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Germany's Quest for Buffalo - with Jason Johonnesson and Florian Lauffer
Stress and worry. This is how I was feeling and had been feeling for weeks. It was early November of 2008 and I was waiting at DFW Airport for the arrival of my very first Texas Buffalo Adventures clients...and things were not going well. I knew that at any moment, two of Germany's best anglers were going to enthusiastically walk out of customs, ready to begin their buffalo quest, and I had almost no enthusiasm of my own to greet them with.
The buffalo season of 2008 had not been going as I had planned. I was wishing for a repeat of the fall of 2007, but the fall of 2008 did not want to cooperate. In the months of October and November of 2007, session anglers in Texas, including myself, had captured hundreds of buffalo. However, in October and November of 2008, the buffalo were very hard to come by and the reason was simply the weather. The fall of 2007 was nice and cool which brings the buffalo into shallower areas making session fishing, from the bank, the best way to capture them. The fall of 2008 was very hot and the buffalo had not come in from the depths. I found myself, in November of 2008, with air temperatures in the high 80's, water temps not yet below 70, and two world class anglers about to step off of the plane, into my care, and expect to catch buffalo. I had an overwhelming feeling that it was going to be a long and stressful few weeks.
These were two anglers, Florian Laufer and Mike Zoellner, that I did not want to disappoint. Florian was one of the most well known sport fishing journalists in Germany and an author of two fishing books. Mike was also a sport fishing journalist and the co-founder of Carp Connect, one of Germany's largest carp specific publications. These anglers had a mission, to be the first German sport fishing journalists to write about buffalo fishing. If this adventure did not go well, they weren't going to have material for their articles and I would not get the German publicity that I was hoping for. This was a "make it or break it" time for me.
Within minutes, we were in the truck and in route to Lake Fork. Along the way, I was very pleased to learn more about Mike and Florian, and the fact that they were such down to earth fellows helped to calm my anxiety. I explained that this hot weather was not normal for this time of year, and we were going to really have to work hard to catch buffalo. I also prepared them for the possibility that we might need to go to different locations and try various tactics. I am sure that, during the two hour drive to Lake Fork, I was blabbering away, which I sometimes do when stressed, but I wanted to make sure that they were prepared for the hardship to come. Time would prove that they most definitely were.
Our first and only stop, between the airport and Lake Fork, was Bass Pro Shops. Mike and Florian needed fishing licenses and wanted to see a Bass Pro Shops for the very first time. They had a great time searching through the aisles for predator tackle. The prices for lures, such as Rapala, are so much cheaper in the US than in Europe that they had to take advantage of the discount. They were both amazed at the fact that Bass Pro was so enormous, yet there wasn’t a sliver of session fishing kit in the entire store. I think this helped them realize just how new this sport is in the USA.
We passed 2 lakes on our way to Lake Fork. One was Lake Ray Hubbard, at 22,000 acres, and the other was Lake Tawakoni, at more than 37,000 acres. As we were crossing Lake Ray Hubbard, I explained to them that there was no overnight fishing allowed anywhere on the banks of Lake Ray Hubbard. They were also surprised to see that peoples' homes were right on the shore, which was not a normal sight in Europe. They explained to me that in Europe, a home may be within lake view, but the lake side property was mostly public access.
Here is what Florian had to say in his own words;
"Compared with Germany, the lakes in Texas are much, much bigger! A small lake in Texas is an ocean by German standards. A common lake in Germany is between 10-300 acres. Only a few lakes are as big as a small lake is in Texas and we have only a few carp in them. It is absolutely natural for us to catch the same carp again and again, every year, and see them grow over time. Sometimes we give them names! The bad thing is that you always know what you can expect to catch in German waters. There are no more surprises and no more pioneering after 20 years of carp fishing.
“It is hard to understand that 99% of the shore on most Texas lakes is private property and it is not possible to practice bank fishing from there. One part of carp-fishing, in Europe, is to look for fish by searching along the shoreline. Whenever you find them, you can erect your tent and start fishing. Some areas are also private property here in Germany, mostly the land is owned by farmers, but we “pay” them with a bottle of whiskey or we give them a small fish in exchange for their permission. We say that the USA is the country of the unlimited possibilities but, from the view of a carp angler, it is the country of the short limited possibilities!”
When we arrived to Lake Fork, I was pleased to learn that Mike and Florian were more than satisfied with the kit that I had ready for them, and the swim itself. We immediately got to work making bait and developing a strategy. Soon we had mounds of prepared maize, hemp, and tigers, paired with range cubes and Calf Manna pellets. We put out no snag markers and loaded the bass boat with the bait.
Before we took the boat off of the lift and got to work, Mike had explained a theory to me about continental style baiting. He said that on big continental waters, anglers will spread bait out over a larger area so that when a fish hooks itself, it will not spook other fish because they will be farth
er away from each other. He also stated that was easier to recast to a zone rather than a specific spot in the darkness of night. I piloted the boat while Mike broadcasted bait between the markers.
A typical pattern, on Lake Fork, is catfish first, carp second, and buffalo third. The catfish are almost always the first species to find the bait and they do not leave until you have captured so many of them that the school becomes pressured and decide to leave. I used to think that the carp pushed them out, but I have since learned that this just wasn't the case. There had been occasions where I baited a swim for weeks hoping that the catfish would be long gone and full of carp or buffalo when I finally put my lines in the water. Every time that I had done this, I found the swim still full of catfish. They just didn't leave until enough of them had been caught to pressure the school. The second part to this pattern, the carp phase, was when the carp came in after the catfish had evacuated the area. When the carp moved in, they normally did a good job keeping out other schools of catfish. The third phase of this pattern involved the buffalo pushing out the carp and dominating the swim. It was when this happened that buffalo fishing is at its best. I had explained this to Mike and Florian and they responded by saying something to the effect of, "We don't mind a few catfish." I replied with something like, "Ok. I'll ask you the same question in 24 hours and see if you have the same answer." Ha ha ha.
Although Mike and Florian were my first two "official" clients, I had fished with a few anglers from overseas already. Just a few months earlier, two English anglers fished with me at Lake Fork and Lake Ray Hubbard. One was Sam Mills, a university student from Gloucester England, and the other was Stephen Buss, son of famed UK angler, Ron Buss. Stephen was an accomplished angler in his own right and he operated a successful guide service in Spain, on the River Ebro. It was Stephen that theoretically designed my elevated fishing deck and taught me many useful big water baiting patterns. The memories of this session were still fresh in my mind as I remembered them catching their first few catfish and being delighted about it. They took pictures and proudly smiled for the camera. After their tenth or so, they were no longer so delighted and considered the catfish to be quite a nuisance. After their 30th catfish, they were downright hostile towards the species; a feeling that I knew all too well. Mike and Florian were no different. Their emotions ranged from delight to hatred, just like Sam and Stephen.
Mike and Florian worked the swim hard and captured so many catfish that they finally made it to the second phase, the carp pattern. They were so successful with this phase that in hindsight, we all came to agree that it was overachieved. They began to haul carp in numbers like I had never seen come out of Lake Fork. Lake Fork usually is a bigger fish lake, with few captures each day. Mike and Florian were pulling carp out in numbers that could rival that of the legendary St. Lawrence! A huge school of carp had moved in over their baited zone and dominated the swim. Most of the fish were unusually small for Lake Fork, with only about 20 percent of the captures weighing over 20 lbs. However, they were catching several, stunningly beautiful, high 20's commons. The carp pattern lasted, and lasted, and lasted. Days went by and I could see that Mike and Florian were exhausted from lack of sleep and worried that the buffalo phase, of the three part pattern, had not yet come to fruition. In addition, we were beginning to make repeat captures, a very bad sign. This large school of smaller carp weren't going to leave, and to make matters worse, the school was so big and dominating that even the mighty buffalo didn't dare challenge their food source.
After several days of effort, we decided that it would be best to give the swim a break in hopes that, when we returned, this particular school would have moved off, giving us a better chance to execute the full three phase pattern. Our next destination was Lake Austin.
Anglers from overseas seem to take their photography a little more serious than a typical American angler. For many of us, it’s mostly about proof of the capture; where the light is coming from and what is in the background are usually not even considered. Overseas anglers are more about capturing a moment. I was used to overseas anglers taking lots of pictures, with high end cameras, but Mike and Florian seemed to take it to a whole other level. It didn’t take me long to figure out that they were as serious about photography as they were about fishing. They took pictures of everything: fish, bait, people, trees, leaves on the trees, and the drive-thru attendant at McDonald's, which thought we were competitor spies. They took hundreds of pictures of things along the way to Lake Austin. It wouldn’t be until they returned home, and emailed me the pictures, that I would understand just how good they were at photography. It was a pleasure to see them enjoy the Texas landscape during the 6 hour trip from east to central Texas. Before we knew it, we were at our destination, Lake Austin.
I had explained to Mike and Florian how to watch the water for buffalo. With carp, it was blatantly obvious. You simply heard a crash and then looked to see the fish. Buffalo, on the other hand, rarely crashed like carp. Mostly, they porpoised like a dolphin, head first and dorsal fin second. They were almost totally silent when they did this. so you must be watching the water to locate them. For the first day, we didn't see any buffalo surfacing. In fact, we didn't even see carp. Mike did manage to capture a beauty, a high 30's grass carp and I captured a small common carp during the first night.
The second morning brought hope because I saw a buffalo porpoise! Even better, both Mike and Florian saw yet another buffalo surface. I felt renewed and exhilarated and we began to come up with an agreed upon strategy. As we were all discussing our tactics, we began observing a disturbing trend. It was Friday, and although it was November, the weather was unseasonably warm. You see, normally the park on Lake Austin, isn't very populated during the cooler months, but with the spring-like weather, the weekenders were entering the park in large numbers. When we began to feel like sardines in a can, we decided to abandon Lake Austin and return to the solitude of Lake Fork. It seemed like a bad idea to leave a swim when buffalo had been sighted, but we were exhausted and just didn't want to deal with the masses of partiers entering the park. Feeling defeated, for the second time, we packed up and returned to Lake Fork.
>Return to Lake Fork
We knew there was a good chance that the same school of small carp might still be haunting the Lake Fork swim, but we still had hopes that they had had their fill and moved off. Within a couple hours of our return, we could see that this wasn’t the case. They were still occupying the same area as before and something had to be done about it. We only had a few days before the local Fox news crew was out to film us. The local Fox news station, for the Dallas and Fort Worth area, did a Sunday evening special segment titled, Lone Star Adventures. The news anchor, Richard Ray, thought it would be a great idea to do a segment about European anglers venturing to Texas for fish that local anglers seldom considered. If you think I was feeling the pressure before, you can multiply that by 10 and imagine how pressured I was feeling at that time! Reality set in for Florian as well while we were eating barbecue up at the cabin. As we were enjoying our ribs, we were watching the newscast for a weather report. Richard Ray, the Fox 4 news anchor, then reappeared and began with another news story. I said to Florian, “this is the man coming to film us on Tuesday.” Florian replied, “Really!” I could tell by Florian’s reaction that the significance of the situation had become real to him also. We had to produce for the camera. We knew that we could capture carp for the film crew, and they would probably be happy with that, but I really wanted to show them a buffalo.
That evening, I met with Mike and Florian regarding our next strategy. The collective thinking was that there might be bigger fish, and possibly buffalo, lurking around the perimeter of the menacing school, just waiting for an opportunity to move into the baited swim. Logic dictated that we should fish on the outskirts of the perimeter, so I asked the neighbor for permission to fish his boat house deck. The problem with the neighbor’s deck was that there was only room for one angler to fish, and Mike and Florian did not want to break up their team, leaving only me to fish the fresh swim next door. That evening I could tell things were different because Mike and Florian were still catching carp at an alarming rate, yet I wasn’t getting a bite. By midnight, I had reeled in a beauty, a 38 lb buffalo. To say that I was ecstatic would be an understatement. Proof was "in the sack" that buffalo were around and they were just waiting for the school of carp to move out. My next capture was a nice mid 20’s common carp, and after that, I was catching only smaller carp which meant that the school had swelled to engulf my swim as well. It was no use. We needed to hang around long enough for the filming and then I would propose my last resort option to Mike and Florian.
Tuesday morning, after another sleepless Monday night, we had all put our largest captures in sacks to show the camera. Richard and his camera man arrived just after a rain had stopped. Richard and his camera man thought it would be a good idea to walk down to the swim and engage in some small talk before they got set up, but what they didn’t realize was that the fishing was already on. Richard couldn’t even get handshakes out of the way before one of the alarms went screaming. Richard asked, “Whats that?” I said “It’s a fish!” Richard said “It is?” Richard’s camera man, having somehow figured that an electronic alarm signaled a fish bite, said “Oh yeah, IT IS!” I haven’t been around many camera men in my lifetime to know how quickly they can get their gear out of all of the cases and assembled, but I can’t imagine many being more fast and frantic as this one. I said to him, “Please, there is no need to hurry. We will catch another carp in a few minutes, you can take your time.” He replied, “Are you really going to make it this easy for us?” I said, “Well, if you want to film carp, then you are going to get more than you need. If you wanted to film a buffalo, well, you might need to stay awhile.” Needless to say, the first capture didn’t make it on film, but many more did. We had trouble conducting interviews because they were constantly interrupted by more screaming alarms. Finally, there was enough of a lull in the action to get all of the interviews completed and to film the shots of our sacked specimens from the previous night. In all, it had gone very well and we felt as if a huge weight had been lifted. Now it was time to get back to the business of finding buffalo. It was time for me to hit Mike and Florian with my last resort option; deep water vertical fishing on Lake Ray Hubbard.
>Lake Ray Hubbard
I knew that taking Mike and Florian to Lake Ray Hubbard was going to be something totally knew to them. I also expected their first impressions to be uncertainty. This style of angling, vertical fishing, is unique and very similar to American style barge fishing. The closest European technique would be float fishing, however float fishing is not a very effective tactic for deep water vertical fishing for several reasons. Mainly it is because we are fishing in a confined area, a boat slip with structure all around, and the fish cannot be allowed to take out very much drag so a combination fiberglass rod and stretchy mono line must be used. Stretchy mono line is not ideal for float indication. This fiberglass and mono combination acts like a huge bungee cord when playing a fish. Also, because the water is 30 feet deep, and there are constant wakes from boats passing by, the indications from a float are not good enough to indicate the super light bites from buffalo in such deep and choppy conditions. The best way to detect bites is to use the wet noodle tip of the fiber glass rod as visual indication. If the rod is mounted firmly than boat wakes have no affect on the rod tip and an angler can observe the slightest bite.
Upon arriving to Lake Ray Hubbard I think that Mike and Florian were impressed by the visual stimulants that the marina had to offer and the photographers in them took charge. They took pictures of the wacky looking night clubs at the marina entrance, the rows of colorful sail boats with tall masts all lined in rows, and the beautiful skylines all around us. However, the excitement of this new venue would wear off within a couple hours of inactivity. Although we had baited the swim the buffalo had not begun their feeding frenzy. I knew it was just a matter of time but Mike and Florian, being skeptical, did not have confidence in this tactic. Why would they? It would seem strange to anyone that had never barge fished in a marina before. They decided to head back to camp for the evening and rethink what we were going to do. My thinking was to demonstrate that Lake Ray Hubbard is the most reliable place to catch buffalo but I couldn’t demonstrate that if we were going to leave. I called Buffaloman Chris, a fellow member of the Lone Star Carp Brigade, and told him that we had just baited the honey hole and it was going to be any minute before they started biting. I also told him that he needed to quickly rally some Brigadiers and get over here to fish it because we were leaving. They did, and they captured many buffalo up to 37 lbs that evening. All night I was receiving texts and picture mail informing me of their captures.
The next morning, as I brought Mike and Florian breakfast, I told them the news. The Brigade fished the slip after we had left and they hauled. This was enough to convince Mike and Florian to return that evening. When we arrived we immediately put out the bait and set up our rods. A short period of time went by and I decided to break up the monotony and go get dinner. As I was out getting fast food, for us to eat at the slip, I was thinking to myself “It sure would be great if they catch one while I am gone.” As I turned the corner of the marina walkway I looked to see if there was any activity. If they had made a capture than I would see them taking pictures along with wet nets, wet mats, and all kinds of evidence of a capture. Instead I saw Mike and Florian sitting still and quietly watching their rod tips looking bored and tired. I felt a little discouraged so I distributed the food in hopes that it would add some kind of excitement. I gave Mike and Florian their burgers and fries and, in an attempt to lighten the mood, I said, “Y’all know how the hamburger got its name right?” Florian replied “No, how is that?” I said “Because it was invented by a German, in Athens Texas, and he decided to name it after his hometown of Hamburg Germany. Florian, you live in Hamburg and you didn’t know this?” Florian replied “No I didn’t.” I also said, “Yep! The hamburger was invented in Athens Texas and it is also Athens Texas where the world record buffalo was captured.” “Oh really?” Mike and Florian replied. Florian, acting uninterested in further small talk said “Jason, there was a man here, in the marina, a few minutes ago and Mike took some pictures of him. Let me show you his picture and see if you know who he is.” I figured something weird had happened and I was expecting Florian to tell me that this man, that they had photographed, was making some kind of trouble while I was away. In the most serious German attitude that Florian could muster he turned on Mike’s camera and said “Here! Do you know this guy?” “Holy !!!! How? What?!?! But you hid the nets, the mats, the ground isn’t even wet!” I replied with the mixed emotions of elation and confusion. Florian had captured his first buffalo, while I was away getting dinner, and they went out of their way to act like nothing had even happened just so they could wind me up. Man, did they pull it off! Handshakes and high fives all around immediately followed. The somberness of silent rod tip watching was suddenly replaced by loud and exciting laughter. My hamburger tasted real good after that.
They had so much fun vertical fishing that we went back for a second evening in which they captured many more buffalo including 2 over 30 lbs. Once they learned what a buffalo bite looked like they would strike so fast that it would have made an ole wild west gunslinger proud. Mike and Florian hooked and captured fish with absolute authority and they were so astonished at the thrashing of the buffalo, as they would reach the surface, that they began to photograph the violence. I remember Florian screeching emphatically enthusiastic phrases like “This is so much FUN! No one at home is going to believe that I am catching fish this way!” I think that expression highlighted the evening as best as it could possibly be described.
Florian and I decided that we should give Lake Austin another try. Mike and Florian had captured several decent buffalo from Lake Ray Hubbard, and some stress was off, but we all wanted to catch a specimen. Lake Fork was not cooperating so it seemed logical to give Lake Austin another chance to show us her goods. It didn’t take long to find the buffalo either. After 2 days of catching several buffalo in the 20’s and 30’s, we finally hit the jackpot. Overnight, Florian captured a brace of 40 plus buffalo, one near 44 lbs. I managed a beauty 43 lb 12 oz buffalo the following day.
We had done it! Not only had Mike and Florian captured their first buffalo, but we had captured a few specimens for their magazine articles. Emotions, for all of us, had run the entire gamut; stress, worry, upset, fatigue, doubt, misery, and discomfort, we had experienced it all and prevailed. We had conquered our buffalo curse, Lake Ray Hubbard, and Lake Austin. There was just one thing missing, a huge Quasimodo buffalo from Lake Fork. Thus far, Lake Fork had yielded Mike and Florian several hundred beautiful carp, but not a single buffalo. It was time to change that.
>And finally Lake Fork
We had arrived back to Lake Fork, and this time there would be no giving in. We were determined to make mother Fork surrender her most prized possession, a Quasimodo buffalo. This time, there would be no turning back and no running to another venue. We were going to either outsmart her or out work her. I would quickly learn that it is easy to talk tough while you are still full of piss and vinegar from previous conquests.
The session began as they always began on Lake Fork, catfish after catfish after catfish. Once again, they had to capture almost the entire school of catfish before they would leave the area and make way for the carp and buffalo. This time, when the carp came into the swim, they were monsters. During this session, Mike and Florian captured many high 20’s carp and 4 over 30 lbs, including a brace of 33 lb 12oz carp. These two fish weighed exactly the same, yet they were shaped very differently. Never before had so many 30’s been captured in a single session on Lake Fork.
The buffalo on the other hand, would not grace our unhooking mat. It would be foolish, however, to say that we had been defeated when it was the most successful carp session ever in the history of Lake Fork.
The morning of departure, as with any long session, is always one of afterthoughts and hard work. I am always thinking, as I am breaking down equipment and taking out trash, what if we had tried this or that and why didn’t we go here or there? Regrets are somehow always realized during breakdown. It isn’t until you are finished with breakdown, and you begin talking with your fishing mates, that you fully realize what you actually have accomplished. For me this is always the highlight of a long session, looking back with fondness at the suffering and result.
As I was finished with my breakdown and clean up, I looked over to Mike and Florian to see if they were completed with their packing, which they were. They had all of their bags packed and stacked, ready to load. They were looking out over the water and I figured that it was their way of saying goodbye to Lake Fork. They didn’t have any rods out so I didn’t know of anything else they could be doing. It wouldn’t be until we almost reached the airport that they I would find out exactly what they were up to.
During our 2 hour and 15 minute drive to DFW Airport, we decided to have a send off meal and indulge with Texas t-bone steaks, so we stopped at the Salt Grass Steak House overlooking Lake Ray Hubbard. During this meal, Mike and Florian really opened up with conversation. Here are some of things that Florian had to say, in his own words:
“Another thing that was unbelievable to me was the enormous power of the carp!!! A Texas carp, weighing only 10 lbs, fights like hell. Comparing it to a fat and lazy German carp, weighing 30 lbs, I would have to say that our European brothers are sleeping when they are hooked! I think you must be giving your Texas carp steroids.
One very different thing, between carp fishing in the US and Europe, are the anglers themselves! Here in Germany, everybody keeps fishing a secret. European anglers don’t disclose anything about their catches, baits, or rigs. You divulge only to your closest friends, but no one else! Sometimes very mean and jealous, European anglers will destroy your car tires if they think you are fishing on “their” spot! This is absolutely crazy because all the spots are public! It is good to see that this is totally different in Texas. You can always fish together, barbecue, and drink a beer. That’s great! Even when you go in a restaurant, you can speak with other guests about fishing and there are no secrets.
One very similar thing, about fishing in Texas and Germany, is when your buzzer is screaming you’ll forget everything around you! Carp fishing is magic all around the world!!!”
With our bellies full and content, we got back on the road set to complete the last leg of the journey to the airport. We enjoyed small talk all the way there, but as we entered the airport, I felt it was important to quickly reminisce just a little more. I said, “Fellows, it has been a real pleasure fishing with y’all for the last several weeks. I have enjoyed it a great deal and I learned a lot about carp fishing in the process. Y’all captured more carp, and more carp over 30 lbs, than anyone ever has before on Lake Fork. Although we accomplished our goals, to catch several buffalo and a few big ones, my only regret is that y’all didn’t catch any buffalo from Lake Fork. I can’t believe that we didn’t even see any on Lake Fork this past week.”
This is when Mike said, “Jason, we weren’t going to tell you this but just as we finished packing, Florian and I were looking over the lake. Right in front of the boat house a buffalo surfaced. We couldn’t believe that it showed itself just as we were leaving. We think it was trying to let us know that we had been fooled!”