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Hooking big bass never gets old for these Duluth anglers

Joe Ranua of Duluth makes a cast into lilypads while fishing for largemouth bass Tuesday afternoon on a lake near Duluth. Sam Cook / Forum News Service1 / 7
After a few hours of fishing on a lake near Duluth, Joe Ranua (left) and Travis Kaai show off the best of the afternoon's largemouth bass fishing -- two 4-pounders and a 5-pounder. Both Ranua and Kaai are from Duluth. Sam Cook / Forum News Service2 / 7
Travis Kaai of Duluth shows off a 5-pound, 3-ounce bass he caught Tuesday evening, Aug. 1, on a lake south of Duluth. He and fishing partner Joe Ranua of Duluth caught four bass during the afternoon and evening. Sam Cook / Forum News Service3 / 7
A thrashing largemouth bass comes to a waiting net on Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 1, on a lake south of Duluth. Travis Kaai of Duluth had hooked the bass, and his fishing partner Joe Ranua of Duluth was handling the net. The bass weighed 5 pounds, 3 ounces. Sam Cook / Forum News Service4 / 7
Travis Kaai of Duluth prepares to release a 5-pound, 3-ounce bass he caught Tuesday evening, Aug. 1, on a lake near Duluth. Sam Cook / Forum News Service5 / 7
Travis Kaai (left) and Joe Ranua, both of Duluth, fish for largemouth bass on a small lake near Duluth on Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 1. Sam Cook / Forum News Service6 / 7
A soft-plastic toad bait skims along the surface of a lake near Duluth as it's retrieved by Joe Ranua of Duluth. Sam Cook / Forum News Service7 / 7

 DULUTH, Minn. — A green frog burped. Somewhere down the lake, a loon wailed. Duluth's Travis Kaai winged another cast into a flotilla of lilypads.

Kaai, 31, and his bass-fishin' buddy Joe Ranua, 19, both of Duluth, were flinging soft plastic toads and salamandery creatures into and atop the dense mat of pads on this small lake south of Duluth. It was Tuesday afternoon, and they had the place almost to themselves.

Kaai brought his passion for bass fishing north with him when he moved here from Oklahoma four years ago. Ranua picked up the habit when he started fishing with Kaai.

The anglers fish bass often on several largemouth bass lakes in the Duluth area. Yeah, they know that walleyes rule in this neck of the woods. Ranua chases them on the St. Louis River, spring, fall and winter. But now, in early August, the two focus on chunky largemouths that live in the pads, or coontail vegetation, or along the edge of rushes — anyplace a bass can ambush an unsuspecting bluegill or crappie.

Already, they have a 4-pound bass swimming in Ranua's livewell. Ranua caught it not long after they began fishing in late afternoon. They saved it only for a group photo later in the evening, assuming the fish would have some company.

Bass explosion

Kaai was up on the boat's front deck, casting as he steered the trolling motor of Ranua's Alumacraft with bare feet. Ranua tossed a white plastic toad into the pads and retrieved it quickly. Its rubbery little legs flailed and flopped. It looked like a scared mouse scurrying from one pad to another, racing back to the boat.

Without warning, the water erupted — or maybe imploded — with a loud sucking sound. Ranua leaned back hard, and his 50-pound test braided line went taut from rod tip to lilypads. It was another good bass, and he wasted no time in cranking it to the boat, never giving it a scintilla of slack.

Understand, these bass guys are not into playing their fish. They never wait for a big bass to make a run and possibly get ensnared in lilypad stems. The goal is simple.

"Set the hook as hard as you can and try to get him out of there as fast as you can," Ranua said.

He swung the fish aboard in one giant swoop, a shimmering 4-pounder, all shoulders and belly, a veritable middle linebacker of a bass.

The road north

Kaai came into bass fishing naturally, having grown up in Texas and Oklahoma.

"I caught a lot of 5- and 6-pounders there," he said. "My biggest was on Cooper Lake (in Texas) — 11.78 pounds."

Kaai moved to Duluth about four years ago. Not for the bass.

"Girlfriend," he said.

They met online. She lives in Gary-New Duluth. They first met in person at the Boy Scout Landing boat launch.

Minnesota's preoccupation with walleyes didn't distract Kaai, he said.

"No one ever tried to convert me," Kaai said.

He started prospecting bass lakes on Google Earth. And he joined the Duluth Bass Club, which holds occasional tournaments on area lakes.

"The guys I know in the club are some of the most passionate bass fishermen I've ever met," Kaai said.

Kaai noticed Ranua's fish photos on Instagram and asked him if he wanted to go bass fishing.

"I didn't get into bass fishing until I met Travis," Ranua said.

One more time

The two anglers kept moving around the lake, trying windward shorelines, more lilypads, coontail, reed edges and a creek inflow. Not many bass wanted to play the game on this warm evening.

Now they were casting into lilypads near a stand of reeds. Kaai had caught and released a nice fish there a couple of times before.

"OK, I gotta get my fish out of this spot," he muttered.

He was throwing a black-and-blue soft-plastic "flippin' tube." The weighted tube would fall through gaps in the pads. One moment, the evening was serene and silent. All of that was shattered by an explosion in the shallows, and Kaai was fast to a bass with an attitude. He knew this was a fish to be reckoned with.

The battle couldn't have lasted 10 seconds. The bass went airborne twice in that time, but Kaai's line never went slack. By the time he steered the fish to the back side of the boat, Ranua had the landing net in the water. Lean. Scoop. Lift.

Bass — especially big bass — are such impressive specimens. Golden and green, their jaws seem as wide as their mid-sections. Their backs are thick and dark. Their tails are engineered to move a lot of water.

Kaai reached into the net and lifted this one up for a look. He turned it slowly and let it catch the last of the evening's buttery light. On his scale, it went 5 pounds, 3 ounces — a "hawg" by northern Minnesota standards.

Kaai had caught only one bass larger this year, a 5½-pounder in the Mississippi River near Grand Rapids in early spring.

This one joined Ranua's two 4-pounders in the live well, where they would wait until it was time for their team picture.

It wasn't a numbers night, but Kaai wasn't complaining.

"Quality, not quantity," he said.

Online

• Go to duluthnewstribune.com for a video of Travis Kaai and Joe Ranua fishing for largemouth bass.

• For more information on the Duluth Bass Club, visit duluthbass.org.

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