Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Opening Daze: A celebration of trout & tradition

Anyone who knows me well knows that the days surrounding the third Saturday in April are some of my favorite of the year. For more than 20 years now, I've spent that long weekend with my uncle and a seasoned crew of friends on the banks of the Farmington River camping, cooking and fishing. It's a tradition-heavy weekend filled with unparalleled food and camaraderie. This year, instead of a typical recap post, I put together a highlight reel of footage I've filmed over the last few Opening Day trips. I hope it gives you a good idea of why we look forward to this weekend all year long.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Spark

Seeing the joy on my daughter's face when she reeled in her first feisty pumkinseeds this past weekend was a major dad moment for me. We visited our local river where I spent so many hours fishing as a kid. While I'm trying not to be that dad who shoves his own passion down his kid's throat, she genuinely has taken an interest into fish, worms, beach walks, osprey, and other things I've been introducing her to. I hope our outdoor adventures together are just getting started and this short trip was the spark. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

April Butter

I took a mental health day today and put in a few solid hours on the Farmington River. It was awesome--warm air, bugs hatching and a good buddy to share the water with. The flow from Goodwin Dam was cut considerably since our camping trip last weekend and the fishing seemed to improve in a big way. Aaron and I hit three spots hard and found trout at each, a couple of which were pretty damn nice. The quality fish ate a mix of hendrickson nymphs, blue wing olive nymphs and cased caddis. 

Today was my last day on the river for a little while.  I'm going from changing flies back to changing diapers! 

Photos by Aaron Swanson

Friday, April 21, 2017

Lunch Break Brown

I hit a local trout stream during lunch yesterday. After blanking in a pool where I know a couple of big fish hang, I went upstream to a stretch that I would normally pass by. Only one taker came to the net, but it was a stunning wild brown from a shallow riffle. It ate a tiny flashback pheasant tail nymph that you can see hanging from the upper lip. With another addition to my family coming any day now, I'll be taking a little hiatus from fishing and posting so I'm soaking in every bit right now.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Pass It On

I can still remember the excitement of catching my first keeper striped bass more than 20 years ago. My uncle had brought me to a spot close to home that he'd been fishing his whole life. It was a long walk through a marsh in the dark, something I take for granted now, but it felt so foreign to me then. Everything I used that night was loaned to me from waders to surf rod to the white curly tail grub and jig head that fooled my fish. We were the only ones on the point that tide except for one other angler. That angler had a camera and when he witnessed my uncle and me celebrating my catch, he offered to take our photo and mail it to us. I gave him my name and address, but the photo never came. I always wished I had a framed picture to document that moment, yet it's a fond memory still etched in my brain. It would have been a little easier today with digital cameras and email, but I digress. 

Fast forward to Tuesday night and my uncle and I were back together at that same spot, but this time we brought one of his sons. It was now Max's turn to take that foreign walk in the dark and ask all the questions. Before this night, he had caught and released just one striped bass. He was beyond pumped to get out there. Despite the chilly temps and stiff ESE wind, Max slayed the stripers starting with his very first cast with a brand new Mag Darter. They weren't keeper-sized, but they were special fish nonetheless. My uncle and I were fly fishing and caught our first schoolies of the season, but watching my cousin's excitement was the main event. The kid is hooked. He has the surf fishing bug big time. It's good to see a young man his age getting started. Another generation. Someday it will be his turn to take a budding angler to that spot and pass it on. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Wild Workday

I have mentioned here before how sweet it is that my place of employment is situated just up the hill from a stream with perfect wild trout habitat. A three-weight fly rod and Muck Boots are kept in my truck at all times. Though it sees decent angling pressure, I've been lucky to sneak the occasional weekday mission in before or after work when it's usually less crowded. Last week I was able to go on two such jaunts in the same day; once in the morning and again in late afternoon.

In the first round, I went to a familiar pool with easy access that has been consistent in terms of numbers of fish, but not necessarily size. A big trout for me from here is around 10 inches, which is a respectable wild trout from this stream, but they can get much larger. I frequent this spot more than others because it's a quick hit and I can always count on seeing fish. While this type of thinking has kept me from visiting other parts of the stream more than I probably should, that is beginning to change.

As is always the case in this run, I was trailing a nymph on super light tippet underneath a dry fly. In short order I hooked six pint-sized gems which of only half reached my net. The biggest of the bunch, a gorgeous brook trout, ate a Stimulator I had just purchased during a surfcasting event at River's End. After spending about $100 on saltwater gear, I couldn't resist picking three of the big dries from a lonely freshwater bin. The rest of the trout that morning fell for a small, tungsten-bead pheasant tail I tied last winter. The Stimulator/pheasant tail combo is deadly for me in this spot. It has't really mattered what time of year or what bugs are hatching or in the drift, the trout here respond well to these two patterns presented in this way. I'm sure other flies and tactics work, but if it ain't broke don't fix it. After a brief dose of fresh air and trout, the Muck Boots were traded for dress shoes and off to work I went...

After work I returned with a plan to fish a stretch I had never seen before. I went the farthest downstream I had ever been and kept walking. Hugging the edge of the stream, I entered a wooded area bordering some backyards. There was no worn dirt path here like more popular stretches and I got the feeling this water has been neglected by most anglers. Without much room to spare on my boots, I crossed a riffle just upstream of a shaded, deep pool. Now I found myself across the stream from the residential area and in better position to present the dry-dropper rig I still had on from the morning trip.

There wasn't much space for a backcast, so I perched on a rock a few feet from the overgrown bank to buy me a little breathing room. Now I had brambles behind me and directly across the stream was a large backyard with no fence (which would come into play soon). I begin casting and on the third drift through the money zone, my Stimulator disappears. I set the hook and knew in an instant it was a nice fish. After some heartbreak on this stream in the past, my mind immediately went to negative thoughts of losing another big one. Despite the tight quarters, I was able to keep a good angle and pressure on her. When it finally broke the surface a few yards from me, I stumbled from my rock to close the gap getting water over my boots in the process. The lively brown trout slid into my net and I was a happy man.

The fish had vivid red spots over a buttery underbelly and a notable battle scar on its tail from the past. Just a beautiful specimen and my largest wild trout from this particular stream in a few years. Without a tape, I guessed the fish to be about 15-inches long. The term 'trophy fish' is very relative to where it was caught. This was a trophy to me. 

After the release, she sulked in the water beside me for a photo before bolting to the confines of the deep pool. I collected myself and got back on the rock to make more drifts in hopes there were more where that came from. But before I could get another cast off, two huge German Shepherds came into view in the yard across the stream. Everything was cool for a minute. When I started to false cast, they spotted me and ran over barking like mad with just 10-feet of water between us. Needless to say I left, but knowing there were more, and possibly bigger, trout in that pool, I came back the following afternoon. This time the dogs were in view from the start and when they saw me this time, I found out there was no electric fence keeping them in the yard. The bigger of the two jumped in the stream and I ran like hell.

I have a feeling those German Shepherds keep most anglers from fishing there. Looking back, I'm fortunate that I even had a five minute window of peace there or I wouldn't have caught that fish at all. The stream has more water to explore and more trout to catch, but I won't give up on that guarded pool just yet--I'll just have to get lucky with my timing. Before or after work of course. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Chasing Esox

Tip-up fishing for northern pike can be summed up as hours of waiting for a few brief moments of chaos. While there wasn't much ice to fish on this past winter, we made the most of what we had. Here is our 2016-2017 hardwater season boiled down to five minutes. All Esox lucius in this video were caught and released in Connecticut waters.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Wild Trout Fix

I love ice fishing, but won't dwell on an early end to hardwater season. Last week brought with it unseasonal spring-like weather and a hankering for trout fishing. It was tough being stuck inside at work, but I was able to pay a visit to a favorite small stream before heading to the office one morning. It was a short, productive session with six gorgeous trout finding my net. The first two were sizable brown trout for this run that ate my dry fly in the head of the riffle. I was more expecting the dry to serve as an indicator in my dry-dropper rig, but was pleasantly surprised to see the surface eats in February. The next four trout, a mix of brookies and browns, gobbled up a small, beaded pheasant tail nymph. The color and fight of these stream-born trout never gets old. It was also encouraging to see skunk cabbage already sprouting in the woods. A sure sign that spring is near. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Farewell and Adieu

After a modest five trips over two months, my ice fishing season is over. I don't ever recall putting my ice gear away in February, but it was 65 degrees today and I saw skunk cabbage sprouting in the woods. That makes two winters in a row that I wasn't able to walk on some of my favorite bodies of water. Perhaps it was a blessing because it forced me to focus on new water and, in the process, pulled the two largest fish of my life through the ice in back-to-back seasons. I do miss ice fishing deep water for lake trout and walleye, but there's no denying the thrill of walking to a tripped flag when targeting trophy pike or muskie. No matter what species I'm after or how many times I get to do it, every trip on the ice with friends is a good time. Here are a few shots from this short and sweet season. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Day of Days

With ice conditions deteriorating and more mild temps and precipitation on the way, we knew this trip could be our last time on hardwater for a while. Aaron, Will and I walked out at 0-dark-thirty in fog so thick that I lost my bearings for a minute before Aaron pointed me back towards shore. It was crazy warm out and felt fishy as hell. There was a coyote yipping a stone's throw from us that added to the eerie experience. We expected the fog to burn off as the sun came up, but that didn't happen and we literally couldn't see one tip-up from the next. The lousy visibility may have cost a couple fish because we tended to some flags later than we would have liked. Will got to one flag with nobody home that may have been up for 30 seconds or five minutes--there were over 200 wraps of line taken off the spool. We became more vigilant with our trap checks and had a few chew-and-screws and a decent fish dropped at the hole before Will finally put us on the board by icing a small pike.

The day took a turn for the better when the fog finally lifted around 11 a.m. Actually it was about to be the best three hours of pike fishing I'd ever been a part of. Will's hottest trap went off again while Aaron and I were on the complete opposite side of our spread. It took us a couple of minutes to reach him and the battle was still on--a good sign! When we got the first look at her through the hole, we all freaked out. She measured 40" and the pike's noggin made up 11" of it--just a massive head. We all agreed that it would be awesome to run into that girl again when she fills out the rest of her frame, but it was a special fish nonetheless. It's not everyday that you see a 40" pike on the ice. The bottle of Jameson definitely got a little lighter after that. 

About an hour went by before we were back in business. Aaron's shallowest trap, which was quiet until now, went off around noon. Right away he knew it was another sizable fish and it had taken a ton of line out. Aaron battled her back to the hole, eventually got the snout up and I used the grippers to slide the pike out. This one was taped out at 37" and was thick from head to tail--another solid specimen. With this being Aaron's first time on the ice this season, we were all stoked that he landed a banger. As a group, we were now having quite the day. It's not everyday that you see a 40" and a 37" pike on the ice. And it was about to get even better. 

Around midday one of my flags kept tripping and it was a false alarm each time. Twice the bait was straight down and the other a fish had ran out a good amount of line and dropped it. It was starting to get in my head. My day had a hard stop at 2 p.m. and when I saw the same flag up again around 1, part of me thought it was just another non-committal pike. This time the spool was turning and I felt substantial weight when I set the hook. The high feeling soon wore off as the line went slack. For a second there I was beside myself thinking "not again!?", but I never stopped retrieving the line and couldn't believe it when I felt weight again. The fish must have bolted right at me and I finally caught up to her. While I'm not well versed in fighting large pike, I could tell this one was in another class. We went back and forth around the hole for a couple minutes that felt a lot longer, but everything went smooth as Will managed the line on the ice and Aaron slid his hand under the gill plate and helped her out. Laying in front of us was my first 40" pike and a real fatty at that. The trip had just turned from awesome to legendary in my book. It's not everyday that you see two 40" and a 37" pike on the ice. 

With a new personal best pike, I couldn't have ended my outing on a higher note. Within thirty minutes I was packing up my tip-ups and before heading back to the family for a birthday dinner. I left Aaron and Will out there, but the bite finally simmered down. They had one more flag in the next two hours and it was another a chew-and-screw. It didn't matter. The damage was done. With each of landing a high quality pike in nearly T-shirt weather, it was a day of ice fishing none of us will forget--a day of days! And those kind of days don't come around too often. It's days like that one which make waking up at ungodly hours, driving hundreds of miles and pulling sleds full of gear through snow all worth it! 

While that ice we were standing on is all gone now, there is a blast of cold air coming our way. The optimist in me thinks ice fishing isn't quite over yet, but catching and releasing that fish already made my season...

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Slump Buster

I dropped the first two fish I hooked in 2017. Both felt heavy and hurt in their own way. One was a northern pike that I lost an arm's length from the ice hole. I never did get a look at her, maybe it was for the better, but by the fight and weight I know it was big enough to be rattled over losing it. 

The other fish wasn't under the ice; it was next to a brush pile in a small stream. I saw the trout's back come out of the water as it crushed my black and olive bugger. I set the hook and she thrashed, spewing my fly ten feet behind me. I let out an "Oh my god. What the F was that?" while the gravity of the situation sunk in. It was definitely another class of fish that I was accustomed to from this stream; something I'd be happy with from the Farmington, yet this was unstocked water a fraction of its size. I was certain it was the largest wild brown I had hooked in more than 15 years of fishing there. That one stung pretty good. I was in a funk to start the new year. 

Cue the January thaw. I went back to the same small stream today during a long lunch at work. The fresh wading boot prints on the snow-packed trail was a punch to my gut. Someone had already fished this stretch today. I blew by some water that I would normally take some casts in to get to the exact lie I pricked the fish from. Along the bank I could see where the angler got into the water and broke shelf ice and stirred up mud. I knew right then that he didn't hook that fish and neither would I this trip. I kept moving upstream and I couldn't escape the fresh prints. I made it to a deep, slow pool screaming to be fished with a woolly bugger. I couldn't get a sniff and to make matters worse, I busted off the streamer on a tree branch, then worked it free with my rod tip, only to lose it for good after it fell to the ground. I walked back downstream dejected. 

Before leaving for work, I had packed two other flies just in case I found myself in a jam like this. Back at the truck, I tied on my bread and butter dry-dropper combo and headed to my Alamo. Work lunch was stretching longer than usual at this point, but for good reason. I needed my first fish of 2017 and to snap out of this mental funk. I approached the honey hole and saw no prints. It was a good feeling knowing my flies would be the first these trout have seen in at least four days since the last snow. And they sure acted like it, too. In quick succession, I landed six trout from the small run. Five browns and a lone brookie, all of which looked healthy and put a bend in my three-weight rod. Each of them took a tiny bead head pheasant tail nymph dropped 18 inches below a stimulator dry fly. This method had worked for me many times in this run and it wasn't going to let me down now. I was on the board for the year and swapped my Muck boots for work shoes and drove back to the office with the smell of fish on my hands.