Angling: Fishing Lines: The day the bass went to grass

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The Independent Online
WHAT A sad old man I have become. This sorry fact was brought home to me as I knelt in the heart-shaped jacuzzi at Best Western's hotel in Cypress Gardens, Florida, trailing a piece of line through the bubbles. Any normal red- blooded male, blessed by happy circumstance with the honeymoon suite (four-poster bed and all) would have filled the vast tub with champagne and voluptuous babes. Me? I'm using it to test spinners.

I don't suppose you will be much impressed by my explanation that a jacuzzi is ideal for discovering how the plugs, crankbaits, jerkbaits, rattlers, poppers and spinners bought over the past few days behave in water. They cost just a few dollars here. Back in England, they will be pounds 10 apiece. My plan was to head back to the tackle shop for some bulk buying once I'd isolated the really good ones (and yes, I was wearing swimming trunks to guard against getting seriously snagged).

There was another reason. The following day, I was going fishing with Reno Allay, one of Florida's top bass guides. When he said: "Try a floating lure." I didn't want to look a jerk by hooking on a lure that dived for the bottom like Thunderbird 4.

Reno was the best guide I came across in my search for the American fishing dream. He may sound like the sort of place you don't go on a dark night, but in reality he's a cheery fellow, rather like a smaller version of Hemingway. He's a bit embarrassed about his appearance - "Look at me, 44 and white-haired" - but the girls all fawn over him. And his fish- catching record is almost as impressive. "You wanna catch largemouth bass? Go to Reno," locals said. I was even more impressed when the man himself told me we would catch fish in the grass. Now that's some fisherman.

Reno used to be a pro bass fisherman, but couldn't afford to compete with the sponsored circuit men. So he moved from Ohio to Florida, and set up as a guide. Now he has a $30,000 boat and 20 other guides on his payroll. People come from as far away as Japan to fish with him, and one grateful punter even sent Reno $20,000 of shares at Christmas.

We are fishing Lake Weohyakapka, locally called Walk in the Water. These Indians must have been big, tough guys. In places it's 30 ft deep and there are plenty of alligators. "Hell, they won't hurt you," says Reno. Think I'll skip the midday swim, though.

"I've fished at least 100 lakes in this area, and this is probably the best," Reno says, anchoring in a spot that looks like all the others. It's not. Down below is the "grass", which is actually an exotic weed called hydrilla. It can grow an inch a day and spread from a few acres to thousands in a year. In some US lakes, it's a big problem. But bass love it. The trouble is, hydrilla creates an underwater jungle. You need thick line to haul fish out.

Most times, fishing is about the expectation rather than results. But on this day, everything goes right. We catch bass to more than 6lb, lots of them. "Ten, 11 years ago, people ate everything they caught," Reno recalls. "Now I probably have to kill no more than four bass a month. Catch and release has improved stocks tremendously. It's happening all over. People are more aware. Unfortun- ately, the fish get smarter."

For one magical hour, the bass rip up the surface, chasing small fish. They will soon be spawning and they're looking for protein. Good news for us, because I can call on the winners in the jacuzzi trials. "Try that one," says Reno. It's technically known as a Chartreuse Rattl'n Rapala, imitating closely the tiddlers that are providing bass lunch.

Whack! A 4lb bass. Crash! A three-pounder. Bang! Another four-pounder. Then... disaster! It gets hooked in the hydrilla, and I have to break off. "Put on another, quickly," Reno says.

Er, I don't have any more that colour. Blue, red, black bring no response. None of the others I had selected worked either. How can any fish be that picky? But maybe that's the appeal of bass. And so much for all that jacuzzi testing.