Sunday, October 30, 2011

Trial Run

Four buddies and I are on the verge of a week-long fishing excursion to western New York. Every fall, large trout descend from the Great Lakes into small tributaries to gorge on freshly laid salmon eggs. Naturally, thousands of anglers are also drawn to these waterways to capitalize on the rich fishing opportunities. For the last several weeks, we have been prepping for this trip by tying flies and procuring supplies. Andy, a friend who is not making the trek this year, graciously loaned me one vital piece of gear, a brand-spanking-new switch rod, which is a fly rod that can be used with one or two hands and makes long casts seem effortless. Since I had never used one before, I thought it wise to give it a trial run on a familiar piece of water before the big show in New York. I may have looked a little out of place on the Farmington River with a large two-handed fly rod, but it was a productive session even without landing a single fish. Tommy, one of the trip veterans who has mastered switch and spey rod casting techniques, gave me some valuable pointers that I will soon put into practice. Our crew shoves off Tuesday evening after work and will spend five full days plying some of the most renowned trout waters in the Northeast--good times!

Photo credit: Tommy Baranowski
Note the yellow (appears green) elastomer tag behind the trout's right eye.

Change of Pace

Ice fishing season sure felt a long way off before yesterday's record-setting Nor'easter abruptly brought New Englanders back to snow mode. Only a week ago I was wearing a T-shirt and stocking up on bait for winter. My quarry on this outing were over-sized minnows called fallfish, which friends and I have discovered are an ideal menu item for a variety of target species, especially northern pike. Unlike some other baitfish that we use, these buggers can be taken on a hook and line and put up a feisty little fight on light tackle. A fun and effective way to catch fallfish is with a two or three-weight fly rod, as they will attack almost any decently presented fly pattern with a vengeance. This particular trip yielded over a dozen fallfish, many in dark spawning colors. Only one of them was what I consider pike-worthy, but it was still a great way to spend a beautiful autumn afternoon in the woods. Several other under-appreciated wild fish came to the hand, mostly small pumpkinseeds and bluegills. All of them fell for a tiny pheasant tail nymph tied off the shank of a dry fly. I hope there are few more pleasant days on tap soon so I can put more free pike bait in the freezer, but if this past weekend was any indication, winter may be here sooner than we think!

The prized quarry. At eight-inches long, this will be perfect pike bait. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

October Blues

It may not have been our target species, but this big bluefish kept us from going home with the smell of skunk on a crisp October night. Conditions were ideal and our confidence high, yet no striped bass wanted to cooperate. The lone blue hit right at my feet, serving as a stern reminder to always fish my offerings all the way in. I basically gave up on that retrieve while my live eel was still 10 yards away from me and started reeling quickly to get another cast off. The gator blue exploded on my bait a rod's length from me and a wild fight was underway with a mighty foe against a strong current. 

There are still few solid weeks left of the so-called "fall run" in these parts, although they will fly by fast. With any luck I will get to hear the sweet sound of a screaming drag a couple more times before the surf season is all said and done for another year. 

Photo credit: Derrick Kirkpatrick

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Walks in the Woods

Saltwater has dominated my fishing for the last few months, yet something about the fall gives me the urge to stalk wild trout hiding in thin blue lines in the woods. It had been months since I last tied on a nymph pattern, but as I knelt down beside the stream a size #18 pheasant tail stuck out like a sore thumb in my fly box. I attached the fly to a short section of tippet and attached to the hook shank of a bushy Stimulator dry fly. That simple dry-dropper combo has become my all-time favorite small stream method over the years. It wouldn't disappoint on this day either. It is an awesome sight watching the dry fly get sucked below the surface from the pull of a native brookie or wild brown. While getting outside was the main goal, a few trout to the hand was a welcome bonus!

Just a few days later, our family took a hike along another beautiful small stream. No trout were caught this day, but we did encounter a few feisty fallfish. This native species readily takes nymphs and dry flies and can be fun to tangle with on light tackle. They also make great ice fishing bait for northern pike. Murphy, the family golden retriever, had the most fun of all on the hike, spoiling many a good pool by jumping in before I could get a cast off.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Marathon

When water temperatures reach their peak in southern New England, we are payed a visit by a remarkable fish. Little tunny, also called false albacore or albies, show up like clockwork each September. When they do, many saltwater anglers put everything on hold to chase these speedsters with light tackle. A few years ago, I experienced my first and only dose of this type of fishing, but it was enough to instill a lasting memory and hunger for more. This fall I was fortunate to get another shot at them. 

Long-time fishing buddies Captain Blaine Anderson and Andrew Nichols partake in a weekly marathon of sorts during the fall season. Mondays are their common day off from fishing-related jobs. Naturally they spend this day fishing of course. Their excursions together cover a wide range of angling methods  and species from drifting eels for trophy stripers to jigging for golden pond shiners. Over the last few weeks, their focus has turned to the false albacore slashing through schools of bait in eastern Long Island Sound. The fishing was really good for a while; like double-digit-albies-per-person-good. They knew I was interested and invited me along for one of their Monday marathons. Of course the insane bite completely shut down just before our outing, but albies or not, we were determined to put some fish in the boat and have fun doing it. 

The three of us assembled well before sunup at the Niantic River launch and loaded enough gear in Blaine's boat to outfit an Inuit village. We were prepared for any kind of fish we could encounter throughout the day, especially since albie reports went cold. Through pea-soup fog, we crept across Long Island Sound with Montauk in mind. I had never been to the eastern-most point of Long Island, often referred to in surfcasting circles as "The End." It is considered a fishing Mecca to many and is often found boiling with migrating bait and fish this time of year. There were no wheeling birds and blitzes when we pulled up, yet there were still dozens of surfcasters dotting the shoreline and one lone wetsuit fisherman bobbing in the water a hundred yards off the beach. Several boats were also drifting for stripers along the rips well off the point. We joined them after searching the inshore area extensively with zero signs of the target species. After mustering a few half-hearted hits on eels, the fog began to lift and we headed for greener pastures. If nothing else, it was awesome to see Montauk for the first time and I look forward to spending time in the surf there someday.

"The End"

After leaving one famed fishing destination, we headed 13 miles east to another: Block Island. There we drifted along the western side of the Island and jigged for black sea bass and porgies while keeping our eyes peeled for false albacore. This area is well known for its ground fish and I could see why on the first drop of my offering. Fish were stacked like cordwood along the bottom in 40-feet of water and attacked our shiny metal lures known as Deadly Dicks like it was their last meal. The hits were explosive and easy to feel with our light rods and braided line. It was loads of fun and reminded me a lot like the vertical jigging I do for trout while ice fishing. A few dinner plate-sized porgies and respectable black sea bass came over the rail every couple minutes. We put a few on ice for dinner later that night and motored to a classic albie spot at the entrance to Block Island's New Harbor. Nno birds, no bait and no marks on the electronic fish-finder--the area appeared lifeless. So next up was the Block's North Rip, which usually has birds working over it, but this too looked like a dead sea. It was time for another big move and to Point Judith we went.  

Photo credit: Capt. Blaine Anderson

By this time, the sun had won the battle over the fog and it started feeling like a July day instead of a late September one. The water in Block Island Sound was flat-calm, which aided our travel time back to the mainland. The short trip felt like a wink of an eye compared to what it takes on the traditional Block Island ferry that I'm used to. The specific area in our sights was the West Wall; a rocky breakwall protecting Point Judith's Harbor of Refuge, which also serves as a desirable ambush spot for certain game fish. The West Wall is usually the first spot in Rhode Island that migrating schoolie stripers show up to every spring. It is also one of the Ocean State's most consistent false albacore spots for shore-bound anglers each fall. Things looked promising at first with millions of tiny bay anchovies milling about the area. They are sometimes called rain bait because that is what it looks like when they are balled up and dimpling the water's surface. The one lone splash we witnessed wasn't enough to keep us around. After 15 minutes of waiting around and casting blind to nothing in particular, we headed west hugging the shoreline.  

The inshore cruise along the South County coast was very cool to me as a surf angler. It allowed me to scope out some of the places that I fish at night from a different perspective during daylight. We passed a clan of surfers at Matunuck, then the three well-known breachways Charlestown, Quonochontaug, and Weekapaug, all of which were void of activity. Next up was Watch Hill Reef that had more than a dozen small boats drifting in the rip, each waiting for the same fish to show. One thing that got everyone's attention was a massive U.S. Coast Guard vessel that was smack dab in the middle of the Reef collecting, cleaning, and putting back buoys that serve as vital navigational markers. It was surprising to see how big the buoys were and how much of them we can't see resting under the surface of the water. The USCG personnel on deck looked tiny standing next to them.

When we left that circus, we poked around Wicopesset Passage off the eastern tip of Fisher's Island. The tide was ripping out way too fast to anchor or drift effectively, yet we managed a few more porgies before noticing a couple birds acting 'fishy'. Blaine hammered down the throttle and shot us around the south side of Fisher's Island where we spent the longest portion of the trip. It was a much more welcoming scene compared to what we left at Watch Hill, with just one or two boats working the area. Right away a few terns caught our attention hovering over the water a hundred yards off the Island. Under the birds was a subtle yet tell-tale splash of a false albacore, followed by another. It wasn't the large pod of fish we were hoping for, but it was the first we'd seen after 100 miles of searching.

Blaine put us in position and cut the engine far enough way not to spook them, but still within casting range.  What happened next was like a fire drill; the three of us rushed to put lures in front of the elusive fish before they sounded and popped up somewhere else. My two partners chose soft-plastic baits while I opted for the classic Deadly Dick. Blaine was ripping his bait in with slight twitches when it was pounced on. Witnessing the next few minutes, I finally understood what the allure of the albies is all about--the fight. These torpedoes make blistering runs and will test your drag in an instant. Their speed and strength for their size is unmatched by any fish that visits Long Island Sound. After the pod moved out of range, Andrew and I just watched Blaine play his fish and captured some footage and photographs. Since albies are not known for being good table fare, back in the drink it went and back to the chase we went. 
Photo credit: Andrew Nichols

The casting distance of a Deadly Dick was superior to any plastic bait on board, but what good was that if fish wanted nothing to do with it that day. So I switched to a new soft-plastic called Albie Snax that I picked up at a local tackle shop. The small Connecticut company, Long Cast Plastics, certainly lives up to its name with their dense, heavy offerings that help reach distant targets. With a quick retrieve and slight twitch from the rod tip, the slender baits make an erratic darting action, mimicking fleeing baitfish well.

After few more minutes of roaming the area, Blaine hooked a large bluefish on a Sebile Magic Swimmer right next to the boat. Meanwhile, Andrew and I kept casting to another small pod of little tunny that popped up within range. Finally, something exploded on my bait, which for a brief moment I thought could have been another bluefish. That notion was thrown right out the window when the false albacore kicked it up a notch and ripped crazy amounts of line from my spool in short order. An unforgettable scene soon unfolded on the deck with a big blue and an albie doing figure-eights around the boat. After a thrilling fight, I grabbed the skinny section above the albie's hard tail and hoisted it out of the water for a photo with a shit-eating grin.

Photo credit: Capt. Blaine Anderson

It seemed like there were small groups of albies doing laps in the general area, so instead of running them down we drifted along proven grounds and waited for them to come to us. While jigging for porgies and sea bass, we'd occasionally see little tunny breaking the surface in the distance, but it was never lock and load like the week before or, as I'd later find out, the week after. Eventually, Andrew latched on to one of the speedsters, completing the trifecta of each of us landing one of the target species. After killing a little more time behind Fisher's Island, the boat launch beckoned where more work awaited us. I give credit to boat owners on how much maintenance goes into it and sometimes goes unnoticed by clients and guests. Back in the lot, Blaine went to town filleting my dinner as Andrew and I scrubbed down the boat and rinsed all the gear. It was late in the afternoon by quitting time, nearly 12 hours after the trip started, and I was beat!  Hats off to those two who do a trip like every day or even once a week.

Overall it was indeed a marathon day and an overwhelming success even before we boated false albacore. I had seen and fished several places for the first time, I checked black sea bass off my species-to-catch list, I went home with a bag of delicious fillets that fed three households, I fished and learned from two knowledgeable anglers, and I got to scratch the itch again of the infamous little tunny--I'd call that a mission accomplished!

Photo credit: Capt. Blaine Anderson
The 208-foot Thomas Jefferson, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship, mapping the sea floor.