Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Just Jigging

Editor's note: This is a guest post from my good friend Aaron Swanson about a recent trip to Lake George, NY. 

There was time when you could do it Connecticut. In the 1970’s, the DEP (now DEEP) captured a 30-pound brown trout in their trap nets from Washining Lake, a large (for Connecticut) deep-water lake that produced the stuff of legends.  When I was first introduced to ice fishing, it was a place of numbers with enough mystique to make one believe the chance still existed.  By the time I learned enough to start catching holdover browns in the kind of numbers it takes to potentially contact a giant, the herring population that sustained the fishery where I could jig up 50 fish a day, and mostly holdover fish, was crashing.  After a couple years of pounding our heads against the wall that the writing was on, we just stopped going.

This is not to say there aren’t other lakes in Connecticut where you can’t have a decent day jigging up trout.  But “decent” has become relative to current conditions we’ve been living with.  Warm, dry summers (though last summer was pretty wet), lake drawdowns meant to kill weeds that choke the docks and props of lakefront homeowners, and a host of other factors have led to what amount to lowered  expectations when targeting trout through the ice with a tiny rod.  There are large fish to be had, sure; beautiful mutants grown and stocked by DEEP. And there are lakes that still hold-over trout.  And there are the host of other species Yankee ice fisherman can chase.  Great.  But unless there’s a huge conspiracy to keep fantastic jigging action for trophy trout somewhere here in my home state hidden from me…well, as they say, the fishing ain’t what it used to be.
Enter: The Road Trip. As it turns out, a person, or a person and his fishing partners can jump in a car, cross the state line and experience holdover trout fishing “like the old days”  (that’s a joke but not a joke) with numbers and possibilities of unicorns—legit 20-pounders.  They might not be brown trout, but they are trout nonetheless, beautiful and more ancient. Specially adapted to probe the depths in search of cold, oxygenated water and food.  We can go jig for lakers!

Until a couple of years ago, the ingredients for this type of road trip hadn’t really started to mix and congeal in our minds.  Like I said, we had numbers and possibility right here in the Nutmeg State.  As our attention turned to targeting other, more prolific species through the ice like northern pike and walleye, the thought of driving to find the kind of action and conjecture we used to enjoy when staring at electronics and looking for marks on a screen started to sound much more appealing.  I missed it.  We missed it.  Understand, pike and walleye fishing are great and hold incredible potential to see a true monster fish for the region.  The thing is, it’s mostly done by setting tip-ups and forgetting about them in between sips of brown liquor, waiting for short flurries of chaos and excitement.  The urge to use the kind of continued focus it takes to drop a piece of metal tipped with some meat down 70, or 80 feet to waiting trout  finally started to grow into a necessary reality. 
Expectations are always high heading into a trip, no matter how long in duration or how far your travel may bring you.  A fishing trip that takes you away from home for a few nights or more does funny things to your brain.  The possibilities are always endless and YouTube only serves to inflate your expectations.  Watching unknown anglers, in say Quebec or on Lake Superior, haul up fish that would be records on the body of water you’re headed tend to stretch those limits of possibility even further.  Combine this anticipation with a fantastic inaugural trip that exceeded expectations the prior year and you’re flirting with THE. BEST. TRIP. EVER.
Luckily a contact, who none of us had ever met in person, yet has continually bestowed up to the minute information to us helped to temper our zenith-set sights to a more realistic level.  The bite was tough.  Guys were landing say three for every five hooked, or four for six, seven for seven.  You had to work.  Ok; who doesn’t love a good challenge, especially before you even show up and strap on your waterproof bibs? This was certainly a contrast to last year’s excursion to the same body when 50 fish days weren’t out of the question, but how tough could it be?  With the car packed the night before, tailgate sagging toward the ground, we got a couple of shitty hours of shut eye and were off to jig up some lakers; or at least go down trying.

We hit the bait shop by 7am, right on schedule.  We loaded up on small minnows to represent the smelts that make up one of the most prevalent bait sources our intended quarry relies on as well as some larger baits, you know, for “the one”… or something like that.  The procurement of a few jigs and other toys not so readily sold closer to home saw us out the door and doing our best clown car impression unpacking the storage unit’s worth of crap out of my tailgate at the southernmost point of the 32 mile long lake.
The mile-plus walk to the “numbers” we’d been given was exhilarating.  Sweaty, but exhilarating.  Funny thing about the “numbers” was that we essentially followed a foot path that turned out to be the tracks of our contact from the day before.  Some old fashioned sleuthing right there. Excitement and anticipation culminated with disappointing first drops. The screens were mostly blank save for the lines representing our jigs bouncing up and down in 80-plus feet of water.  The reports we true.  Despite the best tricks our sleeves could muster we had a whopping total of two fish on the ice and two missed hits by noon.  Thankfully, the guy in the group who was making his first trip of the season was the lucky lander of those two, respectable fish.  While everyone was there to catch trout, the big numbers seen during the previous year’s foray didn’t seem likely to materialize anytime soon – at least where we were.  

The good news was that the sun was still shining and we had the better part of a half day ahead.  Our attempt to pack ”light” motivated us to take off on foot and start covering frozen water to try and look for fish that would be more willing to attack the white piece of metal so highly regarded by the local lake trout whisperers. 
Nothing, I mean, absolutely nothing.  Having walked the better part of three and a half miles without observing another interested mark the proverbial “plan B” started look better than defining insanity by hoping something might finally try to attack one of our lures.  Only problem was, the details of plan B didn’t quite exist, other than the realization of “this isn’t working.”  Then, lady luck intervened and brought details of some potential next steps into sharp focus.  Another angler within earshot seemed to be doing a little better than us, but not by much.  As we continued to listen to him banter with buddies, he stopped short to take a phone call.  The voice on the other end of the line, now on speaker phone, described a wholly different scene than the one we were part of. The spot, named in detail, gave up 20-plus fish to 26-inches to the lucky, unseen angler.  We made sideways glances at each other, eyes widened as if trying to conceal our giddiness at this good fortune.  At the call’s conclusion the recipient stood up and announced to his partners “Welp boys, change in plans.”  Change in plans indeed!
Instantly renewed with confidence and energy, we made the long trek back to the car and re-arranged the copious amounts of gear that did not catch us fish.  We were off to the spot, thankfully named without shame by our unknown benefactor.  We called our contact during our  eight or nine mile drive north to the promised land and confirmed not only the spot we were headed to, but that contacts in his lake trout circle were there and, indeed, bailing fish! Our hopes were restored as we scouted potential access areas and found, oddly enough, anglers departing the ice who were willing to talk honestly about the day’s action. For three tight-lipped fish seekers and sometimes surfcasters from the Constitution State, this was not normal protocol.  Back home, our smallish bodies of water and smaller productive areas they hold are closely guarded and competed for in the freezing pre-dawn hours.  And here were guys telling us exactly where to walk to, how many fish they caught and what they were caught on.  I suppose the mere size of a lake like George, multiple access points to productive water, and the fact that, as far as I can tell, the bottom is paved with fish, makes information flow a bit more easily in the Adirondacks. 

JonA.  That’s the only way I knew him, his internet handle.  This guy, for some reason, decided to open the door to the kind of fishing we were craving in the Empire State.  Imagine that, someone I’d never even met or talked to on the phone invites up one of the group he’d been corresponding with for years (the subject of previous blog posts here) gave us the keys to making the three hour drive immediately worthwhile by severely shortening our learning curve.  Thanks man, credit where it’s due. 
JonA became Jon the real person early the next morning in a pitch black parking lot about a third of the way up the western shore of the lake.  Our presence combined with good reports caused him to break his usual routine of avoiding weekends in favor of less crowded weekdays.  Our previous day’s speculation as to how to access the deep water out in front of some islands was for naught as he followed some of his regular contacts out to “the spot”.  The cool part about this spot, and likely why anglers in the region are so forthcoming with news and information, is that there is plenty of room for all along the tightly grouped contour lines of the lakes depths. We set up shop and got ready to scratch the old itch.  Numbers on the jigger!  And we were on our way, between the four of us we managed to put a quick pick of fish on the ice, none huge, but marks that would follow your jig off bottom and bend your rod during its ascent through the water column.  There were smiles all around, a few high fives and maybe even a couple of pictures snapped.  And then, the bite shut off.

It wasn’t for lack of effort.   Between all of us we threw the old kitchen sink at the fish we saw.  But most of the day went like this: a mark appears on your screen, moves toward your offering, you move it in anticipation, he’s following, (yes! keep coming!).  The mark stops, you drop down with it, drop below it and raise it back up.  The mark follows again, but only half as far, maybe five feet off bottom this time.  You drop back down and try again.  The mark disappears.  Repeat. At least those fish gave you hope.  The ones that would appear a foot or two off bottom and never move, those are the one’s I’d like to yell at if it were practical to stick my head through an eight inch hole in the ice.  “Move you sonofabitch!” 
Of small consolation was that Jon’s repeated phone calls to other anglers, huddled in blue portable Clam ice shacks strewn across our field of view weren’t doing a whole lot better.  Even the best guys who fish multiple days a week struggled to put up double digit numbers. As the sky started to glow pink through the clouds dropping snow on our stationary hut, the realization that reliving the “glory days” on this trip was sliding further out of reach.  If we were to have any success, it would be during our abbreviated window the following morning.
Still though, there were shots and beers to order at another local bar; laughs to have with new friends and pretty bartenders to sneakily stare at (I’m sure it wasn’t sneaky by the time we left).  Once that was accomplished we could get back to the business of meeting Jon, again at an ungodly hour, in nearly the same parking spaces we had pulled into nearly 24 hours earlier.  A front was coming.  The second of what would turn out to be three dreaded “polar vortex’s (should that be vortices? Thanks a lot cable news) was due to move into the region and we pontificated on the mile walk back out to the spot as to what that might mean for the fishing.  For all our faults it seems to me the one shining commonality among anglers is the ability to hope things will get better.  To believe that “tomorrow is the day we’ll get ‘em good!”
Well, that morning was the morning we “got ‘em good”.  The old days.  Fish shooting up off bottom to grab your jig and struggle during their entire journey, up 80 feet until their beautiful bony faces popped into your hole.  One after another, hoots and hollers rang out from the randomly spaced group, barely a minute passing without a hook up or groan of a missed fish.  There is something about having success on a rod barely three feet long, especially when your quarry all tape out in the range of two thirds of its length.  Were these fish huge by lake trout standards? Absolutely not.  Was it a blast to hook up one after another and gather round the hole, taking pictures and shooting video to preserve the fun of the moment?  You bet your Swedish Pimple it was.  When the bite slowed a bit we switched to jig heads adorned with stinky soft plastic baits and used a different technique to continue to fool fish into eating our little puppets, danced specially for them 13 fathoms below our feet.  Did I mention we caught all of our fish jigging?

The weather conditions that morning, while not particularly brutal, were enough cause to don most of the foul weather gear we had brought.  During one of the short spells I wasn’t working a fish, I looked up long enough to notice the wind had died and the sun was shining partially down through breaks in the seemingly ever-present flow of clouds we’d encountered for the last couple of days.  Not a minute after I remarked (mistakenly of course) at how pleasant our current conditions were, I looked northward to see walls of blown snow moving across the lake in a different direction than any others we’d seen during our stay.  The northwest wind slammed into us like a stampede and the vortex was upon us.  Within twenty minutes our screens were void of fish, our sleds covered in snow and, as a final sign from the universe we’d had our shot, one guy’s electronics crapped out.  It was time to go.
The ride home was one of satisfaction. We hadn’t killed it all three days, or pulled up a giant, or some ridiculous number.  But the possibility was there, and we got ‘em.  I managed my largest laker to date, we finally fished with our New York contact and learned a few new tricks for finicky trout. But the simple pleasure of fulfilling of a goal, one we don’t get a chance to try and achieve all that often anymore, was enough.  We got ‘em just jigging.                

1 comment:

  1. Good story. I've read about the old jigger men. Glad you guys got to do it.