After 90 minutes on the best of bass waters with the best fisherman who’d ever called me by my first name, I commenced to feel better.
The heat simmered.
The lake shimmered.
The shad glimmered.
But the bass, they weren’t a biting.
And because I am fundamentally a small person, this made me feel better.
But I could see that Clifford Pirch was feeling ever so slightly agitated.
We had set out upon the still waters of Roosevelt Lake 90 minutes before, in the first flush of dawn, in the first flush of a fisherman’s hope. We set off with the water of the brimming lake colored pink as the sky, when most anything can happen and the angler’s day has all the possibility of that timeless moment just after a freshman’s first kiss.
I had angled a seat in the boat of one of the world’s best bass fisherman, who earned several times more money catching fish last year than I’ve made on all 10 of my earnest, but little noticed, books. I knew that if I could sit quietly and watch everything, I would soon know everything — including the elusive secret to my excessive mediocrity when holding a fishing pole.
For Clifford Pirch, who had the karmic good sense to even be born with a fish’s name, had all the attributes of a Great Fisherman.
By this I do not mean merely the eat-your-heart-out bass boat with an outboard that can skim across the lake at 70 knots to seek out the hiding places of the great bass. By this I do not mean merely the seven fishing poles stretchy-corded to the flat deck of the boat, each rigged for a different depth and style of bass deception. By this I do not mean merely the twin radar fish finders, scrolling through the lurking bass, the blithe schools of bait, the dark tangles of brush and the cliff-sided dropoffs.
But by this I most assuredly do mean the intensity of his cast, the keen mental edge of competition, and the obsessive, repetitive absorption that distinguish both competitive bass fishermen and world-class video gamers.
Yet, in 90 minutes of the most intelligent, strategic fishing I’d ever witnessed, Clifford had not had a bite. Heck, he hadn’t had a nibble. Not a murmured sweet nothing. Just a whole lotta nothing.
In short, for a 90-minute stretch I was indistinguishable from the world’s greatest fishermen — as measured by results.
Like I said: In my heart, I’m a small person.
I had prevailed on Clifford to take me out onto the deep and mysterious waters of this massive reservoir in part to write about the FLW tournament sponsored by the National Guard among others. The tournament will descend upon Payson in all its wriggling glory in September, signifying Roosevelt’s entry into the bass fishing big leagues.
Those bass fishermen and their groupies will likely drop at least $600,000 in the stores, hotels, gas stations and restaurants of Rim Country in a roughly two-week period, if the survey taken during a smaller, less prestigious bass tournament on Roosevelt last year is any measure. Moreover, millions of avid bass fishing fans will likely watch at least some portion of the tournament on television, burnishing Roosevelt’s growing reputation as a bass fishing hotspot.
Some 150 professional fishermen and 150 co-anglers will spend a week scouting the lake and then four days fishing all day, each trying to hook the five biggest largemouth bass they can possibly find. Now, bass can grow to 10 or 15 pounds in Roosevelt, but the winner of the tournament will probably have somewhere between 18 and 25 pounds of fish each day — each weighing about four pounds, give or take.
Kurt Young, head of the fisheries branch of the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, figures the biggest bass in Arizona is probably skulking around in the bottom of Roosevelt as we speak — some 16-pound monster starting to think about eating rowboats.
Roosevelt has inflicted a long purgatory on the bass it harbors. A decade-long drought a few years ago shrank it to about 17 percent of its capacity, leaving the ends of the boat ramps far from the shoreline and concentrating the surviving fish in a withered pool, without many nutrients or submerged cover.
But then the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation finished raising the height of Roosevelt Dam to accommodate
possible mega floods, just as a couple of wet winters raised lake levels. This past winter, Roosevelt hit its record high water mark — submerging miles of shoreline thick with brush and bass cover. The vegetation submerged last winter and this winter has released nutrients into the water, which triggered a population boom among the small fish the bass favor — both threadfin and gizzard shad.
As a result, the bass population in Roosevelt has exploded. A decade ago, it took the average fisherman about eight hours to catch a bass. Now, it takes about an hour, according to surveys of anglers conducted recently by Game and Fish. The lake now supports hundreds of millions of shad and millions of bass.
I believe them — just judging by the schools of fish and big bass swimming back and forth under our boat, as revealed by Clifford’s high-tech fish finders.
He had worked for a time as a guide on Roosevelt, so even without the depth finder he knew where to find the long, submerged rocky points, the dropoffs, the drowned streambed of Tonto Creek. He sped efficiently across the lake to the hidden places that offered the voracious predatory bass the perfect cover, confirming each spot both with the GPS marker he’d made on his mapping system and by the ghostly return echoes from the fish finder.
So I watched the unspooling ghost images as he cast his jigs and worms and spinners in among the milling schools of fish and their attentive, but finicky predators. This proved infinitely more entertaining than my blind, clumsy, mindless technique — casting my bait upon the waters in the unreasoning and stubborn hope of fish in the opaque depths.
But for at least 90 minutes, Clifford’s patience and expertise had achieved the same return as my typical 90 minutes of effort: Zero. Zip. Nada. Zilch.
I did not remark upon the obvious, but nurtured the thought in my wizened little heart.
Then, 50 feet off the bow, a school of shad broke the surface — frantic to escape the still unseen, pursuing bass.
Clifford immediately put down the pole rigged with the enormous plastic jig that resembled some sort of mutant squid trying to make a demented, glowworm fashion statement and seized another pole rigged with a huge lure meant to thunder and squiggle across the surface, like a Godzilla shad on crack.
Now, Clifford can cast such a lure further than I can throw a baseball, with sufficient accuracy to kill mosquitoes. So barely two heartbeats after the school of shad had broken the surface, he had that lure thrashing about like a wounded wildebeest right where those bass had been.
I eyed his jigged pole, abandoned on the deck.
“Do you want me to hold your pole?” I said casually.
He was recovering his lure, skimming across the surface of the lake like a PT boat making a run on a battleship. “Uh, sure,” he said, not taking his eyes off the water.
I stooped and picked up his pole — which any lawyer familiar with the Law of the Sea will tell you made it, for just that moment, my pole.
Clifford cast a couple more times: Nothing. Nada. Zip.
I was, meanwhile, jigging.
Well, sort of. I gave the pole an experimental jerk. But it was hooked on something. I started to reel it in — but the pole bent and the line groaned.
“I think I’m stuck,” I said.
Clifford eyed my tight-stretched line, right where it entered the water.
“You sure?” he asked, sounding oddly diplomatic.
“Yeah,” I said, taking in half a turn on the reel. The line where it entered the water did a little circle then veered left. “That’s odd,” I said.
“I think you have a fish there,” said Clifford.
“No. I. Uh. Hey,” I said, as the hidden bass down below made a run for it.
So I brought the bass in close enough for Clifford to get a net under him.
Now, I’m not one to brag.
But I think that this bass had been eating ducks — maybe a great blue heron. I mean, that baby could tow a rowboat. They could have made a mold of his mouth and used it as the entrance for one of those jungle boat rides at Disneyland. If you lashed a couple of pontoons to him, you could have sold him as a houseboat.
And I caught him. My fish: Law of the Sea and all that.
Now, Clifford was very gracious. He said my bass weighed at least four pounds — a keeper in a tournament. Yeah. Well. Four pounds. At least. Point being, biggest bass I ever caught. I mean, I was definitely holding the pole. Definitely.
Clifford deftly removed the hook, posed for a picture with my bass and returned the monster to the depths unharmed.
He was very supportive. But I will say this. It seemed to me that Clifford fished with an unnerving intensity for the next half hour. He worked four poles, shifted locations repeatedly and lapsed into an intent silence, as he furiously played the odds. He did not say it — but I knew that we would not leave that lake until he had a bigger fish.
After half an hour, he hooked a much bigger bass than mine by locating a huge submerged tree on the depth finder and then skillfully dragging his lure through the underwater tangle. The bass he knew must be lurking there gobbled his lure. Five pounds. Easy.
And to be absolutely truthful, I will tell you that he caught four more fish after that — any one of which would have set my own lifetime record, had I not just hooked Moby Bass (did I mention that I was holding the pole?). So by the time the sun drove us off the lake at about 2, he had caught about 20 pounds of bass on a summer day when they weren’t biting — enough to be in the money for a tournament.
And so I can tell you truthfully, that professional bass fishermen really are different — quite aside from the boats and the rods and the mutant jigs and the scrolling fish finders.
But I am also bound to report to you in accordance with the tenants of journalism that for half an hour not so long ago on the gleaming surface of the perfect lake, I was without question the best damn fisherman in the world.