Monday, July 30, 2012

Time Of The Season

Family, friends, fishing, fireflies, beach days, Wiffle ball, shish kabobs, steamers, cold beer; these are just a handful of things I look forward to every summer. And, as usual, summer is cruising along at warp speed, so I recommend sitting back and soaking it all in before autumn is at our doorstep. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; part of the allure of New England is the changing of the seasons and I can rattle of a dozen things I love about fall in short order. 

Nothing screams summer like a delicious bowl of freshly dug steamers.

As far as fishing goes, the story of the summer so far, at least locally, has been bunker; lots and lots of bunker. Many old salts around here say this is the most they've seen in a long time, which is great to hear. Unfortunately, for the most part, striped bass and bluefish haven't got the memo, yet that is, as big pods of the baitfish are milling around Long Island Sound virtually unnoticed by predators. Maybe it's because there are so many bunker schools that bass and blues can pick and choose which ones they want to harass. However, large gator blues are now starting to show up in better numbers and I think that's just what we need to concentrate these various bait schools and jump start the all-you-can-eat bunker buffet. Hopefully they stick around for a while and, barring a mass die-off, we could be in for one interesting fall... 

Dark, nervous patches of water amidst a sea blue are sure signs of schools of menhaden.

The stealthiness of a kayak allows one to more easily sneak up on pods of bait being harassed by bass and blues.
A midday striper plucked from underneath a bunker school.
One lazy Sunday in early July, I launched a kayak alone in western Long Island Sound. With zero wind or chop, the Sound looked more like a pond that afternoon, which made it easier spotting the dozens of different bait balls churning the water like butter. I paddled passed a few smaller pods until I saw the mother lode drifting towards me with the incoming tide. Within the middle of this dark patch of water I could hear welcomed signs of predators feeding. Thousands of menhaden rapidly jolting in unison as bluefish slashed through made loud, piercing "WHOOOSH" sounds. It was music to my ears.

I quickly let loose my weighted treble hook into the fray, took one crank of the reel and reared back my rod, instantly snagging an unlucky bunker. With a now-bleeding baitfish doing the work for me, I drifted with the slowly moving school until the unmistakable machine gun tap of a bluefish vibrated through my braided line. I set the hook and was happily treated to a brief Long Island Sound version of a "Nantucket Sleigh Ride," as my kayak was towed by the bulldog of a blue.The rest of the outing was rather anticlimactic with a keeper-sized striped bass fighting like a wet sock in comparison to the yellow-eyed demon. Predominantly a surfcaster, it's always fun for me to get in a yak and access normally hard-to-reach areas or to action that is out of casting range from shore.
Menhaden so densely packed that their yellow forked tails are breaching the water's surface.

Chunking with a fresh bunker head can be the ticket when live-lining is not getting the job done.
The influx of bunker locally has also made for a few good nights of chunking from shore. Not everyone is a fan of waiting for a fish to pick-up a cut piece of bait off bottom, but this isn't your father's way of chunking either. There is no spiking the rod, swilling beers or sitting down; the rod is always held in your hand and every little bump is felt, from spider crabs latching on your offering to a passing bunker brushing your line. When it comes to bait, it pays to be fresh. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a bait snob - if it's not same-day caught and stored on ice, I don't want it on the end of my line. You know when you have fresh bunker because it will retain its slime coat and have a distinct crunch when cut with a knife. The head with an inch or so of meat hanging of the back is the preferred piece; the rest is either used for chum or saved for reserves.

Put a fresh bunker head on your hook and hold on.

My biggest striped bass of the year so far was hooked and lost while chunking one night in the western Sound. Two friends and I went a few hours without a bite before I blurted out "well, tonight's not our night." As soon as the words left my lips, a fish picked-up my head piece and the Baitrunner let out a sound we all love to hear "zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!" I engaged the reel and laid back on something heavy on the other end. It took a few slow runs straight out before heading left towards trouble. Looking back, I think I could have horsed her in a little more with the setup I was using, but hindsight is always 20/20. It was dead high tide and the bass went directly over a rocky point that is exposed during low tide. I know exactly what erratic boulder sliced my braid like hot butter and left me wondering how big the fish I lost really was. They didn't all get away. My buddy Jason landed and released some nice stripers over the last few weeks, which was fun to be a part of. 

Jason reaping the results.
Releasing to be caught another night.

If' I'm not using bunker on hot summer nights then it's another form of bait, American eels. I own more artificial lures than I care to count, but it's a rare outing when I don't have an eel, live or dead, on my person. Simply put, our quarry have a hard time resisting them. It's pretty damn cool trapping eels in harbors and tidal creeks, but I also get my kicks off cherry-picking them from local bait shops. They are like slimy confidence in a black bucket. While it's been far from a banner season size-wise for our crew up to this point, most of the decent fish we have taken have come on eels.

This 28-pound bass sucked down an eel on the first cast of the night (Photo credit: Aaron Swanson)
Kurt with a beautiful 33-pounder  (Photo credit: Derrick Kirkpatrick)
A short swim enabled a shot at this late-night bass (Photo credit: Derrick Kirkpatrick).

Derrick releasing another nice eel-caught bass

This 15-pound blue fought nearly as good as it tasted  (Photo credit: Derrick Kirkpatrick)

A nice first-light striper before heading to work.

A rare boat-caught bass from a local reef (Photo credit: Curt Johnson)

As the saying goes, if fishing was just about catching fish, I would have stopped going a long time ago. It's not hard seeing the positive in a fishless outing when we put ourselves in such awesome situations. Whether fishing at daybreak, sundown or in the heart of darkness, there is always something that stops me in my tracks while retrieving a cast and reaffirms my love for this sport and the great outdoors.

Mosey showing off her casting skills on a local sandbar.

A spectacular sunset over Milford harbor.


  1. Nice read and nice photos.

    As always.

  2. Great stuff. Went clamming for the first time Saturday. Made a nice change to actual "catch" something ;-) Darned fine eating too.

    Nice write-up fella.


  3. awesome post and pics. where in western sound are you? if you are up to it, we could meet up and do a kayak fishing outing. i've seen the pods of bunker, but nothing working them.

  4. Thanks for reading, Gents.

    Jonny: Glad to hear about your clamming adventure. They are one of my favorites for sure.

    Ex-Ex: I live in Milford and do quite a bit of fishing there, not so much yakkin' though.

  5. great post and pics as always. I've been so busy haven't been to the shore in almost a month now. ARGGHHHH. Summer is slipping by way to fast as you said.