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.