The weatherman predicted a 57°F, mostly cloudy Saturday in January. In Virginia, warm temperatures aren’t unheard of during the winter, but to have one of these days fall on a weekend, when I had nothing else scheduled, well - that’s very rare. The plans started to come together. I made arrangements with a friend, loaded up two kayaks on the roof on Friday night and set the alarm.
5:45am came all too quickly, but I was heading out fishing, so I jumped up and threw on my clothes. Minutes after my alarm went off I get a text from my friend that she’s outside and waiting. The morning was chilly and damp, not a good start, but the forecast was positive, which gave us high hopes. The obligatory stop for coffee, drinks and snacks for the day and we were off. Things were going great, a little drizzle on the windshield - no big deal. Then we pulled off the interstate and started hitting back roads. Straight out of John Carpenter’s “The Fog” we couldn’t see more than a couple hundred feet at a time. Shadows jumping and moving around in our peripheral vision - oh those are deer - we keep going.
We arrived 15 minutes late to the launch thanks to a convenience store clerk (who was more worried about the guy who couldn’t figure out the gas pump) and slower driving due to our foray into the horror film world. Here we met up with the two others who would complete our fishing group for the day standing at the launch. As quickly as possible we unloaded the yaks and gear, then drove the vehicles to the take out. All logistics completed, we all donned our winter paddling gear and hopped in our yaks.
As we started down the river, I noticed we were back in the horror film. One member of our group was swallowed by the fog and disappeared from view. The river was low, but moving quickly, allowing us to drift over the shallower sections that weren’t holding fish relatively quickly. This also presented a problem when you located a deeper hole. In my haste to get out of the house in the morning, I’d forgotten my anchor. This was probably a critical error for the day, not being able to anchor prevented me from being able to stop and fish the deeper holes at the excruciatingly slow retrieval that is required in cold water.
While floating down the shoreline, I heard the telltale “oh yeah” and splash of someone setting the hook. I looked down and spotted one of our group reeling in a 13-14” smallmouth that almost choked itself on a hard jerkbait. Sure enough, this first fish also came out of the first water I’d marked over 4’ deep. Now, you may not think 4’ is deep, but until this point, I’d estimate the average depth at 1.5-2’, so a drop down to 4-5’ was pretty good. I floated into the hole after he’d floated out and threw my jerkbait and my ned rig with not even a tap. Oh well, one hole down and I was still wearing the dreaded stripe.
Fast forward to a section further down the river, water depth somewhere between 3-4’, bait of choice a hard jerkbait. Oh, and by the way….I’m still waiting on this magical 57°F air temps we were supposed to have. It isn’t raining, but it is that damp air where 45°F feels like 35°F. Good thing I wore my merino wool long johns.
So, there I sit, floating smack in the middle of the river, twitch, pause, long pause, no less than 10-15 sec. I go to twitch again and my rod bows. “Great, I’m snagged,” I think. Then the telltale pull of the line. Nope - it’s a fish. The fish didn’t fight like a smallmouth bass (the target fish for the day), so I wondered what I had. This was just a constant pull, almost like a log stuck in a current, which, if I must be honest, was quite possible. I also know that the walleye, which are in this river as well, have been compared to a snag by many people. I see a fish break the surface, and notice the color and the shape of the mouth.
“Carp!” I yell over to my buddy who is floating downriver about 50’ away from me. I pull the fish to the side of the kayak and something looks off. I pick it up, study it for a minute and realize this is not a carp. My buddy paddles towards me and lets me know that is a Northern Hog Sucker. I’ve seen schools of this fish scoot around the bottom of this river as long as I’ve fished it, but never actually caught one. We both commented on how large this specimen was, they are usually 8-10” long and this one was about 15” long. Oh well, trash fish - back it goes.
More floating over shallow water, hanging out and talking as we throw baits that have almost zero chance of getting hit and still chilly and damp. After another hour of floating I drift into a deeper hole. This time I’m 5-6’ of water, my buddy casts a ned rig out and slowly drags it across the bottom when his rod bends. Fish on! But not really, it spit the hook after a few seconds on the line. Seeing that there are fish in this hole we’re floating over, and they want the ned rig, I grab my finesse rod and chuck the ned rig out into the water.
Luckily this deep water wasn’t moving as quickly as the shallow water and I was able to very slowly drag the ned rig across the bottom, feeling every rock and boulder as it slid closer to me. As I feel it bump something and not move, I lift my rod tip to help it over and I feel the head shake. Now that’s what I was looking for - I knew I had my target species on the other end of my line. After a short fight, I lip the fish and pull it into the kayak. Somewhere between 17-18” this is a pretty nice fish for the river and my first ever winter smallmouth. A quick photo on the board and a quick hero shot, then back into the water it goes. I watch it swim off towards the bottom and lean back in my seat. Mission accomplished, the sucker took off the stripe, and the smallmouth put a real fish on the board for the day.
Other than STILL being cold and damp, by now my toes are freezing inside my waders and wool socks, the rest of the day was uneventful. Thanks to the speed of the current and all the shallow water we floated over, we managed our 5 mile float in right around 4 hours. Not quite the full day on the water we’d planned, but with cold toes I wasn’t complaining.
We took our time warming up and loading our gear and parted ways until our next trip. Monday at work we were talking about the fishing trip and I said something about the biggest northern hog sucker I’ve ever seen, which made me think IGFA. So off I go to Google and search
“Northern Hog Sucker world record.” There it was, 1lb 12oz, with two people tied for the record, both out of PA. If mine wasn’t a world record it was very close, if not at least tied.
So, lessons learned on my first winter smallmouth trip. First: never listen to the weathermen, they lie - it never got to 57 deg on Saturday, and with the damp air it felt even colder all day. Second: ALWAYS weigh your trash fish and look them up, you never know when the fish gods are going to surprise you and put a world record trash fish on the end of your line.