Thursday, May 5, 2016

Camp Life

Opening Day weekend flew by at breakneck speed as it always does. I sometimes find myself sniffing a jacket with the lingering aroma of campfire smoke just to bring me back there. For three nights and four days, we transformed a landowner's shooting range into an impressive camp with enough food, drink and firewood to stay a month. We lucked out with dry weather for the duration and tested our sleeping bags with a hard frost the first morning. While we may not see each other for months at a time, our crew is like a well-oiled machine at camp. It's hard to top the cuisine year after year, but somehow we manage. Between the seafood paella, eye-of-round, four types of whiskey, 100 Wellfleet oysters, and array of cheese and cured meats, it was sensory overload all weekend. We even got out of camp by noon on two days to fish. It was one hell of a celebration of spring and everything that comes with it. Until next year... 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Third Saturday In April

So much about our Opening Day tradition has changed since I first joined my uncle more than 20 years ago. The location, the duration, the crew, even the fishing regulations—they all evolved over time. In the early years we stayed on a state-owned property along the river with dozens of others for one wild night before the third Saturday of April. With that site long since shut down, we now stay on a private piece of land miles from the river with a small and seasoned group for three memorable nights. We have added on days, lost a crucial participant, and gained others. Virtually the entire river is now open to fishing before Opening Day. The State even moved trout season up a week, yet there was no question within our group about whether or not to stick with the traditional weekend.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The gathering of friends. The reunion around the camp fire. The celebration of spring. The serenade of peeper frogs. The patter of rain on the tent. The smell of wood smoke. The morning dew on the rain fly. The hum of the Northstar lanterns. The swilling of whiskey in camp chairs. The fire-cooked steaks. The waders drying on Russian Olives. The rigging of fly rods on tailgates. The whittling of walking sticks. The cigars on the riverbank. The prepping of cheese spreads with grandfather’s KA-BAR. The crackling of the late night fire. The chill when you step away from it. The rehashing of stories I’ve heard for years. I’m thankful those things haven’t changed.

When I first started going on this trip, the weekend was something I circled on the calendar months in advance. When that Friday morning finally came, I’d wait by the front door for my uncle’s red Mitsubishi Mighty Max pickup to pull in the driveway. My pile of gear was pathetic—pretty much everything I used was loaned to me from fishing rods to sleeping bags. As we drove north on Route 8, we may as well have been on a logging road in the Moosehead region. We were so unplugged from the real world. It was so different that what my friends were doing back home. For better or worse, those trips exposed me to food, language, behavior, and fishing techniques that a Connecticut kid in the 90’s couldn’t find anywhere else.

Now with over two decades of Opening Day weekends in the books, inside I’m still that excited kid making mental notes of the trip months in advance. While the world got a lot smaller since those first years, in a way it still feels like I’m cut off from the rest of civilization when I’m in the woods for those three nights. A temporary reprieve from responsibilities at home and in the office. And we’ll keep going that third weekend in April so long as we are physically able to do so. Carrying that Opening Day torch and passing it on to our children and their children along the way. It’s tradition after all. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Black Bass Spring

Editor's note: I have some talented friends. Chad is one of them. Below is the last of three guest posts for a while from my buddy east of the Big River. His writings last year (herehere and here) were well received and different from what you typically find on this blog. I hope you enjoy Chad’s work and style as much as I do. 

As long as I have fly-fished I’ve been fascinated by bass bugs.  I appreciate the form and function of them, and the artistry of the flies.  Bass bugs are purely American in history as black bass are native only to the Americas.  References to fly fishing for black bass in America dates back as far as the mid 1700s when William Bartram observed Seminole Indians dap them up on a series of hooks wrapped in deer hair and hung off the end of a cut sapling.  By the early 1900s bass bugs were produced and fished widely in the United States.  They still are.

For me, the touchstone of true spring in Northeastern Connecticut is when I can begin fishing for bass in farm ponds.  It is when I know winter is truly over and there will be no more snow.  It is the first warm spell of over a few days, and the evening has stretched out and begun to linger.  It is the sound of peep frogs, untold and unseen thousands of them, singing in the low wet places.  Among those wet places first, a new spring green emerging from the grey bracken and underbrush. 

I love the flies used to fish bass.  The insane intricacies of color that a good fly tier can meld and pack in their making, and clip so perfect to form: frog divers, mice patterns, poppers, birds even.  I love the gear used, I often use a #7 glass rod that is older than I am.  I love it that it is substantial and weighty and off the business end a short and stout leader.  Much like the fish, bass bugging is not delicate.

Farm ponds generally warm quickly.  The best early spring ponds are exposed to full sun, and are shallow.  Any bay available, but a North bay especially.  Walking the bank, amazed at the life teeming in the shallows so soon.  Young of the year fish breaking, frogs, the dark wake of a good fish pushing off in less than a foot of water.  A hunting fish.

I love the strike.  It will surprise me always, the first strike of the year, and I will generally miss the fish.  Even if that mouse looks so damn good skating on the oil slick black water with its rabbit strip tail undulating like a snake, it will take me off guard.  When the violence comes and the fish hits it.  The key is to wait on the set, and not do it like you would any trout.  I love the boiling take, when the fish porpoises onto the fly perpendicular to me, exposing its size and kicking down the back end of its feed.  The deep bend to the glass rod, head shakes and runs.  The quick fight, no quarter given, pressuring on that short stout leader freely.

You can lip a bass, and should do so with authority, especially on a good fish. They’ll shake their heads and fuss, but soon settle.  I love the feel of their course jaw on my thumb and appreciate their dark lateral lines, dual dorsal fins, and broad tails.  Their deep green, the darker their water, the deeper the green, but generally in the early spring lighter as weed growth hasn’t yet shaded their homes.  

In the spring, on those first sweet nights where it is warm until it is full dark.  Fishing through full dark.  The deep flexing glass rod, hucking that bug out and letting it sit to settle as the rings of its landing dissipate out into the evening lake.  Bringing it to life.  Stripping it to be alive on the surface of the pond.  I love when the wake appears and follows.  Quickening the pace, the implied fear in the fly.  Then, the flash of the predatory mouth.

I associate this fishing with the first campfires and sweatshirts.  The static hush of the Fenway crowd and Joe Castiglione calling for the Red Sox on WEEI, “Now here’s the set.  The pitch…….”  Windows down on the ride home, sated.  Sleeping with the windows open for the first time, waking with a rough bass thumb in the cool April morning.