Monday, July 25, 2011

Night of Nights

Anyone who has targeted striped bass in the surf for a long time knows that the word "fishing" is better suited than "catching" because the latter usually makes up such a small part of our obsession. The hours spent reading, prepping, driving, walking, and casting far outweigh the time spent hooking, fighting, photographing, and releasing our quarry. The many fish-less nights make those few nights when we do very well that much better. For me, last Saturday was one of the more memorable nights of standing on a rock in Long Island Sound. 

The ferocious heat wave that had been gripping the Northeast showed no signs of letting up. Surf fishing the coolest part of the night made the most sense, yet the thermometer still read 80 degrees as we began our long walk from the vehicle. Wetsuits and water bottles were carried in backpacks and 15 good-sized eels, live but subdued from bags of ice, were brought along in two small buckets. It is no secret that fishing eels after dark is a proven summertime tactic and the wetsuits put us at an advantage for reaching deeper rock platforms that traditional waders won't allow.

Three of us were soaked with sweat head to toe upon arrival to the spot for the night. After a short breather and swigs of cold water, we located suitable perches and began casting eels and slowly crawling them back in. The tide was in its final stages of going out and a light breeze was blowing out of the west. The conditions were perfect for a light wetsuit and the water felt refreshing on the hot summer night. It didn't take long for the first signs of life. It was a hit from a small bass but there were fish around. It being Derrick's birthday, I fully expected him to hook a pig at any minute. Instead, a wave of bluefish soon showed up and sawed off half of our eel supply in mere minutes. The decision was made for a powwow on shore to let the tide turn and wait out the blues. 

The break turned out to be a good  move. After the switch to flood tide, we waded back out and the melee started. The next take of my eel felt like any other bass, but when I lowered the 10-foot rod and drove the hook home I knew it was a good fish. Her initial run almost peeled my footing from the rock as the braided line was dumping from my reel in long bursts. It was an excellent fight in shallow water and the few short minutes it lasted felt like eons. The bass made some last ditch runs and thrashes before tiring out and then Derrick put a kung fu grip on her jaw. Aaron was landing a teen-sized bass at the same time and came over to snap a photo for me after his release. There was no scale between us, yet a measuring tape let us know she was 42.5-inches long. Even without an official weight, I knew I had just safely beat my previous best surf-caught bass by a few pounds.
(Photo credit: Aaron Swanson)

Other than a small chunk missing from one its dorsal fins, the bass was in perfect shape with great color, thick shoulders and a nice belly. After a few photos, I walked her out to deeper water and started the revival process. Not surprisingly, the fight in warm water did a number on the bass. It took a couple minutes of cradling the fish in current before she kicked away with vigor. My partners went back to their rocks and I collected myself and put on a new eel. We all knew there could be more and bigger bass where that one came from.

Not much time passed before another amazing specimen found my offering. The foot-long eel had just hit the water when it was immediately picked up by a bass. Without hesitation I wailed back driving the hook home. Having just fought a nice bass, I knew this one was in the same league or better. Mist was shooting off my peeling line and it looked almost like smoke in the dark night. My rod was flattened out under the blistering runs of the fish and she finally surfaced out of sight, dispersing enough water to let us know she was huge. After gaining the upper hand, we put the beams of our headlamps on her to get a good look at my new personal best striped bass. Derrick grabbed the leader, lipped the bass and walked it to shore as I trailed behind in awe. The tape read 44.5-inches long and she felt noticeably heavier than the previous fish. She was even bigger than my best striper caught from a boat three years earlier. 

After a brief photo shoot, I walked the fish out to cooler water and gently rocked it back and forth, forcing water through her gills. Once again, it took several minutes before this fish regained strength and tail-slapped out of my hands. I would have paid serious money right then and there to have had a 60-pound Boga-Grip to know her true weight, but it didn't really matter in the end--I had just fought, landed and released a trophy striped bass in the surf. And it felt so damn good!

You'd have a crazy look on your face too...    (Photo credit: Aaron Swanson)
Floored is probably the best word to describe how I was feeling at that moment. I had just caught two of the best fish of my life within 30-minutes of each other with my best friends there to witness and assist. Now knowing a school of nice fish was in the vicinity, they hurriedly returned to their platforms and got back at it. I took some deep breaths and soaked it all in before returning to the rock that produced all the excitement. It was the birthday boy who hooked up next to my right in short order. Wanting to return the favor of landing a fish, I waded over and waited as he played a 39-inch bass to his feet. I lipped the healthy bass and we went about taking a photo and releasing her. It was a very respectable fish from shore in late July and on many nights for us it would have easily been the high-hook. 

Derrick added a 39-incher afterwards for good measure.

By this point of the night we were down to our last few eels and, as quickly as they left, another wave of bluefish moved through and ended our night sooner than we would have liked. The blues were so hungry that after being left with half of an eel, I tossed it back out, hooked up and was broken off on the very next cast.  After the last eel in the bucket had been used, Derrick resorted to his lone Slug-Go, which soon fell victim to the teeth of another yellow-eyed demon. He and I retreated to shore and watched Aaron stick it out for a while longer hoping for another cow to swim by. That proved to be it for the night, but what a night of fishing it was; one I will never forget! As always, it was a great team effort and it wouldn't have gone down the way it did without my buddies there that night. I know it won't be long before it will be one of their turns again with me behind the camera. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eel Karma

For the last five years, I have been fortunate to work for an organization that is devoted to protecting and improving one of my favorite places: Long Island Sound. My position revolves around outreach and volunteer coordination, which, from time to time, requires public speaking and education about Sound-related topics. For example, last Saturday I staffed a small festival in New Haven. It was a celebration of the local West River and an opportunity for kids in an urban environment to learn about their watershed through various organizations and activities. 

Save the Sound, a program of CT Fund for the Environment, is working on a major habitat restoration project along this river, which entails replacing three of 12 aging tide gates that will greatly increase tidal flow and fish passage. To help explain how this this project is tied to fish passage, I purchased eels from a bait shop and brought them with me to the festival. The vast majority of the kids present had never seen an American eel up close before. They got to learn all about these resilient creatures and named each eel before releasing them into the river with a second lease on life. It was a cool moment on a hot day for all those involved, especially the eels. 

Later on that day, I made plans with friends Derrick and Kurt for a Connecticut surfcasting trip. Captain Mike from Reel Cast Charters fished the same piece of eastern Sound shoreline by boat the previous night and was rewarded with a 35-pound striper on none other than a live eel. We picked up a stash of the striper candy and drove east with a bright moon overhead. It was a warm night and after a good walk in waders we were drenched with sweat. The three of us set up shop in close proximity, casting and retrieving for an hour without a hit. I eventually broke from the pack and got my first bump of the night, which turned out to be a small bass. Another 20 minutes went by before my next strike, but this time it felt like a better fish. After a decent fight and a few peels of drag, an 18-pound striper lay at my feet. She kicked off strong after a couple minutes of revival time in the warm water.

A few drifts later with a fresh eel, I felt a nice take, but not a lot of pull. The fight was rather uneventful until the fish got very close to me and kicked it up a few notches. She was pushing much more water than the other two bass I had landed already, so I had a feeling it was bigger in size and and it was. A healthy striped bass somewhere in the low 20-pound range was hooked deeper than I would have liked, which explained the poor fight. I cut the line and she kicked off stronger than any other fish that night. The way hooks rust in a saltwater environment, I'm pretty confident that bass will be hook-free in the near future. 

That proved to be the last bit of action for the night and I was flying high the for the long walk then drive home. I was lucky to have the hot hand that night and I think the eel karma from earlier in the day payed off! 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Brotherly Love

The more time that I spend on the water, the more I want to share my experiences with those around me. One of my brothers has lived in California for the last decade and more. It's crazy for me to think about how many times that I've run up to the Farmington River since then, yet he'd still never fished there. So when the stars and moon aligned during his most recent visit home, we jumped at the chance to get him fly fishing. 

You could tell it was a weekday when we arrived to a popular stretch after 7 AM and there wasn't another soul around. It was already warm out and the cold river was cloaked in a morning fog. It had been well over a month since my last trip and everything was much more lush and greener than I'd last remembered it. The trout's primary food source and feeding patterns had changed as well. First, we took a sample of the stream bottom with a seine net to see what was on the menu. The predominant insect found was a fast-swimming mayfly nymph known as the isonychia. An appropriate match was tied on, along with a heavier golden stonefly as an anchor, and I began to teach my brother a little about nymphing for trout. 

The next few hours flew by, but not before leaving their mark. The fishing was tough, but Gavin caught on quickly and was making very good drifts in short order. After getting his bearings in a fast, thigh-high riffle, we moved to the head of a small pool that was running slower and clear. I scaled back his tippet size and put on a lighter anchor fly. The initial pass came tight and quickly went slack, yet not before he felt his first trout on a fly rod. Then a few drifts later, Gavin latched on to one that gave him an idea of what big Farmington browns are all about. It made a b-line downstream, gave a few violent head-shakes before biting him off--all in about four Mississippi's. Hooking a fish of that caliber alone is a small milestone for an introductory trip, so we were both a little psyched and pissed in the same breath. I knew we may not see another chance like that so I beat myself up until I remembered why we were truly there. We  kept moving so he could see more of this wild & scenic river that many of us take for granted. 

Photo credit: Gavin Broatch

Photo credit: Gavin Broatch

The tough fishing continued at the next two stops, although a small rainbow and brown trout came to the hand during instruction. Gavin would eventually hook and land his first fish on a fly, albeit not the target species--it was a lively Atlantic salmon parr. Not the least bothered by the lack of our success, we soaked in every bit of our time on the river. The air was extremely warm by quitting time, but the water kept us cool and revealed the leaks in each of our waders! On the way home, we stopped at a favorite hot dog joint for a pickup order and ate a great lunch with the family to round out the day. It soon dawned on me that it would be at least another year, God-willing, before my brother and I would fish together again. Nonetheless, it was a day well spent and an experience that either of us won't soon forget! 
Good times.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Any Given Cast

Block Island is arguably the pinnacle when it comes to all-time fishing grounds for striped bass. Peter Vican's recent 77-pounder is just the latest of countless historic catches from Block waters. And since the island's fabled boulder fields are only a 14-mile ferry ride from mainland Rhode Island, trips on short notice are doable. With word of positive surf reports and a new moon phase ushering in, two friends and I committed to an all-nighter during the July 4th weekend.

Leading up to the one night binge, we spent hours rigging eels, changing rusty hooks, and tying new leaders. We were eager and prepared and hopes were high. The plan called for taking the last high-speed ferry from Galilee on a Friday night.  Between our bikes and wet suits, we planned on moving around and fishing hard. When the day came, we gave ourselves more than three hours to make it to the dock, which typically takes about 90-minutes. However, the rush-hour traffic coinciding with a holiday weekend had us rolling into Point Judith with just minutes to spare. We zigzagged between vacationers on our bikes and only enough gear to last 12-hours. The high-speed ferry cut more than a half hour off our sailing time, which is a bigger deal after pulling an all-night surf fishing trip.  

The extra $9 for the high-speed ferry out of Point Judith is worth every penny if you don't require a vehicle.

The Old Harbor area was one big party as our ferry pulled in. It was a little amusing realizing that we were there for a completely different reason than 99.9% of those around us (we only saw four other surfcasters all night). A good meal was in order before the long night that lay ahead. We chose a window seat at Mohegan Cafe & Brewery that allowed us to watch our gear left outside. The beer board on the wall read: "Striper English Ale"--it was then that I knew we walked into the right place. The round of clam chowder hit the spot, before wolfing down large burgers and nursing the rest our beers.    

While digesting we hashed out a plan of attack. We soon hopped on our bikes and rode out of civilization towards the southern half of the Island. It was a 15-minute mostly uphill pedal to our first stop. At least that mean the way home be would easier! The sun was just going down as we arrived and the fading light allowed us to sort of get our bearings before the very dark hours ahead. We locked up the bikes and changed out of our civilian clothes into wetsuits that we carried in backpacks. With the seal skins on, it was easier and safer to reach rocks that traditional waders would not allow. 

What a better way to start a Block bass-hunt than a Striper English Ale?

It quickly turned into a jet-black night and I could barely make out the silhouettes of my partners in the same cove with a good surf rolling in. The tide had been going out for about an hour by the time I let loose my first cast with a black needlefish. My friend Derrick hooked up right away using a sinking eel-skin popper that is better known for its swimming than its popping. While I couldn't tell at the time, it turned out to be a striped bass in the low-teen range. He and my other buddy Mike soon landed a few more of similar size on black needles and the eel-skin popper while I struggled using the same exact offerings. The biggest of their handful of bass was about 17-pounds, but the clock was ticking and the numbers and size of these fish were not enough to keep us much longer. We walked back to the bikes and headed west, leaving fish to find bigger fish. After another 10 minute ride, we rolled up to another classic south-side spot.

At this point in the night, we had been fishing for a few hours and I had not even experienced a bump. I was growing a little frustrated with myself before finally getting snapped out of a trance by the sharp jolt of a striper. The keeper-sized fish whacked an eel-skin stubby needlefish that had never produced for me before. It felt great to get the monkey off my back and better to know there were fish found at both stops so far. We kept walking and casting around another point then a cove with nothing to show for it. Finally, another teen-sized fish latched onto a 12-inch black Slug-Go and we managed a few more half-hearted takes before deciding it was time to see new water.

A bike rigged for fishing can really be an aid to surfcasters at places like Block Island.

By this point it was already 2:30 AM--the night was flying by. In reality, we had one more good crack at a third and final spot before false dawn. So we opted to head towards the ferry instead of moving farther away. After a nice downhill cruise, we stashed the bikes and bushwhacked down a lesser known trail along the east side of the Island. The smaller surf here presented easier opportunities to wade out to good casting platforms.  We hopped from rock to rock rifling through our plug bags for two more hours with only a handful of hits from small bass. The writing on the wall was starting to show. It's easy to forget that you can nail the best fish of your life on any give cast on Block Island, but we just had the feeling it wasn't happening for us that night. 

As a spectacular celestial show gave way to the first hints of dawn, our group switched to top-water lures hoping for a little redemption. My eels-skin popper was crushed multiple times on consecutive casts around first light, though the bass were small and had trouble finding the hook. Boats started pouring out of Old Harbor and probably fared much better than us in deeper water drifting live eels. It didn't matter though; the big yellow ball started peaking over the horizon and we were treated to a sunrise that was worth the price of the ferry plus the hours of effort put in the surf. 

Bubble weed and big surf can make traversing Block Island boulder fields a taxing proposition. 

After the sun came up, we stumbled on two buddies that we last saw while boarding the ferry over. They had very similar results to share, which kind of made us feel better and worse same time. A few text messages to another friend on the other side of the Island revealed better action, yet the same size class of bass. We gave up on the uneventful dawn casting and pedaled into what felt like a ghost town. Delirium began to set in as we waited for the breakfast joint to open. After the eggs and coffee gave us our fourth wind, we shot the shit at the ferry dock until it showed up at 7:45 AM. It was much spacier on the ferry ride back so we all grabbed our own booths and slept for what felt like a minute. The boat let us off and we rode with our gear one last time to our vehicles, all the while passing people heading to Block for a wild time. I cracked open a Red Bull and listened to a few classic stories from the parking attendant before leaving Galilee.

Even though we didn't find the fish we were ultimately after, you can't win if you don't play. Pulling a commando all-night fishing trip is not everyone's cup of tea, but it's something you should experience at least once. And Block Island is a hell of a place to try it! One of these years I am going to hit it just right and have the best night of fishing of my life. You just don't know until you go...

Watching a sunrise like this makes all the effort worth it.