Gerald Almy: Float fishing a balm for senses

Gerald Almy

Daybreak slips in softly when you’re camped at river’s edge in the shadows of a tree-cloaked mountain. By the time sunlight sneaks in and illuminates the scene, eggs will be frying, coffee brewing and toast browning in a skillet laced with sweet country butter.

It’s a tossup as to which is richer — the eyes’ feast on the emerald river and lavender wildflowers, or the aromas of wood smoke wafting on a frail mountain breeze, bacon crackling in the skillet, coffee steaming in hot tin mugs. But while the scents of this breakfast are enticing, it also tastes richer than it ever could at home or even in the fanciest upscale restaurant.

The sense of hearing is richly rewarded. Gobblers bellow from a distant ridge. A squirrel scolds the strangers under his favorite white oak. Wood ducks squeal as they launch from an eddy and wing magically downstream. And reminding you why you’re there, a smallmouth punctures the river’s surface as it deftly nabs a fluttering damselfly and lands with a noisy splash.

You break camp quickly. Eating along the river was a sensual treat, but smallmouths are beckoning. The current sweeps you into its embrace, draining away cares and concerns of everyday life. With a single stroke of the paddle you are drifting downstream at the perfect pace to cast your spinners, Rapalas, and grubs towards smallmouths lurking in deep pools, swirling eddies and shoreline pockets. In minutes the tactile thrill of a fish throbbing against the thin graphite rod is there, completing the five-prong circle of sensory delights — sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch.

There are utilitarian reasons to do some types of fishing, like trolling. Basically, we use them because they’re effective. And then there are sensory, perhaps even spiritual ones, if you will. The latter reasons are a major part of why float fishing for smallmouths appeals to so many of us. It’s a tonic for the soul and an antidote to the fast-paced, sensory-overloaded lives many people live today.

But there are lots of practical reasons to float fish for bronzebacks, too. It is, unquestionably, an effective way to catch what fishing legend A.J. McClane ranked as the finest freshwater fish of all — the river smallmouth bass. You drift into lightly tapped waters, you cover lots of fresh ground, and you can experiment with a variety of methods until you find a lure and retrieve pattern that produces. And if you camp, you don’t have to worry about getting out before dark and can enjoy those bewitching times of dusk and dawn when the biggest bass feed.

You can choose lures or flies. You can float a long stretch and mostly drift, or a short section and anchor often, probing each pool and riffle meticulously. You can use a canoe, johnboat, rubber raft, or even a float tube. You can fish the Shenandoah, Potomac, Rappahannock or James. But whatever you do, don’t neglect taking a float trip or two for smallmouths this year. And camp a night or two along the banks to make it extra special.

It’s a balm for the five senses like no other angling you’ll ever know.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.