Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Low Water Scouting

Governor Rell issued a drought advisory for the State of Connecticut last week. Many watercourses are at dangerously low levels and cold-water fish have been feeling the heat, literally. There are even reports about a 90% trout die-off in the Housatonic River. The recent soaking and cold front is a step in the right direction, but the region needs more where that came from.

At least one befefit to these conditions is being able to scout fish habitat that is usually underwater. Three of us took advantage of the situation and surveyed a local freshwater oasis that we frequent in autumn for trophy trout and walleye. Instead of fishing we combed the water's edge, which had dropped to where a good cast would have reached under normal conditions. The water level was at least 13 feet below normal, exposing countless crags where many a lure met its match. It was already well picked over when we arrived, but we still scraped together a decent sample of artifcial lures, as well as plenty of lead.

Some low-water finds (note the 'no-snagg' weight)

The most notable find, though, came in the form of a massive dead trout that washed ashore.  It was a seeforellen brown trout, a strain initially imported from Germany, which thrives in deep, cold lakes like this one.  Seeforellens can live to be 15 years old and have been captured in Western Europe up to 68 pounds.  Sadly, this specimen looked to be well its way to breaking the Connecticut brown trout record of 16 pounds 14 ounces.  We estimated the fish to be well over 12, probably in the neighborhood of 14 pounds.  It's not hard to connect the death to the drought conditions, but there is plenty of refuge in the depths here.  This beast had to be on in years, so death by natural causes can’t be ruled out either.

The smell was too bad to get a photo that did this trout justice

The low water also revealed the rocky makeup that makes it so welcoming to structure-oriented walleye.  Under the high-water line were erratic boulders, stone walls and old foundations.  Bait is in no short supply either.  The walleye and seeforellen, among other fish, thrive on its abundant population of illegally-introduced alewives.  Even so, the fishing is known to be notoriously stingy.  But knowing the size of the fish and how challenging it is to catch them keeps me going back.  Nevertheless, scouting missions like this always divulge new information and can improve angling success in the long run. 

The water's edge is normally above where my father (top) is standing

An old stone foundation within casting distance from shore

Friday, August 20, 2010

Roll of the Dice

To the ever-optimistic surfcaster, August can be a trying month more often than not. There are, however, certain pockets around the northeast that consistently attract striped bass, even during the dog days of summer. Targeting areas littered with structure and nearby deep water can increase your odds of success during these so-called doldrums. Any hot August night is a roll of the dice, but fishing a legendary place like Block Island will keep confidence high for every cast.

The boulder fields of Block Island are ideal hunting grounds for striped bass

With life and work soon shifting into overdrive, free weekends will be a rarity over the next few months. To ensure proper dosage of the outdoors, I’ve adopted the motto fish when you can, and capitalized on an open Saturday night. Two friends and I set plans in motion for an all-night assault of Block Island’s rocky shoreline. Although the most efficient way to traverse Block’s nine square miles is via beach buggy, weekend ferry reservations for vehicles are needed months in advance during peak tourist season. Instead, we would utilize the elaborate ring of taxis that cater to the hopping New Shoreham bar scene.

Upon entering the village of Galilee, Rhode Island, we reluctantly forked over two days worth of parking fees to leave the Jeep for little more than 12 hours. Next we purchased our $23 round-trip tickets and boarded the 7 PM ferry, each toting a 10-foot rod, backpack full of gear, eel bucket, and plug bag. Sitting on the upper deck, we were given a glorious sunset and a slight breeze, which put a fall-like touch in the air and made us question our clothing. Sail time to Old Harbor was just under an hour, more than enough time to wolf down a P&J and lukewarm hotdog from the galley. In a perfect world, a Block Island ferry would serve fresh New England clam chowder, but I needed a base in my stomach. For the next several hours, I’d be living off Red Bull, Snickers and trail mix.

Dreams of "the one" are common during the sail to Old Harbor
We walked off the ferry to a bustling waterfront and made a beeline to Taxi Row, where we drilled drivers about their willingness to make late-night runs. Though it was only 8 PM, taxi would be our primary method of transportation and we needed to choose our cabby wisely. Taxis stop running just after last call, so there was time for a max of two drop-offs before we were on our own. A morning pick-up for the first ferry back was also in order, so nailing down logistics was key. We settled on an older gentleman who went by Den Dog and turned out to be a Block Island lifer that doesn’t fish; sad but true. His large van swallowed our 10-foot rods and gear with ease. Our game plan was to start on the Island’s south side, and he brought us there for $20 with no meter turned on. Den Dog was working 'til 2 AM, but asked us not to buzz him around last call, for most of his business came then from drunken tourists spilling out of bars. After a short ride, he wished us luck and left us alone with enough gear for a week-long stay. We started down the pitch black trailhead with a bounce in our step towards the boulder fields.

The roaring surf could be heard long before it could be seen. Just a few days past the August new moon, the night was jet-black and caked with stars. The sliver of moon we did have fell below the horizon early, contributing more to the dark sky. If nothing else, we were lucky that our trip coincided with the tail-end of the Perseid meteor shower. Before the sun showed itself again, we witnessed dozens of shooting stars, some with huge trails streaking across the sky. With no trace of light pollution, the south side of Block was the perfect venue for the celestial fireworks.

The night was young and budding with confidence as we geared up on a large piece of driftwood. Pat donned waders while Derrick and I chose wetsuits, not only for safety, but to reach rock perches out of reach of traditional wading. Pat walked to the water’s edge first and tossed a lively eel into a large bowl between two rock points. To our dismay, his first retrieve revealed the tough conditions. The water here was infested with mung-like seaweed that clung to our braided line and terminal tackle. The steady east wind of the previous three nights had shifted south, and seemed to dirty up the surf with it. Not wasting any time, we left glow-sticks on our backpacks to help us find them later and set off down the beach in search of cleaner water. The terrain on Block is not easy to cover, especially on dark nights. That same terrain, however, is partly why the fishing can be so good. Headlamps are vital, but we use the red light setting, as to not ruin the vision our eyes adjust to after hours in the dark.
Sundown is welcomed by surfcasters, as bass are notorious night-time feeders

The initial bowl was by far the worse conditions we encountered, for as we walked westward, the seaweed diminished. The tide was in mid-flood stage and would reach its highest point a little after midnight. There was plenty of white water and depth for bass to come close to shore, but our first hours of casting came up fruitless. Eventually, while using a classic Redfin lure loaded with BB’s, Pat hooked up and got the skunk off our backs. It was not a large striper, at just under 10 pounds, but it was a welcome sign. We kept plugging away with huge cliffs to our back and the vast Atlantic to our front. The fish just weren’t there, or they were there but not cooperating. By this time it was past 11 PM, and we decided to hoof it back to our bags and call Den Dog for a spot change. A quick scare ensued when no cell phones had reception on the beach. We lugged our gear up the trail and luckily found service on top of the cliffs. We rang our driver and waited while contemplating our next move. This would be our last drop-off of the night, so we thought long and hard, opting for a significant change, since we didn’t like what we saw at spot number one. Before long, headlights were barreling down the dirt road and we were whisked away to the west side of the Island for $24. Den Dog wished us luck and arranged for morning pick-up by his colleague before turning his focus to the bar scene and then bed.

We followed the trail at the end of a dead-end road and saw a few headlights to our south and a beach party winding down to our north. The partiers attempted to put out their fire by kicking sand over it, but shortly after they left it came back to life and we found our headquarters until morning. It was noticeably cooler now, so we threw a few pieces of driftwood on and warmed up a bit before another round of heavy fishing. The west side of the Island faces Block Island Sound and the surf was considerably smaller and less weedy as expected. These conditions made it easier to get on and stay on rocks for more distance during casting. The water was deeper here too and perfect for slowly retrieving eels. The tide had just started going out and I saw a flat rock just sticking above the surface twenty yards offshore. It didn’t require any swimming, but without the wetsuit it wouldn’t have been safe to wade to. Pitching eels and plugs off the backside of this rock, I decided, was a worth a good chunk of time. Derrick and Pat kept trekking north to a well-known cove, strewn with fishy water and gigantic boulders.

Foamy white water is a great place to retrieve your offering through

It didn’t take long before I was greeted with the telltale bump of a striped bass. After lowering the rod tip, I gave a good hook set that oddly came up empty. Thankfully, a few casts later another tap was felt and this time I connected with a keeper-sized bass. It wasn’t very impressive in size, in the low 30-inch range, but it had stripes and I was finally on the board. My very next cast resulted in another fish, albeit smaller. I noticed that the fish were responding to a quicker retrieve. After a half dozen fishless casts, I switched over to an artificial lure that resembled an eel, but can be fished effectively much quicker, hence covering more water. I snapped on a nine-inch black Slug-Go, launched it into the night and reeled in at a good clip, interspersing with twitches of the rod. On one such twitch, my soft-plastic bait was stopped dead in its track by a better fish. This one actually peeled a few yards of line off, the only drag I would hear all night. Shortly after, I was staring down at a 12-pound striper; nothing huge by Block standards, but a healthy summer guest. I released the linesider and could see Derrick’s headlamp shining on a similar sized fish in the distance.

After a few hours on the west side, we broke the ancient rule: never leave fish to find fish. The three of us decided to walk south and fish the mid to low dropping tide at a famed cobblestone point. The waves come in here from multiple angles and can tumble surfcasters around like a washing machine. From this point, staring at Montauk 14 miles to the southwest, it’s not hard to comprehend why the general area can have so many fish pass by. On a map, you can draw a triangle from Block Island to Montauk to Fisher’s Island and encompass some of the most productive striper grounds on the eastern seaboard. We all snapped on needlefish plugs and let them fly. The current swept the plugs from deep to shallow water over a rocky bar. A fishless hour went by before the lack of action and jostling waves started to take their toll. We took a breather on a makeshift driftwood structure before deciding to walk back to headquarters to rouse the fire once more.

Many "fish of a lifetime" have been landed and lost along this stretch

There was only an hour or so before false dawn and we all agreed without speaking that it wasn’t worth the effort to pound the water again. Instead, we sat quietly around an Indian fire and waited for first light to latch on topwater lures known for morning action. As dark turned into light, I walked back to the perch I had found fish from earlier. With the tide near dead low now, I noticed the rock was the size of a Volkswagen. I climbed up and began tossing light-colored surface plugs towards Long Island. The sun was creeping up over my right shoulder and boats could be seen rushing from New Harbor and Point Judith to start a day of fishing, as our night was ending. Sleep deprived and borderline delirious, I was picturing trophy bass crashing the surface on my plug, but it was not to be. Derrick landed one more small bass and dropped another before we called it quits. We peeled off our grimy gear and climbed into the clothes we wore on the ferry ride over. A call was made to the taxi driver Den Dog set us up with to ensure we made our 8 AM departure. A young cabby, who looked like he had a rougher night than us, soon picked us up for another $20, reminding us that fishing Block Island via taxi is not cheap.

We sluggishly made our way to the topdeck of the ferry, and sat worn out in silence as refreshed tourists drank their coffee. The sail back to Galilee was uneventful. Gone were the confidence and unknown that the ride over held the night before. Pat deserved a medal for not falling asleep on the nearly two hour drive back home. We took a roll of the dice with our all-night Block trip, but I wouldn’t say all was lost. No trophies were landed, but no one got skunked either. The stars alone were worth the price of admission and we were treated to one heck of a light show. You learn things with each and every foray into the surf, and one can never stop learning. God willing, my next trip to Block will be this fall, a time when water temperatures will be cooler and striped bass will have their feedbags on before the long journey to their wintering grounds. Next time could be the one…

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Shore Thing

Long Island Sound has sparked quite a few hobbies of mine over the years, one of which is beach combing for sea glass. I love walking the shoreline on a dropping tide and picking up decades-old shards of frosted glass worn down by the elements. While glass is the most common thing I pick up at the beach, on occasion I'll hit the jackpot with something much older and more rare, Native American artifacts. It is not always easy determining what is a stone tool or not after hundreds, if not thousands, of years tumbling in the surf. Glass is much easier to spot, but uncommon colors like shades of blue, red, purple, and yellow are the coveted pieces. Sea glass is cool to give as gifts to friends and I am sitting on a stockpile at home that I'd like to turn into jewelry someday and make a buck or two. My younger brother and I visited a sea glass hotspot yesterday. We filled two 30-gallon bags with trash before the karma bank coughed up this nice find below. 

Later that day I kept the shore theme going and tried something I had been meaning to for a long time, clamming! As a seafood lover, it only seems natural that I hunt and gather my own on occasion. Whether it's bluefish or blue crab, the meal always tastes better when you catch it and cook it yourself. Soft-shell clams (a.k.a. steamers) are a favorite summertime appetizer in New England and beyond. As with many types of harvesting from the Sound, successful shell-fishing requires good location. I stumbled upon a productive spot just by watching veteran clammers fill their buckets each weekend. Shellfish regulations vary from town to town, so be sure to check your municipality's website before heading out. Clean water is a must for safe human consumption and without recent heavy rains, we had a perfect window give it a shot.

Soft-shell clams from Long Island Sound

The tools for digging steamers are easily attainable; a garden or spading fork, work gloves, a pad to kneel on, and a bucket.  The tasty bivalves are sometimes called "piss clams" for good reason, as their long necks or siphons, used to filter water for food, give up their location by squirting water when pressure is applied to the ground around them. Shell-fishermen simply throw rocks or bang their tools against the mud to locate their pissing quarry. Soft-shell clams have, you guessed it, soft shells, so be careful not to break them while digging. They are usually not much deeper than six inches and are often found in bunches. We dug more than five dozen clams in one afternoon session--not bad for a couple of rookies.   

An afternoon's haul of steamer clams

The clams should be kept in a bucket of saltwater so they can filter out the sand inside their shells. A few water changes and an overnight soak is ideal, but there is at least one way to speed up the purging process.  I learned that by adding a cup of cornmeal to the bucket helps. Apparently the steamers filter the cornmeal laden water, which causes irritation and forces them to spit out any silt and sand quicker. Some seafood fans prefer the sandy grit when eating shellfish, but I gave the cornmeal a try and it worked quite well. A few water changes and some cornmeal and we had a ready-to-cook appetizer in a few hours time. The cooking process is the easiest part of the deal. Steam the clams in a pot with an inch or two of water (cup of beer optional) until the shells open wide. After that pour water from the pot into a bowl for a dipping broth. You can melt butter in another bowl for some added post-broth flavor, although these clams were so sweet they didn't need it!

There is no better appetizer for summer in New England

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Summer Stripes

A friend and I paid a visit to some local surf haunts last night after a long break. Expectations were not too high for early August, but we were confident that we could drum up a fish or two using live eels. The approaching new moon made it nice and dark for us, though air temperature floated above 80 degrees and the Sound felt like bathwater. There were legitimate rollers at the first destination, which made it sorta feel like we were fishing the Rhode Island surf. We waded out on a cobblestone point and tossed artificial plugs into the mid-outgoing tide that was sweeping right to left. After two hours of casting we had just two small bumps. So while the steady south wind died down and the water flattened out, it was time for a spot change and a switch from plugs to live eels. 

Following a short drive, we waded out on a rocky point covered in slick bubble weed. An hour flew by of casting and retrieving eels in a low dropping tide. This rhythm was broken up by a tap tap on my bait followed by the welcomed sound of a fish thrashing on the surface. Throughout the fight I was convinced I had hooked a bluefish because of violent head shakes, yet was pleasantly surprised to soon see stripes at my feet. It was by no means a trophy bass, though it was certainly a respectable surf-caught fish for the western Sound in early August. This striper seemed to be a loner, as no more bumps were felt for the remainder of the tide. My fishing partner had an eel chopped in half by a bluefish right before slack, so we thought that was a good time as any to pack it in. All in all, it was a good night on the water. 

Fishing live eels during late tides can help your chances in the August surf.  (Photo credit: Mike Gill)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Rigged Slug-Gos

There are only a handful of artificial lures in my rotation that I can fish in the surf with utmost confidence. I rank rigged Slug-Gos high on the list of fish-catchers and always stuff at least a few nine and 12-inchers in my plug bag. While I cannot claim landing any very large bass using soft-plastics, I can safely say that I've connected with a few that still haunt me. The most impressive thing I have found about them is the sheer amount of action they draw on a given surf outing.

In the mid-1980’s, Herb Reed developed a soft-plastic lure in his Connecticut garage that would revolutionize the fishing industry. His company was Lunker City Fishing Specialties and the new artificial bait was the Slug-Go. With its slender profile and erratic action, this soft stick-bait was first found irresistible by large and smallmouth bass. They were a secret weapon among a circle of Northeast bass anglers before being responsible for placing at two major B.A.S.S. tournaments in the early 1990’s.This success helped Lunker City go main stream and allowed them to experiment with different sizes and colors.

It wasn’t long before larger Slug-Gos caught the attention of saltwater anglers. Through articles and seminars, surfcasters like Steve McKenna and Rich Russo, among others, helped progress the popularity of nine-inch rigged Slug-Gos in the saltwater scene. Many were catching striped bass on Slug-Gos long before, but their teachings about rigging and fishing the soft-plastics helped build their fish-catching reputation. Today, the nine and 12-inch versions are all the rage among recreational striped bass and tuna fishermen--for good reason.

The author's favorite sizes and colors:
12-inch Eel Skin and 9-inch Black, Alwife and Albino Shad

Slug-Gos can be purchased pre-rigged, but like many tackle junkies I enjoy rigging my own. There are several rigging combinations you can come up with by experimenting with hook styles, sizes and placement. I prefer rigging my nine-inch Slug-Gos with one 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus near the front of the bait. Many anglers swear by using a front and back hook, but I don't always find it necessary for the nine-inch version. For the larger 12-incher, I put 9/0 in front and an 8/0 in back and connect them with 50-pound Dacron line. 

Slug-Gos can be fished weightless near the surface or with nail-weights inserted in them for farther casting distance and a faster sink rate. The conditions at hand should determine the amount of weight used, but inserting two nail-weights into the mid-section and one in the tip of the tail is pretty standard. My friend Paul put me on to using grooved nails with the heads lopped off rather than wasting money on name brand weights. Other rigging options include threading Slug-Gos onto lead jig heads or wobble heads, which can prove deadly while fishing in any kind current. Whatever hook style is chosen, wrap heavy thread on the hook shank and add plastic-friendly glue, which will help ensure that it stays put inside the bait.

My soft-plastic rigging supplies:  Slug-Gos, fly-tying vise, super glue,
 nail-weights, hooks, heavy thread, bobbin, whip-finish tool, and scissors.