Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sunset Blues

If there was ever a perfect time to be boat fisherman, it is during the dog days of summer when the relentless heat has most striped bass and bluefish hanging in deeper water. Surf fishing has been brutal as of late around here, so when a friend asked if I was up for a boat ride after work I jumped at the chance. 

Pods of bunker have been getting slashed by bluefish not far to our east, with striped bass underneath cleaning up the mess. As we approached a known bunker hangout, two boats boats were drifting with their own pod of the nervous baitfish. Big blues were cutting through balls of bait, sending bunker leaping out of the water left and right. An all-out massacre was going on and the sound of thousands of bunker moving in unison to avoid a sudden attack was intense. We picked a school and proceeded to snag and live-line them. As soon as a bunker was hooked and tossed back into the thick of things, it was instantly ripped to shreds. The only time we weren't catching was when the boat drifted too far from the chaos, and then we'd just motor back into position again. For an hour and a half this went on right until last light. While we didn't land any bass, one unlucky bunker came back to the boat mangled and lacking teeth marks--a sure sign that it had been crunched by a striper. It didn't much matter; with a bloody boat and a smiling crew, the hard fighting bluefish were were more than enough to keep us content.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Spring Flick

Better late than never. My buddy Derrick and I finally made time to weed through and edit the hours of footage that we filmed this spring. The finished product is a nine minute video that we hope you enjoy watching as much as we enjoyed putting together. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Block Run

With a new moon phase, subsiding ocean swell and solid Block Island reports, Derrick and I headed east to the Ocean State on I-95.  We met a good friend and freshly minted boat Captain, Mike Roy, in Narragansett, Rhode Island.  Mike is renting a cottage there for the month of July, down the street from Point Judith Lighthouse and the Port of Galilee.  This is not a 'relaxing on the beach' type of vacation - Mike fishes hard at night and sleeps during the day.  When Derrick and I arrived, his wetsuit was still drying from the previous night of tough surf fishing.  His 21-foot Steigercraft sits on a trailer outside, ready for a Block run at a moment’s notice, and that's exactly what we were there for on this night.  We didn’t waste any time, loaded up the boat and shipped off at high slack tide.

A fly combo amongst the Van Staals for good measure

An off-shore system had churned up big swells for the past few days, and the small craft advisory ended only two hours before launching.  The swell was still there, but nothing in comparison to the day before we were told.  There was a steady 10 knots of SSW wind and small patches of fog, yet it was a beautiful, dark night.  The ride over to the fabled waters surrounding Block Island took one half hour.  We focused on the western and southern sides of the Island, where Mike had marked piles of stripers on his fish-finder earlier in the day.  The plan of attack was two fold: cast artificial lures towards the surf line and drift weightless live eels in deeper water.  We spent more time on the latter since conditions prevented us from getting too close to the Island. 
So many choices, so little time

The fishing was stellar right off the bat.  Mike's electronics were lit up like a Christmas tree in 20 feet of water.  As soon as your line came tight with the eel, the classic bump of a bass could be felt vibrating through the braided line.  Soon there were drags singing and fancy footwork from three happy anglers.  The highlight of the night came early - 60 pounds of striped bass on the boat - a triple hook up of 20-pound class fish.
Sixty pounds of striped bass and a poor excuse for a self-timed shot

We thought it was the start to an epic night, but it was not to be.  We fished an entire tide and unfortunately the action was anticlimactic.  Don't get me wrong - a steady pick of bass was had all night, but the first hour was hot and heavy.  If the body of fish we were into was any larger, it could have been a blockbuster night.  All told, we boated more than 20 stripers between the three of us, with largest in the neighborhood of 26-pounds.  With bass up to 64-pounds taken from this area the same week, we had high hopes for some cows.  That said, we experienced a classic night around Block Island, only witnessing three other boats and a handful of surfcaster's headlamps on shore. 

This bass couldn't resist the eel-skin popper

The ebbing tide died shortly before 4 AM and we opted to start the long trek home instead of tossing top-water plugs at first light.  The swell was long gone by this time, and we had a nice smooth ride back to the mainland.  We thanked Mike for the great night and wished him luck for the remainder of his stay.  There are trophy bass lurking every corner of that Island, and one night soon he just may hook into one.  Derrick and I polished off two Red Bulls during the ride home amongst the morning commuters.  He dropped me off and I grunted thanks like a caveman and slid immediately into bed.  Four short hours later, here I am recapping the Block Run, only wishing to do it all over again.  Tight lines...

High-hook of the night, but relatively small for Block standards

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sound Check

With my brother in town from San Diego, our friend hosted us for an evening cruise on Long Island Sound aboard his 25-foot Sea Ray. In lieu of a fuel charge, the Captain requested fresh bunker for resetting his lobster traps. There was a steady blow out of the southeast that kicked up a decent chop, which made it difficult to swig beer without fear of chipping a tooth. From the harbor we ran a few miles east to check the first batch of traps that yielded the only two lobsters of the trip; one short and one fresh-molted keeper that were both thrown back. The other traps were far from empty, just not harboring the species we were after. We had starfish by the bucket loads, scup, black sea bass, a keeper blackfish, bait-stealing spider crabs, and giant conch shells. 

A legal-sized tautog, or blackfish, caught in a lobster trap
The traps were reset with cut up bunker pieces placed in onion bags. Another check after a two-night soak may produce a tasty lobster dinner, but that's becoming more of a rarity ever since a major die-off in 1999. The trap locations are in proven grounds, but competition is strong and the lobster populations are weak. Many factors are at play, but warming water temperatures is just the latest culprit of the lobster's demise from these waters. It is sad times for Long Island Sound lobsters and those that make a living off them. But it was an awesome evening on the water, especially for my brother who had not experienced a trip like that in a long time.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Road Trip

One Jeep, two anglers, three sleepless nights, and 750-miles; that about sums up the Cape Cod binge that I'm still recovering from. Feeling ambitious, my fishing partner and I planned to hit three unique Cape fisheries: the fabled outer beaches, the expansive Bay-side flats and the striper superhighway that is the Canal. 

You can spend decades targeting and mastering these areas; we only had 72 hours. The prime window would have been early June, but a thing called life got in the way and late June it was. And while we gave each location the old college try, it was the 17-mile long Canal won over most of our time. 

Eel-skin plugs held prominent spots in our surf bags

We arrived to my aunt and uncle's house in Sandwich on Sunday evening to a grilled chicken dinner, which would be the start of an over-the-top showing of hospitality that would come our way during the trip. We pitched our tents in the backyard and hit a grocery store for the essentials, most notably Red Bull and Snickers bars. We were soon driving east on Route 6 to the famous striper hunting grounds of Truro and Provincetown.  We had a decent blow coming in from the southwest, so the outer beaches were pond-like and the Bay had the fishy surf conditions we all love. We hammered both sides and threw everything in the surf bags, but nothing more than the Cape staple, needlefish.  As good as the surf reports had been only two weeks prior, and as crazy as the off-shore action still is, the immediate area was devoid of life - no bait, no blues, and most importantly, no striped bass. As symbolic as those miles of sandy beaches are to surfcasting, we left with a bad taste in our mouths and decided to try something we've never done before - fish the Cape Cod Canal. There are several effective ways to pull quality striped bass from the Big Ditch, but it's mostly about personal preference, as they all take good fish at times.  Little did we know, we would soon learn years worth of knowledge in just a few days.

Pencil popping at first light is a Canal staple

We stepped foot on the rip rap of the Canal for first time during false dawn Monday morning.  There were anglers lining the banks on both sides every 50 yards, giving  us confidence we chose a good starting point. Everyone was throwing top-water plugs, the vast majority in green mackerel patterns.  Small bass were busting the surface out of casting range and terns were working overhead.  The anglers on the other side had a better crack and we could see a few being landed.  During the middle of one retrieve, Derrick pointed to my right and yelled, " there!"  I look over to see a large bass tail-slap a mackerel clear out of the water.  I flip a cast a mere 30 feet from my perch and had a bass smacked it twice, somehow avoiding two treble hooks each time.  Derrick's plug landed right behind mine and his pencil popper was instantly tail-slapped a few feet in the air.  Our next casts to the same area came up empty and two shots at a good fish had already slipped away.  With the sun getting higher, we soon retreated to headquarters and attempted to sleep in our already-hot tents.

After experiencing both the barren surf and the teaming Canal in the same night, we made the decision to focus more time on the latter.  We needed supplies and a basic primer that the articles we've read couldn't give.  We headed to a respected Canal shop, spent some coin and asked for some fresh intel.  A fellow behind the counter got wind that we were up from Connecticut.  It turns out he'd been on the Cape for the last 15 years, but had lived and fished hard in the Nutmeg State before that.  After BS'ing for an hour, he invited us to tag along with him later that night after his shift - jackpot!  We met Stan at the predetermined location around last light.  One glance at his set up and you could see he was a true Canal rat.  He had a classic Canal cruiser rigged with a PVC rod holder.  His conventional rod and reel were stout enough to tame a trophy bass in the Canal's strong currents.  His modest plug bag held only swimming plugs and few bucktail jigs.  Stan's preferred method of Canal fishing was to crawl plastic swimmers in the current, matching the mackerel and herring profiles perfectly.  Stan would soon prove its deadly effectiveness - over the next two nights, he landed a pile of fish, including one in the 40-pound class.     

'Stan the Man' with a nice striper caught on a hard-plastic swimmer

While giving us an extensive tour, Stan pointed out current seems and deep holes where stripers use the structure to their advantage.  He cut our learning curve incredibly and we owe him for the success that would soon follow.  Standing 20 yards apart tossing trusty Bombers, Derrick hooked up first and I followed suit only seconds later.  The fish on my line was bigger, but they all feel good in the current.  My drag was locked down and it was a stalemate for a brief period until I got the fish close enough to see me.  It wanted none of that and immediately peeled line, making me lose my footing in the process.  Derrick landed and released his keeper-sized bass and came over to lend a hand.  My first Canal striper was soon at my feet and we got a quick weight and photo before the release. 

My first striped bass from the Canal

Now it was D's turn. During a slow retrieve close to the bank, a huge fish inhaled his black Bomber and pushed an insane amount of water. This was unmistakably a very large striper and took him deep instantly. She had reached that size for a reason, and had no intentions of being subdued that night either.  After a blistering run, his line went slack and we all hung our heads. Under close inspection, his plug was mangled. A brand new VMC treble hook had been ripped clean off and the other was straightened out. A number of things could have went wrong, but the fish got the upper hand and we were all left to wonder just how big she really was.  Though that was a major blow, we kept at it knowing all to well there were some cows grazing that night.  A few more fish were landed and lost, but nothing anywhere close in size. We thanked Stan profusely and knew we'd see him again the next night at the same stretch. It was time for a three hour nap before the next portion of our trip: sight fishing the Bay-side flats.
We would have loved to see the bass that mangled Derrick's Bomber

It was last July when we got hooked on the flats. Sight fishing for cruising stripers in shallow water is a rush. Last year's cold wet spring prolonged the striper's stay in this area.  We were cautiously optimistic that we would find similar conditions, since we arrived a few weeks earlier this year.  With this kind of fishing, the sun is your friend, fog is your enemy and tide is the sneaky bastard you have to keep an eye on.  More than a few good surfcasters have lost their lives out there.  To give you an idea of how it works, we walk out over a mile into Cape Cod Bay with a dropping tide, fish hard until about an hour and a half into the low incoming tide, and walk back as it rises.  You have about a three hour window of fishing, longer if you have a kayak or a set of brass balls. 

Armed with 10-weight fly rods, intermediate lines and boxes full of sand eel and crab patterns, we pushed out with the ebbing tide.  The sun was still low and hiding behind passing clouds, which made sighting anything difficult.  There were no shortage of sand eels in the water, but there was a noticeable lack of crabs compared to last year.  When we reached the aqua green line of deeper water, we saw no fish, unlike our last trip when there were literally hundreds of darting gray shadows against the light sand.  We kept thinking it would pick up as the sun crept higher, improving our visibility.  A total of five stripers were seen and only a few casts were made.  Derrick had a good one follow his fly, but that was it.  The flats scene to me was a major part of this road trip and it was a bummer to get shut out.  Again it was not ideal timing; we missed the prime window by a few weeks, just like the outer beaches and the Canal.   

First light over Cape Cod Bay

We spent the remainder of the day relaxing, wolfing down seafood and tossing top-water plugs in the Canal.  Hope was still high for a repeat performance of the night before.  We arrived at last light again, only to find Stan smiling about a great bass he just let go.  If we had been there five minutes earlier, we could have snapped a quality photograph of him with a 40-pound striper - a small payment for him taking us under his wing.  Instead we looked at grainy cell phone pics of him wrestling the fish on the bank.  However, the sun hadn't fallen completely behind the tree line yet and a 40 was already released.  It was going to be an epic night - or so we thought.  Stan and his co-worker landed a few small bass and dropped some others.  D and I had some hits, one which slammed my Bomber, but they all got off.  After fishing an entire tide with nothing to show for it, we hit the tents and actually slept for more than three hours.  We took our time getting up and half-heartedly hit the Canal mid-morning before a goodbye brunch with our gracious hosts. 

This $6 RonZ soft-plastic was renered useless by bluefish teeth after just one drift

After a short three-night stay, we packed up the Jeep and crossed the Sagamore Bridge for the last least for a few months.  We'll be back for some fall run action and hopefully our timing is a little better.  After driving over the Canal hundreds of times and reading about it for years, I'm glad we finally had the chance to scratch the surface on what could be a long love affair.  The Cape Cod Canal is to surfcasters today what the outer beaches were in the 50's, 60's and 70's.  These last few years in the Canal may very well be looked back on as the new 'glory days'.  Future generations may think of this period of Canal fishing as my generation does about the outer beach days of Woolner and Daignault.  Our crew is just at the tip of the iceberg with this fishery, but everyone has to start somewhere.  We were given a great starting point and now must put our time in.