“I’d just like to learn something, get a better bearing on what these late-summer fish are doing,” I said over my right shoulder, delivering a passive prod to Jared Tuck, a seasoned smallmouth angler from Wytheville, as he slung another cast to the bank from the back of the raft.
“Yeah, it’d be nice to catch one, though,” said Tuck.
“We’ll catch a couple,” I said, attempting to anchor the fate of the day with the optimism and confidence necessary in hunting trophy fish.
An osprey launched itself into flight from a prominent pine along the long, rocky shoreline, the rhythmic sound of air under large, beating wings syncing with the whirling baseline of oar strokes pushing against a light but steady breeze.
Zach Taylor, also of Wytheville, and a virgin to the smallmouth bass that famously fin the New River near his home, cast from the bow, silently wishing too for that first fish of the day.
On the first day of our junior year of college, Zach and I met as roommates, and quickly established common ground in fishing. Upon learning of his uninitiated smallmouth career, I made his introduction to the hard-fighting bronzeback a priority, and we endeavored to float the New at the next opportunity.
Tuck, who grew up fishing the waters of the New, was our across-the-hall neighbor, and one of the 20 freshman residents I was charged with advising. We talked about fishing and smallmouth and the New River more often than not when we didn’t have work to do, and when we did.
But it was a year before the three of us found time to fish together, and, ironically, we weren’t on the New River, but a foreign water of which little is publicly known. Its potential as a smallmouth fishery made me eager to discover its secrets, to learn to catch its fish so as to be able to guide anglers to trophy smallmouth on it. When I pitched the fishery to the boys, they were eager, too.
Tuck swapped to a topwater lure. It landed with a splash next to the bank, and he began working it to the boat in a zig-zag powered by short, upward jerks of the rod tip.
“My dad caught a nice smallmouth on this thing on the New,” said Tuck, without confidence.
As we approached a small creek mouth, Tuck fired his lure to the bank under a small overhanging limb. Before he could begin his retrieve, a V-wake pushing parallel to the bank sprouted a bucket mouth and inhaled it with a loud splash.
Tuck cranked down and set the hook. I dropped the oars. In a few seconds we all saw a large flash of bronze. I grabbed the net, and, being in just a few feet of water, hopped out of the boat. A few tense seconds passed before we saw the flank of the fish again. Tuck raised his rod tip, and I shot the net underneath of the fish and around its head and lifted.
We all celebrated as I pulled the fish from the bag, handing it to Tuck. The first fish of the day—about 18 inches—was the fish we were looking for—a day-maker, and a trophy fish in just about anyone’s book, especially for a foreign body of water.
Tuck traded me my camera for his fish, which he held up for me to photograph. We measured the fish and I snapped more photos as he lowered it back to the water.
Zach caught my attention with an excited grunt from the front. I looked over my shoulder to see his rod bent statically. He was snagged.
But he was reeling. Then the rod throbbed and the fish jumped. As I stood in the water dumfounded, Tuck tried to hold on to his fish to complete a double, but lost his grip in excitement. Zach’s fish bull-dogged around the boat for almost 30 seconds before he succeeded in turning the fish’s head towards the surface. As the brute flared its gills in preparation for another head shake, I caught it with the net and pulled it from safety.
“Dude!” I yelled at Zach as he stared in disbelief at his first smallmouth ever hanging in the net.
Catching up to the events that had unfolded, we shared fist bumps all around. We measured Zach’s fish, which taped at just over 20 inches—a trophy smallmouth, a citation certified by the game department, and a hell of an introduction to the species. I took my camera back from Tuck and handed the fish to Zach, his hands shaking.
We snapped photos and released the fish, and celebrated those fish for the rest of the day, made complete in just a few short but memorable moments.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian