Friday, May 25, 2012

Young Grasshopper

None of my three brothers ever acquired the fishing bug quite like I did, yet they all have dabbled with it at one time or another. My younger brother Garrett's interest in fishing has been growing steadily over the last few years. His progression started like mine, innocently enough with spin fishing for trout in a couple of local streams. He eventually made the leap to saltwater a couple years ago, experiencing the tug of his first striped bass just a few miles from home. Curiosity about fly fishing and the want for more technical trout water finally got the best of him this spring. Finally, a few weekends ago, a perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone presented itself and we took advantage.

On an overcast morning in early May, Garrett and I drove north for his first taste of Connecticut's Farmington River. During the hour-plus ride up Route 8, we covered the basics of fly fishing and hatched a game plan. Since my last few family member-guided trips have ended with the smell of skunk, pressure was on to come through with this one. But unlike the other outings, timing was on our side with a manageable flow and copious amount of trout and bugs in the river.

Having heard about this place and its big fish for years, his first reaction was awesome as we crossed the steel bridge stretching over the famed Church Pool. The Farmington was big water compared to the Wepawaug back home!  As usual for a late-spring weekend, the river had a good number of anglers lining its popular pools.  But like it was meant to be, a classic nymphing run with special significance was wide open for us.

Aaron teaching Garrett the finer points of indicator nymphing

Garrett had as much as a half hour fly fishing lesson in the backyard before our trip, yet he took to it like white on rice. We focused on a couple different nymphing techniques and it wasn't long before he was making quality drifts along fishy-looking current seams. After a couple of fly changes, his line suddenly went tight as it swung downstream. The trout quickly came unbuttoned, but at least we found something they liked. His next good drift stopped dead in its tracks and a feisty rainbow trout took to the air. I then realized that we hadn't covered fighting fish by this point and we both got a laugh as he winched it. Both his fighting skills and trout size would improve dramatically throughout the day, though I was already one proud dude.

Teacher and young grasshopper with an acrobatic rainbow trout (photo credit: Aaron Swanson)

The student pricked a few more rainbows and a larger brown trout before Aaron showed up. It was great to have another teacher there for different approach and perspective, but also to snap some photographs that we'll get to look back on for years to come. The highlight of every one's day was when Garrett hooked and landed an 18-inch brown trout, which wasn't a recent ward of the state either! The pitch in my voice changed a few notes when I saw the fish for the first time. I can't recall just how many years it was before my first trout over that magic number, but it would take more than one hand to count. 

Garrett with his very nice 18-inch brown trout!

It was one of those rare days when everything went right for us. The kid got pretty spoiled actually, bringing about 10 trout to the net and dropping several others. The teachers had just as much fun watching the student get in a groove and bang out one after another for a while. Thankfully he's heard me bitch about getting skunked my share of times to realize fishless trips are part of the game. I'm looking forward to bringing him along again soon, as well as other family and friends too because that what it's all about - sharing the passion with the people you care about!

Oh ya, I caught a few too...

(Photo credit: Aaron Swanson)

(Photo credit: Aaron Swanson)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Noteworthy Catches

Spring fishing is in full swing across the Northeast. In both fresh and saltwater, anglers are reeling in remarkable fish. Here is the skinny about two friends of mine that just scored personal best catches for the species they target most.

Over the last few years, Matt Janiszewski, an old colleague of mine from a seasonal gig with CT DEEP, has poured countless hours into pursuing carp. Now living in New Jersey, he and a few other hardcore have been enjoying untapped carp grounds. Last year he landed several fish over 30-pounds and a handful that surpassed the 40-pound mark. Earlier this month he bumped it up a notch and landed a would-be New Jersey state record common carp of 53-pounds 12-ounces! He weighed the fish with a witness and snapped some great photos, but there was no question this pre-spawn momma was going back into the drink. Even though he smashed the current carp record in New Jersey by six whole pounds, his catch won't be recognized because it wasn't "officially" weighed-in (read: killed). Hats off to Matt on a beast of a fish! I have a feeling that he will have another go with this one in the future when she's even larger.

Carp bum Matt Janiszewski with a fish that smashed the current NJ record by a whopping six pounds!

More recent and closer to home, a well-deserving fellow Connecticut Surfcasters Association member landed a fish of a lifetime in the wee hours of Sunday morning, a surf-caught 55-pound 5-ounce striped bass. Rich Morris is the kind of guy that talks softly, but carries a big stick. He is a great ambassador of our fishing club and for the sport of surfcasting. I've had some good conversations with Rich and was lucky to share the boulder fields of Block Island with him a few years ago. To hook and land this incredible striped bass in the Connecticut surf is an amazing accomplishment, let alone in the month of May. Often-overlooked as a world class striper fishery, this little state that could is racking up an impressive track record. Kudos to you, Rich!

CT Surfcasters Association's Rich Morris with the catch of a lifetime (photo credit: Toby Lapinski)

Editor's note: Since this was posted, another friend and very accomplished angler, Captain Blaine Anderson, landed one of the largest known striped bass ever to be caught from Connecticut waters. The estimated 74.75-pound beast (57.5" long; 32.25" girth) ate a live scup on an eastern Long Island Sound rock pile during the morning of May 23, 2012. Blaine tried to revive her to the best of his ability, but the taxing fight proved too much. In the striper's stomach were two summer flounder, two skate and an eel!  Here is Blaine's account of the ordeal with some great photos and below that is a video, which may be the largest striped bass ever filmed alive:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Opening Daze 2012

Each year it seems the anticipation for Opening Day of Connecticut's trout season builds for months, yet the weekend celebration passes in the blink of an eye. A camping trip along the Farmington River surrounding the third Saturday in April has been a can't-miss tradition for my uncle, close friends and I for a long time (small sampling: 2010 and 2011).  For three nights and four days, we immerse ourselves in fine food and drink around a campfire and even manage to educate a few trout along the way.

The river and weather conditions this year were unlike any other since my uncle began including me on this sacred weekend.  The region hadn't seen substantial rain for weeks leading up to the trip and our waterways were reflecting that with very low flows. It was strange to see and fish the Farmington in her August-like state in the month of April.  In addition, the weather wasn't what we have come to expect for the usually cold and wet Opening Day weekend.  With the exception of our final day, we remained warm and dry throughout our stay, even fishing comfortably in T-shirts!

During my first few years involved in this tradition, I mistakenly believed the trip was solely about fishing. I used to grow anxious when we weren't beating the water into a froth and other anglers were. Over time, I came to realize that our annual stint in the woods was much more about getting away from the every day grind and enjoying camp life. Now there is no pressure to be on the water by a certain time. Thanks to year-round catch and release areas, we get our fill of trout fishing long before Opening Day comes around. This allows us to focus on the often overlooked things that we don't always get to do back home, like carving walking sticks, flora and fauna identification, learning knots, sharing Native American artifacts, cooking over a Coleman, chopping kindling, and reliving classic stories from years past.

If there is an overarching theme of the weekend, it could be argued that it is food. Each year we try to out-do the previous year's menu. When not on the water or conked out in sleeping bags, almost all hours of the weekend are spent eating or preparing the next meal. Fresh clams from Long Island Sound were a welcomed addition a few years ago; now oysters have been thrown into the mix and I doubt there will another trip without them. Along with the dozens slurped raw, my uncle shared his roasted oyster recipe that was one of the big hits this year. Each shucked oyster received a dollop of butter, cream and garlic then were roasted in a cast iron skillet over the camp fire until the edges of the mollusks began curling away from their shells They were extremely delicious and couldn't have been more fresh.

Shellfish were just the beginning. On our first evening, we enjoyed a fine codfish dinner with asparagus and wild rice. The following night we had our annual fire-cooked steak and potatoes that were baked in deep in the coals. Not to be overlooked were the natural-skin hot dogs that would rival any other I've ever had. Before each dinner was the obligatory cheese platter along with Aaron's addition of presunto, a tasty Portuguese cured ham. Right up there with our excellent dinners were our hungry man's breakfasts, which included egg sandwiches, bowls of cheerios, and, of course, Entenmann's raspberry danish twist. We finally got on the water between our late breakfasts and later dinners and survived off snacks stuffed in our backpacks in between.

Fly fishing for trout is how this tradition began and we make sure to carve out plenty of time for it every year. Overall, the Farmington River fished fairly well during our stay despite the low water. The recent trout stockings kept everyone entertained and the group managed to tangle with a few older resident fish as well. Aiding our cause was the earlier-than-normal onset of the hendrickson hatch. The various life cycles of these mighty mayflies provided consistent action with a good spinner fall on night one, decent dun hatches each afternoon and pretty good nymphing throughout the weekend using pheasant tail patterns. 

It's not always easy finding water that can fit a crew of four, sometimes five, anglers in it, especially on a weekend as crowded as Opening Day. However, every year we manage to get off the beaten path and set up shop in pools where we can relax, take turns fishing and enjoy ourselves. As great as it is fooling and landing trout on a fly rod, it can be just as fun watching my uncle or friends, who I share this passion with, do the same.

After we put our tents away on Sunday, as on cue, the sky opened up and the river began quenching its thirst. Another memorable Opening Day weekend is now in the books and spring trout fishing is starting to lose its prominence in our hectic schedules as other things take over, none more so than the hunt for migrating striped bass. I know,  however, when next fall changes into winter, and a bunch of guys sit around a table to tie flies, talk of a weekend camping trip in April will bring smiles to everyone's faces and the anticipation will again start to build.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

April Come She Will

April is one of my favorite months, but this year, unlike the famous Simon and Garfunkel's lyrics, our streams have been far from swelled with rain. Quite the contrary, Connecticut's waterways have more resembled late summer levels this spring. Nonetheless, the trout fishing has been quite good, it has just required a little more stealth and patience from anglers. 

Like many things in nature, the anxiously awaited hendrickson hatch arrived a bit early this spring. Unlike most years, the first large mayflies emerged from the surface film of the Farmington River well before our annual camping trip for the trout season opener. Whether it was morning nymphing, mid-afternoon dun hatches, or evening spinner-falls, each life cycle phase of these delectable bugs provided some great opportunities for fly fishermen.

The three-tailed trout crack came early like everything else this spring.

A Survivor with a left-orange elastomer tag that was stocked in 2010

Newfound Confidence

For each species of fish that we anglers target, there are a few symbolic catches each year. Whether it's the first fish or the biggest or one caught by a certain method, some catches will stand out more than others when looking back during a cold winter day. Well last night, the last night of April, I landed my first keeper-sized striped bass of the 2012 season, as did two of my friends. The three chunky bass were caught within 10 minutes of each other, all on plastic or wooden swimming plugs. The lures mimicked well what these fish were hunting, andadromous river herring. We could see schools of the baitfish pushing water on the surface and stripers were undoubtedly picking them off underneath. 

A seven-inch jointed, plastic swimmer was the first lure out of my bag. It's color pattern was called chicken-scratch and it was on my short list of confidence plugs.  The battle scars it wore, also referred to as 'mojo', proved that it was a catcher. The lure cut through the black water like a snake slithering in wet grass. But for a half hour, all I felt was one subtle bump, perhaps a striper second guessing at the last minute. Then I reached for another offering in my bag, a wooden metal-lip swimmer on loan from a friend who doesn't live as close to the brine. The plug was handmade by a Connecticut builder and given to my buddy by a tackle shop owner now carrying them. Feedback was needed on how it swam and last night's flat calm water was a fine testing ground.

On my very first cast with it, after only a few cranks of the reel, a striped bass clobbered the plug as it tail-wagged across the surface. A few short bursts of the drag sung out and the fish was soon bested on the muddy bank. I snapped a quick cell phone photograph to document my first legal bass of the season and sent the future cow back on its way. My two friends each landed fatties and hooked two others; one of the stripers was clearly in a bigger class, yet that one spit the hook unfortunately. All in all, with a symbolic catch and a plug with newfound confidence, it was a fun night of fishing.

First 2012 keeper bass caught on a Lloyd's Lures metal-lip plug