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   BIG BAITS, BIG BASS; IT'S HARD WORK, BUT REWARDS ARE HUGE

Byline: BRETT PAULY / Outdoors

After the bass boat slides into the day's first stop and you've made your inaugural cast of a hefty, foot-long wooden lure, you get the feeling the exercise isn't exactly fishing. It's more like shot-putting.

The uninitiated ask what possible business does a freshwater angler have tossing bulky plugs and heavy rubber molds, ``muscle baits'' the size of keeper rainbow trout that are weighed more by the pound than the sixteenth-ounce.

``It should not be surprising; the gape of the mouth is what determines the size of the fish a predator will take,'' said Terry Foreman, a Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist out of Ramona and the reservoir specialist for Southern California. ``You take a trout that is 8 to 12 inches and it isn't that big compared to the mouth of largemouth or striped bass. Anybody who has caught a big bass knows that's a big hole.''

Ah, trout imitations, a bait of choice in winter and spring, when rainbow trout are stocked to keep the resident bucketmouths and stripers happy and fat - and where bass anglers are sure to follow. Call them home-run lures; the bigger the bait, the bigger the bass . . . with a price - namely your back and forearms.

``It kind of eliminates small bites,'' said David Brink of Castaic, who has been targeting bass at Castaic Lake since 1975. ``But you have to work at it.''

No kidding. The task becomes clear once you realize that the first cast you threw your whole body into will be followed by many, many more.

``Some guys throw big baits for 15 minutes of maybe just five casts before tiring, and that's not going to get it done,'' Brink said. ``You want to throw one for a solid hour to give yourself a chance. Pace yourself. Take breaks, but stick to it. Eat a sandwich to replenish your strength.''

An all-you-can-eat buffet more likely will do the trick.

``You have to put some muscle into it. It's just stamina,'' Brink explained matter-of-factly. But the payoff can be high; his biggest big-bait bass is 12 pounds.

Indeed, a formidable application for a formidable specimen. All those tips about quiet, delicate touches for lake angling, throw them overboard - figuratively, fellows, figuratively - along with your 4- and 6-pound outfits. This requires a heave, as well as 20-pound line, at least, and an equally stout rod and reel.

Canyon Country bass-fishing guide Gary Harrison shows you how it's done here at Castaic Lake. His salty beard matches his experience on local sweetwater impoundments. Yet his bellowing voice - which only recently was granted a reprieve from years of smoking - belies the frame of a diminutive chap, no doubt a shock to clients who previously knew Harrison only through telephone conversations.

``I throw big baits for the first hour in the morning, until my arms get tired,'' he said. ``(Bass) are more apt to be moving on the surface, chasing the trout at that time. It's a carryover from their nighttime feeding habits; nobody's there at night. Once you start getting boat traffic, they start going down.''

And don't be timid of the biggest lures, he warns. ``There is no such thing as too big a bait. When it comes to a large striped bass or largemouth, they will eat anything in their path,'' said Harrison, who once had a client hook a 15-pound largemouth that all but swallowed a 9-inch Castaic Lure.

The saltwater equivalent of ``throwing the wood'' or ``the rubber'' is tossing topwater jigs - ``the iron'' - to barracuda or yellowtail. They all touch down with the subtlety of a space shuttle, and on a placid lake it's a bit startling. The thud, you would think, might scare every fish from there to Timbuktu.

But, surprise, the splash is thought to actually attract bass that have been conditioned to chase trout at Southland lakes like Castaic and Casitas, where rainbows are planted, usually from November to June. And, coincidentally, where largemouths are bulking for their annual pre-spawn (mid-February to mid-March) and spawn (mid-March through April). Trout are likewise just as appetizing to the largemouth's distant cousin, the striped bass, which makes a long pilgrimage to regional reservoirs from the Sacramento River Delta by way of the California Aqueduct.

``It's like fly-fishing; you match the hatch,'' Foreman conjectured about winter and spring bass angling. ``When the trout is around, there is a pretty good chance that if you throw a trout pattern you'll get bit.''

Bass are also attracted to the trout because it's big and easy to eat. ``It's like a hot dog,'' Foreman said. ``There are no hard spines, not like on a bluegill.  ''And rainbows are not exactly artful dodgers. They grow up in hatcheries and aren't programmed to elude predators, so they are slow reacting to the chase of a largemouth or striper.

``You are never supposed to eat anything larger than your head,'' noted the biologist, who once plucked a 2-pound rainbow from the maw of a bucketmouth while electrofishing specimens at Lake Casitas. ``But bass do.''

 

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