric dam facility.

In my three trips to the jungles of Venezuela and my more limited exposure to the hard-fighting peacocks in southern Florida canals, I’ve come to the conclusion that giant peacock bass are not very smart. They are just mean and powerful. A largemouth has a purpose in heading into heavy cover when hooked, and that is to break the line in the entanglement. A giant peacock will head into brush or a treetop for the simple reason that it’s there. The peacock doesn’t have a particular strategy in mind, such as tying a knot around a limb. It is big enough to do what it wants and go where it wants to. The peacock is like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It doesn’t pay attention to the small stuff.

On many occasions I’ve had nine to 12-pound peacock bass go into submerged trees, and with steady pressure I have been able to lead the big fish back out (actually they’ve swum out the way they’ve gone in, more on their own accord). Seldom have I been able to do this with a giant largemouth bass that is seemingly buried in an entanglement. Largemouths generally know not to come back out the way they go in.

Another trait of the peacock is that it just won’t give up until it is exhausted. Peacocks have a much stronger burst of energy than largemouths or smallmouths, yet once that energy is depleted, the fish are overstressed and may die soon if not cared for properly. Members of the black-bass family are simply hardier than the peacock. Also, once you get a lip lock on a largemouth or smallmouth, the fish will be relatively docile because it is partially paralyzed by the hold. That’s not so with a peacock–a lip lock is simply a way to grab this bass. When you grab a peacock in this manner, the fish probably thinks that it has a good bite on your hand.

Lots of other gamefish are difficult to handle at boat-side or once netted. I was fishing for walleyes and smallmouth bass recently at one of Canada’s best fisheries, Little Sand Lake at Minaki, Ontario. With me were walleye experts Mike Fine of Berkley Inc., Lanny Orvalla of Lund Boats and the father and son Amenrud team who we dubbed “Mini” and “Maxi.” Randy Amenrud is one of the country’s top professional walleye tournament fishermen from Minnesota, and his 26-year-old son, Todd, is an accomplished angler in his own right.

On this trip, one boat-side battle that we lost with a big walleye was very unfortunate. The seven-pounder also lost, but not before doing significant damage to its captor. Todd, fishing in a separate boat, had landed the big walleye on a trolled crankbait. The fish had made its initial power runs, but then had swum into Mike’s waiting net. The two anglers immediately motored over to Randy, Lanny and me for a photo opportunity.

As I readied my camera for a few shots of the angler with his fish held high, the walleye flipped–and you can guess what happened. The fish still had enough energy to bury one of the treble hooks into Todd’s finger. Mike and Lanny quickly removed the wiggling fish from the plug above Todd’s “sounds of obvious discomfort.”

Big walleyes are different from smaller walleyes, which give up quickly and are easy to handle. The big walleye will make several short power runs, but it doesn’t have the stamina of many other gamefish. Still, a monster marble-eye can be tough to handle for a while.

A walleye alongside the boat is not going to try to get around the motor, but it may try to dive straight down and go under the boat. Randy advises keeping pressure on the walleye by keeping the rod tip up. When the fish makes a move, the angler can react by dropping the rod tip and minimizing the pressure on the walleye.

“I’m not going to reel any fish too close to the rod tip, because then I’ll still be able to react with their moves,” he said. “You would normally net a big walleye, although on occasion, I have grabbed one. One thing you don’t do is lip a walleye. I saw a guy from down South once lip a walleye, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Their gills are sharp, as are their teeth.”

Smallmouth and largemouth bass are similar in their antics around the boat. Both jump and cavort until landed. If using light line, it is wise to handle a large smallmouth easily when it nears the boat. Smallies may make spectacular jumps and head for a motor, so anglers should be prepared to steer the fish around potential trouble spots.

A smallmouth at boat-side will be fighting with gusto. Accuracy comes into play here. You have to be more precise to lip them because they have smaller mouths than their big-mouthed cousins. Both of these species of black bass will be intent on finding entanglements near the boat; and they’ll know what to do when they see one.

A muskie, on the other hand, has the philosophy of the peacock bass–charge in any direction and overpower the angler. Though a muskie will go where it wants to go, often it will head for deeper water. When a muskie is coming toward the boat, an angler should treat it with respect. You don’t want a “hot” muskie in the net, let alone in the boat. Randy Amenrud has had such a fish in his boat, and he is quick to explain that tackle boxes are toppled and the boat contents are often in a mess when the fracas is over.

“You really have to be careful when handling a big muskie because of its teeth, gills and gill plates,” Randy said. “When you hook a muskie near the boat, you can often just keep pressure on it and swim it to the gunnel. You might think then that you’re ready to put the muskie into the boat, but don’t be mislead. Because all of a sudden it will wake up and go crazy, jumping and thrashing.

“If you aren’t going to keep that fish, then you definitely don’t want it in the boat with you. If you’re going to release it, you don’t want the fish banging around in the net, either. We release most of our muskies to catch again.”

All muskies are different. Sometimes they’ll be on the surface jumping; other times, they’ll be pulling down deep. Some big fish stay down for the entire fight, whereas others will take to the air as soon as you hit them with a deep-running crankbait. At boat-side, muskies may jump, go around a motor or go deep. At times a muskie will run at the boat so fast that the angler can’t reel in the slack quickly enough, and before he knows it the fish will be under the boat and jumping on the other side. The angler has to have split-second reactions.

“That’s one of the things about muskies,” said Randy. “They put up a quick, furious fight, but it doesn’t last very long. They don’t have the stamina of a smallmouth bass. Basically, you hook one, get it beside the boat while it’s still hot and play it for a while until it wears itself out.

“You’ll hear stories about someone fighting a muskie for 45 minutes, and that’s possible,” he admitted, “but I’ve never had a fight with one last more than 15 minutes. And that’s a long time with a fish at the end of the line. If a guy keeps fighting a muskie for a half-hour, then he’s not putting the pressure on it.”

An angler backtrolling has to be concerned with a big muskie, smallmouth, northern or walleye as it nears the boat. You don’t just concentrate on playing the fish and let the boat drift. You need to keep the boat positioned so that the fish stays on the side of the boat where you’re fighting it. Proper operation is to keep the boat mostly in neutral, but kick it in and out of gear. Boat positioning to keep it in the fighting position is critical in order to land a fish easily.

While forward trolling, the wise angler should keep the boat moving forward until the fish is alongside the boat. This is usually the place where the fish gets hot. One of Randy Amenrud’s means to bring a fish to boat quicker is to put the motor in reverse occasionally.

“When fishing a crankbait, though, you don’t want to put the boat in neutral or reverse because you don’t want slack line with any fish,” he said. “In this situation, I’ll keep the boat going. If I’m going with the wind, I’ll pop the boat into neutral occasionally, as long as I’m still moving away from the fish. If I did this with a muskie, I’d have to have very heavy tackle, but with a walleye, we baby the fish until it gets hot. Then we start playing it.”

Whether the battle is between you and a muskie, a peacock bass or a largemouth, you don’t want to play the fish long underneath the boat or near either the outboard or the electric motor. If the fish makes a run, the best move is to point the rod into the water beside the boat and swing it around the bow or stern.

When a fish is active at boat-side, there are few fishing thrills more memorable. Different species behave differently, and larger fish all put up good fights. The battle grounds of excitement for most of us are right at the gunnel. This is where the smart angler will usually win!

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