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. 

Monday, September 11, 2023

Triathlon Bass

While there was no swimming or running involved, this lazy man’s triathlon did have its share of driving, cycling, and walking. An end-of-summer fishing adventure with a good amount of time and energy expended to reach a chosen spot; effort that would pay off in spades just a few casts in.  

Wearing wetsuits and standing in water 50-yards from shore on a dark night, it was challenging not to think about the plethora of brown sharks that chomped striped bass catches all over Long Island Sound this summer. Jim, the trip planner and my host for the night, started with a live eel. I opted for a lure that punched through the light breeze to reach the dying current, which was going from right to left around a rocky point with an ebb tide.

This lure was an Xplorer, the brainchild of a talented angler and plug builder named John Stirpe. Made of resin with a portion of its core being urethane foam, it is a unique and versatile floating swimmer that digs on a fast or slow retrieve, flashing a super realistic paintjob. It was gifted to me by my pal Eddie, a fellow fishing and artifact junkie from Massachusetts. He has fooled a number of plus-size striped bass over the past few seasons on Xplorers. Knowing I had coveted one for some time, Eddie generously mailed me a plug from his personal stash with the understanding that I would fish it hard.

Our first casts came right after full darkness set in. I was aiming to about 1:30 on a clock face. On my second cast, my lure had just splashed down and something whacked it, even before I had a chance to put my braid on the line roller. A good omen no doubt and I hollered to Jim to give him a heads up. While retrieving the very next cast, a fish slammed the Xplorer and immediately thrashed around on the surface. It then made a bee line right at me and I reeled furiously to stay in contact. When the bass realized it was hooked, she did an about face and flexed her muscles, peeling an impressive amount of line in the process.

This was the biggest test yet for my 'Montauk Eel Rod,' a Lamiglas blank cut and wrapped in 2015 by a friend and expert rod builder, Billy DiLizio. A rod soft enough to throw and feel lighter offerings, yet with enough balls to put the screws to big striped bass, which is exactly what I was doing in this moment for fear of having it bitten in half by the taxman. A strong fish, but beaten pretty quickly and still green when my Boga Grip clasped its lower lip.

In the faint beam of my headlamp, the bass did its best planking impression just under the surface, allowing me to snap a half decent photo with the Xplorer still in its jaw. Before letting her go, I lifted the fish quickly out of the water and watched the numbers on the scale drop to a hair below the 36 mark. This was a notable catch for me in a few ways. It was the largest striped bass I had caught in years, the largest ever landed on that particular rod, and my largest ever using an artificial lure. Stoked doesn’t begin to describe it. Do I wish I had gotten a better photo? Yes, but there was no good way to document it without bringing the fish to shore and risking its health and possibly missing out catching other fish. I took solace in how strong she bolted away for deeper water.

The fish were there as soon as we arrived, and likely before that, though they seemed to vacate the boulder field soon after, as the moving water grinded to a halt. Jim ended up losing what felt and sounded like another big bass on an eel and I had one more hit on the swimmer. That was it, though we kept trying for a while before the long walk, pedal, and drive back. My partner was on vacation and could have kept fishing for another 12 hours, but I had to be presentable at work the next morning. Still, I wouldn’t have changed anything. I floated on air the whole way home and for some time after. 

That was a memorable fish and experience, and I am grateful for the many cool pieces that came together to make it possiblefrom Jim organizing the trip, to Billy wrapping the rod, to John building the plug, to Eddie mailing it to my door. One of the greatest things about fishing is, you just never know what is going to happen on any given outing.