Sunday, February 28, 2016

Strange Days

What a strange ice fishing season it was here in the Northeast. We had a late start, an early finish, and not a whole lot of great ice in between. This was by a long shot the least amount of hours I’ve spent ice fishing over the course of a winter since I started. I didn’t even pick up a jigging rod once! On the few trips I went on it was all about tip-ups and toothy critters. But the abbreviated season made those outings all the more significant and I was extremely fortunate to be a part of some quality catches. Three trips—three fish—all over three feet long. And I may not have caught any of them if it wasn’t for friends—Aaron essentially put me on both my pike and I have Matt to thank for my muskie. Until next ice season...

Friday, February 26, 2016

Pinch Me

I’ve been fishing with my buddy Matt since we worked together in the Inland Fisheries Division after college. In our circle of fishing friends, we kid that he’s always been a magnet for big fish. Whether it is trophy pike, breeder trout or record carp, he just has a knack for culling out large fish, often times while the rest of us are catching squat and left scratching our heads. I respect Matt for always doing things his own way too—he’s never had the most expensive gear or followed any of the latest fishing trends.

Sax Matt, as we like to call him (he’s a saxophone player if you couldn’t guess), has been busy dialing into new fisheries since moving from Connecticut in 2006. His latest conquest is muskellunge. Save for one private body of water, my home state doesn’t offer any muskie opportunities, so Matt’s open invite to join him has peaked my interest over the years. Yet it wasn’t until this winter as I was sitting at work, on my birthday no less, when a text from Sax Matt pushed me over the edge. He sent pics of three big pure-strain muskie he had just caught and released through a few inches of black ice. In the following days, Matt kept adding fuel to the fire with more muskie pics, culminating with a 46-inch beast of a fish. It was finally time to pay Matt a visit before the little ice we were blessed with this strange season disappeared.

It was 3:30 in the morning when Aaron and I rendezvoused to consolidate our ice gear into one vehicle. During the long drive, we both agreed that if we just laid eyes on one muskie that the trip would be considered a success. By 8:30 a.m. our host had landed three—two beautiful pure-strains and a tiger. That’s Sax Matt for you—all of our traps were near each other and rigged with the same bait, yet he puts three fish on the ice before Aaron and I get a flag. It didn’t matter, we were all happy as pigs in shit. I gather catching three muskie in little over two hours is pretty damned good considering their nickname is fish of a thousand casts. While they weren’t giant in terms of the size they can potentially reach, these were very respectable fish and it was amazing to see the apex predators in the flesh for the first time.

After the morning rush, things settled down for a few hours. A few of Matt’s buddies joined us on the ice and it was great bullshitting and passing the whiskey bottle around. At 11 a.m. I was digging into a late oatmeal breakfast when one of my flags closest to home base went up. As I peered down the hole, the tip-up spool was spinning slow and steady with the black Dacron line off to the side. Matt was confident there was a fish was on the business end and instructed me to set the hook. I did as told and the dance began. I could immediately tell there was weight to the fish, but I was hesitant to make any kind of prediction. After a few solid runs, a thick midsection flashed under the ice. As with the long body of a big pike, it was a little tricky getting the muskie’s head in the hole, but it helped that we had chiseled our eight-inch auger holes wider that morning. When the fish’s big snout finally came up, I backed up, Matt helped slide it on the ice and I let out a war whoop. This was by far the largest specimen I had ever caught while ice fishing—a truly amazing fish for me; clean, long, thick, beautiful, and full of teeth.

After removing the hook and some quick documentation, she kicked away strong from my trembling hands. The muskie taped out to 42 inches long. For the weight, Matt intelligently brings a sling popular among carp anglers out on the ice with him. This not only protects muskie from beating themselves up by flopping around on jagged ice, but it’s also great tool for weighing heavy fish. Instead of hanging them vertically from a 60-pound Boga grip, he cradles the fish in the sling and weighs the whole package. By subtracting the tare weight of the wet sling from the gross weight with the muskie inside, we came up with a net weight of 20-pounds and change.

It hardly mattered that I was operating on 90 minutes of sleep from the night before, from that point on I was running on pure adrenaline. The experience didn’t even feel real. It was difficult for me to register what had just happened. The rest of the day wore on with little action, but no one was packing it in early. We stayed until complete darkness with not another fish to show. I thanked Aaron, Matt and his friends profusely for all their help in hooking, landing and documenting that fish of a lifetime for me. I stumbled in the door that night around 9:30 p.m. and it still hadn’t truly soaked in yet. The next day I was on full time daddy duty and I nary spoke a word of the experience, but it replayed in my head the whole time. Even a week later it still doesn’t feel real. The lake we were ice fishing on Saturday is open water now. On the verge of what is likely the last ice fishing outing of the year, Aaron texted me at work, “That trip was like a dream. Did it even happen?”

It did and I’ll be forever thankful for it.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Ice That Binds

The shelter was packed—a mishmash of anglers, camp chairs, jigging rods, electronics, and bottles of booze. Between us and our gear, we were stuffed like sausages in the big red Eskimo, but no one was complaining; hell, it was a goddamn blast. The more lines we had in the water, the hotter the bite got, and it hardly mattered that the fish coming through the ice were a mere six-inches long. We were targeting mouthwatering rainbow smelt; some to use as trout bait for that outing, some for personal consumption later that day. Smoke and laughter bellowed from the shanty doors when they opened to the blustery, bluebird day outside. The shelter’s inhabitants came from all corners of the state; a group of characters that hadn’t all been in the same space since the last smelting trip years prior. It was a common bond of ice fishing that brought us together again.

More than any other type of angling, ice fishing bleeds camaraderie. Unlike surfcasting that can be unsociable at best in the deep hours of the night or fly fishing among standoffish anglers in pressured trout waters, ice fishing is largely about fellowship. From erecting a pop-up shelter in 20-knot winds to tending your buddy’s tip-up line while he plays a big pike to being a sous-chef while bacon sizzles on a 40-year old Coleman grill, ice fishing goes hand in hand with teamwork. That unity is one of the biggest draws for me. That sense of togetherness, more so than safety in numbers, is why I never ice fish alone. What would be the point in that?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Jigging The King

It's been a trying winter for ice anglers across the Northeast--a one step forward, two steps back kind of season. Frankly, there are not a whole lot of fishable venues to get excited about and the conditions of what ice there is is questionable. I've been out just once so far and chose not to go a few other times. It's been so bad that last night I found myself reliving ice trips of the past through photos and video footage. As heavy rains pelted my roof and the thermometer hovered over 50 degrees, I put the final touches on a project from a road trip last January to the Adirondacks. It was an awesome memory with some of the best ice I've ever stepped foot on. While it would take close to a miracle for Lake George to lock up over the next few weeks, we fishermen are an optimistic lot. In the meantime, I'll watch this video a few more times and keep a hopeful eye on the long-term forecast.