Saturday, November 3, 2018

Jigging In The Rain

It was the first Saturday of the fall blackfish season in Connecticut waters and three weekend warriors brimming with optimism pulled out of Milford harbor and veered east. The forecast called for a wet morningnot a driving rain, but steady showers throughout. With winds from the north to start, at least the ten minute ride out to the breakwalls was calm.

The first thing witnessed while approaching the tog grounds was a peregrine falcon perched on a slab of granite and another dive-bombing it. Those are badass birds that I don't see often, so it was taken as a good omen. After shaking the rust off in the anchoring department, we settled in with our stern tight to the outer wall in 15 feet of water. The rain didn't keep many at port; there was a long line of at least two dozen boats, all a respectable distance apartfar enough so you couldn't hear conversations, yet close enough so you could keep an eye on catch rates. Further proof this part of the breakwall was popular was the sheer amount of cut sections of rope tied to makeshift lumber anchors that were never retrieveda common yet ugly side of the sport.

We were outfitted with light conventional and spinning combos rigged with braided line, long leaders, and blackfish jigs. Vertical jigging for tog in shallow water is the only way I have ever fished for them. It's easy to detect hits and when you do connect, the battles are a ton of fun. Blackfish have incredible strength and bulldog immediately back to their rocky lairs when hooked. It pays to put the screws to them right away in order to pull them from structure, yet losing fish and tackle is inevitable. An unmistakable trait of tautog is that they are creatures of habitat; they're always glued to a craggy bottom and a couple feet in any direction, even a matter of inches, could make all the difference between finding fish and striking out. Water temperature also plays a critical role in knowing what depth to find blackfish, but I don't pretend to have that all figured out.

One thing I do know is that blackfish rifle through crabs. It will never cease to amaze me at just how well they can steal bait off a hook. There's always a fair share of swings and misses, but when you get a solid connection it's one of the coolest feelings in fishing. Mike bought a gross of Asian crabs and a box of greenies for good measure, so running out of bait wasn't a concern. There was fast action from the very first drop and if water clarity allowed for it, it would have been cool sending down my GoPro to witness the scene. We were anchored over a pile of fish; many of them smaller sized tog with some black sea bass and ugly oyster toadfish mixed in. It took a while to weed through the shorts and bycatch, but thankfully we found enough keepers to bring home for the table. A few brutes lost in the rocks we'll never know about, but that's part of what keeps it interesting.

As the morning wore on, the skies cleared and the wind ramped up. The action remained consistent, but I just ran out of time. There was a false sense of calm being tucked behind the breakwall, but the ride back to the harbor was much sportier in comparison to our morning commute. We were back on the dock by noon with some tasty fillets to show for it. Mike and Dan went home to cook their share up for lunch and I saved mine for a family dinner later that night. Both households prepared fried fish sandwiches that turned out amazing. From Long Island Sound to a Griswold cast iron pan in the same day is my kind of fresh! It's hard to mess up a blackfish meal—their white meat is delectable and anything but fishy tasting. And it's not a fish that my family eats often, so it was enjoyable to share with them. That very well could be my first and last blackfish outing of the year, but it sure was a memorable one.

Editor's note: Here's a quick edit from the GoPro footage in the rain. Enjoy!

Friday, October 12, 2018

Indigenous Fishes

Editor's note: Tradition has always been a common thread on this blog. The following guest post is a fine example of that, as Aaron Swanson details a unique camping and fishing trip that he and Tommy Baranowski have been going on the same weekend for years. They both captured great images that help tell the story.

Some friends and I make an annual overnight trip on Columbus Day weekend.  We hike into the wilderness and camp near a small blue line on a map, a stream far from any paved roads or signs of human development. 

I wonder what the mountain stream we fish each year on the weekend named for the fabled, if not modernly controversial, explorer looked like at the time he first stepped foot in America Hispaniola. If I had to guess, the river and its inhabitants look very much as they do today.  It isn’t the fish or the stream that has changed, but the humans that live in the area.  It is a tired point, but valid, that since European settlers colonized the place we call home the landscape has changed drastically. Much of our environment has been altered to the point where the kinds of life that once thrived here can no longer do so.  This remote mountain stream and its inhabitants are special. They have largely escaped the consequences wrought by discovery, exploration and settlement that create our shared history.

The point of this story is not to dissect the past.  Instead it is to share the enjoyment of being able to take what feels like a step back into it. The boulders and gorges that outline and dictate the flow of the stream seem so permanent.  We hop across them and find in their pools the fish that bring us to such a wild place.

Mind you, during this hike, we enjoy plenty of modern day comforts.  What started out years ago as a bare-bones hike and overnight fishing trip has, as many traditions tend to do, grown a bit more extravagant over the years.  The quality of the food and beverage we pack in has increased sharply. Yet the core of the trip remains the same; the trail, the scenery, that noticeable start of the change of the season, the fishing, the bullshitting, the laughs and the quiet remain the real draw.

A neat thing about a tradition like this one is the variety of conditions you get to observe at a familiar place as the years pass.  This year we have been blessed with plenty of rain to fill our streams, reservoirs and water table. The stream this year was full, and it made for better scenery and fishing than found in prior years when low water made the stream but a trickle.

The fish seemed energized, they were healthy and bright in hand and quick to take our flies in the water.   The fishing was fun.  If you looked at a spot that looked like it held fish, it did.

As we prepared for this year’s trip, we agreed that this little overnight has become something we look forward to and cherish. It has a special feel. Much of it can be hard to adequately describe, but can be easily seen in the pictures we take to remember each individual year. As fall is now fully upon us I’m thankful I could spend another night in one of the most beautiful places found within our state’s borders. I take comfort knowing that not much has changed here and that each year we can mark the passage of time by paying a visit to one of our state’s most beautiful indigenous fishes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Snapper Blues

Fishing for snapper bluefish occupied many fall afternoons of my childhood. After school in September and October, friends and I would catch the ravenous buggers with light tackle from the docks behind the Milford library. They weren't too picky--a little Kastmaster or piece of tubing on a hook trailing behind a foam popper usually did the trick. But our favorite way to catch them by far was dangling a live minnow under a bobber. Trapping the mummichogs and silversides that we used for bait was half the fun and watching mini blues ambush them from under the docks took care of the rest. Bluefish sometimes don't get the respect they deserve in angling circles, that goes for their young of the year too. However, snappers, known for the pep in their fight as much as for their sweet taste, can be a blast to target, especially with youngsters in tow.

My snapper tackle collected dust in my parent's garage as I got older and into other things, but it's been enjoyable wading back in the last few years as I introduce my daughters to the highs and lows of fishing. Just a few weeks ago I saw an article promoting a children's snapper derby in my hometown. It is annual event organized by the Milford Sport Fisherman Association with a goal to get more kids hooked on fishing. A fine cause no doubt and good timing for me now that my oldest has reached an age that she could handle it for a solid hour or so before losing focus. So on the last Saturday morning of summer, I rigged up two rods and brought Cora down to the harbor, to those same docks I fished from as a kid.

As was always customary, the first order of business was to set the minnow trap. The matte brown paint job I gave it 20 years ago in an attempt to make it more stealthy didn't do us any favors on this morning. I'm going out on a limb here and blaming our poor trapping results on the organic, wheat bread and Cheerios we used for bait. I remember cleaning up back in the day using simple white bread and dry cat food. We used to soak the trap a lot longer too, but with a four-year-old and short time window I didn't have that luxury this outing. Cora and I checked the trap three times and managed three measly mummis in our bucket. Normally that would have been a failure, but my daughter's demeanor said otherwise--she was having a blast already.

It was quiet on the docks. The only other people around were two gents doing some repair work and they seemed to enjoy the distraction we gave them. The harbor, however, was full of life. There were hoards of peanut bunker swimming in tight schools all around us. The snappers must have been having a field day picking them off one-by-one, yet they wouldn't touch our Kastmaster or popper rig. Cora liked the casting and retrieving aspect of fishing artificial lures once she got the hang of it (despite a few close calls for both of us). It wasn't until I saw three large snappers dart by, hunting together like a little pack of wolves, that I decided it was time to give our hard-earned live bait a go. 

Our little minnow looked like easy prey struggling in the current just below the surface between two dock fingers. But we didn't have all the time in the world and I began feeling the pressure a bit. It was a fishing derby after all; we couldn't go home empty handed. Luckily my daughter's patience paid off and the fish gods smiled upon us. Like a grey ghost out of nowhere, a solitary snapper cruised into view and devoured the mummichog, pulling Cora's bobber clear under. She pulled back on her Frozen rod and battled the blue to the edge of the dock where I helped hoist it into the bucket. I captured the whole thing on my GoPro and I'm glad I did because she was laughing uncontrollably the entire time. She was super pumped and so was I. A whopping nine-inch fish full of piss and vinegar had made our day. 

With the mission accomplished, we walked our bucket to a tent not far off, where a group of guys were finishing setting up the weigh-in station. I knew Cora was four snappers shy of the five-fish limit, but that didn't matter. We weren't there to win the damn thing (this year at least). Cora was the first weigh-in of the morning and the seasoned organizers, awesome anglers in their own right, played it up nicely. I took the still very much alive bluefish and placed it on the bump board and they read her official weight of a couple ounces. I snapped a photo and they handed Cora a raffle ticket and told us to come back at noon for lunch and prizes. We walked back to the docks and released the snapper in hopes of catching it again a few fall migrations down the road. Cora got a kick out of seeing her prized catch swim away healthy. 

We went home to tell her mom and baby sister about the big catch. A few hours later we returned for the award ceremony and raffle. It was refreshing to see so many kids and their parents that participated in the derby. Our mayor was there to announce the top finishers and present them with trophies. We all ate hot dogs while raffle tickets were pulled. The organizers generously had enough new rod and reel combos on hand for each kid in attendance. When Cora's ticket number was called it was like Christmas morning. We went over to the table and she picked out a brand new purple spinning set-up, one she'll graduate to from her push-button soon. Before heading home, all the kids gathered for a group photo that made the local paper a few days later. The children's snapper derby has been a huge hit in my town for a long time and now I know why. I'll be bringing my girls to it for years to come. Hats off to the Milford Sport Fisherman Association for their time and effort in organizing an event that is helping create the next generation of anglers.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Lunch With A View

There are pros and cons to every job. A clear pro of mine is its proximity to a wild trout stream. It's less than a mile from my office. Sometimes I break away and spend lunch breaks beside it stalking wary targets. When the sun is at its highest isn't my preferred time for trout fishing, but it usually means I'm alone. With Muck Boots and a three-weight fly rod stashed in my truck, I can be desk-bound to streamside in five minutes. 

As an obsessed angler with a nine-to-five and a parent of two little ones, it's a major perk to get that small fix on the water amidst the daily grind.  It's even better when it happens on a blue ribbon trout stream like this one. It's refreshing to learn a place as intimately as I've come to know this piece of water. I've fished its entire length, in every month, in all conditions. I've grown quite attached to it and its residents, the best of which are not easy to fool. I've been fortunate to catch and release some gems over the years, but I saw photos of two trout over 20-inches from here in the past year. I'm pretty sure I hooked one on a white Zonker back in the spring and my buddy had one come off at his feet around the same time in the same pool. A trout that size in a stream like this is a horse of a different color. A unicorn. A white whale.

I'll keep taking lunch breaks on the stream as long as I can. Maybe I'll run into one of those unicorns someday, but I'm not complaining.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Turkey Manifesto

Editor's note: This is a guest post from my good friend Tommy Baranowski. In a way his story is different than others shared here because it's the first one about hunting to ever appear on The Connecticut Yankee. In many ways, however, Tommy's story is very similar because it's about his passion for the outdoors, an appreciation for putting time in and achieving success, and making memories with family and friends.

First off, I must admit that I've only been hunting for a few years. I never really gave it much thought or attention when I was younger, even though my father is an accomplished lifelong hunter, and my younger brother is no slouch either, whether with a bow or any sort of firearm. I didn’t get sucked in until a good friend Justin Benvenuto started upland bird hunting and took me to a spot I was extremely familiar with along the Farmington River. It was MDC-owned property that I had been fly fishing for years fittingly named The Boneyard. My love for hunting started right then and there.

Ever since that day I’ve been completely engrossed in the sport, though it’s not easy putting down in words exactly why. Maybe it’s the challenge of something new. Maybe it’s the adventure of the whole thing. Maybe it’s the interaction with nature and seeing animals in a different way. Maybe it’s the thrill of going out there and coming back with food for the table. Or maybe it’s just spending more time outdoors with friends and family making new memories. Whatever it may be, I truly enjoy doing it and the spring of 2018 has been a memorable one with some significant milestones under my belt.

This story starts in early spring 2017 when I got a bug up my ass to go turkey hunting. My father and I talked it over and got permission to hunt a large, private piece owned by one of his sporting clay partners. So we set out one May morning and long story short, it didn't go as we had hoped. In hindsight, some birds were around but we were sitting in the wrong spot and calling way too much. More importantly, we flat out went into the whole thing blind; no scouting all, just waltzed in and sat down. While we weren’t able to get out again that season, I told myself the following spring would be different.

If duck hunting has taught me anything over the past few seasons, it’s the importance of putting time in to scout. I extended that same line of thinking to the turkey fields this year. Before the season started, I drove up to the property one morning for first light. I parked, started walking and right on the dirt road there’s a Tom staring at mea good sign! As I walked the cornfield, its edges were littered with turkey tracksanother good sign! 

The next scouting trip was an evening trip. It was a bit windy, but I called a few times with a box call and could have sworn I got a gobble back. I walked over to the edge of the field and about 30 yards away were two big Toms walking off into the woods to roost. Right then I knew it was those birds gobbling back to my call. I was amped! I picked out a couple of trees to sit at the base of and cut a clear shooting path through the briers between this spot and where the decoys would go in the field. The stage was set.

The 2018 spring turkey season started on a Wednesday, so like all other weekend warriors I had to wait until the following Saturday to get out. The day finally came and I met my father at the property for 4:45 a.m. After a quick walk to our spot and decoy setup, we dug in and the waiting game began. As the sun crept up there was a light layer of fog hanging over the field. We soon started hearing the first birds gobbling from their roost and on the ground. From our vantage point, the turkeys were off to our left.  After a few calls from my dad’s box call, we had a nice exchange going but could tell they were heading away from us. The next call he made got a gobble back and while still out of sight, it seemed the birds had changed direction and were looking right at us. Not a moment later my dad whispered, “There they are. Look at the tails!” Thanks to the fog that’s all we could see, two big fanned-out turkey tails moving towards us. Holy shit this is happening…

I sat at the ready with the gun resting on my knee. After a few more light calls, the birds’ ghostly whitish-blue heads came into view. It was surreal how well they stood out through the fog; that scene is one of the more vivid memories from the entire hunt. The turkeys were in a small group of about six moving in our direction when the two Toms in full-strut broke away and headed directly toward our decoys. Directly is not the right word—they were actually zigzagging in front of one another cutting off each other’s display. That was something cool I hadn’t seen in person until that day. Holding steady with my check on the buttstock and staring down the barrel, I could see that one of the birds had one distinctly long beard. The other had two beards that stuck out against the background of the field as vividly as their heads. My game plan was to take the double beard first and if the other bird hung around, take him next.

At this point, the pair of Toms were just beyond our decoys. While trying to control my breathing so my goddamned glasses didn't fog up any worse than they already were, I squeezed off the first round. The bird was stone dead from a perfect shot. I moved the barrel over to the second bird, squeezed the trigger and the gun didn't fire. Since I was using a ridiculously large 3.5” 2 ¼ oz. shot shell, the gun didn't cycle the next shell all the way. I looked at the ejection port, touched the bolt and it guided the next shell right into the breach. I then zeroed in on the second bird that only walked a few yards away and took my next shot. Just over an hour after sitting down, two large Toms lay in front of us on a misty field. Now you must keep in mind, my father next to me has probably forgotten about more hunting trips than I have been on. That being said, this was the first time I had taken an animal in his presence. It was a rather special moment for both of us and as we were getting up I said to him, “It only took me 33 years to do this!”

Approaching the first bird I could now see that what I thought was a double bearded Tom was actually a triple with the longest of the three beards being 10 ½ inches. The second Tom that I thought had a single beard was actually a double with the longer of the two also at 10 ½ inches. What absolutely amazing animals! It wasn’t until I was face-to-face with a wild North American turkey that I could truly appreciate how stunning these animals really are. Their features left me in awe—the sheer size of the birds, their almost fake looking iridescent feathers, giant spurs on the back of their legs, the beards and wing tips that drag on the ground when in full strut. My father and I shook hands, took a few photos and began to haul the harvest back to our trucks.

It was too early to be making phone calls to any sane person, but as soon as it turned a decent hour I called my boy Dustin, the foodiest foodie I know, and told him we had some work to do. Dustin had been perfecting his smoking skills for a while and smoked turkey is just what I had in mind. I got home, cleaned the birds, put the breasts in a simple brine in gallon Ziplocs, and drove to Dusty’s place. We then tied up the breasts, set a timer and put them in the smoker, which was already fired up with golden delicious applewood. About two and a half hours later we took them out and coated one in honey, one in maple syrup, and one with butter and herbs. We then wrapped the breasts in tinfoil filled with bone broth to finish.

It was a goal of mine to harvest my first turkeys and eat them in the same day. The end result was incredibly good and it was truly special for me to be able to share a meal like that with close friends. There's an almost indescribable feeling that comes along with hunting and gathering your own food—a sort of sense of pride and accomplishment. Just knowing that I went out there, put the time in and got this meat myself, not from a store. I plan on turkey hunting for a long time to come and continuing to learn along the way.