Jerkbait

by Jim Austin

My brother Chris, known as "The Wad", has proposed a fishing trip to the Honduras to cast the mouth of the Rio Colorado for tarpon. He and his cellular phone carrying, upwardly mobile friends have decided that if one must angle, the tarpon is one of the few gamefish that's chic enough for them. I am of two minds about the offer. Not because of the fishing prospects. The tarpon is a classic game fish. It is a schooling slab-sided silvery missile with the heart of a champion and a bony mouth that resists all but the sharpest hook. Even though my only experience with tarpon is via video and fishing shows, the tarpon's reel-busting aerial act always gives me an adrenaline rush.

So why am I in a quandary about accepting my brother's exciting plan? The doubt lies in the sordid baggage that fishing trips involving my bro carry with them. Since we have always lived a few time zones apart we have had the opportunity for only two fishing trips. The first was to Northern Ontario. The Wad flew into my home town of Toronto from the California coast and we spent a day planning and packing for our dream trip.

The plan was to drive to Sioux Lookout, pretty close to where the road ends, and find a provincial park to set up a base camp. You need to look at a map of Northern Ontario to get an idea of the fishing choices we faced. Ontario has more lakes than New York City has potholes.

There are so many lakes of so many different sizes that most of them don't have names. If you go far enough north you can fish in lakes that have virtually no fishing pressure. Another plus about fishing and camping in Ontario is the provincial park system. Officials in charge of laying out campsites and facilities have taken great pains to preserve the natural setting of the land and water. You won't find imported sand beaches, swimming rafts, cement trailer pads, corndog concessions or shopping centers attached to northern provincial parks. If you arrive early you can set up on secluded waterfront sites completely surrounded by pines and with a view of the lake that will have you checking out the local rag for employment opportunities.

We arrived late and hit the sack anticipating an early morning departure.

The lake had three species of game fish according to the brochure available at the park office; smallmouth bass, lake trout and muskellunge. Just the name "muskellunge" conjures up the vision of a savage primordial killer. The fish namers really got it right when they came up with this one. I told Chris not to count on catching a muskie.

This most revered of all North American fresh water game fish is known as the fish of 10,000 casts. It is a grey-green barracuda-shaped predator that grows to 100 pounds, with the rod and reel record weighing in at 69 pounds. The trouble with muskies is getting them to strike. They will follow a lure to the boat time after time without striking while the wretched angler's adrenals are squirting like golf course sprinklers. How can a fish get so damn big when you can't get the buggers to eat? I was and still am an expert on not catching muskies.

Chris decided not to be shy but to buy a lure that only a muskellunge could handle. He chose a 9 inch jerk bait. These were a local favorite, pronounced very productive by the guy with one tooth at the bait shop that sold it to him.

At $8.00 each I was convinced I knew how the "jerk" got into the name. The jerkbait is as simple as a lure can get. It is a piece of 1&1/2 inch by 9 inch pine, beveled, sanded and painted matte black with three nasty looking treble hooks dangling from the underside. It must have cost about 60 cents to produce. I of course, informed my greenhorn bro that this chunk of balsa might catch a nearsighted beaver but fish only eat wood that's shaped like other fish. My common sense fell on deaf, despite protruding, ears.

We shoved off from our campsite into waters that were calm and skies that were clear. It was exactly the wrong conditions for muskie fishing. Muskies, according to the lore, bite when the weather is unstable. High noon, an iron gray sky and a big storm on the way supposedly gives the muskie hunger pains.

We skirted the shore past pine and rock on our way to a bouldered outcropping that looked like it might be defended by large predatory fish. Muskies are territorial. There are certain structures that they will hold in according to the fishing mags. Try a weedy saddle between island and shoreline, a submerged rock, a shallow bay, the mouths of narrows, or sometimes, troll for suspended fish in deep water. This pretty much covers every conceivable wet area of the lake. The problem with muskie literature is that anyone who has ever caught one immediately becomes an expert and proceeds to divulge the secrets of wherever it was he caught his.

Chris gave his $8.00 lump of wood a cast toward a bald rock covered in gull guano and began a jerking retrieve. I took the time to comment that throwing logs in the water was sure to have the area boiling with ravenous muskies in no time. About 25 feet from the boat we could see a shadowy figure had fallen in behind the darting surface lure. It was either a pre-war Japanese mini-submarine or a very large fish.

Our nerves were humming as Chris' lure got to the boat and he began a figure eight pattern with his rod tip underwater and the jerkbait trailing a foot from the tip. The figure eight pattern is a trick you will read in every muskie fishing article ever printed. It doesn't work. I have tried it 11,000 times and never has the trailing fish had anything to do with such a stupid maneuver.

I had just gotten through explaining this to Chris when the muskie slammed the jerkbait like a crocodile on an antelope. For all their stealth and effortless pursuit of game, their strike is savage and violent. Twenty five pounds of furious muskie thrashed the water to a foam before streaking for parts unknown. Most fishermen don't react in the calm desultory manner observed on the fishing shows. These Gomers calmly reel in once-in-a-lifetime trophies one after the other while drawling "purty fish" over and over into the camera. Just once I'd like to watch a fishing show where the host wasn't a snuff-dipping goober from Cowplop Arkansas.

In the meantime, Chris and his Daiwa baitcaster were both screaming like a teenaged girl with a bee in her shorts as the big predator shook the jerkbait like a pit bull. After several runs and much advice given by me at maximum volume, Chris had an exhausted muskie beside the boat. We gingerly avoided his needle sharp teeth and pried two sets of treble hooks from his chops with needle-nosed pliers. Chris hefted the disgruntled muskie while I enshrined the Kodak Moment with my point and shoot.

The Wad's monster was then released to cruise sulkily back to his territory. As I turned to congratulate my bulbous brother, his face was contorted in a smirk that would curdle ink. A good winner he is not. You can see why I hesitate to put myself in this situation again. To be outfished, contradicted and proven wrong by a species of Yuppie vermin like my brother is tough to take twice in a lifetime.