There are a lot of adages out there, and these old sayings stick around because they’re based on overall truths.

Some of the more popular ones include, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” “Birds of a feather flock together,” “When the wind is from the east, fish bite the least,” and “Fish and visitors start to stink after three days.” Another old fishing adage cracked me in the nose last week — “Big fish are big for a reason.”

I’m currently enjoying a little vacation time, and was able to manage a couple of fishing trips over the past week — one to a river and one to a lake. I packed along some artificial baits just in case my cast net came up empty, but didn’t need lures for either trip.

Catching your own bait gives an angler the sense of self-reliance. Using store-bought bait is like having to share the credit of your catch with whoever sold you the minnows. Of course, I don’t make my own nets, so I’ll pass some credit on to the third-world workers who lovingly hand-crafted my throw net.

So I showed up at the river, and after a half dozen throws of the net, I was in possession of some ghost minnows, shad and sunfish.

One of the big reasons I like catching my own bait is because it comes from the same water that my quarry lives in. Shad, ghost minnows and sunfish are the natural forage of the predators that I’m after — and I’m offering an easy-to-catch meal.

The river had a nice flow, and I focused my efforts around drop-offs adjacent to gravel bars or mud flats. Within a few minutes of casting a shad to the bottom underneath a bridge, even before I could hook a ghost minnow on for some crappie fishing, the rod bounced twice, then bent toward the water’s surface.

I snatched up the pole and set the circle hook into a nice 2.5-pound catfish that fought its way in with a crocodile death-roll technique. With lures, you have a lot to remember, including presentation, retrieve style and speed, depth, and location of the bite, so reproducing the exact formula is complicated.

Live bait, though, as long as you’re fishing in the same area at the same depth, doesn’t require much thinking because the bait does most of the work. So I re-baited and waited, and within about five minutes, the next chunky channel cat was having its picture made with me.

For whatever reason, the bite suddenly shut down, and I started eyeing my next location. I moved downstream about a hundred yards and found an area of riverbank that had debris from a destroyed bridge both on the bank and in the water.

I cast a small sunfish toward an overhang of concrete and noticed that my bobber immediately started moving upstream. It passed underneath the slab and caught the current, which pushed it back downstream. But then it swung back and moved under the concrete again. I had gotten my bait into an eddy that kept pulling it in circles through one of the most likely-looking catfish holes you can find.

On its third go-round, the bobber suddenly stopped and headed straight for me, then plunged beneath the surface. As I set the hook and started cranking the reel handle, I felt the weight of the fish, and as it started to swim back toward the bank, I knew I had to turn it around or it would wrap my line up in the rebar.

Knowing the tricks

So here’s where the old adage played in. I was told growing up that big fish were able to become big because they had the instinct or intelligence to find plenty to eat and to get themselves free from a fish hook. Even when hooked, they know the tricks to get free — whether surfacing and violently slinging their open mouths to throw the hook, or wrapping the line around submerged structure — and odds are that big fish will somehow manage to get away.

But this time, it wasn’t the fish’s cunningness that got it freed, it was me. I was using old fishing line and it snapped as I was getting the big cat just close enough to grab. So I watched for a few seconds and the bobber resurfaced, and I legged it into the water and tried to grab the line, but the fish sped off and underneath another block of concrete and gnarled rebar where it got itself loose.

Trying to rig a fishing pole with a full-out adrenaline blast is a tough go, but I was determined to get another bait into that eddy, so I took a deep breath, steadied my hands, and within a minute I was back in the game. A few casts later, I caught another channel, followed by a handful of others from that same spot — but nothing bigger than good eating size.

The next morning, I headed to a spot on the west side of Lake Waco to fish the deep side of a submerged road bed, and after netting some whopper shad, I hooked one on and cast it into a likely spot on the bottom, hoping for a big yellow or blue cat. Meanwhile, I tossed a ghost minnow along the jagged edge of the old road to see if any crappie or bass might be waiting in ambush.

Round 2 no better

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some movement, and looked over to see the other rod bent nearly double, so I switched poles, set the hook, and started fighting the big fish in. A handful of seconds into the fight, I noticed that the fish had lodged itself behind a submerged rock or limb, so I eased the tension and allowed the fish to swim free.

Seconds later, a whopping largemouth bass surfaced with jaws flared and head thrashing. I guided it back down and tried to take control of the fight, but the fish made a burst toward me and then cut into the edge of the road, shredding the line and leaving me standing with a look on my face like I had thrown a game-losing interception.

Granted, I was able to put some fish in the freezer, but the loss of those two pictures of me holding those monster fish made the trips feel like failures.

On the bright side, those two and many like them are still out there, and as of press time, I’ve got a few hours to get back on the horse and see if I can get a picture for next Sunday’s column.

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