Football Browns in the Shallows

By Spider Rybaak
Captain Tiny holding the day’s best.

Last Wednesday saw me out in a drift boat. Nothing unusual about that, I suppose, people do it all the time. But this was different: I was out of my element…way out, a few hundred yards off Mexico Point Boat Launch, in fact.

Two- to three- foot rollers lifted and dropped the boat to an extremely irregular beat. A landlubber at heart, I was holding my own in the waves, which in my troubled mind seemed like swells tossing us around like a cork in a typhoon. But Captain Ryan Gilbert’s (315-529-6427; [email protected]) wit and disarming optimism helped me control the suspicion in my heart that the big lake was intent on swallowing our little boat. In addition, his sidekick, Norm Hall’s steely calm plastered the holes the waves tore into my confidence.

When a couple four-something footers lifted the boat and let it slide into the trough at angles so steep my nose filled with water, “Rub-a-dub-dub…Three men in a tub” started playing in my mind over and over and over… I was ready to call it quits.

Just then, we reached the spot the captain was aiming for. He slowly turned the boat around so the lines wouldn’t tangle and we started back-trolling. “We’re going with the wind now, so it’s gonna be a lot smoother,” Tiny (the captain’s nickname) promised.

We were running anywhere from 1.9 to 2.5 mph. Suddenly, without warning he hollers: “Spider, There’s a fish hitting on that planer board off to your left.”

The nasty thoughts eating away at my composure stopped biting. I went into action.

“Norm, you handle it!” I ordered. “I’m going to the back of the boat to photograph the action.”

Before I could get back there, the violent rocking of the boat reminded me the rollers were out to get me. Tiny’s broad shoulders and the gunwales provided good support, however, and a minute later, I made it to the back, sat on the motor and prepared to shoot.

“Fish off,” Norm reported.

I struggled back to my seat. By the time I got there, Norm had another fish on. He landed it. This time I stayed put and photographed him where we were.

Five minutes later, Norm’s into another fish. It jumped several times, looking like a sunbeam bouncing off the waves.

“Another nice football brown,” Captain Ryan commented while sweeping it into the net.

I was busy photographing the action when my planer board starts acting spastic. Diving, turning sharply, it heads straight for the boat at ramming speed. I lift the rod out of its holder and the fight is on.

As Tiny slips the net under it, Norm informs us, in his usual calm manner: “I got one.”

No sooner has Tiny removed the hook from mine and put the net down, Norm’s prize is at the side of the boat.

“We’re not keeping any more, are we?” Tiny asks rhetorically, and releases the fish without removing it from the water.

In the span of just over an hour we landed eight browns running from three to five pounds each and lost several more. The action was so fast and furious we didn’t notice the lake lay down. On the way back we were gently rocked by what Tiny called “left over rollers.”

After ice-out, browns seek comfort and food in warm water just off shore. When we were there, the surface temperature was 44 degrees and the fish were cruising three feet deep over water ranging from 8 to 15 feet deep.

Captain Tiny says the fish will be hanging around close to shore for at least another month. After that, they’ll head out deeper and you’ll have to find them by trolling in temperatures ranging from the high 40s to low 50s.

Yours truly with a football brown.
Norm with his first brown.
The good captain releasing a fish without eventaking it out of the water.