Tuesday, February 12, 2019

What's In A Name?

Tip-ups, tilts, traps—whatever you call them—are a standard piece of equipment for ice anglers. They come in an array of shapes and sizes for different situations and styles of fishing. My go-to traps are Heritage Lakers. Each one is handmade in Maine from white ash. They can be cumbersome when lugging around a full set of six traps, but they are dependable and can take a beating. 

Most of mine are more than ten years old now. Their components are a bit tired—the flags don’t snap to attention like they used to—but they get the job done and I love them like old friends. I’ve spent many a night over a work bench tinkering with them or swapping out leaders. Each one of their bright orange flags has a name written on it. Maybe it is habit or superstition perhaps, but I’ve been naming my tip-ups ever since I got into ice fishing. Here are the stories behind their names. 

The first Heritage Laker that I ever purchased was from Kittery Trading Post and I named it Old Faithful. Wish I could say it's named after the famous Yellowstone geyser, but I haven’t made it there yet. It’s just a reliable piece of gear and usually the first trap out of my sled any given outing. It has fished classic waters from Sebago Lake to Lake George and if this tip-up could talk, it would have some cool stories to tell.

It is family lore that my eldest brother was almost named Tecumseh after the famous Shawnee warrior and chief. My dad ended up losing that battle to my mom and Gavin he became. I’ve always been big into Native American culture and history and enjoy looking for their long lost artifacts. Naming one of my traps Tecumseh was a nod of respect to the people that fished and hunted these lands before us.

I fell in love with this name after seeing the classic Wes Anderson film 'The Royal Tenenbaums.' A couple scenes in the movie show Richie Tenenbaum practicing falconry on a New York City rooftop. His badass bird was a Saker Falcon named Mordecai. That’s it. 

It’s hard to nail down exactly what mojo means. Lucky comes close. Surfcasters often speak of mojo when referring to favorite battle-worn plugs. Tip-ups can have mojo too. This one lives up to its name and has been part of some of my largest fish through the ice. 

The winter solstice has been celebrated for eons. In the northern hemisphere, it’s the shortest period of daylight of the year. Each day afterward, until the summer solstice, we see the gradual lengthening of days. It’s not every year that there is fishable ice in Connecticut by the winter solstice, but it’s a good sign if there is. 

Sleeper is always the last tip-up I set. It’s purposely put a little out of the way—either at the end of my trap line or behind the shelter slightly out of sight. It’s the trap I want to set and forget and hope to see with a flag up when I remember to check it. More than once it’s been Sleeper that has saved the day out there for me. 

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Fresh Ink

It's been a couple of years since writing for anything other than this blog. It was fun to ease back into it with a throwback story about catching roosterfish from a kayak on my honeymoon in Costa Rica. The article is featured in the February issue of The Fisherman Magazine, which subscribers can find online here. Looking forward to sharing more stories here and in print soon.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Jigging In The Rain

It was the first Saturday of the fall blackfish season in Connecticut waters and three weekend warriors brimming with optimism pulled out of Milford harbor and veered east. The forecast called for a wet morningnot a driving rain, but steady showers throughout. With winds from the north to start, at least the ten minute ride out to the breakwalls was calm.

The first thing witnessed while approaching the tog grounds was a peregrine falcon perched on a slab of granite and another dive-bombing it. Those are badass birds that I don't see often, so it was taken as a good omen. After shaking the rust off in the anchoring department, we settled in with our stern tight to the outer wall in 15 feet of water. The rain didn't keep many at port; there was a long line of at least two dozen boats, all a respectable distance apartfar enough so you couldn't hear conversations, yet close enough so you could keep an eye on catch rates. Further proof this part of the breakwall was popular was the sheer amount of cut sections of rope tied to makeshift lumber anchors that were never retrieveda common yet ugly side of the sport.

We were outfitted with light conventional and spinning combos rigged with braided line, long leaders, and blackfish jigs. Vertical jigging for tog in shallow water is the only way I have ever fished for them. It's easy to detect hits and when you do connect, the battles are a ton of fun. Blackfish have incredible strength and bulldog immediately back to their rocky lairs when hooked. It pays to put the screws to them right away in order to pull them from structure, yet losing fish and tackle is inevitable. An unmistakable trait of tautog is that they are creatures of habitat; they're always glued to a craggy bottom and a couple feet in any direction, even a matter of inches, could make all the difference between finding fish and striking out. Water temperature also plays a critical role in knowing what depth to find blackfish, but I don't pretend to have that all figured out.

One thing I do know is that blackfish rifle through crabs. It will never cease to amaze me at just how well they can steal bait off a hook. There's always a fair share of swings and misses, but when you get a solid connection it's one of the coolest feelings in fishing. Mike bought a gross of Asian crabs and a box of greenies for good measure, so running out of bait wasn't a concern. There was fast action from the very first drop and if water clarity allowed for it, it would have been cool sending down my GoPro to witness the scene. We were anchored over a pile of fish; many of them smaller sized tog with some black sea bass and ugly oyster toadfish mixed in. It took a while to weed through the shorts and bycatch, but thankfully we found enough keepers to bring home for the table. A few brutes lost in the rocks we'll never know about, but that's part of what keeps it interesting.

As the morning wore on, the skies cleared and the wind ramped up. The action remained consistent, but I just ran out of time. There was a false sense of calm being tucked behind the breakwall, but the ride back to the harbor was much sportier in comparison to our morning commute. We were back on the dock by noon with some tasty fillets to show for it. Mike and Dan went home to cook their share up for lunch and I saved mine for a family dinner later that night. Both households prepared fried fish sandwiches that turned out amazing. From Long Island Sound to a Griswold cast iron pan in the same day is my kind of fresh! It's hard to mess up a blackfish meal—their white meat is delectable and anything but fishy tasting. And it's not a fish that my family eats often, so it was enjoyable to share with them. That very well could be my first and last blackfish outing of the year, but it sure was a memorable one.

Editor's note: Here's a quick edit from the GoPro footage in the rain. Enjoy!

Friday, October 12, 2018

Indigenous Fishes

Editor's note: Tradition has always been a common thread on this blog. The following guest post is a fine example of that, as Aaron Swanson details a unique camping and fishing trip that he and Tommy Baranowski have been going on the same weekend for years. They both captured great images that help tell the story.

Some friends and I make an annual overnight trip on Columbus Day weekend.  We hike into the wilderness and camp near a small blue line on a map, a stream far from any paved roads or signs of human development. 

I wonder what the mountain stream we fish each year on the weekend named for the fabled, if not modernly controversial, explorer looked like at the time he first stepped foot in America Hispaniola. If I had to guess, the river and its inhabitants look very much as they do today.  It isn’t the fish or the stream that has changed, but the humans that live in the area.  It is a tired point, but valid, that since European settlers colonized the place we call home the landscape has changed drastically. Much of our environment has been altered to the point where the kinds of life that once thrived here can no longer do so.  This remote mountain stream and its inhabitants are special. They have largely escaped the consequences wrought by discovery, exploration and settlement that create our shared history.

The point of this story is not to dissect the past.  Instead it is to share the enjoyment of being able to take what feels like a step back into it. The boulders and gorges that outline and dictate the flow of the stream seem so permanent.  We hop across them and find in their pools the fish that bring us to such a wild place.

Mind you, during this hike, we enjoy plenty of modern day comforts.  What started out years ago as a bare-bones hike and overnight fishing trip has, as many traditions tend to do, grown a bit more extravagant over the years.  The quality of the food and beverage we pack in has increased sharply. Yet the core of the trip remains the same; the trail, the scenery, that noticeable start of the change of the season, the fishing, the bullshitting, the laughs and the quiet remain the real draw.

A neat thing about a tradition like this one is the variety of conditions you get to observe at a familiar place as the years pass.  This year we have been blessed with plenty of rain to fill our streams, reservoirs and water table. The stream this year was full, and it made for better scenery and fishing than found in prior years when low water made the stream but a trickle.

The fish seemed energized, they were healthy and bright in hand and quick to take our flies in the water.   The fishing was fun.  If you looked at a spot that looked like it held fish, it did.

As we prepared for this year’s trip, we agreed that this little overnight has become something we look forward to and cherish. It has a special feel. Much of it can be hard to adequately describe, but can be easily seen in the pictures we take to remember each individual year. As fall is now fully upon us I’m thankful I could spend another night in one of the most beautiful places found within our state’s borders. I take comfort knowing that not much has changed here and that each year we can mark the passage of time by paying a visit to one of our state’s most beautiful indigenous fishes.