Thursday, December 27, 2012

Like Cordwood

Yesterday I took a ride to a Connecticut tidal river that pours into western Long Island Sound. The target species was fresh Atlantic herring that recently arrived here from offshore, as they do each winter. I can only imagine the challenges these silvery, foot-long fish encounter during their journeys at sea, only to come inshore and get pummeled by mergansers, seals and anglers like me.

Catching them can be fun and easy if your timing is right. The tide preferred by local herring sharpies is high outgoing, which happened to coincide with the warmest part of the day yesterday, though it was still bitter cold. Chemical hard-warmers helped keep me in the game, as did not touching the wet fish while shaking them off the hook. The mainstay method of catching herring on a rod and reel is with a Sabiki rig, which is basically a long leader with several little dropper hooks with glow beads and flash. At the bottom of the rig is usually tied a lead bank sinker that gives the desired casting distance and gets the offering down to the strike zone.

There were four of us on the rocks today, all strangers working in rhythm to fill our buckets. The process consisted of casting upstream on a current seam, letting the weight hit bottom and slowly reeling in. As the lead sinker bounced along the rocks and sand, the rig worked its magic in the current and herring latched on like it was their job. The fish tried like hell to dislodge the hooks from their paper-thin mouths by doing somersaults on their way in, but when one herring would pop off, another would grab hold. They were stacked like cordwood and we often caught multiple herring at a clip. I counted several doubles, a few triples and my eastern European neighbor had a lucky retrieve with four herring on at once!

I was a little unprepared today showing up with only one Sabiki rig. Not having a local tackle shop open near me due to the holidays, I decided to risk it and go anyway. Of course it didn't take long for my lone rig to get snagged in some riprap while pulling in a brace of herring. The line broke as I could still feel them trying to wiggle free. Thankfully a good Samaritan fishing next to me told me to grab a new rig out of his truck and I was soon back in line bailing fish. I owe him a hot cup of coffee for sure! I kept the good karma rolling by giving hand-warmers to one of the foursome that was going back and forth to his car to warm up. The small token was just enough to keep his fingers operable in the raw conditions.

The regular who spared an extra rig kept telling me the bite would slow down as the tide dropped, but it never happened. After a busy couple of hours, I bid my new jigging friends farewell and left the fish biting. I finished with a total of 54 morsels up to 13-inches long; by far my best day of that type of fishing. And while I won't be eating any of them, I never met a fish that didn't like herring! They will serve as fresh bait for a long time to come.  

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Every year, after my last cast has been made in the surf and before ice forms on our lakes, there is a peaceful place I go to clear my head and try my luck. For me, late fall is a transition time from surf fishing to ice fishing, and I prefer to ease from one season to the next at a challenging and magical fishery in southwestern Connecticut.

On chilly November and December mornings and evenings, you can often find me along the shores of this man-made reservoir targeting walleye, trout and bass with live shiners and metal lures. It's not easy fishing and I think that is a big reason why other anglers aren't flocking there. To me, that just makes each catch that much more of an accomplishment. But if it was just about the fishing, I would've stopped going a long time ago.

One of these days, I am going to score that wall-hanger trout or walleye I've been after for years, but for now, just seeing an eagle, hearing a pileated woodpecker, and watching my slip-bobber go under the surface once in a while is enough for me...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wild Homecoming

An old friend of mine is home after a long time away. We fished together yesterday morning on a small wild trout stream that we used to frequent before he left. I could tell Matt was excited to be back, soaking it all in and taking photos of anything that moved. A few hours along a picturesque wooded stream on a brisk fall day must have crossed his mind more than once while floating in an aircraft carrier halfway across the globe. I'm glad it was me who he fished with first after not picking up a rod for a whole year (see our last trip here).

Everything was just how we left it except that the stream was scary low. Thankfully, as I type this a day later, the whole state of Connecticut is receiving a much needed soaking. The wild trout we found holed up together in a couple pools will be grateful to spread out again.

Matt started us off right by getting three strikes on his first three drifts with a dry fly and weighted nymph underneath it. On the third take, he connected with a trout much bigger than the first two. It darted around the pool and wouldn't quit, especially when it saw my net dip below the surface. When he finally subdued, Matt and I were in high spirits realizing it was biggest trout we'd seen from this stream in a couple seasons; an old male brown with deep, dark colors.

We let that pool rest and took a long walk through the woods, stopping where we thought any trout could be lurking. On this day, we did more walking than usual because some of the normal stops didn't seem worth it in the low flow. It was pretty sad to see the mystery taken out of once-deep pools. A silver lining to the lack of water was that it allowed us to scout a stretch we often don't make it to what is probably very promising water under optimal conditions.

After a crouching and casting for a few hours, we eventually wandered back to the pool where our day began. Like it was the first meal they'd seen in weeks, little trout were fighting over flies drifted down the center of the run. I got smacked first by a little native brookie, then again by another gem of a brown. They preferred a small pheasant tail pattern with a tungsten bead, but more than one came up for the bushy dry fly on top.

It was a very enjoyable morning on the water and I look forward to many more like it with my buddy that's now moved back home for the next few years. Sometimes I take for granted the wonderful fishing I have at my disposal in Connecticut, but yesterday was a good reminder not to.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Connecticut Natives

Sometimes the best things in life do indeed come in small packages. Take Salvelinus fontinalis, or the brook trout, for example. Full grown they may not exceed six inches in length, yet stream-born brookies are by far the most handsome fish swimming in Connecticut waters. In addition to their striking beauty, brook trout are special because they are the state's only native trout (they're technically a char, but let's not split hairs here). Unfortunately, these little gems face an uphill battle in the Nutmeg State. Once found in streams all across Connecticut, over development and pollution from stormwater runoff (among other factors) have relegated wild brookies to only our most pristine, gin-clear waterways.

A friend and I spent this past Columbus Day stalking one such stream in search of its resident trout. After a 90 minute drive and another thirty minute hike, we finally arrived to a watercourse no wider than the length of my fly rod. Our excursion couldn't have been better timed; foliage was peaking, water levels were ideal and there wasn't another soul in sight.We brought along a handful of dry flies, nymphs and small streamers, but only one pattern proved necessary. A loud, buoyant fly known as a Stimulator lived up to its name that day, bringing dozens of little wild trout from hiding to smack the floating meal ticket.

Drawing strikes wasn't all that hard, as the first good drift over any fishy-looking lie was often rewarded with a mini surface explosion. Getting the fly to where it needed to be in tight quarters was the tricky part, along with keeping the wildly acrobatic brookies on a tight line. More fish were lost than landed, but most of the fun comes with the initial take anyway.


My friend had hiked and fished this place once before, but it was my first time and I was completely in awe of the stream and its surroundings. It was a pristine place untouched by the outside world. A huge swath of wild land that hopefully will always be kept the way it is for future generations to enjoy and to see what much of the state once looked like. It's fitting that such a gorgeous creature as a native brook trout can only thrive in places like this one.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Cape Weekend

When the invitation for an October wedding in Cape Cod came in the mail, my wife and I were more than pleased. The fall is a wonderful time of year to be there and the fishing is usually good too. Truro resembled a ghost town when we arrived the Friday before the wedding, which was a welcomed change from the usual hustle and bustle we encounter there every summer. All wedding guests booked rooms in a small motel on Route 6A that overlooked the expansive Cape Cod Bay. In the courtyard of the motel, there was a huge white tent for the following day's reception, which meant a short walk (read: stumble) back to the room!

Low tide on the vast Cape Cod Bay

A look at downtown Provincetown in the distance.

Once settled, we drove a few miles north to Provincetown and dined at a very nice restaurant that lived up to its hype. Their martini list was longer than most menus I've seen, but the thing I enjoyed most were the oysters on the half shell, which were plucked from Wellfleet waters that very day.

Wellfleet oysters are a must when on Cape Cod! They are some of the best in the world.
Being on the Cape in October, it was pretty much mandatory to sneak in some fishing time. So after a nice catnap, I found myself driving down an empty Route 6 to the Cape Cod Canal. It's kind of ironic because I used to drive right over the Canal on my way to fish the back beaches of Truro and Provincetown without thinking twice about it. Now I was staying right in Truro and driving over an hour in the opposite direction. It just goes to show how fishing spots and habits change over time.

A few phone calls and emails to contacts in the Cape helped formulate my fishing plans that morning. Reports weren't excellent, yet there had been some striped bass cooperating in the Canal at night and first light. With coffee in hand, I strolled down the service road on the mainland-side of the Canal by 5 AM. It was just enough time to get in position and get my bearings before the sun came up. I was far from alone however, as the easy access and consistency of the Canal usually spells competition, especially at dawn.

The first hints of day break with the Sagamore Bridge in the background.
After posting up at a spot that I had never fished before, I began rotating through the ridiculous amount of lures I brought along.  There was a good deal of bait, young of the year herring was my guess, that were getting gobbled up by cormorants working in front of me. When I heard the first pop as the eastern sky began to brighten, I made the switch to surface lures.

A super tanker getting towed through the canal. Note the cormorant in the foreground.

There was a long line of anglers on both sides of the Canal with a respectable distance in between them. Unfortunately, no one was catching anything. Every once in a while a striper would crash baitfish on the surface, so at least we all knew there were fish to be had. The next plug out of my bag was a custom Super Strike Little Neck Popper that I had won through a contest on Facebook. It was a sinking 2 3/8-ounce version that is one of the best kept secrets in surfcasting because it's a popper that swims better than most swimmers.Not only does it have great action, the plug casts like a missile. In about a 30-minute span, I hooked three stripers using it, landing two of them, both feisty fish just under 20-pounds.

The custom Little Neck Popper
I was proud to catch those fish, especially because they were the only two I saw caught all morning. They were also the first bass I had taken on that lure and it was the first time I had caught fish on the mainland-side of the Canal. After a couple of hours and my head held high, I made the trek back to Truro and enjoyed the awesome wedding festivities. The ceremony was in a historic church in Provincetown, then we partied under the tent at the motel into the wee hours of the morning. One particular highlight for me was the raw bar. The groom and his wedding party were recreational tuna fishermen and landed three 60-pound  Bluefin earlier that week. Along with the tuna sashimi, Wellfleet Oyster & Clam Co. served up their finest shellfish. It was a perfect touch for a Cape Cod wedding.

Another top-water bass from the Cape Cod Canal

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fall Run Fun

I've been very fortunate to be part of some memorable fishing trips this fall. One particular experience that will stay with me for a long time involved three different states and insane amounts of fish. It started before dawn on a Monday in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. There, on a dock along the lower Connecticut River, I met friends Billy and Andrew and boarded an impressive boat, a Contender over 30-feet long with twin 250-horsepower outboard engines. Under brightening skies, we left the river mouth and set a course for Block Island.

Following a short, smooth run to the "Porkchop," we opted to take a quick look around its Great Salt Pond for signs of false albacore and bonito before getting to the meat of the trip, black sea bass fishing. As we slowly made our way through the Coast Guard channel, a helpful surfcaster let us know there was some life around with a point of his hand to water he couldn't reach. There was a small pod of false albacore speeding around the shallow pond, wreaking havoc on balls of bay anchovies. I had never seen albies in such a skinny, confined area before. Elation quickly turned to frustration, however, with the realization that these fish were much pickier than ones I had encountered in deeper, choppier water. We spent a good half hour giving in to temptation, but it proved fruitless in the end with only one long-distance-release and no other hook-ups.

After abandoning the fussy little tunny, we turned our attention to the primary reason we trekked to Block Island in the first place. Billy motored south and we posted up on the outskirts of Southwest Ledge, where I was given a crash course on bottom fishing for black sea bass. Thankfully, my partners that day were well versed on the subject and showed me the finer points of rigging and jigging for these delicious fish. We used rigs similar to what you would employ for summer flounder; some had hooks with colorful skirts around them below spinning metal blades that help attract fish. Whatever rig we went with, it was always tipped with some sort of bait. Andrew had secured several dozen mummichogs from the Connecticut River before the trip and had also brought along a box of frozen squid. Add in Billy’s leftover ballyhoo from a recent offshore outing and we had a nice menu for hungry sea bass to choose from.

With the help of good electronics, we honed in on broken, rocky bottom in a range of depths from 40 to 80-feet of water. Whenever Billy saw what he liked, he shut off the motor and we dropped down in a hurry using lead sinkers up to 12-ounces. As far as presentation, the tide and currents did much of the work for us. All we had to do was pay attention to the contour of the bottom by feel, reeling up or paying out line depending on the depth.

The bite started out on the slower side, but it picked up as we made our way to deeper water with the building tide. It seemed like every significant rock pile that we drifted over produced two or three keeper-sized fish to go with many more shorts. We knew to be ready when one of us latched on to a good fish because more often than not another one was hugging the same rock. A few of the better sea bass were over the four-pound mark and absolutely gorgeous fish, especially up close where you could see their brilliant blue hues.

By mid afternoon, the cooler was filled with enough tasty sea bass to warrant a break from food fishing. We decided to make the 11-mile run over to Montauk for the turn of the tide and to check if the epic fall blitzes it was known for had materialized yet. I had been to "The End" only once before and did not get to experience the craziness that I had read about and seen in photographs so many times. Much to our delight, this trip would be quite different.  

Even from over a mile away and cruising at 40 miles per hour, we could still make out dozens of boats dotting the water around the famous lighthouse. As we inched closer, it became more apparent that we were about to witness a special evening of fishing. When we arrived to the outer rips, there were individual pods of false albacore busting as far as the eye could see. Billy set us up for a long drift and we were into fish instantly with multiple double and even triple hook-ups. Over the next couple hours, the fancy footwork on board the Contender would have made the cast of Dancing With The Stars green with envy. Soft-plastics, metal, flies - it didn't matter. Anything remotely close to representing a bay anchovy was getting destroyed if albies were within reach.

There was enough action happening along the outer rips that each boat was playing nice and working their own patch of productive water. In tight to shore was another story altogether. We made sure to stay well out of casting range of surfcasters, but the same cannot be said for other boaters that were drawn into the ensuing chaos like moths to a flame. Tens of thousands of striped bass and false albacore were whipping the water into a white froth and every single angler that put an offering anywhere close to this mess was doubled over, which of course resulted in some crossed lines and headaches. More than once I had the urge to let loose a cast into the melee, but thought better of it. Instead I broke out the camera and just watched the madness unfold. I had heard about these blitzes, but to see them up close was pretty amazing – just a surreal amount of feeding going. It wasn't all just small stripers either. Andrew took advantage of a nice space between boats and hooked into a plump keeper-sized bass and we saw others reel in bigger.

As the sun began to creep lower in the sky, the blitzes worked north and west around the point. We followed the party since it was on the way back home and were treated to a spectacular sunset in the distance. On cue, the surface action began to subside with the dropping sun and one by one the boats headed for the barn. Unlike most of them that headed to marinas on Long Island, we had a much longer trip across the Sound in the now-sporty seas. The Contender plowed right through the swell at high speed and we held on tight for an entertaining ride home.  Back at the dock, Andrew and I cleaned the boat as Billy filleted the day’s haul. We each brought home a freezer bag full of sea bass meat, but it never made it to the freezer. I split my share between some family and friends that all reported back with rave reviews. The phenomenal meals on top of incredible fishing made for one hell of a fall trip. I cannot wait to do it all over again next year!