Saturday, January 27, 2024

First Ice, First Fish

Our footprints were the only ones on the lake aside from the coyote tracks we followed to our spot. It was a deliberate walk in single file, testing the ice in front of each step with whacks from a heavy steel chisel. There should have been more ice than there was, but a recent snow had slowed its growth and hid her imperfections. Even still, there was enough black ice under a grey layer to make us feel comfortable, and temps would be stuck in the 20s all day.

It was mighty good to be ice fishing again, but in the back of our minds we knew it was fleeting. Just like last season, it looked like we could be in for only a short window, so we had to make it count. That’s why we took the day from work and set our alarms for 3 a.m. It’s also why we brought more gear than we needed. What’s the point of owning all of this stuff if we don’t get to use it?

A flag went up just as snowflakes from a light system started to come down. Jeff noticed it first, standing tall on the farthest tip-up in my spread. The bait was a large fallfish that I had trapped in my home waters and vacuum-sealed almost two years before. It’s hard to describe the feeling when approaching a dead bait flag on a windless day. Suffice to say, it was exciting to look down and see a slow rolling spool with line off to the side.

With a firm tug on the Dacron, my hook found purchase in the maw of a hefty pike and the fight was on. Euphoria was soon replaced by despair when the tension went slack. The predator below had bolted toward the hole, fooling me into thinking I had lost her. Once I retrieved enough line to come tight again, our spirits lifted and the battle resumed in close quarters. The fish was still green when her jaw opened just enough for a plastic gripper, and we kept her in the water as we removed the hook and readied the camera.

When we pulled the entire fish from the hole, what struck me first was its color. It sported the darkest greens I had ever seen on an esox—just an absolutely gorgeous specimen, thick from head to tail, well on its way to becoming a true trophy. After quick photos and a measurement, she kicked away strong and cemented a memorable first-fish-of-the-year moment. Jeff and I were flying high for the rest of the outing and it set the tone for the ensuing days, which may or may not have been the last of the ice season. Time will tell.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Best Laid Plans

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." -Mike Tyson

It was the height of the fall run. A Friday in late October tailor-made for paid time off. The primary thing on my mind was false albacore. The goal of this trip was to catch my first of the season and, more importantly, my first ever from a kayak. By now, anglers had been getting their fill of little tunny locally for two months. I was not among them.

After losing the only albie I had hooked all season weeks earlier, I was eager to settle the score. Getting one in a kayak would wash away that feeling and more, but I had to put myself in a spot with high probability and that meant heading an hour east. Also in tow were blackfish gear and a bucketful of crabs. My thinking was to check-off the main target then pivot to tuatog. 

It sounded good on paper. 

I had fished the area before from shore, but not much by boat and never in my Hobie. Between advice from a friend and studying the Navionics app, I pieced together what seemed like a solid game plan. The sunrise was gorgeous and conditions were tranquil, at least to start. After pedaling out to where the cove opened up to Long Island Sound, I spotted the first telltale feed, a little tunny porpoising like a half-moon through the surface of the water. They were around and eating. What could go wrong? 

Well, anyone who has spent time targeting albies knows that some days it seems easy and other days they make you want to pull your hair out. It was definitely the latter on this outing. They were in sparse pods and popping up only intermittently. There were times they'd be on top and within range long enough for one cast, but no sustained feeds where you get multiple shots. It was challenging to dial in a pattern and they were eating microscopic bait that I couldn't identify. To round out my excuses, the flat calm conditions were ideal for spotting these fish, not catching them.

In the hours spent chasing, dozens of boaters motored by en route to their favorite rock piles. I eventually conceded and joined them, hoping to salvage the trip with a blackish limit. The conditions were evolving though: the tide flipped; the wind picked up; a chop developed. Anchoring in a safe manner proved difficult and pedaling against the current to stay planted above structure wasn't easy either. The scenario was perfect for spot-lock technology that I didn't have. Despite jigging up a handful of tog, none were close to keeper size and the expedition was starting to look like a bust. 

I had a hard stop in order to get back home in time for school dismissal. During the long pedal toward the launch, I scanned the area of the day's first albie sighting. Deteriorated conditions established a renewed confidence if I could only get within range one more time. As if the Fish Gods were throwing me a bone in the 11th hour, a small platoon of albies slashed on top about 20 yards off my bow. A few cranks of the reel handle after a well-placed cast and the line came tight. YAHTZEE!

A bundle of frustration and second guessing evaporated in that hookset. Battling a not-so-little tunny from a kayak was everything I expected and then some. Being low to the water and that close to the action was an awesome feeling. The fish made a few memorable runs and had me reaching the rod tip beyond the bow because it was changing directions so much. Throughout the fight, it was pure adrenaline. When it hit the net, it was immense relief. A really cool moment for me that almost didn't happen, but I'm sure glad it did. 

Just like I planned it. 

Thankful to get the hook-up and fight on film. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

Artificial Intelligence

I love everything about American eels. They are arguably the most effective and versatile bait when targeting striped bass. Many a book chapter, magazine article, and blog post have been written about their ability to entice stripers into gulping them down like candy. An eel was responsible for my largest bass ever landed and I’m sure the same can be said by countless anglers up and down the Striper Coast. 

For a long time now, lure makers have been trying to, with varying levels of success, duplicate the American eel’s shape, suppleness, and action. I have been fishing eels in nearly every fashion possible for as long as I can remember and don’t plan on giving them up entirely anytime soon. All that said, they are expensive, can be a pain to deal with, and are sadly becoming scarcer as the years tick by.  

Companies like Lunker City, Hogy, RonZ, Al Gag’s, Berkley were some of the OGs of my early days of fishing eel imitations, and they still make great baits today. However, it’s been intriguing to witness the arms race of long, slender soft-plastics come to market over the last 20 years. By names like Got Stryper, Game On!, Fish Snax Lures, JoeBaggs, Zinger Baits, and Gravity Tackle to name a few. There are limitless combinations of size, color, and rigging options available to today’s angler for nearly any situation they could encounter. So much so the choices can be overwhelming.

Over time, I have been building up my arsenal of soft-plastics and my confidence in using them. I am starting to find more consistency in my success and part of that can be attributed to selecting the right bait and rigging style to match the spot and its conditions on a given outing. Like in every kind of fishing that I do, it has been a fun, never ending journey of learning. The farther down this rabbit hole I go, the more I realize how much there is still to learn, explore, and experiment.

We’re on a loop. Enjoy the ride.

The author with a healthy striped bass that fell for a 13.5" GT eel rigged on a 1/2 oz. jig head.