By Noah O’Reilly

My wrists began to grow sore from the constant cadence. Twitch, twitch, pause. That was the ticket for a jerkbait all spring – why change it now? My search for a trophy-sized smallmouth bass was in the works for a few years. Patience played a big role in my quest. Which, for me, just meant ignorance. Every time I went on Facebook and saw a buddy who reeled in a monster smallie, it fueled my fire and my urge to hit the water again.

O’Reilly fishes from his kayak in Southeastern Michigan. This is one of the author’s favorite ways to fish. Bottom: O’Reilly’s kayak sits on the shore of a local, Southeastern Michigan stream waiting to set sail.

Twitch, twitch, pause. I constantly questioned whether I was in the right spot or performing the right cadence. The week prior, I heavily fished the same area of Lake St. Clair. The GPS function on my fishfinder looked like a mess of scribbles from drifting over the area repeatedly. My kayak proved to be no match for the high winds as I fought my way closer to shore to make another drift. When in these tough situations, I always tell myself the same thing: simplify. Instead of paddling and casting into the wind, I just turned my kayak sideways and drifted east to west. I made the farthest cast I could and reeled a few feet of line in, getting my bait to dive down to the depth I wanted. I continued with the same cadence, this time without the pause, due to a tug. I set the hook and fought the smallie all the way to my kayak. This bronze beauty was only about 18 inches long and not the trophy I was looking for, but it was a great start.

The weather took a drastic turn; howling winds mixed with the emergence of sunshine invaded the bay that I was scouring. To have a successful day on the water ripping a jerkbait one needs a small amount of a few things: sunlight, stained water and wind. The conditions were lining up perfectly. However, time was running out as the sun was starting to blend into the shoreline. I was beginning to realize the stars had to align in some crazy fashion for me to pull this off by the end of the day.

Twitch, twitch, pause, and then, I felt the weight. It was like the hooks of the jerkbait were embedded in a log at the bottom of the bay. I expressed my concern out loud, “Please let this be a bass.” As soon as those words came out, I saw the football-shaped beast rocket straight out of the water; not once, not twice, but three times. I looked down and my 8-pound test line was ripping out of my baitcasting reel, and I could not remember the last time I set the drag system on this particular reel. I turned the crank twice and started the long fight.

Despite my best efforts, I looked down and saw my line still peeling out. The brutal winds pushed my kayak one way while the fish pulled the other. My buddies paddled over to check out the commotion — I’m pretty sure I was yelling. I carefully played every move of the fight. My rod moved where the fish moved, I turned the reel handle when the fish stopped running, and I grabbed my net when she got close enough for me to make a swipe. The next few moments are unclear as to how I got her in the net and in my kayak, yet I looked down and there she was. The sun shone off her scales, making the fish not bronze, but a beautiful gold color. She measured 20 inches and must have been around six pounds. I looked over at Mike Laritz, a fellow kayak angler, and let out a cry of joy as I could not contain my excitement. He snapped a quick photo, I brought the fish down to the water and we watched her slowly swim the same way she wanted to go the whole time, leaving me with a memory I will not soon forget.

O’Reilly displays “the big one” he set out for on a known largemouth bass lake in Southeastern Michigan. O’Reilly caught the fish using a straight-tail worm.

Rewards of Simplicity

I pulled my kayak out of the bed of my truck and gently laid it down on the grass just a few feet away from the water’s edge. This was going to be a laid-back trip for the three of us. The sun was shining, and the temperature was starting to rise into the 90s. I gathered my gear and took a seat in my kayak as Mike pushed me off. This particular lake is open to the public, yet not many anglers know about the caliber of its fish. It is only 15 acres and has a maximum depth of 54 feet, making it a big fish bowl. Most of my success comes from chucking a weightless, straight-tail worm hooked through the middle along the drop-offs. I have pulled numerous 4- and 5-pound largemouth bass from this lake. That day, though, I was looking for the big one.

Towards the middle of the day, fishing was slowing down and Mike began to use different baits while my sister put down her fishing rod and set her sights on catching turtles. My phone started distracting me, making my chances of catching “the big one” slimmer with every cast. We all paddled to the back corner of the lake which usually produces numbers. On this brutally hot afternoon, we were desperate to catch something.

I watched as my bait soared through the air and landed just a few feet away from shore — right where I wanted it. My tactic was simple; let the worm sink all the way to the bottom of the slack line, reel in and cast again. When the 5-inch straight tail worm sinks, the ends flutter almost irresistibly from the perspective of a bass. However, my bait sank no more than a foot before my line ripped off the surface of the water as the unknown fish propelled itself to the depths. I pulled up the rod and set the hook out of surprise, which never yields a quality hookset.

I was using a light line on my spinning combo so I knew I had to take it slow and steady. As the fish swam deeper, I felt the head shakes and its pull. I stayed calm, as most of the bass on this lake fight the same way. I knew every move the fish was going to make. I was surprised as the fish began to swim up and towards me – this was new. I reeled in the slack line as fast as I could, looking down to see the fish lying motionless at the side of my kayak. I quickly grabbed him with one hand and swung him in. Mike was there yet again to capture this moment for me as I put her on the measuring board; 21.75 inches and about six and a half pounds. To catch fish like these in Michigan might seem ordinary, but to do it from my kayak is an accomplishment that I remain proud of to this day.