Saturday, March 7, 2020

Origins

Over the years, they have become the fish I target most through the ice. For one, the chance is always there to pull something really special up through the hole, but also because they fight well and the water they inhibit here is some of the first to freeze and last to thaw. They are gorgeous fish in their own right and formidable predators with a mouth full of sharp teeth. My style of ice fishing for them is primitive, which is a nice change of pace from the more technical fishing I do for other species. Without a doubt, northern pike are impressive and enjoyable creatures.

Esox lucius are not native to Connecticut. Like many species, they were introduced at some point in time and have thrived ever since. Wherever pike roam in the Nutmeg State, they are indeed the apex predator of that body of water and can grow into giants. The current Connecticut state record stands at 29-pounds, taken from Lake Lillinonah in 1980. Just to our north and east, the records in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are both 35-pounds respectively. It’s no wonder why targeting trophy pike in open water and through the ice has become so popular in the Northeast.

Northern pike are predators that eat almost anything and everything they desire. 







Starting in the 1980s, fisheries biologists from CT DEEP have done an outstanding job with the state’s northern pike management program, building it to the point where significant natural reproduction is happening in the marsh systems of a few of our more popular pike fisheries. After graduating college, I was able to witness the success of the program firsthand by taking a seasonal position within DEEP’s inland fisheries division. It remains the most interesting job I’ve ever held. One of the more fun responsibilities it entailed was helping capture and stock northern pike fingerlings.

The capturing part took place on a DEEP-managed marsh along the Connecticut River. When it floods, northern pike (and other fish) make their way into this marsh and a culvert pipe, their only exit back to the main river, is blocked off. While inside, some of the adult pike spawn successfully and the marsh is drained months later after their offspring reach the desired fingerling size, about four to six inches. It was one of my tasks to sit on the river side of the culvert and catch these fingerlings in a large net as they exited the pipe. There was no knowing when or what was coming through. Sometimes large pike would shoot out like rockets—a startling experience on a good day, even more so with a hangover—and I would have to wrangle them from the net and release them back into the river. The fingerlings, however, would be carefully counted, sometimes fin-clipped, and placed in tanks on stocking trucks and driven to various pike management lakes around the state.

On one evening that summer, I remember releasing some of these little guys in the shallows of a favorite northern pike fishery—it must have been like ringing the dinner bell because immediately a larger fish (my money is on largemouth bass) blasted a few unlucky ones hanging out just below the surface. A bunch of these fingerlings, I’m confident, survived the odds and grew up to be trophy-class fish.

Aaron Swanson with a trophy CT northern pike.


Fast forward 15 years to the subpar Connecticut winter we are experiencing now. A recent catch, it turns out my final of the short ice season, got me thinking again about the origins of the pike swimming in our waters. As soon as it came topside, I knew this fish was a little different—it had a pattern unlike any pike I’d seen to that point. I immediately thought it was a cross between a pike and a pickerel because of the chainlike markings along its lower flanks. It wasn’t a very large fish, but it was healthy as a horse and surely unique. Looking for clarity if it was a hybrid or not, I later sent a photo to biologists involved in DEEP’s pike management program. I am glad I did because they shared some interesting info I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

The biologists acknowledged its unusual markings, yet could not make a definitive call on whether it was a hybrid or not without an up-close look at its opercle, the plate-like bone also known as the gill cover. It turns out that scales are present on the upper half of a pike’s gill cover, but are absent on the lower half. On pickerel, however, the opercle is fully covered with scales. And on hybrids, scales cover exactly three-quarters of it. The biologists added that in the 30 or so years that DEEP actively trap-netted adult pike for broodstock, a pike/pickerel hybrid was captured almost every year, sometimes up to two or three of them were netted. I found the possibility of catching my first hybrid pretty cool, but the story doesn’t quite end there.

My final fish of the 2019-2020 ice season and an interesting one at that.




One of biologists circled back with an interesting twist. He had seen pike with similar markings before while collecting fingerlings from Connecticut marshes and believed my catch stemmed from a past stocking of fish from New Jersey. “For a number of years, we’ve been receiving free pike fry from New Jersey that we’ve raised in our marshes, or at Burlington hatchery, to fingerling size and have then stocked in a couple of our pike management lakes,” he said. The neat part, I thought, was that they could tell exactly what body of water in New Jersey the pike originated from.

The biologists had sent my photo to their counterparts in New Jersey’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, who recognized it straight away. Evidently, there is one reservoir down there where the pike exhibit similar chainlike markings. Several of the adult pike from that reservoir were used as broodstock back in 2016. Fingerlings that were raised from the New Jersey fry were later stocked in the very lake I caught my fish in, which made sense because, based on its size, was thought to be in the range of three to four-years-old.

This is not groundbreaking stuff, but it was cool to learn the backstory of my catch. It’s not often we, as anglers, get that sort of insight or closure on the fish we spend so much time and effort perusing. This exercise reinforced my appreciation for the work of our inland fisheries staff and furthered my understanding of the gamefish I am fortunate to target each winter. With the growing respect for the species within the angling community and increasing use of proper catch and release methods, Connecticut’s northern pike management program has a bright future ahead. And hopefully I run into another 2016-year class Jersey fish down the road. 

Another example of a 2016-class pike that originated from broodstock from the same New Jersey reservoir.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Winter Nights


On cold, dark nights during winter—after work, dinner, dishes, bath and bedtime—now and again I descend to the basement. Down the stairs, past the finished area strewn with toys, through a door and into a slice of cellar left untouched. It’s unheated, dimly lit, and all mine. A shrine to my hobbies, almost every inch of the room is covered with something outdoors-related. A cement-floor sanctuary to unwind, tinker, and prepare for trips and seasons to come.

A simple workbench is the heart of the room. Above it a pegboard adorned with dozens of wooden plugs and plastic lures—some more worn than others, but each tell a story. They hang upside down by their rear hook in two neat rows; organized first by type, then by color. Some nights I’ll swap out old, rusty hooks for fresh ones or take random lures off the wall and inspect them like a kid does his army men. It’s reassuring in a way to handle artificial lures in winter while thinking of tides I’ll cast them come summer. Some nights I’ll hover over the bench and snell hooks or tie leaders and tuck them in individual baggies. Better to do it now than rushing before a fishing trip.



Next to the workbench is an old, fold-out wooden desk. It’s been furnished into a fly-tying station with a daylight lamp, making it the brightest spot in the room when it’s on. The desktop has open cigar boxes stuffed with various spools of thread, wire, and lead. It’s flanked by plastic organizers on either side with drawers chockfull of tying materials. Oftentimes I’ll sit at the vise, usually with a bourbon, or lately tequila, and fill voids in my fly boxes of proven patterns that I lost too many of. While tying this winter, instead of listening to playlists, I’ve been enthralled with an audiobook, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary, by Joe Jackson. It’s a fascinating biography of the Sioux healer and holy man, and a sad reminder of some dark times in our nation’s history.  

A collection of fishing rods stretches the entire length of another wall. A few of them are long, one-piece surfcasting rods, so it’s helpful to have a full walk-out door at the head of the room with easy access to my truck—a far cry from the situation when living on the third-floor of my in-laws for two years (the cooking was top-shelf, but getting a 10 footer up two flights at 2 a.m. took practice). Most of the rods have reels attached and rigged from the last time they saw action. Near the door on the floor is a large Jet Sled laden with stickers and packed to the gills with ice fishing gear. It has a hole in one of the back corners, but I haven’t sprung for a plastic welding kit to fix it. The ice gear hasn’t seen much activity this winter, but I’m not packing it away just yet. Eventually it will hang in the rafters out of sight until next November, when optimism is once again renewed for a proper hardwater season.




On the opposite wall are two metal shelving racks full of tackle boxes, plug bags, storage bins, camping equipment, and a cache of artifacts I’ve found at ancient Native American campsites and villages around the area. Much of it is debitage, sharp-edged waste material left behind when indigenous people knapped stone such as flint or quartz into tools. But some of the pieces are broken or unfinished projectile points and scrapers that weren’t quite good enough to make their way upstairs into my shadowbox table with the showpiece stuff. There are nights I’ll just go through this pile of flakes and chipped stone, sorting and studying them, and thinking how cool it is that someone else held them thousands of years ago. 

Yet another section of the room is taken up by a bait freezer, buckets, nets, walking sticks, coolers, and a clothing rack on wheels from which hangs fly fishing packs, waders, wetsuits, and a myriad of bibs and jackets. In the corner, from the ceiling, hangs my fishing bike; an old beater that is spray-painted black and customized with two rod-holders, basket, and rear rack. It doesn’t get used as much as it could, but the bike is ready to spring to life for a Canal trip or a ninja mission to a private stretch of shoreline.

The room is not big by any means, yet its space is certainly maximized. Not much bare wall space is left—some of the last of it used for a framed photograph of my largest bluefish, caught and released on a September night 14 years ago. The plug that fooled that fish, a white Atom 40, is wired to the frame below the picture, full of teeth mark battle scars. On nails in the concrete block hang lanterns, chaffed leaders, and antique cookware, and sprinkled around the room are retired flies or lures, fishing keepsakes from a time gone by.

In spring, summer, and fall, there are plenty of nights I run down to the basement only to grab gear and go—I won’t think twice about tinkering with tackle or tying flies. But in winter, when the cold is numbing and wind is honking, on occasion I get the urge to spend hours in the place carved out for the things I love to do. Whether it’s a garage, trophy room, attic, tying room, or mancave, every outdoorsman has a special spot they store the things they are passionate about. I’m fortunate for mine.


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!