Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Great Escape

Everything about my drive to the reservoir felt a little off, at least right until I was at the water’s edge. It had been more than four weeks since I had gone fishing or looked for artifacts or any of the other things I love do outside in springtime, but this has been far from a typical spring. In fact, it’s been batshit crazy.

I have been taking the quarantine seriously, not only for the wellbeing of my family but for others too. We have abided guidelines and sheltered-in-place since early March, only leaving for necessary shopping or to take walks, always with a goal of getting our kids exercise and fresh air while steering clear from people.

I’d be lying if I said fishing or other hobbies weren’t on my mind. This weekend I’ll miss a traditional spring camping trip for the first time in 25 years and it sucks, but feeling bad for myself about not being able to camp or fish during a global pandemic is pretty silly in the grand scheme of things. There are tens of thousands out there that are sick and dying, many more are out of work and wondering where their next paycheck will come from.

At the moment, my family is healthy and we have our jobs. That’s what’s important and what I’m most grateful for. That said, maintaining a healthy state of mind is important as well. With two parents working from home and juggling two little ones, our weekdays have been long and exhausting. Selfishly, I wanted to get out, alone, for a few hours. Tying flies, organizing tackle, purchasing gear online has helped scratch the itch, yet nothing can substitute for the real thing. I was going to fish, close to home, without coming near another soul.

It was a Sunday afternoon and I headed inland to a pristine body of water opened to fishing three weeks early thanks to an executive order by Connecticut’s governor. People were out soaking in the last of the day’s rays—hikers, anglers, cyclists. I drove the entire length of the reservoir scouting for dirt pull-offs without a vehicle. On my way back down, I found the one.

Loaded for bear with four rods, a backpack, and a bucket of shiners, I took a worn and familiar path to an opening in the tree line. The water level was as high as I’d ever seen it. While nice to have a drinking water supply at full pool, it dramatically cuts down on accessible spots with room for casting. I was lucky to have this sloped patch of dirt to myself and I camped there for the next three hours. 




There was still enough daylight to focus solely on trout when I first arrived. I set shiners under slip bobbers five and 10 feet below the surface and peppered the water around them with a metal spoon. A good and a bad thing happened soon after. I watched one of my bobbers disappear under the surface and I took a swing and missed. I was connected to the fish for just a second, yet long enough to feel heavy weight. I kicked myself for not giving it more time to eat. At the same time, I felt giddy that fish, maybe big trout, were feeding in the vicinity.

After the early takedown, things went quiet for a while. There was a little breeze on the main lake, but the protected area I was in was smooth as glass. A lone loon coasted into view. It didn’t make a ripple or a sound as it inched closer ever so slowly. They are such a beautiful and graceful bird. It was the closest I had been to a loon that I can remember.

When the sun started creeping below the trees behind me, it was time to shake things up. I slid the bobber stops quite a bit deeper and sounded the area in front of me. The depth in the sweet spot was about 25 feet or so. While the slip bobber system can be finicky at times, when things are working right, it’s a killer method for suspending bait off bottom. Just minutes after the change, one of my bobbers vanished. I scurried to the rod and set the hook to find something fighting back this time. The fish went ballistic and swam up to the surface almost immediately. After a spirited fight complete with acrobatics, it felt great to lip a healthy smallmouth bass from the net.




Without fully realizing it until the smallie swam off, it was well into magic hour—the span of time between day and night when special things seem to happen on the water. The fading daylight hung around for a while longer while the waxing gibbous rose high in the sky. It was a couple nights before the full pink moon and there was just enough light so I could watch my bobbers without squinting. But it was the sound, not sight, that I was most focused on. The chorus of peepers in the wetlands around me was deafening. So much so I had to record it on my phone for prosperity. Also notable was the lack of vehicles driving around the reservoir—usually they are constant and you can hear them coming from a mile away. I didn’t want to leave.

Magic hour wasn’t over yet. Before it got too dark to see, the other bobber went down. The few seconds it took me to get in position seemed long enough, so I set on the fish straight away and the weight against the bent rod felt substantial. This fight was different than the bass—longer with slow, strong runs and less headshakes, and nothing close to an aerial. It was my target species and I knew it instantly. A tense minute or two later, there were big gold and olive flashes in the shallows in front of me. The endgame must have been a sight to see—me balancing on a rock with the rod in my right hand guiding the fish into a long-handled net in my left. I knelt beside her curled in the mesh and fist-pumped in silence, gazing at my best walleye ever.

Old marble eyes taped out a hair over 24” and looked like it hadn’t missed many meals—trophy size by CT DEEP standards. I was so jacked up I could barely operate the self-timer on my phone, but managed a shot that will help me remember that evening forever. Walleye are the best eating freshwater fish around here, but this one had to go back and I took great joy watching it kick off strong. After losing some bruisers over the years, it seemed like a good omen to let one like that go.  




Walleye are one of the most popular gamefish in North America, though I gather that fishing for them is different in places like upstate New York, the Midwest, or Canada, where the sheer number of them make it an easier species to target. Here in Connecticut, every single walleye in our lakes and ponds is trucked here hundreds of miles from a commercial supplier. There is no spawning population and all walleye are stocked as six-inch fingerlings. It takes them three to four years of surviving the odds to reach the legal size of 18-inches. That’s why I consider them all special fish when they grow past keeper size.

The big moon allowed me to see my bobbers a little longer, long enough to catch a short yellow perch with eyes bigger than its stomach. It was now past the legal time to fish and I reeled in the lines and enjoyed a sip from my flask. I took my time packing up and hiking back to the truck, savoring the sounds of the spring night in the woods. As I drove home on a nearly empty Merritt Parkway, I replayed the trip over and over in my head. It had been many things. A reunion with a favorite spot. A solitary celebration of a personal best. A three-hour escape to clear my head and almost forget all that is going on in the world right now. It was perfect.


Monday, April 13, 2020

Gifts

Editor’s note: My friend Chad Wilde has a way with words. His guest posts over the years are some of the most read works on this site. This story is no exception—an enjoyable throwback that comes at a time when we’re looking for healthy distractions from what is going on in the world. Enjoy and stay safe.  


“whither thou wish inside
we will follow” – Will Oldham

Rarely do gifts given stand the unwavering test of time. Things are lost, sadly. Or used up. I only have a handful of physical items I can hand to you, point to, and say: I’ve got a story about where that came from, and have it come out being any kind of story at all.

I have a pocketknife/money clip that’s been on my person every single day for better than a decade, that’s one of them. A pair of gloves, never worn, given me by a special person to celebrate a particular accomplishment. A tip-up with words wood burned carefully into its cross sticks to tell me that the gods do not deduct from my allotted span the time spent in fishing.

I have a journal given to me by my children inscribed with the words, “Don’t Try.”  I have a pocket watch my wife gave me on our wedding day. This gift I only wear when it fits the appropriate outfit, it doesn’t go with Carhartt overalls so it’s pretty rare that I break it out. Its face reads, “Whither thou goest I will go.” 

There are stories behind all these things, good ones.

These things, they mean a great deal to me. This is why they stand the test of time. And time itself has carved even greater meaning on them. Etched in deeply, seated in relationship between gift giver and recipient and then in turn the object in question. 



Of all these special gifts, the one that has probably had the longest and deepest impact on me has been the fly rod my father gave me sometime in the early 2000's. At that point in my life, I desperately needed new inspiration, and in that rod, I found it.

I had graduated college and found myself on unsteady footing in the wide world. Suddenly, life wasn’t constrained in the walls of a classroom. I had no measure of performance to guide me.  Was I getting an A?  No, lord no.  But was I at least passing as I stepped out into real life? I wasn’t sure I could answer that in the affirmative and none were grading my endeavors to tell. 

I didn’t know much about anything, contrary to what my diploma said. I had read a lot of great books and written much to dissect, evaluate, and explain them. I was familiar with the classics, romantic poets, the beats. I was well read on Vietnam era literature and Charles Bukowski.  I had an inkling of what mechanical vocabulary I should use should I ever find myself at a cocktail party where poetry came up in conversation. Luckily, it never did. 

I stood on the cusp of the rest of my life with a degree in English literature, a pile of student loan debt, and a job doing custodial work. Those quaint editor jobs in the big city were for the trust fund kids whose parents could afford a loft’s rent for them, not me. So, I took what work I could find and just started working. I’d figure it out, that was the angle.

I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Naturally, with such confusion throbbing on me, I did what things I did know to do. One of these things was fishing. In those days, I used an ultralight spinning outfit. 

I got other slightly less poor paying jobs to put on my pitiful resume. I got a crappy apartment. I got out on my own, and I got some better gear to be a better fisherman. I viewed my resume as my report card, and I tried to make my C’s look like at least B’s through flowery language. You can’t put lipstick on a pig though. I didn’t know what to really do, so I just went fishing.

I found that fishing was somehow different in those days. I was in my twenties and I was well read if not well educated in any realistic sense of these words. I considered myself reasonably intelligent. I soon found that as I applied myself to fishing, I was pretty good at it and improving.  I did so, every time out.

It wasn’t long after that I was getting straight A’s on my spin rod. And then, my father gave me my first fly rod. 

Fly fishing had always been somewhat of an exotic dexterity to me. Some mysterious craft, practiced by men who tended to avoid the places I fished. However, I would glance them, these fly fishers, at times. I’d see them casting and working their lines and I’d wonder how the hell they did it. 

It seemed some secret practice to me. It was beautiful to watch. Delicate and foursquare, an art form wrapped in a leisure activity. It was utterly unapproachable I felt. But it really wasn’t. 

My father, in his wisdom, must have seen that I needed something. On my birthday, October 9th, he gave me a long tube and small box in gift wrapping.  It was an LL Bean Quest fly rod with a matching reel.  It was a 5-weight rod, and it was 7’6” long.  The reel came spooled with fly line and a leader already affixed to the business end. 

I will never forget receiving this gift. When I opened the plastic tube by removing the cap, it made a deeply satisfying audible popping sound. Inside the tube was a rod sock and inside the sock was the rod itself. As I removed the sock from the tube and then the rod from the sock, I was struck by a sentiment that rings true all these years later: it was a thing, wrapped in a thing, wrapped in a thing.

It was somehow special to be so. These layers coming away until the inner core was unsheathed fully, a rod to then be fished. To remove and use it, or put it away, required care. It felt more important than the spinning rods I’d always used.

I thanked my dad profusely and told him he had given me a new hobby. I was motivated suddenly.  At this caesura of my life, a page was turning. New form to emerge on a new blankness that stretched for who knew how long in front of me. 

At the time, I lived in Manchester, CT. I went immediately to Farrs Sporting Goods. This wonderful store sold and still sells everything from field hockey sticks and skateboards to camping and fishing gear. In the fishing section, they had a rotating display case with flies in it. Each fly was presented on a small card in the case. Written on the cards were the fly’s name and a strange number, a reference to which bin it could be found in the area below the display case. 

I had no idea what a March Brown #14 was or an Adams #12, but they both looked fishy to me.  I took three of each. I could understand a streamer fly, it being a minnow imitation. I was accustomed to using Rapalas and inline spinners that also imitate minnows. I took two streamers, both size #6 white Zonkers. I noticed at the bottom of the display there were bigger flies, intended for bass fishing. One caught my attention. It was a deer hair mouse fly. It had a rawhide tail and tiny little ears. I took one of those and also bought a fly box. 



After this spending spree I had some flies and a fly rod, but was fresh out of cash. Being out of cash was no big deal for me. I generally was at the time, 13 out of any given 14 days (the 14th being pay day, when I was ever so briefly flush with the stuff).

In my car, a 1988 Cherokee Sport, I arranged my fly collection in one neat row of the box—six dry flies, two streamers, and one deer hair mouse. “There,” I thought to myself. Nine flies. There was a lot of room left in the box. 

In my hometown of Willington, there is a TMA or Trout Management Area that was closed to spin fishing. 'Fly Fishing Only' read the signs posted everywhere. Naturally, my friends and I considered it civil disobedience to fish this water with our spin gear. 

I knew enough to know this stretch was the best water in the river and I didn’t see why it was relegated only to those who fished with flies. I also knew enough, through experience, that there were fish in that water all year round. Willing trout that rarely saw a Mepps Spinner. Poach and release was my mantra. 

I was crafty and sly in my journeys there.  I never got caught and I caught a lot of trout on spinners and, if that failed, live bait.

The day I got my first fly rod, I considered stampeding directly into the TMA with it and my nine flies, but wisely figured it best to ensure I could actually do this type of fishing. I went to a field, removed the thing from the thing from the thing, and rigged it up. I tied on one of my March Brown #14’s. As I stripped line off the reel, it made a clicking sound. And then, with the line pooled at my firm set feet, I began.

I was always an athlete. I have good coordination, and this helped me to quickly pick up a basic modicum of ability to cast fly line. I pulled the fly line back behind me as I’d seen done, the line unfurled backwards. When the line was behind me, I thrust forward and it flew out in front of me. “Holy shit,” I thought. “I can do this.” I made roughly three more practice casts before heading to TMA. Yes, of course I could do this.

I walked purposefully down the railroad tracks that ran adjacent to the TMA.  I made my footsteps firm. I didn’t need stealth since I was about to legally fish the TMA for the first time. I crashed through the bracken and underbrush and barreled towards the gleaming river at a deep cut bend that I knew held fish. 

My very first backcast instantly and predictably entangled my fly and leader in a tree limb behind me.  “Ah,” I thought. I’m not in a blissfully open field. I tried to get the fly out of the branches it was tangled in, savagely yanking on it until it broke it off. Now, down to eight flies and a shorter, stouter leader, I did what anyone would do. I tied on another March Brown #14 and marched directly into the river.

Mind you, I had no waders, and the water was cold.  It was October in New England, but I didn’t care. I waded far enough out into the flow that I could create a cast. Knowing nothing about drift, and less about how to mend fly line, I was instantly overmatched. I kept at it though, working until my feet were brutal cold and numb in my hiking boots. I was about to call it a day and retreat with my eight fly collection still intact when, at the far end of a drift, a miracle happened.

The March Brown #14 hung there in the current, chugging along as no creature in nature ever has. Something rose from the flow of the river and nipped at the fly. 

I saw its rise form clearly, and the dimple left on the sheen of the river’s face. I missed the hookset but gained heart. I fired another poor cast to the general vicinity. As the fly drifted, the fish rose again, and took. I yanked back to set and the hook somehow found purchase. 

Frantically, I stripped in line and, there at my cold feet, thrashed a very respectable fallfish. The blank page had a new notation. I had caught a fish on a fly rod.  I was proud of myself. That night, I called and told my dad. 

I began to fish in stillwater, ponds I knew to hold bluegill and bass. I caught enough panfish to keep me going back before fall gave way to winter. I noted that bass apparently do not like Adams #12s.  On some of those 14th days, when I was flush with cash, I’d return to Farrs Sporting Goods to buy more flies. I arranged them in my box. I liked the orderly way they’d fit into tidy rows. For Christmas that year, I asked for waders.

When spring came, I started bringing both my fly and spin rod to the rivers and ponds I fished, in my new waders of course. I was more successful with the spin rod, and it was just too easy to use. I caught a lot of trout on Rapalas. I found myself picking up the fly rod on the walk back to the Jeep from where I’d end up having stashed it. When I did use the fly rod, I caught more tree limbs than fish and thus depleted my paltry collection of flies

I had yet to catch a good fish on a fly, even by my own low standards. I’d caught fish, just nothing that deserved breaking out the disposable camera for, though I did anyway. 

As spring turned to summer, I stopped trout fishing entirely and took to the places they lived to swim rather than fish. There is nothing quite like swimming in a trout stream. Having lived in northeastern Connecticut all my life, I know several local chest-deep pools to do so. In those days, rope swings still hung from opportune limbs over deep enough water to swing from them.



I am an avid swimmer and I prefer to swim in natural environments, though a pool will do in a pinch. One such spot was a reservoir with a public beach. Both smallmouth and largemouth bass swam there, some were pretty decent fish. I’d generally go there on summer evenings at dusk for a quick dip. After swimming, I’d enjoy the feeling of my skin drying with all the windows in the car down, with a good song playing on the radio and a road soda. 

One night, as full dark came in, I stood waist deep in the water and looked out across the reservoir.  I ran my fingers through my hair, scratched my wet head. I began to make a fly casting motion with my empty hand for some serendipitous reason. I peeked back over my shoulder and realized I had backcast room for days. I still had the mouse fly in my box.

I started going to that reservoir more often, at night. I’d bring the fly rod only, taking pleasure in assembling it. I learned to tie leaders together. And each time out I learned to enjoy just the process of it. In the dark, I learned to feel a fly rod load. I caught nothing but, in my heart, I knew it would come if I did it enough. 

Somehow, I knew for me there was much to be said of what those men I used to watch did. What I had considered sorcery in form, elegance in some way. I viewed fly fishing as a craft and an art. I wanted to know it better. I began to take pleasure in just casting a fly rod. I did it in the parking lot of my shitty apartment.

Then, one night, my younger brother and I made a run out to the reservoir. We swam, and then fished. I was wading down the beach trying to double haul line and chuck the mouse as close to the shadow of a dock as I could. It was a very quiet night and I could tell how the fly was working by its sound.

There was enough ambient light to show the slick black, wet silken surface of the water’s ripples. I could see the dim outline of the path the mouse fly took back to me as I stripped it in. Each time I worked the fly, it came back empty and I picked up the line and did my best to shoot it back out there. 

The thing was, and I knew it deep down, my grades were improving. I was giving myself this gift of learning. I deserved it. My casts grew a bit longer, my leader straightened a bit more. I couldn’t see this occurring full well in the dark, but I could feel it. 

And that particular night, as the mouse fly paused between strips, a fish took it. I can still clearly hear its take in my mind. An audible gulping sound, and an eruption on the surface of the water, too close to where I knew the mouse fly to be for that eruption to be anything but a big fish eating. 

And I set on it in the dark and I knew I was connected to the first real fish I’d hooked on my fly rod. The ambient light showed a boil on the water.

In the dark, I could feel the bass leaping from the water, splashing back down, and then running. By the run alone, I knew it was a smallmouth. No largemouth runs like a smallmouth. The smallmouth is faster and more urgent on the line. I played the fish well, gave it no quarter, and landed it on the sandy beach. 

Elated, I lipped the fish. I held it in the water and called into the night as quietly as I could for my brother, who came and took my picture with the fish using my disposable camera. 

I took another picture, of just the fish this time, the disposable camera flash echoing off the amber golden flank of the bass. My shivering, rollicking gladness quaking, all that happiness in the dark night frozen there forever in the harsh momentary illumination. It was amazing. I held the fish for a moment longer than needed, and then it kicked its tail and dissipated into the dark water.

I took the camera to the drug store and had the film developed. In the car, I took out the pictures, found the one of just the fish and held it. It was a 19” smallmouth bass, to this day the biggest I’ve taken on a fly rod. I had measured it against the rod and cut a scratch into the blank that I later measured at home with a yard stick. It was such a gift. 

I may lose my pocketknife. God forbid if I lost my pocket watch. These things may happen. I’d be busted up if either did so, but they could happen by some ill twist of fate. But I will never, ever lose that fly rod my father gave me. All these years later, I don’t even know how many rods I currently own, but that LL Bean 7’6” 5#, now with a broken tip, that one is up on the wall safely retired with a mark on the blank at 19”.

And the photo of just the fish lives framed on my wall, but more so in my own mind. Forever. Ironclad.

The best gifts are the ones with stories behind them. Fishing itself, hell, it is just such a gift. 


Thursday, April 9, 2020

Tommy's Dad's Rod

Editor's note: I'm thankful for this guest post by Aaron Swanson. It's times like these we need stories like this to take us away, even for a few minutes, from the all the craziness going on. I'm sure every angler could relate to this one. Stay safe out there.  -KB


It was always in a barrel by the door, stuffed in there with some umbrellas, walking sticks and the odd golf club or two.  Over the years of going to my buddy Tommy’s house I’d always been drawn to the black tube in that barrel, the one with the Orvis logo on it.  He and I were friends through high school, before my love and eventual addiction to angling became what it is today. Back then I used to get him and some other friends to tag along with me on new adventures.  We would all fish for bass in ponds with bobbers.  Tommy’s interest in fishing stopped at the point when we’d throw spinners in small trout streams on ultra-lights. His dad used to fish some, he’d tell me.

Tommy’s house was a familiar and comfortable place.  Throughout college I’d come back to hang out over there.  We watched a countless number of Celtics games there, Giants games too.  The black tube with the Orvis fly rod was still in the barrel by the door.   When his dad was around, I asked him about his interest in fishing.  He didn’t say much about it.  He used to fish the Farmington River, he’d tell me.  By this time I’d acquired a fly rod of my own.  I too had started fishing the Farmington River, introduced by new friends, eager to feed my growing addiction.  I offered to fish with him if he wanted to rekindle an old passion.  No, the responses were cool, curt even.

As years passed, we hung out over there less.  Still, I liked to visit, to watch games and attend family parties.  The tube was still there in the barrel, marked Orvis Company Henry’s Fork 8’6” 5 wt. Line.  I knew my way around a fly rod enough now to have the confidence to take it out of the tube, put it together and whip it around some in the front yard.  It felt different from the one or two rods I owned, more bendy.  I think they’d call that “slower” at the fly shop. I stopped asking Tommy’s dad to fish.  Every once and a while I could still drag Tommy out to certain favored fishing spots from the old days.  It was probably there that I started to ask him, what his father planned to do with that old rod, since, you know, he didn’t fish anymore. I’d ask every now and again.  The answer was always the same, “no.”

Some years later I drove by Tommy’s folk’s house and there was a big dumpster in the drive.  When we talked I learned there was some remodeling going on. I honestly don’t remember if I asked or if it was offered but he told me that rod I’d been asking about for years was mine, on one condition, I had to use it. 

“Of course,” I’d have said at the time, fully intending to incorporate that old weighty graphite stick into my growing arsenal of specialized rods.  By that point I probably owned nearly a dozen different rods each slicker and lighter than the next.  I had small stream rods, dry fly rods, indicator rods, euro-nymphing rods, saltwater rods, steelhead rods; the tube joined them all on a shelf in the basement. And it sat there.  Sometimes when the guys would come over to tie flies on Tuesdays someone would take it out of the tube and the embroidered sock, put the two pieces together and jiggle it in their hand a bit.  Do they even make rods in two pieces anymore?  That was the most action the rod saw for a while.  Of course, I still intended to use it. 



I made a disappointing discovery last year.  The first fly rod I’d ever bought, a 9’ 5 weight Scott was gone.  Completely missing.  That rod had caught so many fish and still had a regular place in my rotation as a dry-fly rod.  As fly anglers become ever-more like tournament bass fisherman, it’s not uncommon to carry multiple rods, rigged and ready for specific purposes and executions.  I was now down a rod, not just in a sentimental sense, but also in a technical one.   This would be the year, I’d decided, that old Orvis graphite would be added to the regular rotation, to fill that hole.

So I rigged it up.  It paired nicely with an Orvis Battenkill mid-arbor reel.  Felt good in the hand.  The cork wasn’t beat but showed enough wear that I knew Tommy’s dad wasn’t lying about his angling exploits from yesteryear.  I took it out in the yard and for the first time, I casted it.  It felt right, a bit slower than what I was used to, but matched well to the purpose for which I intended to use it.  Slow enough to throw a softly landing loop, soft enough to protect a long, light tippet, full of “S” curves.  At least, that’s what I told myself. 

I started bringing the rod out with me, figuring I’d break it in eventually.  That didn’t happen.  I fished it half-heartedly now and again, always as an afterthought rather than with a plan.  I brought it to our “opening day” camping weekend, the perfect venue to debut new toys.  The only fish caught on the rod that weekend wasn’t caught by me, but a buddy’s cousin who I let use it to throw woolly buggers.  I never throw woolly buggers anymore.

I assumed that catching on the rod would take care of itself.  We were coming into the part of the season when fish eat flies off of the surface with increasing regularity.  I missed the first major hatch of the year, caught up chasing American Shad instead.  The dry fly fishing I did after that was done with a lighter two-weight rod.  I got into swinging wet flies too, surely, the perfect way to score some easy action.  I caught them on the two weight but not the graphite five weight. 

It started to become apparent to me what was going on.  This rod I had asked for, for years and years was given to me with condition and that condition had not been fulfilled.  I was really going to have to earn my fish with it; I was going to have to use it.

I brought the rod with me to the upper Farmington the other day.  It was one of two rods I brought.  One rod rigged for tight-line nymphing and Tommy’s dad’s rod rigged for surface fishing.  The day seemed to be shaping up nicely.  There were bugs hatching, fish eating them.  I got to work on what appeared to be a pod of quality fish eating caddis on top.  I fished them hard; taking breaks to change flies and positions.  They didn’t want what I was selling with the old Orvis stick.  I watched what looked to be a very fine fish, eat a tan caddis, fluttering six inches above the water’s surface.  I cycled through more flies.  I finally got a good fish to take.  I missed him.  In my frustration turned excitement I pulled the fly away from his kyped jaw before he could fully inhale my CDC caddis imitation.  My shoulders slacked.  I slumped over.  It started to rain.

The rain changed the day.  It cooled the air and the water. A blanket of fog hung above the river.  I changed spots and landed alone in one of my favorite stretches on the stream’s course.  I worked the familiar lies with nymphs.  One eye on the colored sighter, and one eye looking for rising fish.  I walked down to another productive stretch and looked for risers.  They weren’t there.  I surmised the cooler water slowed insect activity, hurting chances at a good evening of dry fly fishing.  I kept nymphing.  I almost fell in the middle of the river, stumbling over a big boulder I’ve navigated around hundreds of times before.  Nearly defeated, I decided this was it.  I’d switch the rig on Tommy’s dad’s rod and put on some wet flies.  That would connect me to at least a freshly stocked trout, I thought.  I’d break the seal and head home.  I fished through that run again, methodically covering each piece of water where I know trout were holding.  They didn’t eat. 


I walked back up again, to where I started.  I hadn’t stopped to sit down all day.  I was thirsty, I don’t think I’d taken a sip of water since I arrived.  I looked at the two rods in my hands and thought about walking out of there.  Instead, this had to be the day.  I’d swing the wets through the top part of the run once more.  I’d get a fish and be done with it.  If the rod was going to make me work for it then I’d put the work in.  I’d use it.  I started the easy casts that come with that style of fishing.  Down and across, water-loading when I had no backcast, roll casting when I couldn’t do that.  The rod felt good, perfect for this style of fishing.  I wondered what kind of fishing Tommy’s dad had done with it, maybe this.  Maybe he threw woolly buggers. 

Halfway through the run I was still without a touch.   A couple of small trout rose but nothing indicated to me that fish were active, willing to move out of their lies to chase flies.  I looked around.  It was beautiful out, the mix of clouds and setting sun made golden hour live up to its name.  The blanket of fog had lessened some above the water’s surface now.  Swallows flitted around me, eating tiny unseen bugs.  I should go home.  It had been a good day, not of catching fish but of soaking in the lush bouquet of early summer.  I’d seen wildflowers and fish and more species of birds then I could count on two hands.  All the things that fill in the little spaces of a day on the river that makes it satisfying no matter the number of trout that find their way into your net.

I had an idea.  As dark continued to creep in I’d make a last ditch.  I made a deal with the devil and chopped back my leader to tie on a fresh piece of heavier tippet.  I fished around in my waders for the small box of random flies that I sometimes have with me and sometimes don’t.  I pulled out a black woolly bugger with a gold bead head and tied it on in the fading light.  I walked back up to the top of the run, the same one I just worked and had worked twice earlier before that. 

I started by dead drifting the bugger through the slow v-shaped seam in the middle of the shelf that falls off into the deep channel.  I’d let the black hackled fly drift through the current and then swing it up, across and out.  On the third drift as I started the swing a fish hit and came immediately to the surface.  It flopped around, throwing the hook I never had a chance to set.  That was probably my shot.  Tommy’s dad’s rod was going to make me work and maybe, today wasn’t the day after all. I shook my head and began casting across the river and slowly swinging across the heavy current that runs through the center of the deep channel.  Nothing. 

I fired a cast across to the little back eddy just above the big rock.  It seemed like I was on before the fly even hit the water.  The trout was clearly as surprised as I was and rolled, cartwheeling on the surface.  There was lots of slack line between us and I was pretty sure he was going to come unbuttoned the whole time I stripped the line back to me to come tight.  The fish sounded to the middle of the channel, taking some of my fly line underwater.  This has happened to me so many times in this spot.  The familiar strumming of the current against the taught fly line thrummed down through the rod.  I looked up to see the mat-gray blank folded over in half.  I could feel the headshakes through the bend, down into the cork in my hand.  I figured I’d foul hooked the fish; either that or it was pretty big.  I’d been in this exact same situation enough times to know that you don’t land all of the fish that behave like this in this run.  There are rocks and logs down there where they go to try to rub the fly out of their mouths.  The added pressure of the thick fly line under water makes pulling a hook that much more likely.  I’ve felt this heartbreak before.  

I relaxed and told myself, “Let the rod do the work. Just keep it bent and don’t give any slack, take your time.”

I really couldn’t move the fish so I tried changing rod angles a couple of times.  That did the trick and my unseen opponent shot downstream, past the big rocks, a familiar path I’ve followed before, attached to different foes.  I hadn’t noticed the spin fisherman that had come down the bank and began casting at some point.  I told him I was sorry, but I wasn’t really in control of the fish.
“Might have him fouled,” I said. 

I used some more angles, keeping a full flex in the rod and finally pried the fish off the bottom. We did some circles in the current before I thought I had some control and reached back for my net.  I had one hand on the rod and it took off again, into the current, trying to dive for bottom once more.  This time though, the fish had tired from the pressure of the old graphite rod and I was able to quickly turn it back, get the head up and guide the big brown into the net. 

He wasn’t foul hooked. It was a brown trout of more than 20 inches.  He had a huge head, substantial shoulders and a bit of kyped jaw.  I was thankful for him.  I kept him in the water, black woolly bugger still in his jaw.  I snapped a few photos, some with flash, some without, hoping they’d come out in the difficult light.  I made sure the rod was in the frame.  When I went to take the fly out of his mouth, it fell right out at the gentlest touch.  The flex of the old graphite rod kept it planted there until he was bested.  I held the fish by the tail in the current for a moment before he kicked and swam off.
“That looked like a respectable fish,” the angler across from me said.  It was almost dark now. 

“It was,” was my only reply.

I stood up and looked around.  It was pretty much pitch now. Although I know the path well, it would still be a slow walk with two rods and no light in the dark.  It was time. 

I felt good.  The rod felt good.  That old rod made me earn that first fish, made me keep that promise.  It wasn’t given to me to be kept in the basement, or used as an afterthought.  I had to use it.  When I did, I hooked a fish that tested me in a way that taught me what the old stick was capable of handling.  Now I know the rod.  I’ll be using it.


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.