Saturday, January 4, 2020

False Starts

Connecticut’s ice fishing season has been a series of false starts so far. With our current weather pattern, it’s been a case of one step forward, two steps back. The first holes drilled in the state this fall were around November 17th on the usual small, shallow ponds in the northwest corner of the state. But, in what seems like a yearly occurrence now, it warmed up before the ice really took hold. This temperature tug-of-war didn’t change in December. It got could enough for more ponds, coves, and even some larger lakes to lock up, but not could enough to build a solid base of ice to survive the next warm spell and bouts of rain.

All that said, if you really wanted to fish hardwater in Connecticut right now you still can. There are a handful of water bodies tucked away in higher elevations of either corner of the state where fishable ice endured.  However, they have been pressured hard and, at least to me, aren’t worth using up the few free passes I’ll be given this winter. With the predicted long-term forecast, it’s going to be a while before anything exciting freezes over again. We could use an extended blast of cold air. I just don’t see it yet.

The first hole drilled of ice season
While watching the forecast and plotting my next move, I’ve been reliving the two times I was fortunate to get out this floundering ice season. Two weeks ago, my friend Jeff and I were the first ones to put holes on popular northern pike fishery, which had us brimming with confidence. We were treated to an incredible sunrise and three inches of gorgeous, black ice, but the pike bite never materialized, at least for us. Another group did quite a bit of flag chasing and landed their share of hammer handles using small live shiners. We were fine ruling out smaller fish that day in hopes of finding one large pike, but our dead baits sat mostly untouched. Fish or no fish, it was an awesome return to hardwater. I hadn’t laughed that hard or fished on ice that nice in some time.  

Into the black
The most important tool in ice fishing
Tecumseh at first light
Frozen in time
Oatmeal in the shelter

About a week later, a couple days after Christmas, we were lucky to get out again, this time on a different body of water with a few more friends. I’d fished there once before and knew it was in our best interest to ditch the dead baits for live shiners. Collectively for the group, it was a day on the ice to remember with both quality and quantity. The morning action was scorching hot; multiple times there were two or three flags up at once. The best part of my day, a moment now seared in my brain, came during a phone call home.

It was FaceTime call with my girls who were enjoying a lazy morning during Christmas break. I was jigging over a hole in the ice with a phone in one hand and a rod in my other. I had tied on a Hali tipped with a piece of smelt flesh, hoping to entice some keeper yellow perch or calico bass. There were a few marks on my electronics, but I was caught off-guard when my rod doubled over. This was no panfish and the kids could sense my excitement. When Jeff walked over, I passed the phone so he could give my wife and kids a live look at my first fish of the ice season, and what turned out to be my first-ever northern pike caught while jigging. A pretty cool moment for those on the couch and on the ice. 

A FaceTime pike on the jig!

It was that kind of day where things just went right. We were surprised to even be on fishable ice. There was about two inches of soft, grey ice on top and almost four inches of black ice underneath, but with temps in the high 40s, we lost ice throughout the day. That turned out to be the last day this spot was fished in 2019. Even cooler was that all five of us caught our first fish of the ice season that day, which would have been the highlight if it wasn’t for two brutes that capped off the trip.

Our host Mark hooked the first a little after 10 a.m. He’s not an avid angler and doesn’t own ice gear (yet), but his brother Frank insisted that he take a few of his flags that outing. Mark chose the right one to take and latched into a hell of a fish on light line and fought it very well. When it finally came topside, the pike measured about three feet in length and was thick all around; by far the best fish of Mark’s life. It was the high point of the day for sure until Buddy topped it no more than 20 minutes later with another girthy pike that went about a half inch longer. Both pike were released in incredible shape. With good genes and appetites, those fish are well on their way to becoming trophies. 

Mark with the best fish of his life

Buddy with best fish of the day.
Between the group we landed about 20 pike that trip, perhaps the most I’ve seen in one outing, with a crappie and smattering of perch mixed in. The majority of the pike were smaller in size, but all well-fed and growing, which leads me to believe this area is a healthy nursery for northern pike. It’s nice to know that there is always the prospect of very respectable fish moving through too. The two December ice trips were a great way to close out a year in angling. Now it’s a waiting game for the next ice trip, but there are plenty of open water opportunities to keep anglers busy until then. All the best to you and yours in 2020—tight lines!

Bye bye ice.
Last fish of 2019!
First fish of 2020!

Monday, November 25, 2019

First Ice

Around the time the mums begin to wither and oaks are the only trees left with leaves, diehard ice anglers experience a concoction of feelings—equal parts eagerness and excitement peppered with a dash of agita. These feelings wash over like a wave with the first true cold snap of fall. Akin to a bat signal, it sends hardwater fanatics across the north to basements and garages to tie leaders, tinker with tip-ups, and dust-off augers. We set up crude tanks and trek to streams or ponds to catch bait. We interpret long-range weather forecasts and Farmers’ Almanacs. We look to nature for signs of a pending hard winter: an unusual abundance of acorns; early departure of waterfowl; the width of the brown bands on woolly bear caterpillars. We wait for ice.

Ice fishing is unique and highly anticipated for a bevy of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that the allotted time anglers are able to partake in it each year is very unpredictable. We have zero idea when the season will begin or end any given winter. In comparison, I know exactly when blackfish season starts; I can set my watch by when migratory striped bass show up; I can go to my local tailwater and catch trout all year long. For ice fisherman, Mother Nature is the ultimate decider when our season starts and stops. We must be patient. 

Here in southern New England, in our coldest winters, the fishable ice window is about three months long, four if we are lucky. Some years things don’t always pan out that way. I’ve experienced more than one season that started with an early freeze and came to a halt with a midwinter thaw. I’ve also witnessed ice seasons that never got going until the late innings with only a handful of bodies of water locking up. While walking on water is more of a certainty to our north, it’s still not a guarantee on large and popular lakes like Sebago and George. As the old adage goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder and ice fishing’s indefinite and limited timeframe each winter certainly helps me appreciate it more. 

Though I get jazzed up for any kind of fishing, the lead up to first ice—that brief period when lakes and ponds initially freeze over with clear, hard ice—is tough to beat. When our quarry, unpressured for weeks, sometimes months, are still active and sense the coming doldrums ahead. This can translate into fast action—whether jigging up a pile of panfish or chasing flags all day—and it’s not unheard of to pull your best fish of the season during this early part of the season. It’s not some magical time where fish are committing hara-kiri on the end of your line but I’ve doing this long enough to know that you want to be on the ice as early as you can once it starts.

There are no hard and fast rules with first ice. For example, we know it begins when liquid finally becomes solid, but it’s less precise when it ends. First ice doesn’t necessarily happen all at once either. Your shallower lakes and ponds lock up first, naturally. That’s why bass, pike, and pickerel are usually first on many anglers’ target list. As the season progresses, deeper bodies of water follow suit and ice anglers start spreading out to target different species like trout, walleye, and crappie. 

There is nothing in the world like walking on a sheet of black ice before any snow covers it. It’s a thing of beauty—the consistency and hardness of it and its lack of imperfections; the way shanty anchors bite into it and the crunching sounds boot studs make on it. The optics of black ice are surreal. When walking over shallows, you can make out every piece of structure from boulders to weed lines to stumps. If you’re really lucky and hook into something under black ice, you get a first-row seat to the tug-of-war right underneath your feet. It’s a wild experience.

As in any type of fishing, having a small circle of friends that you trust and share information with pays dividends, but it’s tough relying solely on second-hand ice reports. Checking the ice’s thickness and quality yourself is the only way to know for sure. I live at least an hour’s drive from my favorite ice spots, so scouting is both time consuming and costly, yet those who scout are usually on the ice first, long before anything trickles down to social media. There’s been times I’ve bailed from work early to check spots that I had hoped to walk on the following day only to find wide-open with white caps. I’ve also gambled without scouting and drove 90 minutes only to be been turned away from crap ice, all before the sunup. First ice will always be a risk/reward scenario—wait until word gets out or be one of the first groups out there. 

I don’t have the flexibility at home or at work as I once did, so I try to make the most of every opportunity and relish the days or nights on the ice when they come. I’ve come to accept that that feeling in the pit of my stomach won’t ever go away when I am stuck at work knowing other anglers, friends or not, are drilling holes on fresh ice. I know they feel the same way when the tables are turned. Just fish when you can.

Here I am, more than 20 years after being introduced to hardwater, and those feelings of excitement and anxiousness as the season approaches haven’t faded a bit. My sled is packed and ready by the basement door like a bird dog waiting for the next upland hunting trip. Until then I’m keeping an eye on the weather and hoping for a string of calm, cold nights. If we’re fortunate to get some good ice this winter, have fun out there and stay on top.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Stepped In It

Editor’s note: One morning a few weeks back I was sitting at work when I got a text from a buddy of a false albacore laying on a slab of granite. We didn’t know it at the time, but Aaron Swanson was putting together one of the best fishing outings of his life, all to himself, on a day where he originally set out to do something completely different. That’s how it goes sometimes. In this guest post, Aaron takes us through that memorable day on the rocks. 

I rolled up to the launch at 5:50.  There wasn’t a single boat trailer in the lot. Not a great sign.  A stiff breeze hit me as I stepped out of my car.  Shit.  The wind I’d hoped wouldn’t be as bad as forecast was worse instead.  I’d been keeping an eye on weather predictions since the previous day, counting on a four or five-hour window before things got really nasty and the seas built beyond a point I’d feel safe in a kayak.  The sweet smell of saltwater and baitfish driving into my nostrils provided me with a reality check.  I was not going to have a comfortable window.

In the darkness I noticed a single truck in the lot on my way in, but didn’t see the guy approaching until he was right on top of me.  He was eager to talk. He had been there since five hoping for a quick window before he had to work.  Like me, he checked the weather and saw the morning as his only shot for the rest of the week.  He fished the spot regularly and we were there to angle for the same little bonito that had taken up residence in the area.  We compared notes.  I asked the question I already knew the answer to. 

“No albies,” he said. 

The guy glanced up at the kayak lashed down to my roof rack. “If you can hear the waves in here, it’s that much worse out there,” he said, turning his gaze toward the islands sheltering us from the full extent of the blow. 

“I’ve got a Hobie Pro-Angler 12,” he said. 

“I’m sure you love it,” was my overtly jealous reply.  We went on to talk gear and other kinds of fishing.  I finally looked sheepishly up at my buddy’s wife’s kayak up on my roof. 

“Yeah, I’m just getting into the kayak thing fishing-wise,” I said.  After a few more pleasantries, he was off.  Headed to work.  A fishless morning.

I stood there alone, the wind’s chill suddenly apparent. I hopped back in my vehicle, stared at the chop lapping against the boats swaying in the marina, and contemplated my next steps. I hadn’t seriously considered an alternative plan to the kind of fishing I’d come to do.  I thought hard about taking the kayak off the roof and paddling out to the cut to get my own read on how uncomfortable the current conditions would be in my loaned, sit-in kayak.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would only be a waste of time.

I threw a shore-casting rod in the car the night before, yet wasn’t outfitted for a day of full-on surfcasting.  I had Crocs on. While I knew a few spots where I might have a chance at some bonito from shore, the prospect of that working out was moderate at best.  My thoughts changed direction completely.  After all, I really wanted to catch albies but their sporadic appearances over the last few weeks didn’t present many good bets.  I needed to do some driving.  I’d head to a place that I’d heard barely a positive word about in weeks.  At least I could fish there in Crocs. 

Flags that looked like they were stapled to sheet of plywood greeted me. The new destination proved to have even snottier conditions than I left back home. A couple of guys coming back to their cars from first-light forays didn’t have good news.  Their slumped shoulders and slow steps told the story before they opened their mouths. 

 “A lot of birds,” one guy said.

“Just birds,” I asked?

“Just birds,” he nodded.

I strung up the shore rod, threw on an extra layer and headed out.  The mat gray sky hid whatever was left of the sunrise.  When I hit the beach and climbed up on the wall of rocks the full force of the southwest wind hit me.  This was big water.  The swell was wind-whipped and the chop broke in little patches of whitewater that would obscure the pops splashes and porpoises I’d be looking for.  I encountered a couple guys catching school bass and cocktail blues as I hopped along the huge stones.  That kind of activity didn’t stop me from my mission out to the end of the pile.

There were a few anglers out at the end.  Some younger guys, also hooking small bluefish, and an older gentlemen who was struggling with his bottom fishing.  He had to work to keep his rig from washing back into the rocks or fouling with weed.  Eyeing my rig, he asked what I was there to catch.

“Bonito, I guess,” I said.

He chuckled. “No bonito here since first week of September,” he told me.  

I could only laugh.  While I was skeptical of the veracity of his statement, it sure did seem dead out there. I hung around for a while.  The older gentlemen told me what he’d caught earlier in the week. Told me the wind and the waves were bad.  He asked about my lure, hung up on my rod’s collector guide and where I’d bought it.  An hour passed without a cast.  I watched the younger anglers continue to catch bluefish and stuff them in a big black garbage bag. 

The heaving gray-green water, salty breeze, and bird activity were all pleasant to take in but I started to get bored of standing and waiting.  I tied on a small swimming plug like those the guys were getting blues on and made my way back towards shore.  Every few stones I stopped to cast and contemplate.   The retrieves with the plug found no takes.  I wasn’t that surprised, I wasn’t really invested.  My thoughts turned to what I might try next.  About a third of the way back on the jetty, I noticed what could have been few funny pops on the surface.  It was hard to say looking at the merengue whipped tops of the big rollers but it was enough to focus my attention. 

I watched a while longer, figuring my mind was playing tricks on me, seeing what I wanted it to see. It wasn’t, there they were.  False albacore.  A good-sized school porpoised through the wave tops, their pace and direction deliberate.  I cast at them with the SP Minnow I’d tied on looking for a consolation catch.  The wind knocked it right down, easily fifteen yards short of where the lure needed to land to intercept them.  A second attempt with the plastic swimmer also failed to reach but at least they were here. 

Turning my back to the wind, I tied up a new leader and proper tin.  I knew if I couldn’t see the fish feeding I’d be more likely to take my time and tie good knots.  I turned back around bail open, rod cocked, 60-gram white Colt Sniper ready to fire.  The fish had gone down.  I waited and walked farther out on the jetty following the path the fish had taken.  They were up again, back where they started and headed my way.  I waited until they were in range to cast.  Within three cranks of the reel handle, I was on.

I’m hooked into a little tunny and I wish I had a picture of my face because the shit-eating grin I had on had to be huge.  We had a good albie fight.  I made my way down the ice-slick rocks below the water line, grabbed my leader and hoisted my first false albacore of 2019 up on the rocks.  The colors on the fish buzzed electric blue and green like a neon window sign.  As I took a moment to appreciate and document the fish, it was hard to ignore the continued surface feed happening right in front of me.  I got the fish unhooked, tossed it back and was into another within seconds.  That fish, with a spirited effort late in the fight, managed to ride a wave into the rocks.  As I slid down to retrieve it, the leader parted from the tin.  The time it took to tie on a new one was the only thing that slowed me from hooking, playing and landing my next fish.  Another followed immediately after that.

The fishing was red hot, like you read about.  Other than one guy I could see a ways back down the jetty furiously cranking a lure, I had these fish to myself.  There were a lot of them.  They were unbothered and feeding on the surface for long periods.   One specimen coughed up some evidence as to why they might have been so easy to fool.  They were feeding on all kinds of fare—spearing, squid, tiny bay anchovies.  The bait buffet precluded their often-picky predicament and led to the easiest albie fishing I had ever experienced.  A well-timed cast and a fast retrieve were all it took to hook up. 

By now, the group of younger anglers had figured out what was going on and although they had the right lures to get the job done, they weren’t hooking up.  After crossing lines with my new friends a couple of times (twice during fighting fish) I noticed they were tying their braided line directly to their baits.  Even though these fish were gorging and unpicky, they were still albies after all.  I asked the guy I was tangled with if they had any fluorocarbon.  He indicated they were without leader material of any kind so I cut him a six feet of twenty-pound fluoro and told him to cut it into three two-foot sections. 

I went back about catching fish in between dodging spray and keeping an eye out for any especially large waves.  The beginning of the outgoing tide pushing against the wind had really stood the water up.  The conditions were as exhilarating as the fishing.  The sun broke through the clouds for a short while.  Now I could see schools of fish riding through the waves chasing bait.  There were dead squid everywhere, carried along the current.  I witnessed one of the coolest hits I’ve ever experienced.  I saw a fish break from the school to chase down my lure.  When it caught up with it, the fish stopped on a dime, twisting sideways in the illuminated emerald water and exploded in a silver flash as my drag sang.

I started to realize I was approaching landing double-digit numbers of fish, not something I’d experienced before.  I’d had solid albie fishing from the rocks but the catch rate I was experiencing was downright ridiculous.  At some point after I reached and exceeded the landmark, I looked over to see the guys I’d given leader material to now hooked up and playing fish.  They were yelling excitedly to each other.  Wide smiles gave away their amazement at seeing the drags on their reels scream faster than what I could guess was anything they had ever experienced. They weren’t yelling like that when they were bailing bluefish earlier in the morning.

The onset of mid-day brought about some changes.  More anglers showed up.  Fish were breaking into smaller pods.  The feeds changed, surface attacks were less deliberate and more frenzied.  This was starting to look more like typical albie fishing I was accustomed to seeing.  Observation, rather than rushed casting, revealed patterns the schools were following.  I changed position and watched the fish do big figure eights along the jetty.  As I picked away at a few more fish, I found a surprise.  What I thought to be a small albie turned out to be a bonito, the species I’d originally intended to target when I’d left the house that morning.  That catch really felt like a cherry on top of an already impressive day.

By the time I landed what was my biggest fish of the day, the bite and conditions had grown challenging.  The good casts that were sure to connect hours earlier were now ignored.  The dropping tide left the water level lower against the rocks.  This change in angle combined with the heavy breeze and swell, made it difficult to put an accurate cast on feeding fish and keep your lure in the water for most of the retrieve.   I watched the increasing number of anglers cast, fly and spin, their presentations untouched.  Nobody was hooking up. 

I ventured back out toward the tip of the jetty to see if getting away from the crowd would help, but the scene was same.  Picky fish.  Tough conditions.  I encountered a fly guy on my way back.  He told me that the fish had lockjaw.  He said it didn’t matter he was throwing flies “this big” motioning a microscopic size with his fingers.   

“It sucks,” he said carrying on his way.

I didn’t have the heart nor the want to tell him what he’d missed that morning.  I’d caught 14 or 15 albies depending on if we’re counting the one lost to the rocks.  The bonito was the icing on my day’s cake.  I told my wife the night before I’d pick the kids up from daycare and I still had a good walk and a better drive ahead of me.  I floated back over the boulders along the jetty.  Once past all the other anglers I stopped to look back, take a moment, reflect, and try to commit as much of what I had just experienced to memory.

On the drive home, I considered the trajectory of my day.  Starting in once place, ending in another.  In fishing, especially when alone, I try to walk a very fine line.  It’s important to have a program. Specific plans paired with experience and timely knowledge can make all the difference between skunks and memorable days.  The other side of that coin is willing to be flexible and take whatever the day throws at you.  I think about the guy I spoke to in the lot that morning.  The one with a vastly superior fishing platform to the one I planned to use.  Seeing him bail on the same plans I had was a sign for me to make another choice.  Thankfully, I was willing to pay attention and the choice I made led to one of the most fun days of fishing I’ve ever experienced.  Sometimes you just have to tip your cap and be grateful that you stepped in shit.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Fifty Days

Fifty days. That’s not a big window, but that’s what we get here for fall blackfish season. There are short spring and summer seasons too, yet there is something special about targeting these bottom-hugging brutes on crisp fall days. This year’s opener fell on a Thursday, smack in the middle of a Nor’easter. No sane angler got out until Saturday when the Sound finally calmed down. That meant just one day’s worth of keepers were culled from the inshore haunts before I got out there Sunday morning with buddies Mike, Dan, and Chris.   

It had been a year since any of us had targeted blackfish and there was a feeling of anticipation on the boat during the chilly ride to the breakwalls. We weren’t alone. Even from a couple miles away we could see dozens of boats that looked like white specks against the rocks. We motored along until finding a vacant stretch a respectable distance between two boats, dropped anchor and inched the stern tight to the wall. Chris tossed a line fixed to a metal bolt that caught between two granite slabs and tied it off to a cleat. The duel anchor system is popular when targeting tog, allowing anglers to stay put over one spot, in our case a rod’s length from the wall in 10 to 15-feet of water. Blackfish are so structure dependent that a few feet in either direction can make the difference between a desert and an oasis. 

Tautog eat all sorts of crustaceans and shellfish, but crabs are hands down the preferred bait when targeting them. It seems like you can never have enough on hand as tog are masters at cleaning hooks with their human-like teeth. It’s not just them down there either; an underwater camera would likely reveal a mob of small black sea bass and cunners pecking away at your offering as well. The two species of crab most often used for blackfish in Long Island Sound are both invasive to the area, the Asian crab and green crab. Asian crabs are smaller on average, usually fished whole. The green crabs grow larger and are either fished whole or cut in half or quarters depending on their size. What works better is all personal preference. Some anglers stick to the go big or go home theory. Others lean toward Asian crabs because it’s faster and easier not having to deal with cutting—just pierce the crab with a jig and drop it down. I like to mix it up and experiment with both and let the fish decide.

On board for this outing we had 12 dozen Asian crabs and a bag of greenies for good measure. All of us had our sights set on jigging with light-ish tackle. The tide wasn’t ripping that morning so we got away with using jigs from one to one and a half ounce. There were high hopes for a boat-wide limit (3 fish per angler, 16-inch minimum). That would allow each of us a fresh dinner and some filets to vacuum seal for the freezer. Mike had the hot hand to start, landing the first two keepers. Pretty soon we all got in on the action once we got a handle of the rocky bottom below the boat. The key to finding larger fish seemed to be locating holes and crevasses that blackfish were hiding out in. Those same holes added to the challenge of landing a bigger fish if you were lucky enough to hook one.

With this style of fishing, it helps to have braided main line to better feel light bites and a long, heavy leader to stand up to the abrasion that comes with the territory. I needed all of my four-foot 40-pound leader when I battled my best fish of the day that almost never saw the net. When my jig sank down a few additional feet into one of those holes, it was greeted by a tap, tap, crunch. With the drag locked down, I tried like hell to pull the fish out of its lair but it bulldogged back down into the rocks until I felt myself hung up on bottom. Completely stuck. No headshakes, nothing. Somehow patience prevailed and after letting it be for 30 seconds that felt like 10 minutes, the blackfish worked itself out of the snag and continued to pull hard until it was flapping on the deck. I was proud of this one—not huge but my biggest to date and certainly the most memorable fight.

Over the course of a few hours that morning, we chipped away and eventually got our limit and released a bunch of shorts, a number of them just under 16-inches. Mike added a keeper black sea bass, which was a welcomed bycatch. Right up there with the fishing was the banter and camaraderie that comes along with togging. In a way blackfishing reminds me of some of the ice fishing that I do—friends jigging and BSing in close proximity, pausing once in a while to drink a beer or wolf down some food. I also like that it’s not super competitive out there. There are boats upon boats full of anglers, but they are all respectful to one another and everyone seemed to be bailing fish and doing their own thing. After a triumphant ride back to the marina, we got a workout fileting the 12 blackfish and bonus sea bass. I ate some of my share that night. I kept it simple with salt, pepper, and butter in a cast iron pan. It was as delicious as I had remembered it and couldn’t have been fresher. I’m not sure if that will be my only togging trip this fall, but if it is it was definitely one to remember.