As we waded down a small creek near Bristol Bay, Alaska, trying not to fall over and fill our waders, Texas bass pro Keith Combs set the hook on a cartwheeling, hellbent-for-leather rainbow trout. It vaulted out of the water, and suddenly the unseen bears that he’d obsessed about minutes earlier were less onerous. He was going to get that 25 inches of glistening salmonid to the net.
“This thing fights harder than any smallmouth I’ve ever caught,” he said, then saw that I was filming him and instructed me to delete the video. It could ruin his street cred.
But the point was made. Yes, in most cases you have to be extremely devoted to a narrow band of angling to become one of the world’s best. In my experience, there are relatively few fishy-polymaths. Nevertheless, there’s nothing wrong with deviating from that comfort zone a little. I knew that Combs liked to fish for redfish in places like Venice, Louisiana, and Port O’Connor, Texas, but I was pleased to learn that he’d be spending his anniversary this past fall trout fishing in New Mexico. Maybe Alaska had an impact upon him.
I’ve already explored why so many bass pros choose to chase little green and brown fish when other species grow bigger, fight harder, and often taste better. I think that most of them give pretty compelling reasons for their chosen path but thinking about what Combs had said and done made me wonder what they’d chase if bass didn’t exist or if they were given an opportunity for a bucket list trip. I know that as I’ve expanded my multispecies fetish, I’ve been particularly interested in fish that eat topwaters and fish that jump. I know the latter was part of what Combs liked about rainbow trout, but what would his peers say?
First I talked to Kevin VanDam, who may have caught more bass than anyone else alive. He’s certainly won more money than anyone else on the tournament trail, upwards of twice as much as the next closest competitor. As a result of that success, and his burning desire to be on the water, he’s been all over the place, to places like the Amazon and can certainly afford to go anywhere he wants. What trips his trigger?
“Growing up in Michigan, I enjoyed a lot of steelhead, salmon, and trout fishing,” he said. “But I also like northern pike and muskie. Those two are very different, but what I like about them both is that they’re aggressive predators. When I get a chance to go in saltwater, one of my favorite fish to catch is barracuda, which most people think is not a fish to target—but they’re aggressive and fast and fun. Tuna are the same way.”
Despite having fished all over the globe, VanDam said he still has a lot of things left to do: “I’d like to catch a tarpon on a fly, for sure,” he said. “And I’ve never caught a marlin. Saltwater is intriguing to me because of how different it is than what I’m used to, yet it’s similar in certain ways and there are lots of things I can apply.”
He said that while he once made a quick trip to Alaska, that brief taste just whetted his appetite. “I definitely have that on my radar. I’d like to spend some time up there.”
Like VanDam, California pro Ish Monroe has been to the Amazon for peacock bass, and a return to South America is high on his list. This time he wants to chase golden dorado in Argentina, because “they’re like peacock bass but better. They have great topwater explosions, they’re just really mean fish, and you can catch them on bass gear.”
Monroe hasn’t quite reached bass burnout, but he does separate bass fishing from all other kinds of angling, a “church and state” approach to the sport. The former is a job, the latter is fun. When not competing, he spends more time in his saltwater boat than he does in his bass boat.
Like VanDam’s tarpon on a fly and Monroe’s South American topwater fish, for Combs the goal has become not so much what he’d catch, but how he’d catch it. Having had a taste of the fly rod life in Alaska and New Mexico, without any formal instruction, he’d like to take it to another level: “I wouldn’t mind doing that for a bonefish sometime,” he explained.
While we may dream of chasing GTs in the Seychelles or tigerfish in sub-Saharan Africa, not all dreams need to be so distant or so exotic. Elite Series Champion Bill Lowen, raised fishing the stingy Ohio River, has made a career out of scraping together limits. “I’ll 12-pound ya to death,” he said, referring to his remarkable consistency of catching decent limits even when others struggle.
“I’d like to go to Mexico or somewhere like that,” he said. “I’m not a guy who catches a lot of big fish. I was never accustomed to getting a lot of bites, or very many bites from big fish, so my dream is to go somewhere I could catch lots and lots of giants.”
And if bass didn’t exist?
“I would probably be a crappie guy,” Lowen said, loyal to the core and going in the opposite direction of those who would look to giant fish as the most impressive or desirable. “It’s almost like bass fishing, just a smaller presentation. You use little crankbaits, little jigs, and little jerkbaits.”
For anglers who are on the road 200 to 300 days a year, oftentimes the dream trip is just to stay at home for a while—not in an epic fishery, but rather closest to their roots.
“I’ve duck hunted in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky,” Lowen said. “I’d rather duck hunt than do about anything. If it has webbed feet, I’ll shoot it. The places I’d really like to go are Argentina or Mexico, but I’d be just as happy staying at home. Our hunting is like our fishing—it’s horrible. I’m in the armpit of the world for fishing and duck hunting, even though we have big deer, but there’s something special about being at home.”
Television host Mark Zona agrees, even though his neck of the woods in Michigan has world-class fishing, especially when the water is soft. “I still believe there are smallmouths out there that have never seen a lure,” he said. “I know I have found a few of those places where I was convinced they had never seen man. To me, that’s the shit. Now until I die I want to find those lakes, those spots, where I’m fishing for a very unintelligent fish, because those are the most fun.”
If Great Lakes bronzebacks didn’t exist, he’d look south to the salt. “I was one of those kids that grew up in the ’90s and really loved Jaws eating people. I remember when I was a little boy, my parents would drive me by ponds in Michigan and I’d ask, ‘Are there sharks in there?’ So if there were no bass, I’d probably live somewhere in the Gulf, or down in the Keys, and just chase sharks.”