On Jordan Lake

by Tom Sullivan

Into The Water That Reflects the Sky – On Jordan Lake

North America has a history of outdoor writers, who have done their best, to instill a deeper understanding of the outdoor experience. Thoreau, Emerson and Muir, among others, wanted readers and outdoor enthusiasts themselves, whether hunters and fishermen, or campers and walkers; to realize that while we may find ourselves in nature with a purpose – we should not lose the experience in each day that we are given, regardless of the outcomes of those purposes. If the beautiful sunrise, on an early summer morning is only glanced at, or even given no notice at all – nor the species of birds around – in the air, and on the water – the direction of the wind – the sense from the surrounding forests; whether quiet or busy – then the moments between the blow-ups sought by the top-water angler, will truly seem further apart. And they will indeed have less meaning. If he does not calm his nerves, and let the onset of dawn naturally awaken his being; not only will he miss the subtle clues, that could tell him what the fish he seeks might have in mind that morning, but he will have lost his chance to strengthen the experience, as well as learn from it. So those of us who find ourselves in these moments, and are cognizant of a more gratifying and complete outdoor experience, must remind ourselves to recognize them when they are occurring — so as not to have to look back, to see if they ever occurred at all.

I was indeed reminding myself of this very thing in the summer of 2010. I was on Jordan Lake. The morning, as far as fishing, had been uneventful. The air was thick, with late summer humidity already enshrouding the day; almost shortening one’s breath. The striper fishing had been great for several weeks, and I was working to perfect a setup aboard my 16′ Alumacraft for trolling. I’d had some success pulling crankbaits at various depths, but the finer arts of lure presentation using multiple rods, versus cast and retrieve, bait spread behind the boat, utilizing both weighted and un-weighted lures at the same time, color theory, speed and so on, was what I was really starting to explore. So I was alone, watching five rods, the sonar and boat traffic. The nature experience had not yet had a chance to take.

But after pulling hardware, without a strike, in the first few hours that morning, through an area that had been hot for weeks, I decided to go across the lake directly east. The lack of activity had finally forced me to take notice. At first it might have been a hunch – born from boredom. Or a sub-conscious, inner cue; itself tired of being suppressed. But I thought, after an initial scan of my surroundings, that I’d noticed a slight change in the wind. There seemed to be calm, still water on the far bank. No one was in the area either. So rather than pull in five rods and motor quickly across, I decided to troll across the main lake, and unplug for a while. It would take nearly ten or fifteen minutes to cross at trolling speed anyway. At that moment, how I came to the decision was irrelevant. The only thing that was relevant, was that I had to go.

I let the sonar go first, there would be thirty foot in depth the entire way across. My lures were running no deeper than fifteen. Then the rods. Something would have had to have made quite an impression at that moment. There were no other boats, so soon my eyes found the wood-line. It was late summer, and the leaves were just starting to turn. They hadn’t yet started to fall, but soon the cooler evening air would change that. And it was that time of year, when all those I knew, were yearning for the change of seasons, that was to come. The long days of summer had worn out all welcome. Across the lake, and to the North, I could see people starting to walk out onto a nearby public beach. It was after 9:00am, and as the day progressed, those areas would fill up fast. And with them, the boat traffic. But I pushed that away. I knew I had until noon at least, before the lake would get rough.

As the eastern shoreline began to reveal itself in further detail, I could see the driftwood and rocks standing out starkly on the deep orange clay banks, that line much of the lakes in central North Carolina. I could see trees that had fallen years ago, stripped of any foliage, and now half submerged in the water – which surely created habitat for bait and game fish alike. Birds were circling above. I could feel the heat of the day building, and would soon require a dip. It’s often best in the summer, right off the boat, in thirty plus feet of water. There one can get down a few feet, and actually find relief from the sometimes oppressing heat and humidity, of the dog days of August. As opposed to the few feet of water, those that stand in the shallows recreate in. Usually the temperature of bath water, and perhaps as clean. Not very refreshing. But I wasn’t quite ready for a swim yet.

After a few moments of refocusing, I found myself at mid-lake. It was then I realized the wind had indeed changed. It had been slight, but out of the west. Now it was coming from the east, and the side I approached was sheltered. Already the slight chop that had started on the west side had given way to near glassy conditions, and I could suddenly see bait balls of shad everywhere. As far as I could see, from mid-lake to the other side were scattered balls of shad on top of the water. It was like I had come a half mile but reached another lake. This often happens on calm cloudy days, on Jordan lake. And soon after, every fish in the lake, will sometimes crash the water in boils. You can see striped bass, white bass, largemouth too. There could be crappie, perch and even catfish of multiple species thrashing the water in violent feeding frenzy. These are perfect storms on small lakes. Fishermen know, and joke — that one could throw anything in there tackle box at these times, and nearly catch fish on every cast. But it was sunny on this day, and the top-water phenomena did not occur. But underneath…

It was then I noticed that the marks, on the screen of my sonar unit, had turned to spaghetti. No sooner did I see the graph, than hear the commotion. Three of the five rods I had deployed were bouncing violently. They were all double-rigged, off three-way swivels, to different leaders with different lures. Mostly bucktails and spoons. Two to a rod. So that if I was to hit a school, I could conceivably catch two fish per rod. To do this, it is important to have the leaders tied to different lengths. The short leaders with a heavy bucktail, so it would drop low in the water column. Then the long leader with a much lighter offering, such as a smaller bucktail, or a spoon. This longer leader, with the lighter lure, would rise higher in the water and increase the area of lure presentation. A striper fisherman wants to pull a school of bait through the water — as opposed to a single offering.

As I began working on the first of three rods, I could tell something was wrong. It felt like I was tangled in one of the other lines. I could feel pulling, but it seemed to be coming from too many directions. As all kinds of ideas began to form in my mind, I realized I just needed to focus on one thing at a time, and I set in to fight this first objective, then proceed.

It took a few minutes before I could actually see what I was dealing with. I had a double hook-up on the first rod, but one or both of the fish had tangled with the next rod in the spread, or the fish from that rod had tangled these. Regardless — I had an issue. As I continued to keep pressure on the fish, with a good rod bend, I also periodically corrected my heading, to avoid more tangling. I quickly wound my way to the mess, with two nice rockfish in view alongside the boat. I would have to hand line in the remainder. Luckily the first two were in sight. After a few hectic moments, I had netted the largest fish, dropped it on the floor of the boat, and began pulling the longer leader, with the smaller fish aboard too. Two aboard, and a Chinese fire drill was in process. These fish have truly beautiful colors. They, of course, have the long, dark, horizontal lines from gill-plate to tail; but they also have hues of blue and shades of grey, that can be seen, when held just right, in the light of day.

After immediately grabbing the other line, from the second rod, I actually felt something pull free. So I pulled the remaining tackle aboard, looked up, and the third rod was still alive with excitement. I grabbed it from the rod holder, and reeled down on what felt like a bigger striped bass. It began to pull drag, after feeling more resistance. So I let it run, while making another heading correction. Two of the five rods still had lines out, but they were running free. I could tell I had one, nice fish on. There was no competitive pulling from below. I fought that fish for nearly five minutes. He’d run deep, pulling drag, then I would gain back. And repeat. In these moments, I was surely not studying the surrounding waterway – though I was aware of it entirely. After repeated runs he finally began to give in. I got a good look at the fish and gasped slightly at the sight. He was a good deal bigger than the first two. I pulled him close to the boat, and pulled the third fish from the water. It was the biggest of the three, fat for the time of year, and well over eight pounds.

Suddenly, I felt like I knew what I was doing.

But a mess before me I had. I took a quick picture, with the fish spilled across the floor of my boat. I was smiling, and readying a cooler for the fish. The limit on the lake is four per person, with a twenty inch minimum. Three would do for a start, or be plenty if there was no more action that day. Then I dealt with the lines, saving whatever I could. It took ten or fifteen minutes, and by the time I was back to being able to deploy lines, the wind had changed again. The chop was again present, and the bait balls were gone. In a twenty or thirty minute period, an area that was teeming with activity, now looked devoid of life, and one would have sworn what had just happened was a dream. But I surely knew differently. It was an example of striper fishing at its finest. Hours of boredom, or hours to seek some satisfaction beyond the act of angling; with a few startlingly, exciting moments of sheer exhilaration mixed in for good measure.

The sonar unit was blank, and I was back on the hunt.

Not long after the only hookup of the day, I found myself again slowly, trolling along – or more likely – just riding around. There were long periods of day dreaming, staring absent-mindedly at the beauty that was all around me, and going over what had happened earlier in my mind. I recalled the way the lake almost looked like the sky. So smooth, and only ruptured by the hundreds of thousands of thread-fin shad; like stars in the night sky, that was soon to come. I remembered the scene, right along with the frenzy that followed. And it was good. There were no thoughts of the lost fish, or negativity associated with not finding them again. I had allowed myself to slow down and enjoy where I was, along with what I was doing. And I couldn’t help but think: I only had the awesome day I’d had, precisely because I had done so.