Playing hooky at AGLOW conference pays bass dividends

Jeremiah Burish of the LaCrosse County (Wisconsin) Convention and Visitors Bureau displays one of several bass he caught with a swim jig on the Black River Thursday afternoon.

LaCROSSE, Wis. – “These might be the healthiest, fattest bass I’ve ever seen,” I commented, taking my third largemouth of the late-afternoon trip off the hook and releasing it back into the Black River.

“That’s how bass look on the whole upper Mississippi,” said Jeremiah Burish, who handles “sports sales” for the LaCrosse County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s easy to see why—they have plenty to eat.”

As he said this, several bass blasted through a school of small shad, swirling and splashing on the surface. Gizzard shad are the gamefish’s main food, and they were everywhere, making little “plip” sounds as they sucked small organisms off the surface.

Over four days here in this city in southeastern Wisconsin, I spent a lot of time on the Black River as our hotel, the Americinn Hotel, was on its eastern bank. The Black is a tributary to the nearby Mississippi River and I parked my kayak on the hotel’s beach. I didn’t attend the seminars about such things as setting up trail cams and making money with social media. Nor did I go on bus tours of the area with other members of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers.

I went fishing, and I have no regrets as the catching was pretty good.

I was one of 20 writers who signed up for a multi-species catch-photo-release tournament. Bass (largemouth or smallmouth), walleye, northern pike, bluegill, yellow perch, crappies and catfish were all fair game, using the TourneyX app. This app allows you to put the fish on a measuring device, take its picture with your phone, and release the fish immediately. Then you send your photo to TourneyX, which keeps track of everyone’s catch and put up a list of leaders that you can follow while you’re on the water. It’s the system most kayak tournaments use, and although it usually costs $5 per angler, per tournament, TourneyX waived the fee to introduce the system to the writers, photographers, TV show producers and social media influencers attending the conference.

We all had fun competing, and I somehow ended up second place after catching, photographing and submitting four of the species. The one that helped the most was a 23 1/2-inch channel catfish that on Thursday hit a Pico Lures deep-diving crankbait minutes away from the end of the contest. I was trolling the shiny little bait (actually designed for catching crappies) while I pedaled my Old Town Predator back upstream to the hotel. The prize was a medium-heavy action St. Croix Mojo Musky rod, which lists for $179. That made me happy.

The contest ended at 4 p.m., and just as I beached my kayak, fellow writer Brian Bashore of Sioux Falls, South Dakota asked if I wanted to fish with him and Burish in his decked-out Ranger walleye boat, which he uses for guiding clients on South Dakota reservoirs.

Why not?

The boat took us downriver quickly, way farther than I’d gone in my little plastic kayak, to a place where Brian had been catching bass all week. It was a clump of trees in less than four feet of water, just out from acres of green vegetation mats, which were alive with fish activity.

“They come through here in groups—you catch four or five and then they disappear until another group of largemouth moves through,” Bashore said.

The three of us landed about 20 chunky bass in a little more than an hour. I also caught a little walleye. Brian threw a small soft plastic swimbait, while Jeremiah threw a swim-jig. I cast a white, soft plastic Zoom Fluke, a sort of fish-shaped bait that darts and glides when you twitch it. Everything caught fish, but whether it was local knowledge and experience or refined skill, Jeremiah caught more bass than Brian and me put together. Jeremiah “swimming” his jig is a technique that is said to have originated in this area and remains a popular presentation. It’s just a rubber-skirted jig with a soft plastic swimbait as the trailer and you cast it out and slowly retrieve it.

I wasn’t perturbed by Jeremiah catching most of the fish. He’s a good guy and a fellow kayak bass tournament competitor. He took one for the team trying to keep his eyes open for photos holding one of his bigger bass, facing the setting sun.

Although I participated very little in the conference program and skipped the dinners to capitalize on the evening bite, this was the best of the many AGLOW conferences I’ve attended over the last three decades. Being able to walk down to my kayak and launch it after a good night’s sleep in a comfortable hotel was pretty awesome.

For more info on the LaCrosse area, check out www.explorelacrosse.com.

Outdoors columnist Dave Mull lives in Paw Paw. Write to him at dave.sportfish.mull@gmail.com.