Monday, January 30, 2012

636 Miles

Editor's note: This is a guest post by my long-time friend and fishing partner Aaron Swanson.   

This is a follow up to a story that I wrote for The Connecticut Yankee in August. Normally, I’d make some kind of comment here about how August feels so far away and I can only imagine the humidity in the middle of winter and… blah, blah, blah; truth be told it’s been WAY too warm lately and we’ll be fishing for stripers again before we know it. In fact, if you’re cool with catching sluggish holdovers on soft plastics on jig heads you could be out there doing it right now. You’d probably have more luck than I have through the ice this year! But I digress…

Back at the end of July/beginning of August (literally the calendar had just turned), I caught, posed for photos with and released my personal best striped bass deep in the night at an undisclosed location (wink, wink). To me, the bass was special for a few reasons. One being it was the largest I had ever caught. Another was that it caught from shore (I only fish saltwater from shore – for now). I caught it on my birthday, and lastly, it was a “tagged” fish. Now, this wasn’t the kind of tag your fish and game club sticks on some mutated breeder rainbow trout so your daughter can win her first Zebco push-button outfit. This fish had a yellow research tag implanted in its side marked “Tag# A24736. Reward, return to P.O. Box 769, Morehead City, North Carolina 28557.”

Now, none of these things taken by themselves are special at all. I’m a realist. People catch fish on their birthday all the time. People certainly catch much larger striped bass (cough…Myerson…cough), many of whom regularly catch multiple fish larger than that in a single outing. And plenty of anglers have caught tagged fish and returned the tag to its survey location/entity for their hat or pin or whatever. Some of the “best” anglers are even asked to participate in capturing and tagging fish for research… (I doubt anyone will ever ask me to do that). For me though, I thought all those things lining up in one night was pretty cool and if you don’t think so too then I don’t even know why you’re still reading at this point.

On Saturday, January 29th, 2012, I took a hard skunking on hardwater. I mean “hard” like fishing dark to dark, first one’s there last ones to leave, didn’t even get a flag where more than two feet of line was taken off my tip-up spool. That happens when you only target large fish with big dead baits; for me more often than not. So when I came home I was a bit tired, shot and frustrated that I haven’t been able to land a pike in my four times targeting them through the ice this year. Fortunately, my mood and energy level did a complete 180 when I found two exciting things had happened while I was staring at un-tripped orange flags all day. The first was that we finally trapped and killed the little bastard of a mouse that’s been chewing our place mats and leaving turds around our pots and pans in my kitchen cabinets. It was then, while I was taunting the dead carcass in celebration, that I noticed a large white envelope with the day’s mail on the island in the kitchen. Closer inspection revealed the package to be from North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Division of Marine Fisheries. Awesome! Along with my “reward” in the form of an embroidered hat, was a letter thanking me for my participation in their program and some details about the fish.

Now, for me, I could care less about any reward; but I will wear the hat with pride. The juicy information as far as I’m concerned was the where and when. I was not disappointed to read that the fish was tagged in Roanoke, Virginia in May of 2011 and had swam 636 miles before its recapture 89 days later in Long Island Sound. I really get a kick out of that because regardless how much you read about game fish migrations, unless you’re one of the guys who travels along with it, you tend to contact these fish at your point X,Y, or Z along their route. In short, it makes it real when you can see, touch and feel the tag and consequently read scientific data about where she’s been on her journey.

Again, normally I would be writing about “in the dead of winter” but we can hardly call it that at this point. Anyway, in the dead of winter I find it pretty cool to remember that right now, striped bass swimming and feeding from Virginia to North Carolina will soon be getting ready to make their run into large tributaries like the Chesapeake Bay. There they will feed and spawn before following baitfish to summer grounds from New Jersey to Maine; undoubtedly some of which I hope to make contact with while standing in Long Island Sound come May and beyond.


Aaron hoisting his personal best striped bass that traveled at least 636 miles in 89 days. 
Note the mark on her belly from where the tag came out of. 

The coveted reward and a cool reminder of a memorable August night. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Back In The Saddle

Ice fishermen are once again venturing on frozen Connecticut lakes and ponds. This has been a trying season so far for hardwater fanatics in the Nutmeg State, but finally there is at least a short list of places to take part in our favorite winter hobby. With Mother Nature being very indecisive lately, take full advantage of "safe ice" while it lasts. 

The start to our first trip of 2012 was met with extreme cold. There was a stiff north wind that blasted us in the face on the walk to our chosen destination. It was 12 below zero after factoring wind chill when setting up in pitch black. Hand-warmers stashed in our pockets helped bring our fingers back to life after each bone-chilling task. The roomy shelter and propane heaters also came up big, as did the 30-year old Coleman grill that cooked our breakfast and lunch. 

It is late January now, well past when we'd normally be first walking on water, so how that plays into typical early-ice action is yet to be determined. Whatever the case, the fishing was good overall for our inaugural weekend considering the species and the stingy location. Between four anglers, we lowered down two dozen large dead baits with hopes for some cooperative northern pike. They did not disappoint with some very respectable pike caught and released.

My first iced fish of 2012 (photo credit: Aaron Swanson)

Back down the hole (photo credit: Aaron Swanson)

Prepping for first kielbasa, egg & cheese sandwich of the season!

Chef Swanson manning the Coleman on a brisk morning.

Derrick Kirkpatrick of CT Fish Guides with a nice 38-inch pike that had a huge head.

A good fishing buddy and old colleague made the trek from New Jersey to join us. Matt drove through the night and met us in the parking lot an hour and a half before sunrise. Every time that we hit the ice together he seems to land memorable fish. Over the years, Matt has put in many hours on this body of water so it was great finally seeing her give back a little. He landed a 38-inch northern around lunch time, his largest ever from the lake. Not long afterwards, he topped it with a heavier pike of the same length from the same hole!  It capped off a trifecta of 38-inch pike for the first weekend of the 2012 ice fishing season - not a bad start!

Matt with his first 38-inch pike of the day.

The release shot

Matt with his second and heavier 38-incher of the outing.

Not a bad scene to walk off the ice with.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Beach Day

This should have been a post about my third or fourth ice fishing trip of the season so far, but apparently Old Man Winter didn't get the memo. So like many anglers across the region, I am making the best of the spring-like weather. With the lack of ice opportunities in Connecticut, a gorgeous January day on the banks of the Farmington River is a solid plan B. 

A few friends and I met bright and early at UpCountry Sportfishing, picked up a few supplies and hit the river, which was at a very manageable flow; the lowest it had been in weeks. There were trout surface-feeding on winter caddis as we suited up, but not enough to pull us away from dredging the bottom with various nymphs. It was slow going at first, but each of us eventually settled into brief grooves and pieced together a decent batch of rainbow and brown trout. If there was a magic fly that fish were keyed into, we couldn't figure it out, yet a variety of patterns produced, including golden stone flies, pheasant tails, winter caddis, and midge larvae. 

When winter hats and gloves come off by 10 AM in January and no ice is in forming in our guides that is what I call a beach day. With the stellar winter weather, the river was loaded with like-minded anglers. We turned the crowds into be a positive thing and forced ourselves to fish water that we often overlook. The highlight of my day was plucking a holdover rainbow trout on my first drift from a pool I had never fished before. We capped off the beautiful day on the tailgate of a friend's truck sipping beers and talking fishing. 

The long-term weather forecast doesn't look all that encouraging for anxious ice anglers in the Northeast, but at least we have some great options like the Farmington River to keep us at bay while waiting. 

Photo credit: Tommy Baranowski

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson

Friday, January 6, 2012

California Dreaming

My brother Gavin and his wife Gail moved from Connecticut to southern California about 12 years ago. While we hate not having them around here, it gives the rest of our family a great excuse to visit sunny San Diego as much as we can. This year, for the first time, the whole clan spent the week between Christmas and New Years on the West Coast together.   

We stayed right on the water in a laid back community called Pacific Beach. The stretch of coastline in front of our condo for the week was rich in marine life with boats fishing over kelp beds and pods of dolphins greeting us daily along the surf line. The waves were big enough to draw dozens of surfers everyday in thick neoprene wetsuits for the 58-degree water. Like it usual is there, the weather was beautiful throughout our stay and each day peaked around 70 degrees--not bad considering it was 11 degrees when we landed back home.  

Having the whole family together again was awesome. We enjoyed the perfect mix of relaxation and excursions, including trips to the Holiday Bowl football game featuring California vs. Texas, a San Diego State men's basketball game, Torrey Pines State Reserve, Cabrillo National Monument, and San Diego Zoo's Safari Park. Naturally I was also hellbent on doing a little fishing. Being the trooper that she is, my wife joined me early one morning for a half day of bottom fishing off the coast of La Jolla.
A view of the Pacific Beach pier from our balcony.

A small subset of the Pacific Beach surfers waiting for the right wave.

La Jolla surf
La Jolla harbor seals staying alive out of the water. 

La Jolla surf

A blanket of fog rolling in over Point Loma at Cabrillo National Monument. 

An eroding plateau at Torrey Pines State Reserve, one of only two places where the Torrey Pine grows. 

My brother's backyard is infested with Anna's Hummingbirds (see video below). 

Pacific Beach sunset

Fishing the La Jolla Kelp Beds

I had only fished twice before on the West Coast. Once on Lake Poway, which is known for trophy largemouth bass that feed on stocked rainbow trout. The other time was an August saltwater trip where we caught Pacific barracuda and yellowtail on a party boat. By late December the barracuda and yellowtail have long since left the area for warmer water, but plenty of angling opportunities remain especially over deep water kelp beds just north of San Diego. 

Mosey and I settled on a half day trip aboard aboard the 85-foot vessel, New Seaforth. Next to its dock was a fully outfitted tackle shop with its walls adorned with heavy, colorful jigs that we don't see much of back in Connecticut. We rented conventional rods and reel combos there and picked up one-day California fishing licenses. An employee gave us a bag of hooks and six-ounce lead drail weights to get our baits to the bottom in a hurry. The party boat included about 60 other anglers on board that morning, not my preferred manner of fishing, but an affordable way to get on the water.

A slew of colorful jigs hung on the wall of Seaforth's headquarters
There was a gorgeous false dawn on full display as we steamed from Mission Bay to the kelp beds off La Jolla. One of the mates sliced up whole squid into strips for our bait while another rounded up the first-timers to give us a primer. We were fishing for anything that was hungry on the sea floor and that could include a wide variety of species. I had been checking online for boat's recent fish counts leading up to the trip and the most common catches coming over the rail had been rockfish, California sheephead, Pacific mackerel, and kelp bass, all of which Mosey and I had never seen in person. Our rig was pretty straight forward and much like a "bounce rig" that I use while nymphing in trout streams. It consisted of a long leader of monofilament with our weight tied to the bottom. About a foot and a half above it was tied a dropper loop for our hook. Some anglers chose to add an additional dropper loop and hook, but it increased the chances of snagging kelp or tangling with other lines, which can happen often in an environment like that. 

Mosey's ready!
We enjoyed one hell of a sky that morning.
Conventional rods and reels resting in notches along the rail. 

Although there were sardines and anchovies too, squid strips were the bait of choice on this trip.

As we approached the fishing grounds, the surface came alive with migrating gray whales, pods of dolphins and harbor seals popping up around the boat. There were juvenile pelicans everywhere too and, though cool to see at first, turned out to be a major pain as they tried to steal our bait or fish, sometimes successfully.  We grabbed a handful of squid strips and a piece of real estate on the port side of the boat. When the Captain dropped anchor, we followed suit and dropped our rigs 95 feet to the bottom. The crew was extremely helpful in giving newbies an idea of how to present our baits properly. There was no jigging involved; we were to keep the sinker right on bottom and our baits steady above it, raising and lowering the rod as needed with the swell. Most of my reels at home are spooled with sensitive braided lines, which would have made it easier determining subtle bites from nearly 100 feet down. Mosey soon showed everyone how it was done and put us on the board with a nice California sheephead, which has many similarities to our tautog back home.   

There was a good crowd on board, but everyone played nice and caught some fish. 
Mosey with her catch of the day, a nice buck-tooth California sheephead. 
Each angler was given a number when they signed-in that morning, which coincided with a burlap bag on the boat to put the fish we wanted to take home. Mosey's sheephead was put in our bag for an afternoon cookout later that day. Everyone on board also chipped in $5 for a shot at the heaviest fish caught throughout the outing, known as the "pool fish" that adds a little competition to things. Over the next few hours, we landed the occasional fish and enjoyed the sights and sounds around us. Seeing the barnacle-encrusted gray whales migrating passed was worth the price of admission alone. Mosey and I both landed some feisty mackerel, which were sliced into bait strips when the squid ran out. Another wild looking fish we encountered was the rockfish, which is a loose term for a number of species in the Sebastes genus. Eventually, I brought in a respectable sheephead that temporarily had us in the running for the pool prize. We later grilled the rockfish and sheephead fillets wrapped in foil with olive oil, butter and onions. The whole family got to try these fish for the first time, which proved to be very tasty. All in all, the half day fishing trip was an excellent time and further added to a memorable week spent in California. We already miss the company and top-notch weather!

Rockfish sure love the taste of squid.
One of the mates aboard the New Seaforth filleting a rockfish.

My California sheephead, which resemble blackfish back east. 
The patience and knowledge of the New Seaforth's Captain and crew helped us have a very enjoyable experience.