Kevin Jeffrey wanted the fish, and he wanted it bad, but there was only one way he was going to extract the largemouth bass from the submerged tangle of brush.
It was time to swim with the fishes.
“There’s just so much junk,” Jeffrey, 58, of Grand Forks, said, surveying the surroundings as he considered his options from the seat of his cataraft fishing rig. “I’m telling you, this is going to be a money shot if I get that bass out of here.”
The bass had slammed a homemade surface fly Jeffrey tied the night before and proceeded to make a beeline for the tangled mass of tree roots. This fish seemed to know the drill—head for cover, break the line and swim to freedom—and there was nothing Jeffrey could do to stop it.
The bass was still down there, though, at the end of Jeffrey’s 8-pound fly line, and it was time to get serious.
Off came the shirt and the hat; keys were stowed in a safe place.
Jeffrey inched himself off the small fishing rig into water that was over his head, even though he was just a few feet from shore.
Don’t worry, Jeffrey assured, “I’m a pretty good swimmer.”
All this for a fish.
Now that’s dedication.
“This is like noodling,” Jeffrey said, coming up for air. “He’s really hiding. I’ve got to be careful; I’m getting tangled.”
He went under again, and this time saw the very large eye of a largemouth bass looking back at him from the tangle of brush.
It’s a sight Jeffrey says he won’t forget anytime soon.
“I tell you what, there was a lot of green, but out of that green there was an eye staring right at me,” he said later, describing the underwater encounter. “I didn’t realize when I went down that I would be that close to him. I would say I was maybe a foot away from him.”
Being able to see the bass simplified the task of freeing the fish—and the line—from the tangle of branches.
Jeffrey was making progress.
“Hold on, hold on,” he said, gripping the line as he worked to untangle the fish. Then, like something you’d see on a pro bass fishing show, Jeffrey got a grip on the bass’s lower jaw and hoisted the fish triumphantly above his head.
The whole encounter, which lasted more than 5 minutes, was fishing drama at its finest.
Jeffrey’s exclamations of joy echoed across the quiet lake. Diving in to land a fish was a first for the longtime fly fisherman.
“He got underneath this log, he was really trapped underneath with the line, so I just decided I wanted him,” Jeffrey said.
The bass, a beautiful package of black and green and power, likely approached 4 or 5 pounds.
“That’s a pretty decent bass,” Jeffrey said as released the fish to its brushy surroundings. “The fly hit the water, and that thing hit within a matter of 5 seconds. I could just feel that area was like, ‘Oh man, there’s going to be a fish in there.’
“I could just feel it.”
Intimate fishing rig
Jeffrey’s encounter with the chunky largemouth would have been up-close-and-personal even if he hadn’t gone for a swim. That’s the beauty of fishing from a cataraft, he says.
Think of a cross between a catamaran and a raft, and you’ll get the idea.
“It’s a different style of fishing,” he said.”I like it because it’s very intimate.”
Jeffrey has two catarafts, which he says weigh about 40 pounds each, and he hauls them on a 1961 aluminum trailer that once was the base of a tent camper. He partially deflates the pontoons when not in use and carries a small air pump to refill the bladders before he hits the water.
The catarafts are light enough for Jeffrey to load by himself, and because they’re less than 10 feet in length, they don’t have to be licensed as long as he’s not using a trolling motor or small outboard.
A seat between the pontoons provides plenty of comfort, and oarlocks hold the oars in place while Jeffrey casts. There’s also room for gear atop the pontoons and behind the seat.
“Less is kind of more with these boats,” he said. “You don’t want a lot of gear out there with you.”
The bass Jeffrey landed Aug. 20 on Hayes, a 181-acre nonmotorized gem that forms the centerpiece of Hayes Lake State Park about 2 hours northeast of Grand Forks, was a beauty to be sure, but it was far from the biggest fish Jeffrey ever has landed from a cataraft.
A couple of year ago, he caught a 49½ -inch muskie while fly fishing from a cataraft on Elk Lake in Itasca State Park.
“That’s my biggest so far, and that was an absolute blast and something I never expected,” he said. “I’d been fishing Elk for awhile, and you catch a lot of smaller muskies in the 30-plus-inch range. That one just surprised the heck out of me.”
Jeffrey, who estimates he fishes three weekends out of four during the open water season and occasional weeknights on the Red and Red Lake rivers, says he started fishing from a cataraft in the late ’90s after trying one that belonged to a fly fishing buddy.
He fished from an inner tube boat before that. The cataraft, by comparison, is a luxury.
“It was kind of an evolution,” Jeffrey said. “Compared to the tubes, it’s nice because it’s stealthy. You can get into really shallow areas, and you don’t have to worry about hanging up a motor. That’s how I kind of got into it.”
He also prefers catarafts to kayaks, despite the soaring popularity of kayaks. Hayes Lake must have had 15 kayakers last Saturday, although only one of them was fishing.
“I don’t like kayaks because you’re forced to sit with your legs straight out all day, but there are guys that swear by them,” he said. “I don’t find them all that comfortable. I like the stability of a cataraft.”
Jeffrey paid about $800 for each rig, but prices can run upwards of $2,500. His two catarafts can hold 500 pounds and 700 pounds, respectively.
“It’s phenomenal,” Jeffrey said. “You could go down a river for days with food and water and gear.
“They’re pretty awesome,” he added. “I’ve never been really scared in either one.”
Plus, there’s something about hooking into a fish while sitting so close to the water.
“A fish jumps, and your head kind of goes like this,” Jeffrey said, snapping his head back.
The eventful largemouth bass encounter proved to be the fishing highlight of the day at Hayes. Jeffrey also landed a bluegill, while his fishing partner—a cataraft newbie—had a couple of strikes but came up empty-handed.
A stiff north wind limited fishing options, but Hayes offered an opportunity to fish, paddle and explore a new lake in a wilderness-like setting only a couple of hours from home.
“I’m never disappointed if I don’t get fish. For me, it’s oaring that boat all over the place,” Jeffrey said. “Any time I’m on a new lake, it’s just fun to explore and then try to figure it out.
“Next time, I’d know how to figure it out better.”
It will take some doing, though, to top the drama of the bass Jeffrey landed on Hayes Lake.
“When they’re in their environment, they kind of rule,” he said.