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!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Little Tunny

Just as I'll always remember the first little tunny I ever caught back in 2009, I'll never forget my first one on the fly rod either. During a marathon day last fall, two seasoned anglers reintroduced me to the insanely addicting tug of false albacore. This year they were determined to get me out again under more favorable circumstances and I was hellbent on landing one on the fly. A few weeks ago, as the bite picked up in the waning days of summer, it was time for round two. 

On a crisp Monday morning, the three of us launched in Blaine's boat from Niantic and made a beeline eastward under a brightening sky. It didn't take long to find the telltale signs of false albacore feeding on small bait tight to shore. We were treated to quick glimpses of their green backs arching out of the water like porpoises. Unfortunately, gorging albies doesn't always translate into tight lines. They can become so dialed in on a specific food item like bay anchovies that anything but the real thing can go neglected. Downsizing offerings and tying them on light fluorocarbon lines can help, but it's far from a guarantee as we eventually accepted before moving to find less finicky fish.

Next we motored out to the waters around Fisher's Island and started making long drifts in rip currents adjacent to the island. Small pods of little tunny were popping up here and there, but never in the same place twice. They were up and down so fast that we only had one shot per encounter if a well-placed cast was made. Heavier offerings like Deadly Dicks, Shimano Waxwings and Sebile Magic Swimmers were able to reach fish busting on the far outskirts of the rip, while lighter, more erratic soft-plastic baits like Albie Snax and Zoom Super Flukes worked wonders when they were close to the boat. It's nice having a half dozen fishing rods on the boat, all rigged with a slightly different offering, to help figure out what the albies wanted most.
We caught more false albacore in that first hour on the water than we did during the entire trip last year. It was not what one would consider a hot and heavy bite, but we came across surfacing fish at nearly every spot we visited. Like the little tunny, we did a lot of moving around that day, eventually putting over 100 miles on the boat by day's end!  

(Photo credit: Blaine Anderson)

(Photo credit: Blaine Anderson)
(Photo credit: Blaine Anderson)

Every time we cut the engine and drifted close enough to a patch of boiling water, I reached for the long rod and tried like hell to place a fly into the melee. I am far from Lefty Kreh when it comes to casting a fly line, but it's not just about distance in this game, accuracy is important too. I had to guess what direction the albies were moving and attempt to lead the fish with my fly. Many times frustration ensued and I picked up the spinning rod again and joined my partners in the feeding frenzy. After a while of that, I stopped reaching for the crutch.

At the very last stop of the day, we were greeted by hundreds of fish smacking bait on the surface with birds working overhead. The problem was that the vast majority of them were bluefish around two pounds each. Every so often, you could make out the more pronounced splash of an albie mixed in, but getting to them before being whacked by a bluefish was difficult. I sacrificed several flies to their sharp teeth before coming tight with my prize. There was no mistaking what I had hooked, as it ripped line of my reel at a dizzying rate and had me into the oh shit! backing in seconds. It was a long fight, much longer than it took to wear them out on spinning gear, and at times it felt like my rod could snap as the albie bulldogged towards bottom under the boat. 

The most dangerous part of the fight came near its end, when I reeled my long leader through the guides of the rod. Another run could have spelled trouble at this point, but Andrew tail-grabbed it perfectly. I clenched the rod in my teeth and cradled the still-pulsating fish in my hands before firing it like a dart back into the water. I'm sure little tunny are fun to fight no matter what tackle you choose to catch them on, but battling one on the fly rod was the ultimate sense of accomplishment for me. It was something I am still proud of and will be for a long time to come.

(Photo credit: Blaine Anderson)
(Photo credit: Blaine Anderson)

It's not hard to comprehend the fascination that certain anglers in the Northeast have with these speedsters. For a fish that makes poor table fare and rarely surpasses 20-pounds, it's the false albacore's amazing fighting abilities, coupled with their brief stay here each year, that has earned them their popular reputation. As soon as an albie realizes it's hooked, an unearthly power is exerted from its aerodynamic body and a hard tuna tail propels it through the water at torpedo-like speeds. If you ever want to test the drag of a fishing reel, this is a good candidate for the job. They are a fish purely unmatched in speed and strength for its size. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Shock & Awe 2012

My buddy Cole and I recently carved out some time and drove up to the West Branch Farmington River. Fly rods were packed, but fishing wasn't the main draw of this particular trip. For a few days each September, employees of CT DEEP's Inland Fisheries Division gather on the upper Farmington to sample trout populations, as well as to bolster a unique stocking program. Our plan was to tag along for a couple hours before trying to drum up a trout or two of our own.

It was Cole's first time witnessing the art of 'electrofishing' and I hadn't since 2010. If you've never been a spectator for this it's quite an experience, especially if you like to see how many trout actually live in a healthy river. When fishing blue-ribbon water like the Farmington, you're only observing a tiny fraction of the camouflaged trout right at your feet. Yet when the biologists turn on those generators and the electricity starts flowing, it's amazing at the amount of life you truly begin to see.

The fun part for us was when the wooden carts trailing behind were full of trout and the crews took a break from shocking to identify, measure and count them, as well as cherry-pick the best candidates for successful spawning back at the hatchery. Anyone who has spent a significant time on the Farmington has tied into one of her beautiful holdover or wild brown trout before, but to see this many all together is nothing short of awesome. It really underlines how lucky we are to have this wonderful resource in Connecticut and to have the caring folks in the Inland Fisheries Division watching over it.

While we only visited for a little while, the crews went at this for three straight days, wading miles of stream and sampling over 1,200 trout, which were made up of 92% brown trout, 7% rainbow trout, 1% brook trout!  One of the highlights were the 193 young-of-year wild brown trout counted, which indicates that Farmington browns got off a great spawn last autumn despite the effects of Tropical Storm Irene. Also noteworthy was the abundance of slimy sculpins, which are an indicator fish of excellent water quality.

After a photo shoot and some politickin' with fisheries biologists, Cole and I downed sandwiches and headed upstream to find cooler water temperatures and a few willing trout. The water levels were extremely low due to the lack of rain and the fact they needed to be for sampling purposes. As beautiful as the setting was, the river just didn't look as appealing to me as she does in winter or springtime. I rarely target trout in the heat of summer or early fall, so I'll admit that I felt a little out of place.
Not far from the Goodwin Dam, we pulled over along a stretch of stream filled with fishy-looking pocket water. Cole and I opted to go small with three-weight fly rods and dropped tiny nymphs behind bushy dry flies. It was really cool to have a couple native brook trout smack our nymph patterns, especially when they made up just 1% of the entire sample a couple miles downstream. The bend in our rods rounded out a day well spent on the Farmington River and got me stoked for some colored-up brown trout in my net later this fall.

Cole hitting some pocket water with a classic bamboo rod.