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Mike Jones - KEEPING UP

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Friday, November 2, 2018
Giving it the finger

The Best, Ever: Part 2 Mexico in My Backyard
I am blessed for knowing what Mexican bass fishing looked like and felt like 35 years ago. I was fortunate enough to connect with Billy Chapman when we were both young bucks — when he was carving out his place in the angling cosmos at Lake Baccarac and I was doing the same in my own world. With that experience, I knew exactly where my little lake on the outskirts of Irvine ranked.

Fish grew big in Rattlesnake Reservoir including a tropical oscar that someone set free hoping for the best but probably expecting the worst. It was a lake with everything from its hiding place among the avocado-draped foothills to being decades away from the sprawl of a master-planned community. And, the bass in it weren’t stupid.

They were voracious and aggressive, but selectively so. In many ways, Rattlesnake wasn’t a serpent at all, but more along the lines of a fussy princess. Aside from a few consistently magical weeks during the year, the bite here changed by the day. Not that you couldn’t catch them every day, because you could. You just couldn’t depend on doing the same thing, at the same depth, in the same place, with the same lure, at the same pace for two days in a row. This, I believe, was another reason for Rattlesnake keeping such a low profile for so long. If you fished it every day, it was easier to adjust. If not, it could disappoint. If nothing else, it was just one of many unflinching lessons from perhaps my greatest mentor.

Not only was Rattlesnake a personal godsend, it occurred at arguably one of the halcyon periods of bass fishing, a time when the West was coming into its own. While I shared my good fortune with several top sticks including the likes of Greg Hines, Rich Tauber and Larry Hopper, for the most part I either fished alone or was joined by my long-time partner, George Kramer. Since we were both churning out bass stories for a variety of publications, the need for a photo model or, at the very least, someone for what we called a “Mr. Hands” shot, Kramer and I often found ourselves lugging a battery, trolling motor and assorted tackle down to the aluminum boat.

In addition to photography, Rattlesnake proved to be an invaluable asset in testing all manner of rods, reels and terminal tackle. It was a place that found flaws in everything from technique to construction to design with amazing rapidity. Case in point was the sad story of Stren’s Prime fishing line, a cofilament mono of the 1980s that didn’t need Rattlesnake’s help to uncover its deficiencies. Even without social media, the bass fishing jungle drums beat out a steady and strident warning as Stren’s chemists scrambled to change the formula and re-introduce the line. When the new formulation was available, Rattlesnake couldn’t find a thing wrong with it, nor could I. But, instead of calling it day and reinventing their advertising campaign, Stren chose to keep almost everything, including the name. They called it Prime Plus. To people of my father’s generation it was akin to renaming their next year-model the Edsel Plus. For those who were around for the New Coke disaster of 1985, the effect was the same as if Coca-Cola had renamed the follow-up New Coke Plus. Not surprisingly, few were interested in Stren’s reboot.

What they did buy was the Slug-Go. Terry Baksay, a Connecticut pro on the BassMaster circuit, sent me an early supply of these plastic wonders and the Rattlesnake bass only added to this lure’s iconic history. They inhaled it. Coinciding with high water levels, I had plenty of flooded grass and wood to learn precisely what the Lunker City lure could do. Rigging and presentation meant everything and Rattlesnake taught me all of that.

When a rival lure manufacturer asked about the Slug-Go, perhaps considering his own version of what was rapidly becoming a bass fishing phenomenon, I really didn’t mean to go all Zen on the guy.

“How can you compete with a triangular piece of plastic?”

Other learning curves involved little more than paying attention and being in the right place at precisely the right time. Once I felt comfortable enough with the ebb and flow of the Rattlesnake bite, I became more relaxed in my approach. Living only ten minutes away, I could pop in whenever the spirit moved me. On one particular occasion, I had only two rigs in my truck (one spinning and one casting), a very limited selection of lures and no camera – a true busman’s holiday.

The winds were swirling up out of the east with the warmth of a Santa Ana but not the velocity so I contented myself with pitching under flooded, protected trees. Forty yards behind me, towards open water, I heard the faintest flip of a baitfish. If not for the selectivity of a fisherman’s ear, it would have gone unnoticed. I turned and saw the mere shadow of a swirl.

The Shad Rap made it down all of two or three feet before being casually carried away like the unfortunate swimmer in the opening sequence of Jaws. It was the strike of an alpha predator. The spinning rod quickly bottomed out, the guitar string tension of eight-pound test lessening as I began to backreel and follow the fish out to deeper water. The scene repeated itself fish after monstrous fish — cast, drift, fight, reposition — for the next hour and a half. The lights were on and everyone was at home.

With no one around, shouting seemed rather pointless. Instead, I spoke out loud to myself, commenting on what was clearly a singular moment in my bass fishing career. The best five were within an ounce or two of 55 pounds leaving nothing left but to sit alone in an aluminum boat on a little lake in the middle of Orange County and try never to forget what it felt like. Here was a place that not only deserved my respect and affection but my undying gratitude. We all have such a place and, when it goes away, so does a piece of us.

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