Where Time Stops

Time moves fast. Every moment seems to pass by faster and faster than the one before. New distractions are always at our fingertips: one buzz and you are linked into a whole virtual world. We daydream of far-off places, wondering how we could ever match the experiences posted by everyone else. Counting the reasons why our life isn’t following the same ‘perfect’ path that we see on our screens. So caught up in trying to manicure our lives that we never stop to live our own.

There is beauty in disconnection. Wonder in the unknown. An excitement in accepting that there isn’t any one path. There is contentment in doing exactly what makes you happy, no matter how crazy people may think you are.

So here I am. Staring up at a limestone bluff. A lush, deciduous forest bursting with life above it. Below trickles a slow, wandering creek. It follows the low spots of the rock bottom. On rare occasions, it narrows, creating deep holes teeming with life.

Unnamed Creek

There I stand. A four-foot collapsible fishing rod in my hand. A hook so small, reading glasses are required to bait it. An image belonging in a kids’ book: a man so obsessed with fish he would search even the smallest puddles. The truth is each of those puddles are magic. The longer you look into them, the more life you can see. Creek Chubs scurry about, fighting one another for any scrap of food. The other minnows mine the bottom, searching for the rare morsel that escapes the chubs.

Creek Chub

These scavengers are careful. They graze around each tiny rock. When you are still, you can get lost seeing the small schools systematically search each quadrant of the pool. Watching in amusement, my curiosity gets the best of me. I drop my comically miniscule hook to the bottom. The minnows scatter. (A reasonable response for a creature on the bottom of the food chain.) I leave the bait resting on the bottom. They feed in a pattern, and I know they will return to this area soon. I carefully watch my hook as the minutes pass. The first brave minnow returns and finds my bait. The tiniest tug on my line and suddenly I’m happily holding one of these bottom-grazing beauties. A quick glance and I recognize a familiar face. It’s a Bluntnose Minnow! They are thriving in the creek this year.

Bluntnose Minnow

My curiosity isn’t so easily sated. The occasional ghost of a larger fish dances around the Bluntnose Minnows. This fish is different. I stand there huddled over the creek, dropping my bait down over and over again. Pulling up one Bluntnose Minnow after another. I’m starting to question my sanity when a silver flash happens as my bait drops. Could this finally be it? A small, silver fish wiggles at the end of the tiny hook. I don’t recognize the fish. It’s something new! My 107th species of fish caught on hook and line. The Silverjaw Minnow!

I sit on the sand beside the creek and smile. Life is simple here. It is a place a where two-inch fish can make a person’s day. The sound of singing birds surrounds me, harmonizing with the babbling creek. A vibrant forest breathes. Time has no meaning in a place like this.

Silverjaw Minnow

A Blue Jay flashes, letting me know I have over-extended my welcome here. I wade down the creek. I walk slowly to see what minnows will make themselves visible. Creek Chubs dash left and right. The Bluntnose and Silverjaw Minnows retreat to the deepest pools as I pass. And then I see something unique and pure. The creek narrows to a foot wide. A single pool the size of a basketball cut into the rock floor. The water rips through here. A perfect habitat for an amazingly unique fish. I get down on my knees and shade my eyes with my hands. At first, all I see is the water rushing over smooth brown rocks. I focus harder. An odd, triangular shape points out of a crack between two stones. There it is. The queen of this creek. The humble Spottail Darter, perfectly camouflaged. This tiny pool is thriving. Darters are resting on the bottom against the rocks, just waiting for a snack to wash down. A wee insect floats down and one zips out from the bottom, the meal vanishing in a heartbeat. I get my fishing rod back out. How could I pass up such a perfect opportunity? My little hook touches the water and a darter shoots out of the rock. A quick picture and it is back safely.

Spottail Darter

Content with the time spent wading in the creek, I make the slow walk back to the car. The distractions of the ‘real’ world can’t touch me here. I smile as the Blue Jay scolds me one last time. One last long look at the limestone bluff. The trees a vibrant green contrasting against the blue sky. I close my eyes. One last deep breath of the pure forest air, imprinting every detail of this place until I return.

Tight lines,

-Isaac

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February, Fish and Crutches

February has been a very odd month for me. I usually looking forward to the late winter/early spring flooding, it always makes for a new and challenging environment to figure out. But this year I was bested by the season. To my dismay at the end of January I got very sick and stopped fishing. At the same time I strained my leg really badly. Because of being so sick my leg didn’t heal like it should. Once the doctors figured out how to treat what was wrong with me, we addressed the issues with my leg. When I started physical therapy I was missing 77 degrees of extension. I was totally dependent on crutches and was still weak from being sick. It took the whole month of February before getting back to feeling like myself again. I have worked really hard and regained my full range of motion and no longer need crutches.

With all that being said, I really didn’t manage to fish much until the last half of the month when I started regaining my strength. I started small. I would stop at a small creek and fish for Creek Chubs for a half hour (a fish that no matter the conditions is always willing to bite). And then would retreat back to the house to rest.

Creek Chub

As I got more confident walking around on my crutches I started parking my SUV close to lakes and walking short distances to try for bigger fish. I would rarely get further than 100 feet from my car, but that was usually far enough to catch a few fish. I would settle down in a chair or lean against something and fish until my leg started hurting too much. I was fortunate and would usually catch a fish or two before getting to that point. This helped me fight the cabin fever.

Largemouth Bass

I kept working on building my strength and got to the point where I could make one lap around a small pond on my crutches without getting too tired. This let me start fishing more moving baits and get a few White Crappie. A fish that I usually devote a large part of my February to, and I was starting to miss them.

White Crappie

A week later and I was able to start putting some weight on my hurt leg. This opened up some new possibilities, though I was still limited to walking very short distances. The temperature had risen temptingly high and I just couldn’t stay inside anymore. I really wanted to catch something different, I was reaching my limit of catching the same bass and crappie over and over again. This led me to going on the search for a Warmouth!

Warmouth

By the end of the month I was finally free of my crutches and was ecstatic to be walking around (even if it was with a limp). This opened up the possibility to walk to different habitats and target different species of fish. I started with trying to target Black Crappie, and somehow instead managed to catch some gorgeous hybrid sunfish.

Hybrid Sunfish

But with a little persistence I was able to get the Black Crappie to play a long too!

Black Crappie

Having successfully caught the fish I was after I tied on a microfishing hook and decided to explore around and see if I could find anything new. To my surprise I ended up finding a new population of Blackspotted Topminnows! *Correction: After doing more research and sampling a larger size of this population it was determined that these were simply Blackstripe Topminnows that had more pigmentation above their lateral line.*

Blackspotted Topminnow

Along with the topminnows, I also found a number of juvenile sunfish. The coolest being this small Green Sunfish.

Green Sunfish

Seeing the little sunfish starting to move shallow I knew it was time to start shifting my focus more towards panfish. This seemed like a good excuse to tie on a jig and just explore around. I ended up settling on a new favorite ultralight jig that perfectly imitates a small crayfish. It even outperformed my usual minnow imitation jigs!

Bluegill

The final goal for the month was to catch a respectable Redear Sunfish. Luckily I know a few ponds that have strong populations of them. As a reward for making so much progress in physical therapy I reward myself with making a trip up to one of these ponds after work one day. There I was greeted with a good number of Largemouth Bass, Bluegill and most importantly some big Redear Sunfish.

Redear Sunfish

As February ends I can’t help but be incredibly thankful for all the people who have supported me through the last few months. I am incredibly lucky to have so many people willing to drop everything and help me. I have a new found appreciation for my health and am so grateful to be able to spend time outside again.

Tight lines,

-Isaac

Creek and River Hopping

Watching the water levels change in the Ohio River is my favorite part of driving to school every day. When I see it rising high enough to start entering the flood plains, I never fail to get excited. This always means two things: Any eddies you can find on the main stem of the Ohio River should be full of fish, and all of the creeks should also be teaming with fish escaping the high current.

The river was starting to reach that magical height when I decided to play a risky game. One of my favorite challenges in fishing is using an ultralight setup in the most difficult conditions possible, and the Ohio River never ceases to offer opportunities to test your abilities. On a lovely Sunday afternoon, I found myself beside the boat launch at Angel Mounds armed with a couple of my lightest rods. I rigged them with a simple, tight line setup with nightcrawlers and cast them into the current break downstream of the launch. It didn’t take long before my first rod bounced and I set the hook into a lovely little Channel Catfish.

It seemed like every ten minutes or so, a rod would bounce and I would reel up a small Channel Catfish or Freshwater Drum. I played with these fish until some large logs got washed downstream into this eddy and made fishing impossible.

The water stayed high throughout most of this month, so I spent a lot of time creek hopping. [Location name redacted] is one of my favorite places to fish when the river levels are high. This backwater creek is always full of species that many people don’t target. I usually target the deeper sections of the creek early in the year, but with the temperatures starting to creep higher the fish have been moving to the shallower sections of the creek. These fish are always easily spooked, but that makes the challenge of catching them all the more fun. On my first hike back to a shallow stretch here, I thought I spotted something I hadn’t seen in two years: a Grass Pickerel. But before I could investigate, the fish vanished across the creek. I managed to scare this fish off during my next three ventures, but on a lucky hike, I managed to catch it off-guard and landed a small jig right in front of his face. To my surprise, the fish made a quick dash and my jig vanished. I set the hook and was delighted to see a small Grass Pickerel.

After documenting its size and location, I released this little fish back into the creek and moved on to my next spot. The lily pads have started to grow here and a decent number of predatory fish are taking advantage of them as ambush points. Like this little Largemouth Bass.

Another stretch of this creek held a fish I hadn’t seen inhabit this waterway before: a little Redear Sunfish. It turns out that this section of the creek now houses a large number of these fish! I’ve fished this creek for years and this is the first time I’ve ever seen them, so that is a pretty interesting new change.

I couldn’t give up on this spot until I caught one of all time favorite fish, the Flier Sunfish. This one had to be tempted with Bee Moths put on the smallest jig I could find.

This little stretch of the creek housed some amazing panfish diversity. Tossing my jig toward a branch that was partially submerged, something darted out and attacked my jig but managed to miss the hook. I tossed back into that spot, and this time the fish didn’t get as lucky. After a quick fight on light tackle, I was greeted with a feisty little Warmouth. These guys start getting abundant in this creek come May.

That same branch seemed to be home to another similar species: the Green Sunfish. My favorite comparison I’ve heard is that they are the “micro version” of a grouper, and I couldn’t agree more. They put up a great fight on light tackle and are very willing to hit most baits.

As the month continued, the weather kept getting nicer and more people have been deciding to get out and go fishing. I’m always excited to see people out fishing and enjoying nature, but this is usually when I start going to some of my more remote places where I know less people will be at. This led me to one of my favorite little creeks in Evansville: Locust Creek. This creek is always filled to the brim with Creek Chubs, and this is the time of year when they are all getting ready to spawn. My main goal of the day was to catch some small ones for bait on Pigeon Creek, but I was also hoping to hook into a spawning male. After filling my bait bucket with enough small creek chubs to last the day, I turned my attention to trying to catch a larger male. Before long, I set the hook into what I suspected to be a small Largemouth Bass, but turned out to be a large Creek Chub in full spawning attire. During spawning season, the males grow tubercles and in this case also took on the rusty orange color that adult creek chubs can have.

After happily catching my fair share of Creek Chubs, I packed up and drove to my favorite section of Pigeon Creek. After a long hike with a very heavy bait bucket, I set up my three rods in hopes of finding my first Flathead Catfish of the year. The bite was incredibly slow and the fish seemed to be remarkably skilled in hitting my bait and then instantly snagging my line around the debris on the bottom of the creek. But after an hour of frustration, one of my poles doubled over and the battle was on. I carefully worked the fish out of the log jam it tried to wrap itself in and was thrilled to see a Flathead Catfish finally break surface.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try to catch one of the Gar that I kept seeing surfacing around me. I finally found one that was cruising right below the surface, and I quickly put a minnow on a treble hook and cast out in front of it. The Gar dashed forward at the minnow and then dived, and my instincts said to set the hook (but I’ve made that mistake enough times to know better). So, I let the gar swim with the minnow for about 45 seconds before setting the hook, hard. The hook set perfectly in the lower jaw and I was able to easily reel in the Gar. I was even more excited when I realized that this was actually a Spotted Gar, a species that I didn’t have on my list yet.

Toward the end of the month, I returned to [location name redacted again] to see if any new species had moved into it yet. I was happy to see some Gar spawning in the backwater creek and even a few Bowfin cruising around. Sadly, my ultralight setup was not ready for the challenge of one of these toothy critters. I switched my attention back to the panfish- hoping to find a Redspotted Sunfish in Evansville. Unfortunately, the closest population I have found is still in Winslow, Indiana. However, the creek still has a stable population of Bluegill, Warmouth, Green Sunfish, Redear Sunfish, Black Crappie, and Flier Sunfish.

I still hadn’t caught a decent Spotted Bass this year, so I headed to the river to try to change that. The boat launch at Angel Mounds has a fantastic current seam that always holds a few bass when the river is rising. I set up two catfish rods like usual, and then started tossing around a small white curl tail grub on my ultralight rod. It didn’t take long before I felt a bump and I set the hook into the first species of the day: a little Striped Bass.

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The next fish to fall victim to the lure was a Skipjack Herring, the first one I’ve found this year. I ended up catching two of them and keeping both as catfish bait for a later trip.

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After catching a handful of Striped Bass and White Bass, I finally had a hit that felt distinctive from the others. I set the hook and this one fought differently. A short fight later, I was holding my first half-decent Spotted Bass of the year.

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The bait rods started getting hits, but they kept managing to miss the hook. After multiple failed hook sets, I connected with one of the small Channel Catfish that were crowding this spot.

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This was a rare occasion where the Freshwater Drum were slower to find the bait than the catfish. But eventually, I stumbled across a small one.

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Because I was getting so many small bites, I decided to downsize my hook size. This quickly resulted in what most people around here refer to as a “river minnow”- or if you are into identifying fish (like I am) a Silver Chub. This was another exciting catch since it was a first for my species list!

Edited

The White Bass were getting active, so I couldn’t resist trying to mark off another item off my bucket list: catching a temperate bass on a fly rod. I tied on my last Clouser Minnow and got to work. It took a while, but finally my line twitched and I set the hook into the first of many White Bass.

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My success at fly fishing left me feeling accomplished, so I decided to explore some of the water upstream of the boat launch. I decided not to tempt my luck too far and only took my ultralight rod and a container of nightcrawlers. The real highlight of exploring this new stretch of water was hooking into a lovely little Longnose Gar.

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While I’ve enjoyed fishing the river, this has really been one of my best years fishing backwater creeks. I would highly suggest that any of you with access to places like this try exploring them. A lot of very cool, overlooked species are living here, and better yet, you usually know you are the only person who is fishing these spots. I will always pick these hidden backwater creeks over a trophy Largemouth Bass lake any day, and I hope you will consider giving it a try, too.

Tight lines,

-Isaac

Exploring Ferdinand State Forest

I’ve fished Ferdinand State Forest a few times when I was younger with my father, but these trips have always focused on catching Largemouth Bass and I’ve always wanted to know what else lives out in this park. So Friday after work I started packing up all of my fishing and camping gear so that I could leave first thing Saturday morning. When I go on trips like this I always like to set myself a goal to help keep me motivated, this trip I decided that my goal would be to catch 10 different species. Saturday morning I got up with the sun, packed the last of my food and jumped in my suv to start the drive. I got to the park before the ranger at the station did and was able to secure the best camping location in the whole park. After struggling with the tent for a half hour my campsite was set up and I unloaded the rods to do a little fishing.

I started by exploring the overflow creek from the lake and tried to target some of the gar that kept surfacing. After many failed hook sets I gave up on that quest and put on my rubber boots and started microfishing my way down the creek (well as close to microfishing as you can get with a size 22 hook). My efforts were quickly rewarded with a lovely Blackstripe Topminnow.

Blackstripe Top Minnow

At the next pool I was happy to find a large number of creek chubs.

After working through a good number of chubs I found what I think is a Striped Shiner

At this point I switched over to the top lake and took the canoe out to target a few evening largemouth. It didn’t take long to find a Largemouth Bass willing to hit a top water lure.

As sunset approached I set out to find some firewood and get dinner ready. I had hoped to fish for catfish once the sun had set, but after making supper I was surprisingly tired so I went ahead and settled down in my tent for the night.

Once again I woke up as the sun was just starting to come up, I decided to go back to the over flow creek and see if I could find a few more fish species before it got too hot. I started by jigging around the rocks and as I was hoping was able to tempt quite a few Warmouth.

I then started tossing the jig into some shallower water that was at the back end of the pool I was fishing was able to find a few very colorful Green Sunfish

But I had heard rumors of that this overflow was home to some crappie and I just couldn’t seem to tempt them. Then I had the idea to start casting as far up the inflow pipe as I could. Surprisingly I started catching a lot of bluegill from this spot.

After working through a lot of bluegill I was incredibly excited to hook into a small Black Crappie (I may or may not have cheered when I landed this fish).

I tossed out a rod with some cutbait with hopes of a gar again, but this time I was lucky enough to hook into what I think is a Yellow Bullhead (I honestly have the hardest time telling the bullheads apart)

After this fish I returned to jigging, I found a small submerged tree branch and tossed my jig into it. I was incredibly excited to see this little Redear Sunfish come out of it.

The last thing I wanted to include were a few of the strange catches I had as I was exploring the forest. The first is the very oddly colored Warmouth, at first I thought it was a rock bass but it appears to have the wrong number of spines on the anal fin.

And while I was micro fishing I was very surprised to catch a frog in between the tadpole and the froglet stage!

Lake Spillway Fishing

Most people go to Ferdinand State Forest with the purpose of fishing in the main lake. I am not one of those people. You’ll see me walk right beside the lake and down the dam wall and stop at the small creek formed by the spillway. I have been laughed at countless times for fishing in this little creek, but I have yet to be disappointed by it. It holds large numbers of chubs and bass in the spring and crappie and panfish through the summer and fall.  The lake only thawed out this week so the water levels were high and water was terribly muddy. But this pushed a lot of water through the overflow and had the creek at decent level. The set up was simple, an ice fishing float tied on 18 inches above a jig with a piece of night crawler. With a fairly decent current at the top of the creek, the fish were congregated around the edges of the deep pool. It seemed I was reeling in a fish every minute or two, they were all small (the largest being around 9 inches) but they all produced that kid like excitement of watching a float dance and then shoot underwater. My prize catch this round was a small Longear Sunfish, it was amazing how few panfish there are in the creek this time of year (of the 70 fish I caught in the creek only 4 were panfish). The most photogenic of today’s catches:6tag_200216-2213586tag_200216-2214306tag_200216-2215506tag_200216-2216286tag_200216-2216476tag_200216-221758

So next time you are exploring a new lake don’t forget to check for a spillway, because often times this is where a good number of fish will be congregated. Tight lines