Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Night Prowlers

Instead of the original plan of targeting pike on Sunday, we tagged along with some diehards who were dialed in on a walleye bite. We were excited to fish a new venue, especially with anglers who've had success there in recent past.  This beautiful, natural lake resides within a large Connecticut state park. The water is gin clear here, with 28-feet of visiblity during the summer.  The lake also has plentiful forage for walleye to fatten up on. 

Since walleye predominately feed in low or no-light conditions, we decided to target the late afternoon and evening hours.  Getting up at 3 AM to be on the water for first light was out, which was a nice for a change. Instead, we met at the lake at 1:00 PM and had ample time to set up before the onset of dusk.  The diehards we accompanied were pulling yet another all-nighter, but our crew had obligations that would send us packing earlier (a little too early we would later find out).

The rain over the previous two nights turned out to be a double-edged sword.  It helped us by melting the ice's snow cover, easing the pull of our gear-filled sleds.  It hurt us by eating away some of the safe ice too, creating small open holes in some areas that can be difficult to detect in darkness.  I will be honest in saying that the walk out was a little hairy.  After some uneasy moments, we ended up making a B-line for the shoreline and hugged land for the rest of the walk out and the entire walk back.  For the rest of the outing we fished in comfort however, as our campsite was situated over four inches of strong, black ice.   

Our arrival hours before dusk allowed us to relax, drill holes, set our traps, and get ready for jigging--all before the so-called magic hour of last light.  For night fishing, our tip-ups are equipped with red lights that blink when the bait is tripped.  These lights let us watch for flags from a distance, keeping noise within our spread to a minimum.  Using the gas auger, I drilled plenty of extra holes on the outskirts our traps, which we used to jig for walleye.  We tipped our lures with the heads of minnows and small wax worms, but our sonar fish-finders remained quiet through the night, marking no interested quarry. 

Even if the fish weren't going to feast, we certainly were. Our hosts brought a Coleman grill and a one-burner as well.  Both groups brought an abundance of food, ranging from left-over prime rib to spinach and broccoli-filled pierogies. Hot food on a cold night surely enhances the ice fishing experience. The search is still on though, for a newer Coleman that can actually last an entire session without freezing up. They don't make them like they used to. 

Although that night was relatively wind-free and the temperatures were bearable, it was still nice to have shelter to retreat to for a break from the elements.  A warm cup of coffee and a quick burst from the propane heater and you feel like a new man. 

The action wasn't fast and furious by any means, but there were undoubtedly trophy fish roaming the area that night.  Our crew went 0 for 3 on flags, but we can't say we didn't have our chances.  Our hosts however, put three walleye on the ice that night, two of which were very respectable fish.  The first was a dink, but it got the skunk of our backs.  The next, caught a few hours later, measured 28 inches long and weighed in the neighborhood of eight pounds.  The night would have been a complete success if their catching ended there, but it wasn't over just yet.

As the hour approached midnight, we reluctantly began picking up our traps one by one, knowing our hosts would be fishing for another 10 hours or so.  While packing up, I noticed one of my flags was up, but the light didn't activate.  Line had been taken out and there was weight on the other end.  I set the hook and connected with something heavy, but it just didn't feel right.  Who knows how long that flag was up for, but the clever walleye that tripped it, stole the bait and wrapped me around a 10-pound log that I brought to the hole.  My knots held up and I actually had to cut free the hook that was lodged into the water-logged wood.  It was an unpleasant way to end my night, knowing that I missed another opportunity.  The lesson learned was to always keep an eye on your flags, as all equipment can fail, even lights you bought only hours earlier. 

About twenty minutes into my long drive home, I received a message from one of our buddies, who was still on the ice. They had just iced a 32-inch, 13+pound trophy walleye. I could only laugh at that point, happy to have shared the ice with them that night, even having a shot at a fish of that caliber.  Keep in mind that the beast, which was released, was just shy of the 14.8-pound state record walleye that was caught 68 years earlier. Put your time in and you will be rewarded. Congrats, Dave & Deano, on two great fish!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Early Ice Pike

Over the course of two recent blustery days, good friends and I spent 24-hours targeting trophy pike through the ice. The lake, an old favorite of ours, locked up last week before the snowfall. By the time we walked on it, there was four-plus inches of black ice with a fresh coat of powder. This was still during what ice anglers term "first ice", but the weather pattern was far from ideal. A strong high pressure system had stalled over Connecticut and we were forced to deal with high winds and low temperatures. Our shelter and heater were worth their weight in gold for the two-day binge.

Ice fishing for pike is truly a waiting game, especially on notoriously stingy body of water like this one. Jigging for panfish on this particular lake isn't all that great either, so we usually kill time in between flags by keeping watch, cooking food, and the occasional swig brown booze.

When fishing with dead bait, if a flag goes up (and you have set your tip-up properly with any wind) you can almost rest assured that a fish was the culprit. So was the case with one of my traps on the first day of the excursion. The spool was spinning when I lifted it out of the hole and there was good weight on the other end as I set the hook. The pike ran at me twice and both times I thought had I lost it. This fish was well hooked though and wasn't coming off. After a good fight, my new personal best pike came through the hole, measuring 37-inches in length. It was not a trophy by any means, but a good fish worth a round of high fives.  After a few quick photos it was released to be caught again down the road. 

Five more pike between 30 and 33-inches were caught and released that day, but nothing really worth busting out the camera for. Still, six pike iced in one outing from this venue was an above average tally for us. With all that action, we should have guessed what we had coming to us the following day.

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson

The alarm clock went off at 3 AM for the second consecutive morning, but there was no time to be sore from the previous day. After another hour-plus drive, we arrived at the lake and dragged our heavy sleds a half mile over snow before reaching camp. The sun had already poked over the hills by the time our traps were all in the water. The only significant change in weather conditions was a temperature drop. The wind stayed the same with gusts up to 30 MPH.

The bite on day two started on a good note then went south quick.  For our first flag, Derrick fought and landed a respectable fish around the ten pound mark. Then things slowed to a crawl with a few more flags interspersed over the long outing. Our theory was that the strong high pressure system put the pike into a very finicky mood. Many of our baits were just mouthed and dropped without much commitment. The same proved to be true for others sharing the ice with us that day. But, hey, that's pike fishing; we all knew what we were signing up for. 

It was a great two-day excursion with awesome company, fantastic wallpaper, a few eagle fly-overs, a new personal best, and many laughs. This was our first real deal ice experience of the season and nice test from Mother Nature. Without some of the gear we lugged out there, it would have been a lot less comfortable out there that's for sure. I think we block out the memories when we ice fished without a shelter. Now we park the thing in the middle of the lake and there are times it feels like you could be in your living room drinking scotch next to the fire.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snowy Solstice

The winter solstice came in with a bang last night, bringing with it a storm that dumped more than a foot of snow here and over 20-inches just to our east. This storm had a 15:1 ratio, meaning that for every inch of rain it would've produced, it pumped out 15-inches of snow. It was a good old fashioned New England snow storm and during the heaviest of it three inches of white stuff came down per hour. The shoreline took the full brunt of this one, so the northwest hills of Connecticut, where I do most of my ice fishing, will be relatively snow-free and still easy to access. Ice anglers must take extra caution checking ice conditions after a fresh snowfall, as it can cover up holes and sketchy patches. Be careful out there and have fun!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

First Ice

A small pond in the northwest hills had about four inches of ice covering it. Knowing what this place could be like, expectations were not set all that high for our inaugural outing, but there was fishable ice and we were determined to get on it. Without many options for ice anglers in Connecticut, we knew this venue had the potential for a circus-like atmosphere. Sure enough there were six trucks already parked when we rolled up at 5 AM and another five anglers joined the melee shortly after, squeezing tip-ups in tight spots between groups already spread out. The pond resembled a mine field when the sun came up. 

The goal today was to shake the rust out from a long off season and have some fun doing it; catching any fish would be a bonus. Northern pike were our main target, as well as their main forage in this pond, golden pond shiners. While we didn't land either, a few others species showed up, including crappie, largemouth bass, bait-robbing pickerel, and some stunted yellow perch.

A low pressure system brought in some mixed precipitation, but we left before any uptick in action took place. The rising water levels and above-freezing temps ate away a decent amount of ice during our trip. I'm that ice or any ice in Connecticut will survive the weather over the next few days, but at least we'll have a fresh start when temperatures plummet again mid-week. There should be a few other venue options by the Holidays. In the mean time, it felt great to be back on ice and I'm looking forward to a productive winter.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Looking Back

As another year winds down, I thought it timely to revisit some memorable catches of the last 365 days. Highlights included checking off new species from my bucket list and gaining experience with new-to-me angling techniques. There were many firsts for me in 2009, including first walleye through the ice, first carp on the fly, first false albacore, and first sight-fished striped bass. I also had my first success while European nymphing, as well as good results while surf fishing in a wet suit. I am very fortunate to have seen and learned the things that I have this year. Here's to a great 2010!

Photo credit: Derrick Lambert

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson
Photo credit: Derrick Kirkpatrick
Photo credit: Derrick Kirkpatrick

Photo credit: Derrick Kirkpatrick

Photo credit: Dennis Yonan

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Herring Time

A friend and I stopped by a harbor in western Long Island Sound today and secured a healthy amount of Atlantic herring for the upcoming hardwater season. A light-tackle rod and reel with a Sabiki rig is all that's needed to catch this forage fish, which venture each winter from the Atlantic Ocean to several river mouths along the Sound. The long, slender baits were vacuum-sealed and packed in the freezer for targeting targeting northern pike through the ice. The herring were perfect size, mostly 10-12 inches, and should be hard to resist while dangling under a tip-up in a trophy pike lake. For now, think cold!