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Cult of the Urban Angler

Cult of the Urban Angler

Inner-city fishing with one rod, one lure and a legion of cool creatures

Those who don't fish never suspect the potential at their doorstep: Tucked placidly into urban sprawls and cityscapes across the continent, a wealth of overlooked waterways beckon a certain breed of adventurer. Surrounded by a million souls, it's that tiny pool of a park pond. Might be a diversion canal in Phoenix or Houston; a city lake encircled by picnic tables and 'woggers' in L.A.; a quirky little creek or an industrialized river coursing through Philadelphia, Kansas City or Milwaukee.

You want an oddball juxtaposition of elements? Try posing with a striped or smallmouth bass, snakehead or giant blue catfish—all swimming in the Tidal Basin adjacent to D.C.'s Jefferson Memorial. Or imagine lipping largemouth and peacock bass in the maze of canals spiderwebbing Florida's I-75, anonymous autos whizzing by and threatening to dislodge your best fishing hat.

More to the point, as the cult of urban anglers believe, small, overlooked waters can provide one-on-one fishing in perhaps its purest form. You, a rod, a favorite lure, good walking sneaks— and the fish. On some waters, you might hop in a kayak or small jonboat. But most days, it's all about trail-hikes and a daypack filled with essentials—the exact opposite of maxed out H.P. and a war-room like assembly of screens.

Mayan and Vieja cichlids (shown) add to an interesting mix of exotic canal inhabitants.

Artificial though they may be—often lacking natural vegetation or wood cover—these small urban waters collect profusions of fish around manmade spillways, bridges, culverts or the odd submerged shopping cart; any object creating current and oxygen or cascading a blanket of shade. To intercept larger, especially cautious fish, accomplished urban anglers prefer to hit the water at dawn, dusk or well after dark. They do their reconnaissance online (spot-scouting on Google Earth) and aren't afraid to hike in a few miles to check a juicy little sweet spot away from the crowd. And because these waters are mostly shallow, sight fishing and staying alert for "signs" pays rewards.

"Instincts are everything with this style of stealth fishing," suggests Pat Kohler, a frequent canal sneak who pursues an eclectic collection of gamefish in the southern tier of Florida. Like most of his buddies, Kohler has developed a keen interest in conquering some of Florida's newest fresh- and brackish-water arrivals.

"Over the last couple decades, these canals have been illegally planted with a bunch of different exotic species, most of them ex-aquarium inhabitants native to South America and Southeast Asia," notes Kohler. The extraordinary clown knifefish, for example, is a native of Thailand and Vietnam. Kohler says numbers and size of knifefish in various Florida canals has slowly expanded. To date, he's caught specimens up to 10-pounds, with larger fish up to 15 possible.

He explains that while largemouth bass previously dominated these flood-control canals, exotics such as peacock bass appear to displace native largemouth populations. "These days, if I catch five largemouths, that's an epic outing. Peacocks are just crazy predators. While largemouths lurk and ambush their prey, peacocks can both ambush and actively hunt away from cover.

Durable, buoyant and lively, Z-Man Micro Finesse baits appeal to an array of fish species.

"These canals also hold loads of Mayan cichlids, plus oscars and tilapia— and snakeheads are everywhere. All of them can easily destroy most soft plastic baits in one chomp. It's why, when I'm out scouting a canal, I'm usually fishing for anything that bites. Typically, I'm on foot, so one rod and a single good lure can put up some big numbers—especially if the lure's made of ElaZtech."

During a recent canal trek, Kohler and Z-Man lure designer Jose Chavez caught an eccentric assortment of species, from the aforementioned exotics to more humdrum creatures like crappies, redear sunfish and largemouth bass. All of them ate—but failed to destroy (an important distinction)—a new type of Micro Finesse bait composed entirely of Z-Man's ElaZtech material.

"These durable little baits, like the Micro TRD and Shad FryZ, appeal to pretty much every fish swimming in these canals—or anywhere else for that matter," observed Chavez. "It's like taking the Ned rig system to another level—more subtle and nearly impossible for even heavily pressured fish to reject.

"Everyone knows how good the classic Finesse TRD is for bass and other species, right?" asks Chavez. "Now imagine a little 1-3/4-inch TRD that's just as soft, buoyant and indestructible as the original. Rigged on a Micro Finesse ShroomZ jighead, it's an absolute fish catching machine. Cichlids, snakeheads, bass, even clown knives gobble it, but can't dismember it the way they destroy traditional soft plastics. Rig one up, maybe add a dab of superglue to the jig collar, and you can fish all day with one bait. That's crazy good news for those of us who just like to feel the tug of fish of all species on our string."

This solid peacock bass inhaled a Micro Finesse Shad FryZ swimbait.

Chavez adds that while the Micro TRD shines for fish feeding a little less aggressively or near bottom, he calls out his new favorite micro swimbait for covering a bit more water. "Put one of the Shad FryZ paddletails on a 1/10 or 1/15-ounce Micro Finesse ShroomZ jig and you can fish it fast, slow or in-between. The softness of the material keeps the tail thumping along at any retrieve speed. It's just a slick little bait that mimics the baby shad and yearling panfish targeted by all the canal predators. And again, one bait can last and last for hours, or days. Anytime I can scale back my gear to a few bags of baits and amp up the stealth factor, I dig it."

For Kohler, Chavez and their inner circle of canal sneaks, the challenge lies in discovering all the little habits, nuances and feeding tendencies of these exotic species. "Hey man, these fish might be considered invasives, but they're here to stay, so we might as well catch 'em," notes Kohler.

Among Kohler's current favorites, clown knifefish have garnered a specialized following, known as perhaps the most difficult canal fish to fool. "They're among the most interesting species I've chased—just an amazingly maneuverable, powerful fish capable of some crazy behaviors, like swimming backwards and breathing air.

"When I started fishing for clown knives in Florida a bunch of years ago, no one knew anything about them, other than the fact we couldn't catch 'em on artificial baits. That sort of became my mission. But because no info on fishing for clown knives was available, I started frequenting aquarium videos on YouTube."

He discovered clown knives preferred to feed by pinning their food to the bottom. He soon found that a slow-dragging retrieve with a jig and micro-sized soft plastic was an ideal presentation. Adding scent also helped attract bites from these surprisingly wary species. An apparent low-light feeder, 'knives could be found consistently beneath dark bridges and other shady spots.

"What's really crazy is, this fish's entire tail end is one big fin," observes Kohler. "And when they bite, it's a furious whack. (Check out the razor teeth - on their tongue.) Then, if you hook one, you feel 'em throw it in hard reverse before turning, slashing in every direction and breaching like a tarpon.

"It's like this whole other galaxy of fish catching discovery out there—interesting, often overlooked waters full of cool fish in strange places. Every time you hit the water, you get all these insane new experiences . . . just a rod, one bait and endless opportunities to be blown away."

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