Saturday, March 7, 2020

Origins

Over the years, they have become the fish I target most through the ice. For one, the chance is always there to pull something really special up through the hole, but also because they fight well and the water they inhibit here is some of the first to freeze and last to thaw. They are gorgeous fish in their own right and formidable predators with a mouth full of sharp teeth. My style of ice fishing for them is primitive, which is a nice change of pace from the more technical fishing I do for other species. Without a doubt, northern pike are impressive and enjoyable creatures.

Esox lucius are not native to Connecticut. Like many species, they were introduced at some point in time and have thrived ever since. Wherever pike roam in the Nutmeg State, they are indeed the apex predator of that body of water and can grow into giants. The current Connecticut state record stands at 29-pounds, taken from Lake Lillinonah in 1980. Just to our north and east, the records in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are both 35-pounds respectively. It’s no wonder why targeting trophy pike in open water and through the ice has become so popular in the Northeast.

Northern pike are predators that eat almost anything and everything they desire. 







Starting in the 1980s, fisheries biologists from CT DEEP have done an outstanding job with the state’s northern pike management program, building it to the point where significant natural reproduction is happening in the marsh systems of a few of our more popular pike fisheries. After graduating college, I was able to witness the success of the program firsthand by taking a seasonal position within DEEP’s inland fisheries division. It remains the most interesting job I’ve ever held. One of the more fun responsibilities it entailed was helping capture and stock northern pike fingerlings.

The capturing part took place on a DEEP-managed marsh along the Connecticut River. When it floods, northern pike (and other fish) make their way into this marsh and a culvert pipe, their only exit back to the main river, is blocked off. While inside, some of the adult pike spawn successfully and the marsh is drained months later after their offspring reach the desired fingerling size, about four to six inches. It was one of my tasks to sit on the river side of the culvert and catch these fingerlings in a large net as they exited the pipe. There was no knowing when or what was coming through. Sometimes large pike would shoot out like rockets—a startling experience on a good day, even more so with a hangover—and I would have to wrangle them from the net and release them back into the river. The fingerlings, however, would be carefully counted, sometimes fin-clipped, and placed in tanks on stocking trucks and driven to various pike management lakes around the state.

On one evening that summer, I remember releasing some of these little guys in the shallows of a favorite northern pike fishery—it must have been like ringing the dinner bell because immediately a larger fish (my money is on largemouth bass) blasted a few unlucky ones hanging out just below the surface. A bunch of these fingerlings, I’m confident, survived the odds and grew up to be trophy-class fish.

Aaron Swanson with a trophy CT northern pike.


Fast forward 15 years to the subpar Connecticut winter we are experiencing now. A recent catch, it turns out my final of the short ice season, got me thinking again about the origins of the pike swimming in our waters. As soon as it came topside, I knew this fish was a little different—it had a pattern unlike any pike I’d seen to that point. I immediately thought it was a cross between a pike and a pickerel because of the chainlike markings along its lower flanks. It wasn’t a very large fish, but it was healthy as a horse and surely unique. Looking for clarity if it was a hybrid or not, I later sent a photo to biologists involved in DEEP’s pike management program. I am glad I did because they shared some interesting info I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

The biologists acknowledged its unusual markings, yet could not make a definitive call on whether it was a hybrid or not without an up-close look at its opercle, the plate-like bone also known as the gill cover. It turns out that scales are present on the upper half of a pike’s gill cover, but are absent on the lower half. On pickerel, however, the opercle is fully covered with scales. And on hybrids, scales cover exactly three-quarters of it. The biologists added that in the 30 or so years that DEEP actively trap-netted adult pike for broodstock, a pike/pickerel hybrid was captured almost every year, sometimes up to two or three of them were netted. I found the possibility of catching my first hybrid pretty cool, but the story doesn’t quite end there.

My final fish of the 2019-2020 ice season and an interesting one at that.




One of biologists circled back with an interesting twist. He had seen pike with similar markings before while collecting fingerlings from Connecticut marshes and believed my catch stemmed from a past stocking of fish from New Jersey. “For a number of years, we’ve been receiving free pike fry from New Jersey that we’ve raised in our marshes, or at Burlington hatchery, to fingerling size and have then stocked in a couple of our pike management lakes,” he said. The neat part, I thought, was that they could tell exactly what body of water in New Jersey the pike originated from.

The biologists had sent my photo to their counterparts in New Jersey’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, who recognized it straight away. Evidently, there is one reservoir down there where the pike exhibit similar chainlike markings. Several of the adult pike from that reservoir were used as broodstock back in 2016. Fingerlings that were raised from the New Jersey fry were later stocked in the very lake I caught my fish in, which made sense because, based on its size, was thought to be in the range of three to four-years-old.

This is not groundbreaking stuff, but it was cool to learn the backstory of my catch. It’s not often we, as anglers, get that sort of insight or closure on the fish we spend so much time and effort perusing. This exercise reinforced my appreciation for the work of our inland fisheries staff and furthered my understanding of the gamefish I am fortunate to target each winter. With the growing respect for the species within the angling community and increasing use of proper catch and release methods, Connecticut’s northern pike management program has a bright future ahead. And hopefully I run into another 2016-year class Jersey fish down the road. 

Another example of a 2016-class pike that originated from broodstock from the same New Jersey reservoir.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Winter Nights


On cold, dark nights during winter—after work, dinner, dishes, bath and bedtime—now and again I descend to the basement. Down the stairs, past the finished area strewn with toys, through a door and into a slice of cellar left untouched. It’s unheated, dimly lit, and all mine. A shrine to my hobbies, almost every inch of the room is covered with something outdoors-related. A cement-floor sanctuary to unwind, tinker, and prepare for trips and seasons to come.

A simple workbench is the heart of the room. Above it a pegboard adorned with dozens of wooden plugs and plastic lures—some more worn than others, but each tell a story. They hang upside down by their rear hook in two neat rows; organized first by type, then by color. Some nights I’ll swap out old, rusty hooks for fresh ones or take random lures off the wall and inspect them like a kid does his army men. It’s reassuring in a way to handle artificial lures in winter while thinking of tides I’ll cast them come summer. Some nights I’ll hover over the bench and snell hooks or tie leaders and tuck them in individual baggies. Better to do it now than rushing before a fishing trip.



Next to the workbench is an old, fold-out wooden desk. It’s been furnished into a fly-tying station with a daylight lamp, making it the brightest spot in the room when it’s on. The desktop has open cigar boxes stuffed with various spools of thread, wire, and lead. It’s flanked by plastic organizers on either side with drawers chockfull of tying materials. Oftentimes I’ll sit at the vise, usually with a bourbon, or lately tequila, and fill voids in my fly boxes of proven patterns that I lost too many of. While tying this winter, instead of listening to playlists, I’ve been enthralled with an audiobook, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary, by Joe Jackson. It’s a fascinating biography of the Sioux healer and holy man, and a sad reminder of some dark times in our nation’s history.  

A collection of fishing rods stretches the entire length of another wall. A few of them are long, one-piece surfcasting rods, so it’s helpful to have a full walk-out door at the head of the room with easy access to my truck—a far cry from the situation when living on the third-floor of my in-laws for two years (the cooking was top-shelf, but getting a 10 footer up two flights at 2 a.m. took practice). Most of the rods have reels attached and rigged from the last time they saw action. Near the door on the floor is a large Jet Sled laden with stickers and packed to the gills with ice fishing gear. It has a hole in one of the back corners, but I haven’t sprung for a plastic welding kit to fix it. The ice gear hasn’t seen much activity this winter, but I’m not packing it away just yet. Eventually it will hang in the rafters out of sight until next November, when optimism is once again renewed for a proper hardwater season.




On the opposite wall are two metal shelving racks full of tackle boxes, plug bags, storage bins, camping equipment, and a cache of artifacts I’ve found at ancient Native American campsites and villages around the area. Much of it is debitage, sharp-edged waste material left behind when indigenous people knapped stone such as flint or quartz into tools. But some of the pieces are broken or unfinished projectile points and scrapers that weren’t quite good enough to make their way upstairs into my shadowbox table with the showpiece stuff. There are nights I’ll just go through this pile of flakes and chipped stone, sorting and studying them, and thinking how cool it is that someone else held them thousands of years ago. 

Yet another section of the room is taken up by a bait freezer, buckets, nets, walking sticks, coolers, and a clothing rack on wheels from which hangs fly fishing packs, waders, wetsuits, and a myriad of bibs and jackets. In the corner, from the ceiling, hangs my fishing bike; an old beater that is spray-painted black and customized with two rod-holders, basket, and rear rack. It doesn’t get used as much as it could, but the bike is ready to spring to life for a Canal trip or a ninja mission to a private stretch of shoreline.

The room is not big by any means, yet its space is certainly maximized. Not much bare wall space is left—some of the last of it used for a framed photograph of my largest bluefish, caught and released on a September night 14 years ago. The plug that fooled that fish, a white Atom 40, is wired to the frame below the picture, full of teeth mark battle scars. On nails in the concrete block hang lanterns, chaffed leaders, and antique cookware, and sprinkled around the room are retired flies or lures, fishing keepsakes from a time gone by.

In spring, summer, and fall, there are plenty of nights I run down to the basement only to grab gear and go—I won’t think twice about tinkering with tackle or tying flies. But in winter, when the cold is numbing and wind is honking, on occasion I get the urge to spend hours in the place carved out for the things I love to do. Whether it’s a garage, trophy room, attic, tying room, or mancave, every outdoorsman has a special spot they store the things they are passionate about. I’m fortunate for mine.