Good morning, this is Bob Whitten, coming to you from beautiful, sunny Thomson, Illinois. When the weather turns cold like it has in Northwestern Illinois, my thoughts start shifting to fighting through weeds and hanging out under bridges. No, I am not homeless, nor am I a troll. I am after the smallmouth bass, and when the fever hits, nothing can stand in my way.
Every creek I drive over, every bridge I cross, I am drawn to the call of the “smallie” like a moth to a flame. These hard-to-catch fish only come out to play in the early spring and late fall. They rarely get to four pounds in the creeks around here, but they fight like a twenty-pound fish.
My first encounter with the smallmouth bass in the Midwest was with my buddy Lilly. That’s a funny name for a guy, but in all the years I knew Lilly, nobody ever mentioned it. That might be because he towers over most of us, and he could rip your arm off with little effort on his part if he was so inclined.
Anyway, Lilly and I were on a ride one day, and we drove over a little creek. He asked me if I had ever fished it, and I laughed. “I can wade across that creek,” I said, to which he returned, “Let’s go get our poles.”
Lilly and I grabbed a few poles and soon we were back to that little bridge. We parked along a gravel road, and then we dropped into the weeds with a pocketful of “twister” tails and a dozen eighth-ounce lead-headed jigs. Lilly handed me a pole that looked like an ice fishing rig. It was about four feet long and it had the smallest Mitchell reel I had ever seen lashed to one end. We dropped down under the little bridge, and Terry took off his shoes, waded downstream and across to the other side, then he put his shoes and socks back on.
I wasn’t about to follow him. I leaned against the bank, spitting grass seed from my mouth and wondering how I would ever get a cast off among the surrounding weeds that were above my head. I couldn’t believe Lilly drug me out into this mess.
I watched as Lilly reeled a twister jig up within two inches of the tip of that mini fishing pole. Then he did something I never would have guessed. He grabbed that jig by the curve of the hook, and pulled it straight back to his face, pointing the base of the pole towards a pier about twenty feet away. With the pole doubled back, Lilly released the hook and that little jig sailed right up along the bridge pier and dropped in.
It took less than a second for a fish to devour that jig, and just another second for that smallmouth to jump straight up through the air and shake water all over me as I watched from the other bank.
From that moment on, I was hooked. Lilly and I would travel thousands of gravel roads and many hundreds of miles over the next five years in search of that elusive smallmouth bass. We shared coffee and swapped stories three hours before dawn, and we waded many a creek in the morning fog with our bare feet and those little baby fishing poles.
Even though my friend Lilly moved a thousand miles away from me a few years ago, I still get those urges when the weather turns. I always try to get at least one photo of me standing under a bridge holding a nice “smallie,” and I send it to Lilly with the caption, “Thinking of you.” I know if I do that often enough, one of these days ol’ Lilly is going to throw a pole in the truck and drive a thousand miles just to hang out under a bridge with me at dawn. Now that’s a true friend.
See you all next week!