Thursday, September 26, 2019

Speak Up for Striped Bass

More than enough evidence has demonstrated that the striped bass population along the eastern seaboard is currently in trouble and has been for some time. Stripers have been in this spot before. Anglers helped put them there in the 1980’s and here we are again. Now things must change in order to right the ship.

The Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board has developed a draft addendum to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Striped Bass with proposed changes to coastwide commercial and recreational regulations to address overfishing. This document presents background on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) management of striped bass, the addendum process and timeline, and statement of the problem. Most importantly, this document also provides management options for public consideration and comment.

Public hearings to discuss and comment on the proposed regulation changes are underway. Connecticut’s two hearings took place this week. I attended the one in Bridgeport. There were approximately 30 anglers in the room, less than half of whom went on record. Staggeringly low in my opinion. I’m told there were about 50 people at the hearing in Old Lyme. Better, but still an embarrassingly small number of anglers. Kudos to those folks that spoke up in favor of stronger conservation efforts to protect striped bass. If you were there or couldn’t make it, you are still encouraged to submit written comments before October 7, 2019 at 5:00 p.m.

So please take a look at the document and proposed options. Make an informed decision on which options will best help get striped bass stocks back to where we need them to be. Whatever your opinion is, it’s important to make it known to the ASMFC. Comments may be submitted by email, mail, phone, or fax. Please use the following contact information. Email: and be sure to use subject line of Striped Bass Draft Addendum VI.  Mail: Max Appelman, FMP Coordinator Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission 1050 North Highland Street Suite 200A-N, Arlington, VA 22201. Phone: (703) 842-0740. Fax: (703) 842-0741.

Thank you. 

Friday, June 7, 2019

Confidence & Luck

Long before the first horseshoe crab bumped my wading boot this spring, I was wandering the isles of the New England Saltwater Fishing Show in Providence. I was there helping friends man their booth for Game On!—an up-and-coming lure company. As saltwater shows go, this is the big kahuna in our area. It’s a who’s who of the industry and its timing is ideal at the end of winter when anglers are itching for spring fishing around the corner. With an impressive selection of gear, tackle, and plenty of show deals, it’s a good opportunity to stock up for the coming season.

During downtime we took turns browsing the booths. It would’ve been easy to burn a few grand in mere minutes if I had it, but my line in the sand was $50. A sucker for wooden plugs that I don’t really need, I made it a few yards before dropping half of it on a mini, flat-bottomed pencil popper. I showed constraint over the next few isles until stumbling upon something a little more practical for my surfcasting needs—a bin of custom bucktail jigs made by Peace Token Fishing Tackle out of Cape May. The 3/8 oz. ones in chartreuse and pink screamed weakfish; my preferred size and color patterns for the elusive species that arrive in Long Island Sound around moon tides each spring. Still two months from their trial run, I was confident these jigs were catchers.

Fast forward through a crazy wet spring to mid-May and my first dedicated squeteague outing of the year. With wind whipping onshore and just one day removed from heavy rain, I could’ve should’ve turned around when I saw the deserted parking lot. A friend leaving as I rolled up confirmed it was dead out there, but I had come this far already and tossed my new jigs in tea-colored water for a half hour to no avail. The following night I returned and the couple tides in between had cleaned the water, yet the line of anglers remained sparse. I guess that happens when water temps are behind schedule and no weakfish reports have flooded social media. I welcomed the elbow room.

Despite an overflowing plug bag on my shoulder, the chartreuse Peace Token was the only offering I threw that night. I broke into my remaining stash of Uncle Josh pork rinds to sweeten the deal. The jig and pig combo looked tempting in the water. It didn’t cast as far as an SP Minnow or Mag Darter, but it casted far enough. The confidence was there, but so was lady luck. A couple dozen guys were out that night and for two hours of the incoming tide I didn’t see anything caught save for a sea robin. Then, after what felt like a thousand casts, there was life on the end of my line. As soon as my jig hit the water, something ate it on the drop. By the distinct headshakes, I knew what I had on and backed it up gingerly on the exposed sand. Derrick snapped a shot to document the moment and I released the fish, but knowing they tend to show in waves we were quick to get back out there.

That was it though; one and done and lucky as hell. That weakfish wasn’t big enough to earn the tiderunner nickname, but it was my best one to date. A beautiful fish and a rare one to me. Of course I returned on another high incoming soon after. A thunderstorm had just passed through and, for the first time I can remember, I was the only angler out there. The water was dirty, recent reports poor, and, I’ll admit, I wasn’t confident. It turns out I wasn’t lucky either as I didn’t even get a bump.

It helps when anglers are confident in their spot, their gear, and their offering. Some guys will tell you confidence is one of the more important aspects of angling. But it also helps to get lucky once in a while. When the stars and moon align and you are both confident and lucky, special things can happen—like catching your personal best weakfish on an otherwise lackluster night.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

We're Outdoorsmen

I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind, if even for a moment, but pushing back our opening day weekend to avoid what was looking like a certain washout would have bucked decades of tradition. The line my uncle said over the phone that finally put any notion to bed was, “We’re outdoorsmen.” He was right. Fuck the forecast. We were going when we always go and we were going to enjoy ourselves no matter the conditions. 

It’s funny how things work out because we ended up with two days of better than expected weather before any rain fell and the following weekend was a soaker anyway (ask my buddy Chad who camped along a Natchaug River well over its banks). Our deluge eventually came on Friday night, yet by then we had camp pretty damn tight with ample pop-up tents, tarps, and cordage, as well as a signal fire going throughout.

As it tends to be, the food on this trip was a highlight. Aaron made an incredible paella for dinner on night one that included Bluefin tuna from Cape Cod and fresh clams and mussels. Uncle D rolled out venison backstraps the next night from a trophy buck he took on state land back in muzzleloader season. It was paired well with delicious morels and black trumpets that he picked last spring, dehydrated, and saved for this very moment. Both nights also featured a charcuterie and cheese board and bourbon selection (thanks Tommy) that seemed to reach a new level this year.

The trip falling on Easter weekend threw us a bit of a curveball. We cut things short by a night so we could spend the holiday with our families. That turned a weekend that is typically light on fishing even lighter, but at least the spot where we did wet a line was new water for three of the four in our group. My uncle was the only one who had fished there before and it was fitting that he caught the lone trout of the trip to remind us what a holdover looked like.

We hung around well into Saturday afternoon with a slow breakdown of camp, partly to savor the moment and partly hoping our wet gear would dry out a little. Despite the rain, one less night, and an onslaught of ticks (four surgeries were performed via hemostat), it was another awesome opening day celebration. Regardless of what Mother Nature throws at us, we’ll be going back every third weekend in April. After all, we’re outdoorsmen.

A little hardwood for the fire.
Flowers for our hosts.

Camp life.
The important food groups.

Fire-cooked paella.

Connecticut-grown venison and shrooms on cast iron.

Best breakfast sandwich I've ever had.

The core.

Uncle D showing us he's still got it.

Ready for the rain (photo credit Aaron Swanson).

It finally came in buckets.

Farewell franks. Until next year...

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Holiday Bones: Christmas in the Caribbean

Editor’s note: This is a tale told by my friend Tommy Baranowski. It highlights a type of fishing that doesn’t grace these pages often, in a place I’ve never been, but his story and photos make me want to change that. 

Ever since things got serious between Amanda and me, we discussed spending the holidays far away from the usual hustle and bustle. I never thought we would be able to pull it off our first year as a married couple but thanks to a mix up by our wedding caterers, a little money found its way back to us and the planning snowballed from there.

As we both had the week off between Christmas and the New Year, the when was already settled; we just needed nail down where we were going. Eddie, a close fishing friend of mine, is a seasoned veteran of sight fishing for bonefish in the Bahamas. He’d told me for years I needed to get my ass down to the Abaco Islands to experience it. It only took a few discussions between Eddie and Amanda before she was sold. The trip was booked.

The months leading up to the trip entailed stockpiling an obnoxious amount of gear for a few days fishing. I have a habit of doing this every time I go on a fishing trip. For me the preparation is half the fun. Researching fly patterns, scouting on Google Earth, and grilling friends with experience in specific fisheries—these things help build anticipation. By the time we boarded our plane at Bradley, I had enough flies to supply every angler in the Bahamas.  My fly boxes teemed with Spawning Shrimp, Gotchas, Crazy Charlies, and a crab pattern my buddy Todd had perfected. The final rod count was absurd as well—five fly rods and two spinning combos for good measure.

Although our adventure got off to a rocky start, we eventually found all of our luggage as well as our rental car and were happily driving along on the opposite side of the road.  At our rental, we met Rex and Judy, our hosts for the week. They were honestly two of the nicest people you could ever meet. They helped us get situated and I got to work assembling rods and gear for the next day’s guided trip.

The following morning we woke up to the sound of a shitload of Abaco parrots. I think the island’s whole population was roosting in the trees next door. Things got real when JR, my guide for the day, pulled up in the driveway with his Hells Bay in tow. He stepped out of the truck in a full camo jumpsuit—my kind of dude. JR is a native Bahamian that happened to live just three houses over from our rental. We hit it off swapping hunting and fishing stories on the way to the boat launch. JR told me about the history of the island and its famous fishery, as well as what he does when he’s not guiding…hunting wild boar.

We turned off Abaco’s main highway onto a single lane logging road. It was straight as an arrow and went on so far that the two tire tracks on the ground seemed to disappear into the horizon. The thick pine and palmetto forest eventually thinned out and opened up to a small boat launch called Netty’s Cut. After splashing in, JR hammered down the throttle and headed to the fabled Marls of Abaco, a vast expanse of prime, wilderness and bonefish habitat situated along Great Abaco’s western shore. It consists of miles of mangroves and mud flats. The only way to reach them is in a skiff or small craft.

JR cut the motor and poled into the first spot.  We immediately spied water being pushed along the mangroves. After poling toward the commotion, we found a nice, lone bone milling around. JR positioned the boat and I launched a 40’ cast. The fish swirled on the fly, ate it, and peeled off to the races, putting me into my backing in seconds.

It’s hard to put down in words that feeling of catching my first bonefish on a fly that I tied. For as long as I’ve been into fishing, it’s a moment I’d dreamt about. A species that’s always been high on my bucket list. And, there I was, in a tropical paradise with a perfect specimen in my hand after a hard fought battle. Day one went on like that. Poling new areas, spotting fish and making casts. It was everything I wanted it to be.

The agenda for the ensuing days following the first guided trip went something like: wake up, eat breakfast on beach, walk up and down shoreline with wife and rod-in-hand, eat lunch, hammock nap, explore flats on foot while my wife reads in said hammock, watch sunset, eat dinner, sleep and repeat.

After a few days, I had learned a few things.  One being sun and clear skies were vital to sight fishing success. Being able to see the fish before it sees you is crucial. Two, wind sucked and I knew it would. Everyone I spoke to about fishing the Bahamas in December had one word of caution…wind. Not only does it make casting a bitch, it kills the ability to spot fish. Combine slightly overcast skies and a stiff wind and good luck with that.

On the day before my second guided trip, we took a ride to Cherokee, a small town that is home to the longest pier in all the Caribbean. The pier is situated on a picture perfect flat and while standing on it we spotted schools of cruising fish. Amanda and I found a spot on the small beach at the base of the pier where she could relax and read while I ventured out to fish. As I searched, I let myself get distracted by the crazy amount of conch shells I saw.  I stopped to pick one up that had particularly wild colors. When I picked my head back up, no bullshit, there was a school of at least 40 bonefish swimming by me. They were cruising up and down the shoreline and for the next hour I tried everything I could to get one to eat. Longer leader, lighter tippet, more lead time—it didn’t matter. On a whim I tied on one of the small crab patterns that Todd taught me a few months back. I made a cast and began stripping. A single bone in the big pack that kept swimming by peeled off like a rocket and wolfed down the crab! That eat was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

The weather turned to complete shit for my second guided trip. The day promised cloudy skies and wind forecast to 40mph. Yet, the show had to go on. This time the ride out to the Marls was wet and nasty. JR had to anchor the skiff once we set up on the spot. Not exactly how you draw up an ideal bonefish outing but fishing isn’t always sunny skies and butterflies. We waited and watched. I have a difficult time just sitting idle on a boat, so i stripped a bunch of line off the reel and started blind casting. A small patch of turtle grass about 60’ straight out in front of the boat caught my eye and I put my fly right in the middle of it. As I stripped it back, I was paying more attention to the scenery than my fly. When I focused, there was a monster bonefish right behind it. I didn’t even have time to think, just stripped, came tight, and let a string of profanities flow out of me. 

That fish was in a different class altogether than anything I had come in contact with prior. Just crazy strong. The first run was so long that the fly line completely disappeared out of sight. When I finally gained back the line and got the fish boat-side, it called bullshit and made the same exact run. This back and forth from the boat to my backing happened four times! Even when JR finally landed the fish, it was still green and didn’t give in easily.

I needed every bit of my nine-weight rod was to tame that fish, a battle-scarred beauty of seven or eight pounds. After a few quick photos to capture the moment, the fish swam away strong. It was surreal; absolutely unbelievable. I took a little time to collect my thoughts, but was back blind casting before long. This time I didn’t see the fish before it ate the fly, but I could tell by its initial run that it was another brute. With the bone now in my backing, we saw what you don’t want to see—a dorsal fin poking out of the water behind it. The line went limp and a shark won that round. A heartbreaker.

At that point in the day, the wind was no longer bearable. JR pulled anchor and we began the bumpy, wet ride back to the launch. Even leaving on that note, it was a truly a day to remember. A day that I am going to be telling other anglers about for the rest of my life. Before flying back to the frozen north, we savored a few more days on the island. We spent them soaking up every ounce of relaxation we could, already scheming about the next time we could return. 

With just a few hours left of our trip, Amanda and I ventured down the beach one last time to an area I had spotted a few fish earlier in the week. The wind had yet to let up but at least the sun was shining. I waded out to a small piece of flat scattered with patches of coral. A few rays and a small shark swam around me. As I stalked up to some coral, I came up on a bonefish so big it made my heart sink into my stomach. The fish was a rod’s length away, partly obscured by waves that were now crashing into me. Before I could do anything, the bone saw me, turned, and hightailed the hell out of there. The long walk back to the cottage gave me plenty of time to think it over. On one hand it was a tough way to end our Bahamian holiday, but on the other hand “the one that got away” meant that I had some unfinished business to take care of. Until next time, Abaco!