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Out There: Eye to eye with goggle-eyes

4/25/2006

Editor's note: Watch for Keith "Catfish" Sutton appearing on "The Casting Couch," a one-minute commentary on the wild world of fishing that airs on Saturdays during "BassCenter" on ESPN2.


"Goggle-eye hole," Curt Moore announced, swinging the johnboat toward a dark, flooded recess in the bottom of a hollow cypress.

"How many you reckon are in that I one?" I asked.

"Three, maybe four."

"Really?" I said, incredulously. "What makes you think there'll be so many?"

"Just a feeling," Moore replied. "Watch and see."

Moore maneuvered the boat in close, then using a long jigging pole, he dropped a cricket in the cavity. The tiny cork above the bait hit the water, wobbled momentarily, then shot out of sight. A brief struggle ensued as Moore tried wresting the cricket eater from its hideout. But within seconds, he had subdued the 10-ounce fish on his line.

"That's one," he said, tossing the fish to me to put in the fish basket. "And a nice one, too."

I turned the fish in my hand, examining it more closely. It quivered all over in a manner characteristic of the species.

The mouth was large and basslike. Yet the contours and size of the body resembled a bluegill. Its colors changed as I held it, from dark, blackish-green to lighter brownish-gold. The cheeks were emblazoned with dark slashes radiating outward from its red eyes.

Before I had opened the fish basket, Moore tossed another almost-identical fish my way.

"Are you keeping count, Sutton?" he snapped. "That's two."

Moore's father, W.T., now attempted to join the action.

When we first approached the tree, Moore positioned the boat so W.T. was beyond reach of the goggle-eye hole. Not to be outdone, W.T. paddled his end around and dropped a jig into the water beside Moore's bobber.

"Would you look at that." said Moore, turning to me. "Can't find his own honey hole, so he moves in on my spot."

"It ain't nice to be greedy," W.T. replied. "And it would be a good idea if you talked less and paid more attention to what you're doing. That way you'd know when a fish takes your cork under."

Moore's bobber had disappeared, and when he tightened his line, he met firm resistance. During his moment of inattention, the fish took the bait, darted away and snagged the hook in some hidden recess of the tree. A swearword left Moore's lips the same time W.T. set the hook in a dandy goggle-eye.

"That's three," W.T. said, unhooking the fish. "What happened to the fourth one, son?"

Before Moore could reply, I pulled No. 4 over the transom.

Curt and W.T. Moore of Mountain View, Ark., often fish for goggle-eyes, or warmouths as they're more properly known, in the bottomland lakes of South.

On this trip we were bream fishing on an east Arkansas oxbow, and now and then Moore pointed to a hollow tree or other such hideout and announced cheerfully, "Goggle-eye hole!" Almost without exception, each spot produced several nice warmouths.

I got curious. "How did you know there'd be a goggle-eye in there?" I asked Moore.

"They like spots like that — dark holes inside old cypress trees, thick branches in the water around beaver lodges. Drop a jig, cricket or worm down in a place like that and you'll catch a goggle-eye almost every time."

"We catch a lot of 'em bass fishing, too," W.T. added. "They'll hit almost anything you cast. You often catch them on lures almost as big as they are."

Most warmouths are caught and released by anglers seeking bluegills, crappie, bass or other fish. Some folks shun them because of their small size. The typical fish is 8 inches long or shorter and weighs no more than a half-pound, if that.

They aren't the most handsome member of the sunfish clan; in fact, they're downright homely. They lack the furious spirit and determination of a hooked bluegill, and some fishermen complain they have soft flesh with a muddy flavor.

Despite these supposed shortcomings, though, warmouths have a devoted group of followers in many areas, and for good reasons.

Sure, they're small. But they're so plentiful in some waters, you can land 50 or more before you catch your first bass.

They may not be as scrappy as bluegills, but what panfish is? Warmouths are pretty darn feisty in their own right and, on ultralight tackle, they put up a respectable battle.

Warmouths have a big appetite and a mouth to match. They are anything but shy and will strike an assortment of lures and baits, including crickets, worms, small crayfish and minnows, jigs, spoons, plastic worms, spinners, flies, streamers and plugs.

Poor table fare? In some lesser-quality waters, perhaps; but poor taste is mostly a matter of poor preparation. Throw them on ice as soon as you catch them and most will provide delectable vittles.

The warmouth is a lover of swamps, bayous, sloughs, oxbow lakes and other warm, sluggish waters with dense timber, brush and/or weeds.

It's especially common in the warm lowland waters of the southeastern United States but occurs sporadically as far west as New Mexico and as far north as Lake Erie.

Some think the warmouth's distinctive name is derived from the "Indian war paint" pattern of facial bars radiating backward from its reddish eyes to the margin of the gill covers.

In some areas, it is still improperly called by an old name — warmouth bass. In other places, it goes by monikers such as mud bass, weed bass, stumpknocker, bigmouth perch, jugmouth and the aforementioned goggle-eye.

Coloration is variable, making recognition sometimes difficult. Warmouths from swamps may be mottled with dark purplish-brown colorations and at first appear to be entirely different from the golden-brown specimens of upland impoundments.

One of the nicest things about warmouths is their predictability. As I learned from the Moores, all you have to do to find them is look for a hollow cypress tree or stump in a fertile lake or stream. Chances are, if there are warmouths inhabiting those waters, there will be at least one and maybe a half-dozen hiding inside.

For some reason, warmouths love dimly lit hollows, and if the hole is big enough to drop a jig, cricket or worm in, you'll soon be yanking warmouths out one after another.

Beaver lodges are another favorite hideout. Sometimes beavers build their stick homes where many of the branches are submerged, and warmouths love to hide in these dense tangles.

The best way to catch them in this situation is to use a jigging pole or cane pole to lower a small leadhead jig down into the tiny openings of the beaver lodge.

The hole need be no bigger than a half-dollar to harbor a warmouth. And though you'll lose a few jigs, this is one of the best ways to load a stringer with fat goggle-eyes.

Mini-crankbaits also are good warmouth catchers. Use 1/12- to 1/8-ounce minnow or crayfish imitations fished with 2- to 4-pound line on an ultralight spinning or spincast combo.

Cast around cypress knees, weedbed edges, stumps or other good warmouth cover, then get ready for an exciting battle with one of these spunky, big-mouthed fish.

Warmouths exemplify the old saying, "Good things often come in small packages."

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His new book, "Out There Fishing" (Stoeger Publishing; $19.95), is available at www.catfishsutton.com.