Northern Indiana a different fishing world

By Lew Freedman | The Tribune
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PORTAGE

There were more Do Not Disturb signs posted than can be found hanging on the doors of big-city hotel room.

Or the equivalent, since the warnings really read “No Wake” and applied to the speed allowed by boats.

These were aimed at keeping the waves to a ripple, and there were so many alerts one expected high-speed law enforcement boats to descend en masse in seconds, sirens sounding, bullhorns blaring, just like in a movie scene if a boat was foolish enough to churn up the water.

Timmy Jones Sr. was at the steering wheel of his 20-foot Triton bass boat and carefully stayed within the limits of the law. The numbers were not spelled out as they are on highways capping automobiles at 70 mph.

This was a case of you know it if you are going too fast.

The sun was just rising on northern Indiana, a far different fishing world than southern Indiana but irresistible nonetheless, as Jones and partner Greg Miller, active tournament fishermen, hungered for smallmouth bass. This was a practice jaunt for an Indiana-based event the next day, and they brought a casual participant along for the ride and casts.

To someone in the southern part of the state, the north is mysterious, except perhaps for Lake Michigan. These men can attest there is good fishing on the tributary waters and inlets of the Great Lake.

These guys are well-equipped. Just read their shirts. Jones and Miller, who have been fishing together for 13 years, are walking NASCAR vehicles with stickers, decals and ads plastered all over their bodies. They win often enough on the USA Bassin Team Trail that people like being associated with them. They know what they are doing on the water.

The circuit is described as a tournament competition for amateurs, aka the weekend angler, but some prize money is paid for top positions. Jones and Miller win their share and place highly in the two-person team standings regularly. They have already qualified for 2022 Chickamauga, Tennessee, nationals.

Thousands of teams compete nationwide. Jones caught his division’s big bass of this season at 5.16 pounds a couple of months ago.

Stashed in storage or laying on the deck, the duo carted rods for every occasion onto the water.

”We’ve got every fishing pole you can imagine,” Miller said.

Plus, lures. Miller toted a bulging backpack that contained four distinct plastic tackle boxes. He was prepared for all conditions departing the Portage Marina near the Bass Pro Shops building. Miller is a pro staffer there and Jones used to be. That’s how they met.

”He’s a smart, good partner,” said Jones, 73, who fishes 35 tournaments a year with Miller, who is 55, and while a retired police officer still works other jobs, so he can’t compete as often.

Jones offered a general explanation of how it so happens one day an angler gets skunked in the same spot he caught 50 fish in the day before.

”Every day is different,” Jones said, citing barometric pressure, wind, air temperature and water temperature.

The pros are challenged

Rigging rods with bait for various conditions, the anglers began chasing fish a short distance from the marina.

Miller’s casts impressively landed lures in narrow windows of opportunity. It was like gunslinger precision. Jones was just about as sharp and confident in every throw.

They talked, sometimes in shorthand, about the locale, the rods, the bait, the lures, the water depth while changing positions on the deck.

”It’s almost like a ballet,” Miller said. The one constant was the fish seemed to be slumbering, ignoring their alarm clocks, showing no interest in biting on anything.

An hour into that inactivity, Jones said, “If this was tomorrow, we’d be crying.”

These guys flexed the expert opinion fairly quickly that they must motor elsewhere. They were once again shunned by the neighborhood underwater inhabitants in another spot.

Jones smoothly and tamely (No Wake!) steered the boat into a pond-like inlet lined with rocks. This is a sure place, they said. Jones and Miller began catching, reeling in the fighting, green-bodied, speckled fish, netting them, then one by one freeing them. Always catch and release.

The bass visited the boat, if only briefly, then were sent on their way to swim another day. Jones and Miller hauled in a couple of fish apiece, weighing a pound or two each. No giants, but fighters regardless.

This northern Indiana environment was tricky. Some places, shielded by trees and overhanging brush, were as picturesque as any scene in Indiana. There’s the Marquette Yacht Club with fabulous large boats docked. Other places, not so much. This area is adjacent to the Port of Indiana, a working industrial area. Coming around a bend and one can see flames shooting into the air from a factory or pass a restrictive fence topped with barbed wire.

Not especially attractive. But then around the next bend were more welcoming, serene surroundings provoking forgetfulness about the rest of the neighborhood. It was a little schizophrenic.

The area represents convenient fishing for Jones, an iron worker for 47 years who lives in Valparaiso, and Miller, who lives in Westville.

”We made a name for ourselves up here,” Jones said.

Opponents in tournaments don’t like to see them show up for events.

”Not that we’re the best,” Miller said. “We’re consistent.”

Rubbery Senko baits, crankbaits and spinner baits flew into the water. The fish showed mild interest with Jones and Miller alternating catches.

The air warmed from the 60s to 80 and worse, the water temperature hit 80 degrees, discouraging aggressiveness in the fish. Jones caught a very respectable-sized bass. Given his background, certainly the fish was honored to be hooked by such a noted angler.

It was a Saturday, and multiple pleasure boats revved up to cruise onto the big water. Most obeyed the wake warnings, but any that went too fast churned up some waves. If they shook up the fish, it might improve things.

”We’ll keep going until they wake up,” Jones said.

”They’ll wake up,” Miller said.

{&subleft}Ways to make fish bite

Jones and Miller do not claim to be superstitious, but they do have rituals they believe create the best possible opportunity for fooling fish.

Jones must have coffee at the ready. Miller must have a can of Coca-Cola handy. Jones must puff some cigarettes. And if not breaking the sound barrier, being at least loud enough to command attention, it is required the music of the band Chicago, or Chicago Transit Authority, must play.

Jones, a touring drummer for 38 years, knew those guys when he played around the country and in Canada. Also, members of the Animals, Three Dog Night, Chuck Berry, the Buckinghams and others.

”Greg and I love Chicago,” Jones said.

The musical group, but Jones feels the same about the city, too, its skyline visible across Lake Michigan from the large rocks constituting the Indiana break wall being skirted. Good fishing on the other side of the rocks, he promised. Only immediately Jones put his little boat onto the lake and found three to four waves hitting, he braked.

Bumpier waves, 5-footers lay ahead. Jones didn’t trust the circumstances with three people in the boat. Within minutes, those pleasure boats began turning back, re-entering the No Wake waters from the lake.

In the calm water, Jones and Miller reeled in more bass and then a sheepshead, which fought with the same fervor. Over six hours, 17 fish came in.

Coffee, Coke, cigarettes, the right music? Is there another word for superstition?

{&subleft}Tournament toughened

The next day’s USA Bassin tournament began at Pine Lake in LaPorte started at 6 a.m. and the teams had until 2 p.m. to catch five bass for the weigh-in.

Only everything went wrong for Jones and Miller at the start. The weather was too nice with no clouds and the water temperature at 82 degrees. Except for one catch at 7 a.m., they couldn’t land anything worthy of the scale again for six hours.

”It was one of the worst days we’ve ever had and one of the best days we’ve ever had,” Miller said.

Best because they rallied. In just 45 minutes after 1 p.m., fishing between docked pontoon boats, placing Senko baits just right, they caught three more bass to reach the weigh-in total with five minutes to spare. Then they ended up taking fourth with a load of 9.63 pounds.

The tension, though, reminded Jones why he loves tournament fishing.

”It’s a gamble,” he said. “It’s a competition.”

Miller and Jones survived, coming through in the clutch.