Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Fall Classic

We are witnessing an exceptional 'fall run' in Long Island Sound by any measure. Fueled by incredible numbers of peanut bunker, there are birds wheeling over blitzing fish nearly every time I drive by the beach. A few feeds I have been fortunate to experience looked right out of a "Blue Planet" episode. It's been one of those stretches that part of me wishes I was 20 years younger without a real job, family, or any kind of responsibility for that matter. I'm thankful my local waters have been full of life this fall and I hope we can count on another one like this next year. 

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Traditions Never Die

Though several months removed, the trip is still seared in memory and the smell of wood smoke clings to my gear. While a recap from our annual Opening Day celebration is long overdue, sifting through photos from that weekend brought me right back and had me itching for more.

Traditions never die, but they do evolve. Our trip is a hell of a lot less about fishing now than when it started decades ago. It's pretty evident that we spend way more time swapping stories and eating good food around the fire than we do making drifts for trout. I'm not bothered by that. I still love fly fishing and the Farmington River, but when the third weekend of April rolls around, and I get a little time off from work and dad duties, I'm taking it slow and soaking it all in. 

This evolution doesn't change the fact that, come hell or high water, we'll be back celebrating each spring for as long as we're physically able to. It's my favorite weekend of the year by far and something I look forward to introducing my own kids to when the time is right. If they love it half as much as we do, the future of this tradition is bright.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Better Late Than Never

It's a good thing that Rob never gave up on asking me. For years, I had to respectfully decline each of his invitations to target smallmouth bass on the Housatonic River. Not because that type of fishing didn't interest me—smallies are among my favorite species to fish for—more so because life, work and a host of other reasons got in the way. 

This spring was different. When Rob's annual invite came via text, flush with recent photos of him and his sons holding top-notch specimens, for once nothing prevented me from accepting the kind offer. I was in the midst of a job change with a week off in between. River flows were good. Weather looked mint. My time had come. 

I don't live far from where the Housatonic pours into Long Island Sound. About 50 miles northwest of there, just a stone's throw from the Appalachian Trail, is where I met Rob on a late May morning. It was a gorgeous section of river, a mix of pools and boulder-strewn pocket water, too warm for most trout and just right for crayfish-eating smallmouth. And that's what we used on the end of our lines. Not the actual crustaceans, but flies and soft-plastics that closely resembled them. 

Rob played guide the whole trip like he'd been getting paid to do it his entire life. We walked along a trail next to the river, over a mile upstream from the parking area and through some of the most beautiful country that Connecticut has to offer. The plan was to fish our way back to the vehicles and when we finally stopped walking and waded into the water, Rob gave specific instructions that I followed to a T. The first pool he put me on, and just about every riffle and run after that, produced fish.  

The stretch of river Rob brought me to was riddled with smallies. With a halfway decent cast and presentation, our baits were getting crushed without hesitation. The fights that followed were fun, too, peppered with jumps and summersaults. It was a good workout for my old Orvis T3 six-weight and Rob's seasoned Fenwick. Aside from the hot bite and incredible scenery, one of the best parts of the day was not seeing another soul. Not one other angler upstream or downstream for miles. On a Friday no less. I'm not complaining, just a little surprised after all the trout fishing I have done on pressured waters. 

Hats off to Rob for sharing his time and knowledge with me and providing such an awesome experience. Countless trips on that river since his childhood have prepared him well for the task. My respect and admiration for the smallmouth bass, as well as the mighty Housatonic, has only grown since. It was a special outing many years in the making and very much worth the wait. As they say, better late than never...

P.S. This was the first non-ice fishing trip with my new GoPro. Having some fun getting back into filming and editing. Hopefully the videos keep getting better over time...

Friday, June 3, 2022

the wisdom and faith of a child

Editor's note: Chad Wilde is a gifted writer and good friend. This story, a fine tale about his son's first encounter with a northern pike, is the last installment in a series of guest posts...for a little while at least. All of Chad's work is worth reading, but anything on getting the next generation more passionate about the Great Outdoors sits particular well with me. Enjoy...

Sometimes, though it may work against your conventional knowledge, it is wise to listen to the ideas of a child when fishing.  Children come from fresh places.  Their experiences are always building.  They pay attention to what works and seek to replicate it, as they pay attention to what doesn’t and seek to eliminate it.  

For my son, River, he always has ideas about what fishing lures, techniques, and methods should work.  And I gently try to impart him with what knowledge I’ve picked up through four decades of angling while also giving him the leeway to try out his own ideas.  On a blustery cold November day when fishing for pickerel, if he wants to throw an eight-inch top-water snake lure, by all means have at it buddy.  But after a while I’ll say, “Maybe we should try subtle little jerk baits?”

Sometimes, it is a hard stop no.  Like, a spinner bait just won’t work dangled below that giant bobber.  Even if we do tip it with a live nightcrawler and add several pieces of split shot for some unknown reason.  But I try to listen, and in his learning, I learn as well.  

Everyone who knows me as an angler should know that my favorite type of fishing is predator fishing.  Give me Esox whenever available.  Pickerel, northern pike, muskellunge.  These are the fish that have my whole heart.  

I’ve instilled this in my son.  River will gladly and readily fish for anything that swims, god bless him, but given the choice of venue he’ll usually ask me to take him to The Pickerel Palace.  This is a small, weedy pond near us here in Willington that is infested with pickerel.  

“Esox, they’re like dinosaurs, Dad,” he tells me.  I agree.  And who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

When tasked with doing a class presentation project on a wild animal, River naturally chose the pickerel.  He studied them, he wrote up a report about them, and we printed a number of pictures to use as visual aids.  When it was time, he dressed up in his suit and tie and presented his findings to his class.  

“Esox, they are dangerous fish”, he said.  “Like dinosaurs!  Look at their teeth!”

We both love the perceived violence of the Esox fish.  We like their teeth, their aggression.  We love the places they live, slow flowing rivers and warm water ponds.  Their hiding places, deep weed beds, downed timber.  They move in our minds like silent menaces, and when we find them while fishing we are one with that menace and we connect with something different inside ourselves.  

All humans are animals, after all.  And in Esox fishing, one can connect with the deep places where the luxury and softness of modern life is stripped away.  We become the hunting predators we once all were.  And in Esox fishing, the predator chases the predator and we’ll see who comes out on top.

Last Fall, when River was turning 10, I decided it was time to expand his predator fishing and get him off The Pickerel Palace and on some better waters.  Waters where I hoped to help put him on his first northern pike.  To this effect, I reached out to my friend Steve Pogodzienski.

Steve is a pike guide and friend who has taught me more than anyone else about fishing for predators.  It was time for me to call in the big guns and get River in touch with a fish that would gladly eat a Pickerel.  But first, Steve and I had to talk strategy.

It had been a remarkably wet summer and the river we planned to fish had been on a rollercoaster.  Huge storms regularly dropping inches of rain that made flows impossible to fish for long periods of time.  Impossible to fish, and for fish to even eat.  

This worked for us in a sense.  We would have to watch the flows as summer gave way to fall.  And we would have to find a relatively dry period where the river would drop to an acceptable level for a float.  Steve told me that when a window opens up and the flow is right, those fish will eat.  I believed him fully.

I knew River would relish the chance to go fishing with Dad and Steve on a serious trip, and I wanted to make sure he had a shot at catching a fish.  We timed it perfectly, and we hit the water in early October during a window that was wide open.  At the launch, my son was a ball of excited energy.  He was ready to go.  He had so many ideas about what would work, and he brought a number of his own personal lures to use.

He was excited that I got to use my fly rod.  When we fish, generally I do more guiding and less fishing, as it should be.  And he notices this.  A wise friend had once told me you could be a dissatisfied angler or a satisfied guide depending on how you approached fishing with your child.  I chose wisely there, but today I wouldn’t need to guide since we had Steve.

Our plan was to get on the board with some bass fishing.  River is a very good bass angler, and I wanted to make sure he connected with at least one fish on the day.  I told Steve as much. He decided to work us up into a backwater cove off the main river that Steve knew held bass.  Before we entered he told me, “Throw your fly up in the mouth there.  Pike will post up just outside these coves sometimes.”

I did.  And a solid pike literally left the water trying to eat my fly.  I was a bit rusty, I panicked and trout-set.  The line was limp.  We all knew then, as the water’s surface calmed from the eruption and I cursed at myself inside, that the window was indeed wide open.  A good sign.  No more than 20 minutes into our trip and I had an aggressive take.  

The cove itself was one of those deeply weeded places you just know hold warm water fish.  We discussed lures to use, and River had a series of suggestions.  Steve settled on a pink Slug-Go for River’s spinning rod.  I sat back and watched my boy get into the fishing, and he fished well.  The benefit of the pink Slug-Go was that we could all clearly see its darting glides through the cove.  

It was impossible to think the bait wouldn’t get River an eat.  Before long, I heard his small boy voice say, “Got 'em!”  He was on his first fish of the day.

He proceeded to pick a number of bass out of the cove as well as a giant crappie, and he was thrilled to do so.  As he released a particularly chunky largemouth he said, “Don’t go get eaten by a pike!”  He knows the food chain, and he knows who sits at the top.  I was proud of him.  With the skunk off, it was time to go look for pike.

I have to say, I rebounded nicely from the early miss.  I took a deep fish.  I had counted down the fly until it disappeared below the dark water, carried by a full sink line.  Once it felt down enough, I began to work it.  A ghostly strike.  There is a point in a deep retrieve with a pike fly where the whole thing suddenly gets a bit weird.  

You can’t feel anything, no slack, no fly, no line.  The rod just feels weird, fully empty.  What has happened here is that a pike has inhaled the fly.  Some unseen transaction has occurred and the lack of any feeling means the fish has eaten and moved towards you with the fly hopefully still in its mouth.  This is when you quicken the strips until your mind’s eye tells you, “Now.  Strip set!”

This doesn’t always work out, but it did this time and the strip set placed the iron in the jaw.  After a brief fight, we had our first pike of the day.  It was a great moment to share with River, and Steve.  River had never seen a northern pike first-hand.  This clearly fired him up and I could tell he wanted one of his own.

Shortly after, I got another eat.  This one on top, like the first that I had missed.  The fish materialized only one strip off the bank, below some overhanging tree limbs, and swirled the fly.  I waited, nicely, and set hard.  We had a second pike.  As we admired and released the fish, River suggested maybe he should try a different lure.

He had won a swimbait in a charity raffle.  I don’t know a damn thing about swimbaits, but I asked around.  It was a 3:16 bait and apparently retailed for $150.  This perfect bait for pike fishing he refused to cast, due to the potential financial impact of losing it. “What about jerk baits?,” he said. “ Maybe they’d eat a perch looking lure, Dad?”

We considered this but collectively decided that the Slug-Go would be the best bet.  A properly tied pike fly with a Buford-style head behaves just like a Slug-Go.  That side-to-side sway, so sexy in the water.  Steve and I felt it best to keep the soft-plastic on, for now.  The window was open, and we were scoring fish with my presentation on the fly rod.  The Slug-Go acted like the flies I was using so we stuck with it.  We fished on.

It got slow, and I could tell River was tired.  We had woken and left early, and through the afternoon we had fished hard.  He sat for a while, quiet, had a snack.  Did some more fishing, reeled behind his back for shits and giggles, bombed casts, kept fishing.  But the early luck had run dry.  

I was fishing the B sides of the water, when I was fishing at all, gladly giving River the preferred lies.  I really enjoy just watching him fish, and I wanted him to get a pike.  I already had a pair.

As his energy level dropped even lower, we anchored up on a long slow bend in the current with a dying weed bed on the inside edge.  “Ok, little buddy,” I said. “Let’s make it happen.”.  

After hours with the pink Slug-Go, he was determined to try a new approach.  He rummaged in his backpack for a lure that had come in his Mystery Tackle Box that month.  He held up a two-inch rubber paddle tail grub in a sunfish pattern. 

“This is the one,” he said.

“Are you sure, buddy?,” I answered. “That one?”  I sort of looked at Steve side-eyed here.  It was just a little thing, definitely a decent little bass bait, but Steve could tell how bad I wanted him to get a pike and this selection didn’t seem to fit the bill.  I pulled back, and placed trust.  

“Ok, if you say so,” I relented in a sigh.  It wouldn’t work, I thought, but he had faith.  Steve tied the tiny lure on to a length of bite tippet.  

Now at this weed bed, he insisted I fish as well.  No more sitting around, Daddy.  We’re on a fishing trip!  So, both of us went to work on the weed bed.

I knew there was a fish there, and I felt pretty certain I was going to get it since he was forcing me to fish and I felt pretty confident in my presentation by this point.  These pike, I knew they were eating.  River pitched the weighted bait into the weeds.  I started to work slightly downstream of them.

On a pike float, when it comes, it just mesmerizes the whole boat.  And suddenly, it came.  River made his usual utterance, “Got ‘em.”  I turned to watch, was this a snag?  

I saw motion in the weed bed, something was there.  He had a decent amount of line out, and the bend in the rod told me this was a decent fish.  I thought it was a good bass.  But then I saw it flash in the water as it ran, free of the weeds.  No, this was a pike.  It got serious, real quick.

He fought that fish well, gave it no chance really, and licked it quick.  He did well, and we all began screaming when the pike was netted.  “What’d you catch!?,  I yelled.”

“LET’S GO!,” he screamed back.  “I caught a ginormous pike on a lure that my Dad didn’t think would work!”

They know, they always know.  What we show them we must show wisely as they are always seeing and always learning.  We must trust them to follow but walk on their own two feet.  We must tread carefully as they will certainly follow.  When we’re too tired, they’ll carry us as we would them.  But it is best that we walk together.  We must trust them and trust ourselves to teach well and learn hand in hand.  

River’s fish was bigger than either of the two I had caught.  A proud moment for me, watching Steve hand him the fish.  He knew how to slide his hand below its gill to grip the bony structure there.  He supported it and grinned for the photos.  Steve held the fish up current and we all watched it regain its strength.  

We grew quiet.  He called it a dinosaur.  The beautiful fish steadied itself.  “I told you that that was a good idea,” he whispered.

“You know, I’m not gonna lie…,” I couldn’t finish as I broke out laughing.  

Steve said through his own laughter, “I know.  I know.  I saw you watching him.”

We retired the lure, and now it was his turn to sit back and watch me.  He had an unforgettable look on his face.  Now, not to toot my own horn, but with the monkey off his back I felt free to get as many more as I could.  The window was clearly still open.  So I did, and ended the day with four pike, but who's counting really?  River didn’t get another one on the pink Slug-Go, but we surely weren’t fishing the two-inch paddle tail.  That lure is up on his bookshelf right now.

As we drove home, he fell soundly asleep in the seat beside me.  The cool fall air outside, the warmth of the car’s heater within, a belly full of fast food.  Maybe he dreamed of dinosaurs?  When I finally slept, I didn’t dream of nothing but the wisdom and faith of a child.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

ocular violence

Editor's Note: Chad Wilde is a gifted writer and good friend. From time to time, I am fortunate to showcase his work here on The Connecticut Yankee. This is the second of a three-story series. Thanks for taking time to read it. 

At the theater, there is a marked feeling of anticipation.  Gatherings, and rustling.  Meeting one another, before the show, below the marquee with the light above glowing down to announce the attraction.  For us, the theater is the boat launch on the Housatonic River, and soon we’ll be seated for the show.  A pike float.

There, among our stretched lives, are moments that bond relationships.  These moments, our classics, are forged from our shared passions and our enactment of them together.  Our summa’s and alphas.  Our omegas.  And when the codas of our lives swim into focus and the sounds of the world hush to everything, we are left with nothing else to hear.  

We find our places, as Pogo engages the jet and the boat departs upriver from which we will begin the float.  We enter and take our places in the house.  And at the theater, we speak to one another.  

The early part of the drift is the gathering, the excitement and anticipation.  Discussions of the players in these events to come, the sheer drama of them.  We catch up, we don’t see each other often, and our chatter is warm.  We are excited.  

Me and Aaron, we aren’t exactly slouches, we’re not great either, but we pass the mustard, so Pogo has little actual guiding to do save the navigation of the boat.  This is finding your seat; and preparing for the performance to come there in the theater of our minds.  Getting comfortable.  

As the drift progresses, there comes less conversation, more anticipation, a heightened focus since it is going to happen.  A nice quiet, not uncomfortable.  And in the draining of sounds there, we kick back and luxuriate.  The only sound left, the subtle stroke of the oars through the water.  Here, we get ready for the show, we begin fishing with concentration.

And afterwards we maybe look to each-other, those who attended the same events, those in the know who have heard the same sounds, seen the same sights, and we may say: Did you see that?  Our classics.

We collectively lower voices, our breaths bated, as the lights flicker on and off.  And then the lights go down gently as the curtain waves from some bustling behind.  And there, in the calm quiet of it all, the curtains finally open and all murmurs hush.  The music begins.

And the setting is the very end of the Berkshires, the rolling green hills, the deep bends in the river as it cuts through southern New England.  The laydowns, old deadwood, the edges of weed beds, the slow motion of the current.  The clay banks, where small birds nest and flitter from, off across the fields below the hills.  It is a lovely stage, well set.  

Punching the pike fly up tight, a good cast.  Soft advice; rod tip in the water, from the director.  The tan fly sinks into the flow through a slow three-count and the show truly now begins.  The fly quarters out on the first strip, teases and curtsies.  The curtain, it begins to draw apart.

Three strips in and 18-inches deep the articulated fly takes a perceptible alteration of path following downstream just where the drop off falls to channel, it is still visible.  And it kicks as the strip is ready to pull again on my fingers, and the curtain is fully open.

The fly speaks its preamble.  I am femme-fatale, I am deathly pale in the tannic water.  I am the damsel, dancing.  I am distress.  Drunk athletic and loose of limb.  I am the dying baitfish, it says.  Come take me.

A classic.  One you can talk about years later.  The performance, itself.  Heading into a show, you know the players.  You know whose presence and action on the stage will set the memory.  And you wait for the climactic moment, the chaos of reveal.  The moment the antihero appears guns blazing and the fight kicks in.  John Fucking Wick and Jesse Fucking James.  Perfect choreographing of the dance.  The fly; retrieved and briefly figure-eighted below the gunwales.  

Plots, they never thin.  They only thicken.  And the more often the fly pulls from the water, into the back cast, and then shot out to the bank to repeat its shifting flow into the retrieve, the more this plot does thicken.  Each new spot we pull up on, this is the scene for the climax.  This is the place.  

The silence of the theater.  The hiss of the fly line, rhythmic through two back casts, and then the longer, sibilate sound of it shooting through the guides and perfectly tucked tight to the target, here an upstream blowdown.  All gnarled tree limbs and crags disappearing below the bourbon-colored water.  A perfect spot.  A perfect cast.

The director, from the rower’s seat, speaks quietly, saying, Nice.  The highest of compliments.  And the dance begins.  

Come take me, I am failing here, I am swimming but I tire.  See how I palpitate and quiver.  I turn tenderly, expose myself to you that follows: the antihero hidden.  The following star.  The fly is irresistible.  And it is now time.  That which we have come to see enters the stage.

A Northern Pike in perfect profile arching and engulfing the fly from behind, just as you prepped to take the next strip of the line, and when you are in best contact with the fly.  And you watch the moment of grace.  The ocular violence occurs before your widening eyes.  The show has begun.  The flash of its movement, when all that it is, its purpose revealed, is just mouth and teeth and eat.  That hit is like a drug, and addicts find addicts.  Imperceptibly, we all see the show go down.  We share.

Something has happened.  There it is.

This pike has taken the fly with an incredible urgency, and once taken it seems to pause in the mind’s eye.  It does pause there, ponderously.  All the world gone but this and you saw it all with your own two eyes.  Internally, a gasp choked back as you prepare for the drama.  

The fish turns, it moves back upriver to the blowdown from which we are drifting.  And your strip set hits perfect, this time, and the line goes ever so tight.  The rod tip leaves the water arching and bending to the opposing weight.  There it is, you say aloud, a rapt audience.  The fight is on.  

Then, the head shakes.  It makes desperate runs.  It is a brawling fight.  A remarkably long minute, if that.  It’s longer if you get a hot one.  You do what you can to land the fish.  It is apex hunting.  Big game hunting.  It doesn’t always work out.  There are sad classics after all.  The drama, the plot, is thick.

Every predator fish risen, is a great thing and to land them is electric.  And in that electricity, you can meld yourself to other people privy to the same surging current.  

The space between happy classic and sad classic is razor thin.  For all of us.  You are looking for it, that connection with a predator.  You all are.  You want the ocular violence so badly and you are so grateful when it comes.  This can weld steel between us, either way.  

It doesn’t happen every time, a great show.  But the activity of taking in the culture more than makes up for viewing a so-so production.  But not this time, this one is a classic.

Pogo has the net ready as the fish boils the surface and makes a run below the boat.  Leaning into its performance, you give but make the fish earn it.  Its tail sweeping it away below the visibility line.  Then, back to view, and spent.  On its side slightly, but always, you know, it is gathering its strength to run again.  The show has to end.  The net slides under and once contained, the fish kicks violently against its hold, all gnashing and swirling.  But beaten there.  

At those climax moments, when we sit on the edge of the seat and wait for the resolution, we are all indebted emotionally in this show.  Invested.  Years later, in our easy chairs, together we clink our glasses and toast to the true classics, we lean in towards each other and ask, “Do you remember that?”

Another show has run the course.  The boat’s comfortable silence is replaced by our applause and adulation for the performance.  With plyers, removing the hook from the corner jaw.  Holding it, the memory, in a standing acclimation as the flashbulb pops and it is preserved for memorialization.  

The hero bows.  Placated, and spent.  You hold its tail with a hand below to support its belly.  You hold it upstream until the languid sweep and kick of the fish tells it is strong enough to be taken away from you, for now.  And it slowly moves off from your hands, it dreamily disappears.  Back stage again, heading right back to the blowdown from whence it came.  And you swish your hands in the cool brown water.

Standing back up, in ovation, grinning, asking:

Did you see that?  At the curtains close.