931 and counting
GAY - With practiced ease, Mike Smith reached over the gunwale of his little johnboat and grabbed the lower lip of the bass he'd just hooked.
It was the 931st bass Smith had caught.
Not in his lifetime; not even in the last decade or the last year. No, the bass Smith plucked from the murky green waters of Elk Fork Lake was the 931st he had caught - and released - in less than five months.
"This is what I spend my time and my money on," said the 51-year-old lawn maintenance worker. "I don't have a fancy bass boat and I don't go out of state to famous lakes that have a lot of bass in them. I fish in lakes and ponds near my home and I do alright."
A lot of anglers wish they could do as "alright" as Smith.
Not only has the Roane County resident managed to catch that many bass, he has also caught more than his share of whoppers.
Forty-nine of the bass he's landed since New Year's Day have weighed more than 5 pounds apiece. Many West Virginia anglers fish their entire lives and never catch a 5-pounder.
Skeptics might suspect that Smith travels extensively to the bass-rich lakes of the Deep South to rack up those gaudy statistics. Skeptics would be wrong. He fishes almost exclusively in West Virginia, and spends the lion's share of his effort on lakes and ponds in Roane, Jackson, Wirt and Wood counties.
Smith, who has kept meticulous records of each fishing trip he's taken since 1991, said 2012 is shaping up to be a pretty good year, especially for big bass.
"I've caught three bass that weighed more than 9 pounds, and one that weighed a little more than 10 pounds," he said. "Those are huge bass for West Virginia. For whatever reason, the really big ones seem to be even bigger than usual this year."
To catch that many bass, and to catch bass that large, an angler needs to spend a lot of time fishing. Smith does.
"In a bad year I'll spend about 115 days on the water," he said. "In a good year, I'll get to fish about 135 days."
And when Smith says he fishes that many days, he means it.
"I don't often go fishing just for an hour or two," he said. "I like to get to the lake early, fish all day and go home late."
Some days the fish bite eagerly and some days they're finicky. Even so, Smith averages more than 16 bass every time he wets a line.
"I haven't been skunked this year, even during the winter," he said. "In fact, on New Year's Day, fishing at a public catch-and-release lake, I caught 17 bass. Four of them were over 4 pounds and the biggest one weighed 6 pounds, 11 ounces."
Smith, 51, said he's been obsessed with bass fishing since he was 12 years old. "I was really serious about it. I read about fishing as much as I could, and watched every TV show that was available at the time. If they'd had classes in fishing at school, I would have paid a lot more attention and made a lot better grades.
"I was a freshman in high school when I caught my first really large bass, a 7-pounder from a farm pond. A photographer took my picture and put the story in the local paper. After that, I started focusing on catching big bass. I learned through trial and error how to do it."
Some of his tactics defy conventional wisdom. For example, he fishes almost exclusively with baitcasting equipment, and with heavier line than one might expect.
"When I go fishing, I take seven rods with me, all baitcasters, all rigged a little differently so I'll be prepared to switch at a moment's notice," he said. "Usually, I fish with 15- to 17-pound-test line. My go-to lure is a weedless skirted jig with a crawfish-claw plastic trailer."
Most of Smith's jigs are painted somber colors and are rigged with similarly somber skirts. His lone concession to bright color is to the bright-orange fluorescent tips he paints on his crawfish trailers' claws with permanent markers.
He doesn't own a fancy bass boat. He fishes from a 10-foot johnboat rigged with an electric trolling motor. "For the waters I fish, it's perfect," he said. "It has enough room for me and my gear, and that's about it."
Smith occasionally brings other anglers along on his outings, but most of the time he fishes alone.
"To catch big fish, you have to be stealthy," he explained. "When you have two people casting, having their baits splash down close together, it scares the fish. I like to fish alone and make short, controlled casts to keep my baits from smacking the water."
Smith also does a lot of his fishing at night.
"That's when I catch most of my big bass," he said. "Not this year, though - at least not so far. The big ones I've caught this year were all caught during the day."
When fellow anglers ask Smith how they can catch more and bigger bass, he gives them simple advice.
"Fish a lot. Experience will teach you what works and what doesn't," he said. "And don't be afraid to go against conventional wisdom. What works for everyone else might not work for you, and by going against the grain you might just find something that works better."
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.