Sunday, April 28, 2013

What It's All About

Like many anglers, I am big on traditions, and the grandaddy of them all in my book is Opening Day of trout fishing season. It's been nearly two decades since my first Opening Day celebration, which has grown and morphed over time into what is easily my favorite trip of the year. It is a tradition, God willing, that our crew will continue recognizing until we are physically unable to do so. The hope is, when that day comes, a new generation will pick up the torch and carry it on, but they need to be shown the light first. This year's trip brought us one step closer to that reality, as we introduced new blood to our cherished Opening Day rituals.

Max, my 13-year-old cousin and youngest son of the trip founder, experienced Opening Day weekend in all its glory this year. Between the sampling of weather, camping, incredible food (which deserves its own post), camaraderie and fishing, it couldn't have been drafted up any better--just a textbook Opening Day like we'd been doing it for a while or something. The kid was absolutely blown away like I was for my first time about his same age. Everyone in the group took their time to teach Max the "right" way to do things, from whittling walking sticks to mending a fly line. I may be biased, but he is a natural with a fly rod. We all caught ourselves shaking our heads on the riverbank just watching his nearly perfect casts and drifts. And when he fought and landed his first feisty rainbow trout on the long rod, there was a well deserved photo shoot, high fives and smiles all around.

Every Opening Day is special and looked forward to, but this one was on another level and rightly so. A new member has been sworn into our crew and another ambassador to the sport has been created. We were treated to a glimpse of the future of Opening Day and I'm proud to say the future looks bright. 

It always starts at the woodpile.

Derrick spinning flies under lantern light.

Chef Aaron mans one of the Coleman grills.

A meeting of the minds about fly selection.

If the rocks around this firepit could talk...
A fine looking campsite.

Gearing up before a full day on the water.

Learning from the master.

Enjoying the show from the bank.

Max's first trout on the fly!  I can't tell who's happier.
He's getting "the look" down now.

Dad showing son what the stocked trout grow up to be.

The obligatory group shot with a new addition.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Spring Into Action

Ever since I could hold a fishing rod, springtime and trout have been closely intertwined in my life. In the month of April, I'm perfectly content being knee-deep in a cold stream while bugs are hatching off the water and birds are singing their hearts out. I love the warm spring sun shining on my face and I can't get enough of the lush green leaves when they first sprout from their buds. The trout fishing can be pretty good too. I've made two trips to the Farmington River so far this spring and was rewarded with one nice holdover trout each visit. I'll take quality over quantity nine times out of 10. Action on our rivers and streams should only intensify over the next few weeks as the bug life kicks it into high gear. I am ready for it.

(photo credit: Aaron Swanson)

In late March, I stumbled upon the remains of an eight-point buck along the banks of the Farmington River. Shed or not, it was the first set of antlers I've ever come across. There was no visible evidence on how the deer died, but my first guess was that it was shot during hunting season and never found. That or struck by a car, but this stretch of river wasn't along any road. With my boot on its skull, I tried like hell to pry the antlers free to no avail. I returned the next chance I could three weeks later half expecting them not to be there. Thankfully the antlers were still intact and this time I had a hack saw. A fellow angler saw what I was up to and crossed the river to lend a hand. He was a hunter and a little upset to see the deer "go to waste," but I was going home with the antlers and many a critter feasted on the corpse since it died, though I understood what he meant. The rack will look good over a garage someday.

An April morning's haul of sea glass from the shores of Long Island Sound.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The King

Fishermen have long had a love/hate relationship with the Internet. On one hand it has turned us on to new angling opportunities, methods, spots, and the list goes on. On the other hand, everyone and their brother has access to that same information, which can lead to overcrowding, overfishing, loss of access, and that list goes on too. Whatever your school of thought about fishing and the Internet, at least two things are true: 1) you're reading this now thanks to it, and 2) it has connected all of us to other like-minded anglers. 

A fine example of the latter is my friendship with a fellow fish bum named Jon that I met through CTFisherman. For years now, Jon and I have shared valuable fishing information back and forth from our respective experiences on the water and ice. I love writing publicly, but I also enjoy having a small circle of anglers that I can confide in about a hot bite or a certain spot without the whole fishing community able to find out. Jon is a good guy to have in your circle. 

A few years ago, he moved from Connecticut to New York, which put him a stone's throw away from some incredible fishing opportunities, none more so than through the ice of Lake George (affectionately referred to some as "The King" due to its namesake, King George II). In the last few years, Jon has established himself among a pack of lake trout gurus, which has really helped cut his learning curve on Lake George and dial-in his jigging technique.It didn't matter much in 2012 as the massive lake never froze, but this past winter was another story when Jon iced over 100 lakers before I realized what I was missing just a little over three hours away.

News from Jon about a good bite materializing on The King started coming in early February. There was an open invitation, but it was difficult to commit to a weekend in the Adirondacks with a trip to Maine already scheduled. It wasn't until the ride home from the Sebago skunking when I made up my mind to continue the quest for lake trout the following weekend. Who knows when the next time this kind of opportunity would present itself? With the blessing from the home front, it was all systems go to New York with my good buddy Aaron on board and anxious as me. 

The only missing piece was Jon. He couldn't join us that weekend, yet was more than happy to offer a weekend of lake trout fishing on a silver platter in the form of access points, GPS coordinates, and advice on everything from tackle to technique. All we had to do was show up and show up we did on a Saturday morning in late February. For the next two days Aaron and I didn't do much other than fish our brains out for lake trout. We barely ate, drank or stopped to soak in the scenery. It was a constant state of working to figure out the continuous stream of lake trout showing up on our electronics. It was ice fishing at a furious pace and we loved every second of it. I'll save the rest of the story for another time and let the photos and video speak for themselves. Thanks again, Jon!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

When Going Gets Tough

It began smack in the middle of February with my yearly journey to see a longtime fishing buddy, Wayne from Maine. For weeks leading up to the trip, I anxiously watched weather forecasts waiting for a windless cold snap that never came. Instead, Sebago Lake remained mostly ice-free for the second year in a row and the annual lake trout derby we've built a tradition around was canceled again. Even though the Big Bay would've required a boat to fish, thankfully two of Sebago's smaller bays had enough ice for our liking and our plans to chase "togue" remained intact.

As always on the eve of our first day of fishing, we made the customary stop to oldschool Jordan's General Store nestled on Sebago Lake's western shore. Jordan's is a tiny one-stop shop for essentials like bait, beer and recent intel from Greg Cutting, the resident lake trout whisperer. Greg had been ice fishing Sebago the past three days with very little to show for it, but he assured us the fish had to eat eventually and why not during the two days I was in town?  Just before leaving, we huddled around a big bathymetric map on the wall and picked a spot that had treated us well in the past; one that could be reached on foot and offered a nice array of drop-offs that lakers seem to love.

Ice huts dot Sebago Lake's Lower Bay

A collection of Swedish Pimples, a tried and true lake trout lure.

After a fun night of catching up over drinks and darts, we gave the sun time to creep up before staking our claim between a few groups already established on Sebago's Lower Bay. In depths ranging from 40 to over 100 feet of water, our crew of four set a large spread of tip-ups with dead suckers on bottom and live smelt hanging just off. In between I drilled a few dozen extra holes for jigging, which is easily my favorite way to fish for lakers. It had been exactly one year since I'd last targeted them and optimism was high right out of the gate. Weather conditions seemed fishy and we dropped down everything but the kitchen sink, yet I can count on one hand the amount of marks that showed up on the electronics that day. Still, a tough outing on Sebago was nothing new for us, nor did it keep us from having a blast in a most beautiful winter setting. Plus we still had a whole day of ice fishing ahead of us, right?

It's a proven fact that breakfast sandwiches taste better on Sebago Lake

Tools of the trade

Jigging like a madman

Day 2: Hell on Ice

When I awoke in the dark the following morning, the wind was already howling and there was a fresh coat of snow covering the ground. The forecast for the day wasn't a good one, but we were accustomed to nasty weather, especially on derby weekend. It became clear just how bad it was going to be while we were unloading our gear in the empty lakeside parking lot. No one, I repeat, no one else was stubborn (read dumb) enough to be out in those punishing conditions, but Wayne and I only get to ice fish together one weekend a year so it wasn't up for debate. 

The chosen location was a different spot than the day before and required about a mile trek to where two points bottleneck the bay. The spot looked great on paper and it made sense to try an area where lake trout could easily ambush prey. The only bad thing about walking a mile to a spot is the walk back and we probably definitely would have abandoned the plan if the wind was in our face to start. Instead we trudged single file in each others footsteps to our destination over 80 feet of water. The pop-up shelter would be a Godsend this day and we all had to work together to make sure it didn't blow across the lake while setting it up. Once everything was anchored down, I drilled some holes inside the hut and set up shop. Wayne, his son and friend were crazy enough to set traps outside, but I focused my efforts inside and hoped the lake trout would come to me.

Even the little things were tough on day two

Brutal is the first word that comes to mind when describing conditions on day two. The situation was so hellish outside the shelter that it easily ranked among the top three worst weather days I've ever fished in. Nevertheless, we still had our chances to hook up. Over the course of the morning, about a half dozen trout showed up on the screen and you could almost cut the tension with a knife each time it happened. No matter what we danced in front of their faces, we couldn't get them to chase.  

With a mile walk and a four hour drive hanging over me, it was an easy decision to call it a day before lunch. The next 45 minutes was something I wouldn't wish on my worse enemy. It was a head-down-hands-in-pockets walk back to the lot, only looking up every few minutes to make sure I was still on the right trajectory. Wayne and I can look back on it now and laugh, but it was tough day to be an ice fisherman. But it's tough days like that Sunday on Sebago that make the good days so sweet. And little did I know that I would have a couple really good days on another famous lake several hundred miles away just a week later.

The walk of shame

Friday, April 5, 2013

Lake George Road Trip

My ice fishing gear may be in storage for an eight month hiatus, but I'm still reliving trips from this past winter like they were yesterday. One that sticks out was a road trip to Lake George in New York. My buddy Jon who lives in that region had been telling me for years that I needed to get there. It was one of those things that I brushed off by saying, "I know, I know. Maybe next year!" Well the stars and moon aligned in February, and on the heels of a brutal skunking in Maine, my friend Aaron and I headed to the Adirondacks with hopes of better luck for lake trout. Unfortunately, Jon couldn't fish with us, but to say he put things on a silver platter for us would be an understatement. I'm talking GPS points right to the holes that he caught over 100 lake trout out of this winter. The two day binge was some of the most fun I've ever had on ice. We worked so hard we barely had time to eat or drink. The crazy part is, we were just truly getting dialed in on the trout right before it was time to head back to civilization. It's all good though, the Lake George seed has been planted and it's spreading like wildfire. Like Sebago Lake and Cuttyhunk, I have a feeling this trip will be an annual staple moving forward.

I hope to share more details about the road trip soon. In the meantime, here is our two days on Lake George boiled down to four minutes.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Loaded Red Fins

Cotton Cordell's Red Fin has long been a top producer for surfcasters targeting striped bass in shallow waters where slender baitfish like sand eels are prevalent. Right out of the package, these inexpensive plastic swimming lures will catch their share of fish. However, a simple modification to this classic lure will greatly increase its casting (and catching) ability certain situations.

Red Fins are hollow and light, which make them not good casters. A stiff breeze in your teeth will render them pretty useless unless the fish are right in the wash. This is where loading the swimmers comes into play. "Loading" Red Fins with water, oil or shot will allow anglers to cast them much farther in snotty conditions. What to load them with and how much boils down to personal preference. Some prefer water because it's simple while others like oil because water evaporates too quickly. Some anglers choose shot due to the rattle it makes inside the lure.

Surf fishermen have been loading Red Fins and many other hollow-bodied lures for decades. One such surfcaster, Steve McKenna of Rhode Island, has experienced incredible success with loaded Red Fins over the years. I recently caught up with Steve at Rivers End Tackle and filmed him showing how he currently loads these proven fish-catchers. Another modification not shown is swapping out the cheap hooks and split rings that come on the Red Fin for stronger versions, which is highly recommended when targeting trophy striped bass.

A loaded Red Fin is just another tool for your toolbox. There will be times when using one will be completely unnecessary, but there will also be nights featuring a heavy onshore wind and striped bass gorging on sand eels where a loaded Red Fin will be just what the doctor ordered.