Saturday, January 23, 2021

Stealing Home

For the second consecutive trip, the morning bite was hotter than two hamsters farting in a wool sock. The type of bait and whether it was alive or dead didn’t matter; the pike were hungry and far from shy. Flags were popping all over our spread, but particularly along a weed line that ran perpendicular to shore. I had just released a small pike and was rebaiting the tip-up it stripped when I heard something hit the ice. I couldn’t immediately place the noise, so I scanned the direction it came from and noticed about 50 yards away the rod in my I Fish Pro was missing from view.

Over the past few years, these contraptions have helped modernize the way ice anglers catch fish with tip-ups by allowing anglers to retrieve fish using a rod and reel, instead of the traditional hand-over-hand technique. They were invented in Canada and popularized by YouTube channels like Uncut Angling, Jay Siemens, and Clayton Schick Outdoors. In Connecticut, where ice anglers can fish with up to six lines, it’s impractical to use just I Fish Pros, but friends and I have added a few to our line-up and it’s been a hell of a lot of fun. 

When it fully registered that that the sound I heard was my rod falling, I broke into the highest gear one can travel in Yaktrax across ice. A pike had taken my bait and the stiff wind had wrapped my bowed line around the tripped flag of the I Fish Pro. The fact that my conventional reel was in free spool didn’t matter; when the fish began to pull the fouled line, the rod jolted from its holder and was gradually towed toward the hole in the ice.

From a few yards out, like the scene in Sandlot where Benny steals home, I slid on my side and scooped up the dragging rod that was inches from disappearing. With some luck, I freed the braided line from the flag and kept the fish tight in the process. That kicked-off an eventful fight consisting of me dancing around the hole to achieve favorable angles while the pike peeled drag and changed directions like a warplane in a dogfight.  

By this point, one of my friends watching the spectacle unfold ran over to assist. After a valiant effort, the pike began to tire and its jaws emerged upward from the icy water. Aaron placed his hand under its gill plate and hoisted up a very well-fed northern pike. Sporting beautiful dark colors and a big head and shoulders, it was my best pike of the ice season and my largest ever taken on a rod and reel.

A couple of seconds was all the difference between me landing that fish and losing an expensive combo in a frozen lake. A lesson was learned about the need to be more cognizant of wind direction when setting the I Fish Pro, but that awesome fight and fish further cemented the tip-up’s place in my hardwater rotation. Thankfully things turned out how they did and I have noteworthy memory that will always be tied to that morning on the ice.

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Closure on the Closer

It was the last day of the year and final day of open season at the reservoir. Jeff and I pulled up at the same time from opposite directions. In a normal winter we would have been meeting at a frozen lake, but with no real ice fishing options we agreed instead to a morning session at the res. Jeff lives close by and had never fished it before, so he was in for a good lesson.

The morning was still pitch black and the rain seemed harder than forecasted. Though the thermometer read over 40 degrees, it was the type of wet cold that seeped into your bones. It had been raining quite a lot. In the span of just a few weeks, the drought that lasted most of the year was erased and the water level of the reservoir had risen dramatically to near full capacity. Great for drinking water, but from a selfish angler standpoint, it severely cut down the number of fishing spots around a place with limited access to begin with.

On our walk through the woods, I missed my mark for the spot I planned for us to fish. Instead of backtracking to find the trail, we stubbornly punched through thick underbrush to the water’s edge. There was no casting room where we landed, so we clumsily walked the shoreline over downed trees and boulders to the intended location. It was far from graceful with bait buckets and long rods in a tight corridor. When we finally got to the right spot, I realized my backpack wasn’t on my back. It was full on amateur hour.

While Jeff got situated, I retraced our steps to my truck where the pack was still on the front seat. It turned out to be a blessing—lying perfectly on some cobble along the shore was a giant cookie wrapped in cellophane. Jeff had dropped it in the scramble to the spot and we had a good laugh before splitting it for a hearty breakfast. Now we were ready to fish.

I wish I could say that we slayed walleye and trout at dawn, but it was quiet for the first two hours. The only constants were the rain and the wet chill that took a toll on our dexterity. Even the simple task of re-rigging took twice as long. The conditions also hindered my desire to pick up the lure rod and probe the areas around our baits. It was a hands-in-pockets-in-between-sipping-coffee type of morning.

Finally, a slip bobber started dancing on the surface. It was one of Jeff’s that had drifted towards a submerged tree near shore. When the float slid under, he connected with his first fish from the reservoir—a healthy rainbow trout. Catching at this waterbody on an inaugural outing is a feat in itself considering how many times anglers leave with their tail between their legs.

The bite seemed to be turning on because just a few minutes later another of Jeff’s bobbers disappeared. After a solid hook set, he had something on long enough to feel heavy weight on the other end. The immediate rush came crashing down when his line went slack. Jeff reeled up everything except the hook and shiner. Where it had been tied to his leader was a dreaded curly sue that revealed the knot had failed. A mishap that every angler has experienced at some point or another, but a gut wrenching one no doubt. There are state record-caliber fish swimming in this body of water and chances don’t come often, so the unknown of what was lost was painful.

There wasn’t much time to dwell on it before a third takedown occurred in the same area. It was one of my bobbers with a large shiner set 10-feet down. I gave it a second longer than customary and drove it home. The fish felt substantial and swam up in the water column. At the first glimpse, I thought I saw white-tipped fins of a walleye, but soon a broad, spotted tail of a trout broke the surface. Jeff laid a landing net in the water and I steered the fish in.

Inside the net was a thick silver bar of a brown trout; easily my largest from the reservoir in years. It was a male seeforellen with a slight kype to its jaw and in pristine condition except for an old injury to its right pectoral fin. An impressive specimen on its own, but what happened next is seared in my memory. When I went to remove the hook, along with my shiner there was another baitfish in his mouth. Initially I thought it was an alewife, the main forage in this impoundment, but upon closer inspection I noticed a hook through its back. Well I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the very same fish that Jeff lost only minutes earlier! We were floored—the excitement level on that patch of rocks was already high, but this put it into another stratosphere.

After plucking both hooks and shiners from its mouth, the greedy trout was photographed and sent on its way. We stayed for one more hour hoping for another bobber to go under, but the bite window had closed as quickly as it opened. Not often are anglers awarded that kind of closure after a missed opportunity. We’ve all been left guessing what kind of fish or how big it was after losing it. There was no guessing here—that brown trout was so dialed-in on hunting alewives that rainy morning, he let his guard down and got fooled twice by Arkansas shiners in mere minutes. Lucky for him, he was released unharmed to get bigger and wiser for next time. 

It was a neat way to close out the fishing season at the reservoir and to put a bow on a bizarre year in general. Cheers to a year ahead full of good health and new adventures—stay safe and tight lines!

Monday, January 4, 2021

Hells Bells

Our limit of 12 lines was set under the ice before the sun lifted over the trees. Despite only having a half day to fish, hopes were high as we drilled the first holes on this waterbody of the season. There was a layer of gray ice on top of a thinner layer of black ice; enough to feel comfortable, but an approaching storm bringing warm air and heavy rain meant a total reset was imminent.  

It’s funny how two anglers in the same area using the same thing can have completely different results, but that’s precisely how our day started. We had a mix of tip-ups and jigging rods spread over a familiar spot. They were baited with medium shiners that Buddy was able to secure on short notice. For the first two hours, my partner’s flags popped left and right resulting in more than a dozen yellow perch to my none. When one of Buddy’s perch came topside, it puked up dragon fly larvae and gave us a neat glimpse at what some of the fish were eating below.    

Out in deeper water, I hopped around and jigged the extra holes we drilled at first light. There weren’t many targets showing on my sonar, but I eventually coaxed a bluegill into eating a Hali jig. If not familiar, this little lure has a gold drop-chain hook and I tipped it with a piece of fish meat. The flash and action of the jig call fish in, but the freebie on the hook is what seals the deal. The dark bluegill was a modest first fish of my ice season, but I was happy to be on the board.  

The calmness was soon broken up by a jingling sound behind me. Bells clipped to a jigging rod bouncing violently set me in motion like a fire alarm. The drag on my reel had been loosened, but apparently not enough as the rod managed to free from its holder and inched closer to the hole in the ice. I grabbed the sliding rod and, all in one motion, cupped the spool and reared back to set the hook. 

By the weight on the other end, I knew straight away this wasn’t a panfish. I tightened the drag, yet left it loose enough to protect the light line for what turned into a lengthy back and forth. As the fish tired, it flashed under the hole a few times revealing the telltale markings of a northern pike. After a quick photograph it was sent back down to keep on growing. Still, it was a solid pike, especially on the rod and reel.

Once the excitement settled down, I set out for one last jigging mission. Every so often I picked my head up from staring at the fish finder to scan our spread. After one such check, I looked back down at the screen to see a large mark merge with the small mark of my jig. The hit and hookset were simultaneous and the rod immediately bowed over. It was on the lightest rod and reel combo on the ice that day and, while it was a smaller pike than the first, the battle was just as spirited. Thankfully the Hali’s tiny hook perfectly pierced the outer skin of the fish’s top jaw or else there was no chance of landing it. Catching those fish back-to-back further cemented just how much I enjoy fighting pike through the ice on jigging rods.

While my time was up, Buddy stayed through the afternoon and returned for a few hours the next day with another pike and more yellow perch to show for it. Unfortunately, after that, the integrity of the little ice we had came into question. The warmup and rain on Christmas Eve were the death blow for this spot and a handful of other places in Connecticut that had fishable ice. It was a tease by any definition, but I was grateful to have been on ice at all. As I type this in early January, I’m holding out hope for an extended cold spell and the semblance of a real hardwater season, yet the days are getting longer and sun is getting stronger so it had better happen soon!

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Stepped in Crappie

There was no sign of them only a week earlier, so I was both surprised and delighted to see tiny rings scattered across the glassy surface of the reservoir. What looked like a passing rain shower was actually baitfish schooling at the top of the water column. Sunday breakfast was served and soon followed the first boil that cut through the morning silence.

Anadromous alewives have been running our tidal rivers each spring since the last glaciers retreated, but it wasn’t until around 1990 that the landlocked variety were introduced in Connecticut. Since then, in a number of waterbodies around the state, this member of the herring family has become a favorite forage for larger predators like trout, walleye, bass, and almost anything big enough to eat them. And where populations of landlocked alewives are present, there is usually opportunity to catch special fish.

On this morning I had set out while still dark with high hopes for walleye. I was fishing two slip bobber rigs with bobber stops set so my shiners dangled just over where I thought bottom was. The first bobber went under as the sun started creeping over the tree line. To my surprise it was a black crappie; not a large one nor the species I was after, but I was happy to rid the skunk. While I’m no expert in the calico bass department, I do know where there’s one, there’s usually more.

All this time alewives were still dimpling on the surface. After a few more boils from what I assumed were trout, a good enough case had been made to ditch the walleye plan and bring my baits up higher.  I made one more cast before adjusting and, as luck would have it, my rig got fouled around my slip bobber and the shiner began flailing on the surface when it hit the water. The struggling prey was too enticing and something engulfed it almost immediately, crashing on it like a striper would a pencil popper. I set the hook and reeled in a respectable brown trout—my first from this reservoir in years. Without that tangle, I wasn’t catching that trout—sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

There was a time when most brown trout caught in this reservoir were seeforellens. DEEP brought the German strain to Connecticut in the early 90s and they thrived in a handful of our deep lakes with high populations of alewives. It was a real gut punch in 2016 when seeforellen production was cut from our hatchery system due to cost-saving measures, but not before the strain made a lasting impact with Connecticut’s brown trout record changing hands twice between 2011 and 2014.  

There are undoubtedly some giant pre-2016 “seefs” still lurking in our waters, and thankfully it looks like the days of rearing this strain in Connecticut are returning. According to the state’s latest salmonoid action plan, the Fisheries Division is “currently re-establishing a broodline of the seeforellen brown trout strain” at the at the Kensington State Fish Hatchery, which is welcomed news to this angler.

After releasing the trout, I adjusted the two slip bobber rigs to suspend my shiners about five and six feet below the surface. There was a light breeze that created a left-to-right drift and took my bait from deep water over a shallow shelf. Just like you’d expect them to be, the fish seemed to be straddling this drop-off and that’s where my bobber went down four different times, but it was the final two that are going to stick with me for a while.

A little after 7 a.m. the fish gods made it clear that it wasn’t walleye or trout that I was supposed to catch that day. The next bobber take-down resulted in another black crappie, but this one was an absolute unit. It taped out to 15.25-inches, my largest calico ever, and had a full belly on it. The shiner was halfway down its gullet and this fish was unquestionably suspended over the shallow structure, pigging out on the schooling alewives. While crappie are considered excellent table fare, this specimen had me in awe and I decided to let it go.

Over the next hour I tried tapping into what I assumed was a good school of crappie in front of me. Along with drifting live bait, I peppered the area with artificials—hair jigs, plastic tubes, blade baits—but nothing. Then, with only minutes before my cut-off time, another bobber down by another giant calico—a near carbon copy of the previous one, if not a touch heavier. Just an incredible specimen that I couldn’t bear to harvest. I released the fish, packed my gear and left them biting, but it was a hell of way to go out.  

What happened in those two hours was not lost on me—originally out for walleye, then changing it up for trout, only to stumble upon the two best crappie of my life. It was an eventful morning that did wonders in boosting my appreciation for the species. It also reminded me that no matter how much I want to stick to a specific game plan, often times it pays to observe what’s happening and just go with the flow (or just get lucky). Two of the three alewife-stuffed calico bass I caught would have qualified for DEEP’s trophy fish award program had I done the proper documentation, but I’m content with the memory and that their genes are still in the gene pool. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

October Surprise

For a fish that no one really eats, little tunny sure garner a whole lot of attention. “Albie fever” is an accurate description for how anglers act when these speedsters arrive each fall. Symptoms include cashing in personal days at work, purchasing an obscene number of jigs from tackle shops, putting honey-do lists on hold, and neglecting other fall activities.

False albacore’s cult-like following can be explained by a couple of reasons. The obvious one is their fight. Battling an albie with light tackle is like taming a wild boar with a Nerf gun. Upon realizing they’re hooked, they turn on the afterburners and put every knot, piece of terminal tackle and reel component to the test. It’s one of the biggest thrills I’ve experienced in fishing.

Another reason, at least for me, is their scarcity—an absence makes the heart grow fonder sort of thing. While anglers in locales like the Cape and the Islands can almost set their watch by when Fat Alberts show, other areas in the Northeast sometimes get gypped altogether. Even in good years, albie season is on borrowed time. They can be here today, gone tomorrow with the next storm or cold front.

If nothing else, I’ve learned the presence of so-called funny fish is unpredictable, inconsistent and nothing to take for granted. In my home waters of Long Island Sound’s central basin, encounters with false albacore are far from a guarantee. Before the 2015 season, I had never even seen a local albie. They made a very late appearance that October, which was followed by a string of three consecutive falls filled with hometown albies. Then, in 2019, they skipped our area again altogether.

This year, I made an unsuccessful attempt in Rhode Island early September and put the rest of my chances in them showing up close to home. By mid-October, the feeling that this year was going to be another bust was starting to weigh on me.  Then, in a stroke of luck, some fish pushed into the area on October 20th. I wouldn’t even have known if it wasn’t for my buddy Leon. He logs way more hours on the water than me and happily helped get my first tunny fix in two years. Where Leon found them was significant, but equally so was what he shared about their peculiar behavior.

The following day when Mike and I motored to where Leon said the albies would be, he was already there. He and a friend hooked up three times before we even saw a hint of fish or birds. We were looking for the wrong signs. These false albacore were acting unlike any I’d ever seen; they weren’t showing on top at all. Instead of porpoise-like eats on the surface, their activity more resembled choppy, unsettled water like a nervous school of bunker. If we didn’t know what to look for, we might have passed right on by and a number of boats did just that. Once we got dialed in though, we were seeing the subsurface schools from 100 yards away.  

Fortunately for us, the fish weren’t too picky once we could put something in front of them. I hooked up with an Exo jig on my first cast on target. This albie brought me right to the bottom in 50-feet of water. Not a blistering run initially, more of a bulldog-pull straight under the boat. When I finally budged it from the basement, it gave a demonstration of the drag-peeling they’re known for. Taking no chances, we netted this one rather than going for the conventional tail-grab. It was a pig.

In theory, late-innings albies have more time to bulk up than the ones that first arrive to the region in August or September. It was certainly true for this group of fish. Mike and I each boated two of the largest albies we’d ever caught and dropped a few others. Just incredibly well-fed footballs. One even puked a pile of digested spearing on my shoulder like a baby burping up after a good back pat.   

It wasn’t hot and heavy and we saw only one fish break the surface the whole time we were there. Still, we learned a great deal about the species and pieced together a trip that we’ll be reliving long into winter. That body of fish was a flash in the pan; gone in less than a week. Leon stayed on them for a few more productive outings and deserved every one he caught. I was able to sneak out one more afternoon, but it was a “should’ve been here a few hours ago” situation. The friends I heard from that morning said it was pretty special.

I know that every angler who was fortunate enough to capitalize on this October surprise is grateful for what happened with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Fingers crossed they come back next year. With albies, you just never know.