Monday, November 25, 2019

First Ice

Around the time the mums begin to wither and oaks are the only trees left with leaves, diehard ice anglers experience a concoction of feelings—equal parts eagerness and excitement peppered with a dash of agita. These feelings wash over like a wave with the first true cold snap of fall. Akin to a bat signal, it sends hardwater fanatics across the north to basements and garages to tie leaders, tinker with tip-ups, and dust-off augers. We set up crude tanks and trek to streams or ponds to catch bait. We interpret long-range weather forecasts and Farmers’ Almanacs. We look to nature for signs of a pending hard winter: an unusual abundance of acorns; early departure of waterfowl; the width of the brown bands on woolly bear caterpillars. We wait for ice.

Ice fishing is unique and highly anticipated for a bevy of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that the allotted time anglers are able to partake in it each year is very unpredictable. We have zero idea when the season will begin or end any given winter. In comparison, I know exactly when blackfish season starts; I can set my watch by when migratory striped bass show up; I can go to my local tailwater and catch trout all year long. For ice fisherman, Mother Nature is the ultimate decider when our season starts and stops. We must be patient. 

Here in southern New England, in our coldest winters, the fishable ice window is about three months long, four if we are lucky. Some years things don’t always pan out that way. I’ve experienced more than one season that started with an early freeze and came to a halt with a midwinter thaw. I’ve also witnessed ice seasons that never got going until the late innings with only a handful of bodies of water locking up. While walking on water is more of a certainty to our north, it’s still not a guarantee on large and popular lakes like Sebago and George. As the old adage goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder and ice fishing’s indefinite and limited timeframe each winter certainly helps me appreciate it more. 

Though I get jazzed up for any kind of fishing, the lead up to first ice—that brief period when lakes and ponds initially freeze over with clear, hard ice—is tough to beat. When our quarry, unpressured for weeks, sometimes months, are still active and sense the coming doldrums ahead. This can translate into fast action—whether jigging up a pile of panfish or chasing flags all day—and it’s not unheard of to pull your best fish of the season during this early part of the season. It’s not some magical time where fish are committing hara-kiri on the end of your line but I’ve doing this long enough to know that you want to be on the ice as early as you can once it starts.

There are no hard and fast rules with first ice. For example, we know it begins when liquid finally becomes solid, but it’s less precise when it ends. First ice doesn’t necessarily happen all at once either. Your shallower lakes and ponds lock up first, naturally. That’s why bass, pike, and pickerel are usually first on many anglers’ target list. As the season progresses, deeper bodies of water follow suit and ice anglers start spreading out to target different species like trout, walleye, and crappie. 

There is nothing in the world like walking on a sheet of black ice before any snow covers it. It’s a thing of beauty—the consistency and hardness of it and its lack of imperfections; the way shanty anchors bite into it and the crunching sounds boot studs make on it. The optics of black ice are surreal. When walking over shallows, you can make out every piece of structure from boulders to weed lines to stumps. If you’re really lucky and hook into something under black ice, you get a first-row seat to the tug-of-war right underneath your feet. It’s a wild experience.

As in any type of fishing, having a small circle of friends that you trust and share information with pays dividends, but it’s tough relying solely on second-hand ice reports. Checking the ice’s thickness and quality yourself is the only way to know for sure. I live at least an hour’s drive from my favorite ice spots, so scouting is both time consuming and costly, yet those who scout are usually on the ice first, long before anything trickles down to social media. There’s been times I’ve bailed from work early to check spots that I had hoped to walk on the following day only to find wide-open with white caps. I’ve also gambled without scouting and drove 90 minutes only to be been turned away from crap ice, all before the sunup. First ice will always be a risk/reward scenario—wait until word gets out or be one of the first groups out there. 

I don’t have the flexibility at home or at work as I once did, so I try to make the most of every opportunity and relish the days or nights on the ice when they come. I’ve come to accept that that feeling in the pit of my stomach won’t ever go away when I am stuck at work knowing other anglers, friends or not, are drilling holes on fresh ice. I know they feel the same way when the tables are turned. Just fish when you can.

Here I am, more than 20 years after being introduced to hardwater, and those feelings of excitement and anxiousness as the season approaches haven’t faded a bit. My sled is packed and ready by the basement door like a bird dog waiting for the next upland hunting trip. Until then I’m keeping an eye on the weather and hoping for a string of calm, cold nights. If we’re fortunate to get some good ice this winter, have fun out there and stay on top.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Stepped In It

Editor’s note: One morning a few weeks back I was sitting at work when I got a text from a buddy of a false albacore laying on a slab of granite. We didn’t know it at the time, but Aaron Swanson was putting together one of the best fishing outings of his life, all to himself, on a day where he originally set out to do something completely different. That’s how it goes sometimes. In this guest post, Aaron takes us through that memorable day on the rocks. 

I rolled up to the launch at 5:50.  There wasn’t a single boat trailer in the lot. Not a great sign.  A stiff breeze hit me as I stepped out of my car.  Shit.  The wind I’d hoped wouldn’t be as bad as forecast was worse instead.  I’d been keeping an eye on weather predictions since the previous day, counting on a four or five-hour window before things got really nasty and the seas built beyond a point I’d feel safe in a kayak.  The sweet smell of saltwater and baitfish driving into my nostrils provided me with a reality check.  I was not going to have a comfortable window.

In the darkness I noticed a single truck in the lot on my way in, but didn’t see the guy approaching until he was right on top of me.  He was eager to talk. He had been there since five hoping for a quick window before he had to work.  Like me, he checked the weather and saw the morning as his only shot for the rest of the week.  He fished the spot regularly and we were there to angle for the same little bonito that had taken up residence in the area.  We compared notes.  I asked the question I already knew the answer to. 

“No albies,” he said. 

The guy glanced up at the kayak lashed down to my roof rack. “If you can hear the waves in here, it’s that much worse out there,” he said, turning his gaze toward the islands sheltering us from the full extent of the blow. 

“I’ve got a Hobie Pro-Angler 12,” he said. 

“I’m sure you love it,” was my overtly jealous reply.  We went on to talk gear and other kinds of fishing.  I finally looked sheepishly up at my buddy’s wife’s kayak up on my roof. 

“Yeah, I’m just getting into the kayak thing fishing-wise,” I said.  After a few more pleasantries, he was off.  Headed to work.  A fishless morning.

I stood there alone, the wind’s chill suddenly apparent. I hopped back in my vehicle, stared at the chop lapping against the boats swaying in the marina, and contemplated my next steps. I hadn’t seriously considered an alternative plan to the kind of fishing I’d come to do.  I thought hard about taking the kayak off the roof and paddling out to the cut to get my own read on how uncomfortable the current conditions would be in my loaned, sit-in kayak.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would only be a waste of time.

I threw a shore-casting rod in the car the night before, yet wasn’t outfitted for a day of full-on surfcasting.  I had Crocs on. While I knew a few spots where I might have a chance at some bonito from shore, the prospect of that working out was moderate at best.  My thoughts changed direction completely.  After all, I really wanted to catch albies but their sporadic appearances over the last few weeks didn’t present many good bets.  I needed to do some driving.  I’d head to a place that I’d heard barely a positive word about in weeks.  At least I could fish there in Crocs. 

Flags that looked like they were stapled to sheet of plywood greeted me. The new destination proved to have even snottier conditions than I left back home. A couple of guys coming back to their cars from first-light forays didn’t have good news.  Their slumped shoulders and slow steps told the story before they opened their mouths. 

 “A lot of birds,” one guy said.

“Just birds,” I asked?

“Just birds,” he nodded.

I strung up the shore rod, threw on an extra layer and headed out.  The mat gray sky hid whatever was left of the sunrise.  When I hit the beach and climbed up on the wall of rocks the full force of the southwest wind hit me.  This was big water.  The swell was wind-whipped and the chop broke in little patches of whitewater that would obscure the pops splashes and porpoises I’d be looking for.  I encountered a couple guys catching school bass and cocktail blues as I hopped along the huge stones.  That kind of activity didn’t stop me from my mission out to the end of the pile.

There were a few anglers out at the end.  Some younger guys, also hooking small bluefish, and an older gentlemen who was struggling with his bottom fishing.  He had to work to keep his rig from washing back into the rocks or fouling with weed.  Eyeing my rig, he asked what I was there to catch.

“Bonito, I guess,” I said.

He chuckled. “No bonito here since first week of September,” he told me.  

I could only laugh.  While I was skeptical of the veracity of his statement, it sure did seem dead out there. I hung around for a while.  The older gentlemen told me what he’d caught earlier in the week. Told me the wind and the waves were bad.  He asked about my lure, hung up on my rod’s collector guide and where I’d bought it.  An hour passed without a cast.  I watched the younger anglers continue to catch bluefish and stuff them in a big black garbage bag. 

The heaving gray-green water, salty breeze, and bird activity were all pleasant to take in but I started to get bored of standing and waiting.  I tied on a small swimming plug like those the guys were getting blues on and made my way back towards shore.  Every few stones I stopped to cast and contemplate.   The retrieves with the plug found no takes.  I wasn’t that surprised, I wasn’t really invested.  My thoughts turned to what I might try next.  About a third of the way back on the jetty, I noticed what could have been few funny pops on the surface.  It was hard to say looking at the merengue whipped tops of the big rollers but it was enough to focus my attention. 

I watched a while longer, figuring my mind was playing tricks on me, seeing what I wanted it to see. It wasn’t, there they were.  False albacore.  A good-sized school porpoised through the wave tops, their pace and direction deliberate.  I cast at them with the SP Minnow I’d tied on looking for a consolation catch.  The wind knocked it right down, easily fifteen yards short of where the lure needed to land to intercept them.  A second attempt with the plastic swimmer also failed to reach but at least they were here. 

Turning my back to the wind, I tied up a new leader and proper tin.  I knew if I couldn’t see the fish feeding I’d be more likely to take my time and tie good knots.  I turned back around bail open, rod cocked, 60-gram white Colt Sniper ready to fire.  The fish had gone down.  I waited and walked farther out on the jetty following the path the fish had taken.  They were up again, back where they started and headed my way.  I waited until they were in range to cast.  Within three cranks of the reel handle, I was on.

I’m hooked into a little tunny and I wish I had a picture of my face because the shit-eating grin I had on had to be huge.  We had a good albie fight.  I made my way down the ice-slick rocks below the water line, grabbed my leader and hoisted my first false albacore of 2019 up on the rocks.  The colors on the fish buzzed electric blue and green like a neon window sign.  As I took a moment to appreciate and document the fish, it was hard to ignore the continued surface feed happening right in front of me.  I got the fish unhooked, tossed it back and was into another within seconds.  That fish, with a spirited effort late in the fight, managed to ride a wave into the rocks.  As I slid down to retrieve it, the leader parted from the tin.  The time it took to tie on a new one was the only thing that slowed me from hooking, playing and landing my next fish.  Another followed immediately after that.

The fishing was red hot, like you read about.  Other than one guy I could see a ways back down the jetty furiously cranking a lure, I had these fish to myself.  There were a lot of them.  They were unbothered and feeding on the surface for long periods.   One specimen coughed up some evidence as to why they might have been so easy to fool.  They were feeding on all kinds of fare—spearing, squid, tiny bay anchovies.  The bait buffet precluded their often-picky predicament and led to the easiest albie fishing I had ever experienced.  A well-timed cast and a fast retrieve were all it took to hook up. 

By now, the group of younger anglers had figured out what was going on and although they had the right lures to get the job done, they weren’t hooking up.  After crossing lines with my new friends a couple of times (twice during fighting fish) I noticed they were tying their braided line directly to their baits.  Even though these fish were gorging and unpicky, they were still albies after all.  I asked the guy I was tangled with if they had any fluorocarbon.  He indicated they were without leader material of any kind so I cut him a six feet of twenty-pound fluoro and told him to cut it into three two-foot sections. 

I went back about catching fish in between dodging spray and keeping an eye out for any especially large waves.  The beginning of the outgoing tide pushing against the wind had really stood the water up.  The conditions were as exhilarating as the fishing.  The sun broke through the clouds for a short while.  Now I could see schools of fish riding through the waves chasing bait.  There were dead squid everywhere, carried along the current.  I witnessed one of the coolest hits I’ve ever experienced.  I saw a fish break from the school to chase down my lure.  When it caught up with it, the fish stopped on a dime, twisting sideways in the illuminated emerald water and exploded in a silver flash as my drag sang.

I started to realize I was approaching landing double-digit numbers of fish, not something I’d experienced before.  I’d had solid albie fishing from the rocks but the catch rate I was experiencing was downright ridiculous.  At some point after I reached and exceeded the landmark, I looked over to see the guys I’d given leader material to now hooked up and playing fish.  They were yelling excitedly to each other.  Wide smiles gave away their amazement at seeing the drags on their reels scream faster than what I could guess was anything they had ever experienced. They weren’t yelling like that when they were bailing bluefish earlier in the morning.

The onset of mid-day brought about some changes.  More anglers showed up.  Fish were breaking into smaller pods.  The feeds changed, surface attacks were less deliberate and more frenzied.  This was starting to look more like typical albie fishing I was accustomed to seeing.  Observation, rather than rushed casting, revealed patterns the schools were following.  I changed position and watched the fish do big figure eights along the jetty.  As I picked away at a few more fish, I found a surprise.  What I thought to be a small albie turned out to be a bonito, the species I’d originally intended to target when I’d left the house that morning.  That catch really felt like a cherry on top of an already impressive day.

By the time I landed what was my biggest fish of the day, the bite and conditions had grown challenging.  The good casts that were sure to connect hours earlier were now ignored.  The dropping tide left the water level lower against the rocks.  This change in angle combined with the heavy breeze and swell, made it difficult to put an accurate cast on feeding fish and keep your lure in the water for most of the retrieve.   I watched the increasing number of anglers cast, fly and spin, their presentations untouched.  Nobody was hooking up. 

I ventured back out toward the tip of the jetty to see if getting away from the crowd would help, but the scene was same.  Picky fish.  Tough conditions.  I encountered a fly guy on my way back.  He told me that the fish had lockjaw.  He said it didn’t matter he was throwing flies “this big” motioning a microscopic size with his fingers.   

“It sucks,” he said carrying on his way.

I didn’t have the heart nor the want to tell him what he’d missed that morning.  I’d caught 14 or 15 albies depending on if we’re counting the one lost to the rocks.  The bonito was the icing on my day’s cake.  I told my wife the night before I’d pick the kids up from daycare and I still had a good walk and a better drive ahead of me.  I floated back over the boulders along the jetty.  Once past all the other anglers I stopped to look back, take a moment, reflect, and try to commit as much of what I had just experienced to memory.

On the drive home, I considered the trajectory of my day.  Starting in once place, ending in another.  In fishing, especially when alone, I try to walk a very fine line.  It’s important to have a program. Specific plans paired with experience and timely knowledge can make all the difference between skunks and memorable days.  The other side of that coin is willing to be flexible and take whatever the day throws at you.  I think about the guy I spoke to in the lot that morning.  The one with a vastly superior fishing platform to the one I planned to use.  Seeing him bail on the same plans I had was a sign for me to make another choice.  Thankfully, I was willing to pay attention and the choice I made led to one of the most fun days of fishing I’ve ever experienced.  Sometimes you just have to tip your cap and be grateful that you stepped in shit.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Fifty Days

Fifty days. That’s not a big window, but that’s what we get here for fall blackfish season. There are short spring and summer seasons too, yet there is something special about targeting these bottom-hugging brutes on crisp fall days. This year’s opener fell on a Thursday, smack in the middle of a Nor’easter. No sane angler got out until Saturday when the Sound finally calmed down. That meant just one day’s worth of keepers were culled from the inshore haunts before I got out there Sunday morning with buddies Mike, Dan, and Chris.   

It had been a year since any of us had targeted blackfish and there was a feeling of anticipation on the boat during the chilly ride to the breakwalls. We weren’t alone. Even from a couple miles away we could see dozens of boats that looked like white specks against the rocks. We motored along until finding a vacant stretch a respectable distance between two boats, dropped anchor and inched the stern tight to the wall. Chris tossed a line fixed to a metal bolt that caught between two granite slabs and tied it off to a cleat. The duel anchor system is popular when targeting tog, allowing anglers to stay put over one spot, in our case a rod’s length from the wall in 10 to 15-feet of water. Blackfish are so structure dependent that a few feet in either direction can make the difference between a desert and an oasis. 

Tautog eat all sorts of crustaceans and shellfish, but crabs are hands down the preferred bait when targeting them. It seems like you can never have enough on hand as tog are masters at cleaning hooks with their human-like teeth. It’s not just them down there either; an underwater camera would likely reveal a mob of small black sea bass and cunners pecking away at your offering as well. The two species of crab most often used for blackfish in Long Island Sound are both invasive to the area, the Asian crab and green crab. Asian crabs are smaller on average, usually fished whole. The green crabs grow larger and are either fished whole or cut in half or quarters depending on their size. What works better is all personal preference. Some anglers stick to the go big or go home theory. Others lean toward Asian crabs because it’s faster and easier not having to deal with cutting—just pierce the crab with a jig and drop it down. I like to mix it up and experiment with both and let the fish decide.

On board for this outing we had 12 dozen Asian crabs and a bag of greenies for good measure. All of us had our sights set on jigging with light-ish tackle. The tide wasn’t ripping that morning so we got away with using jigs from one to one and a half ounce. There were high hopes for a boat-wide limit (3 fish per angler, 16-inch minimum). That would allow each of us a fresh dinner and some filets to vacuum seal for the freezer. Mike had the hot hand to start, landing the first two keepers. Pretty soon we all got in on the action once we got a handle of the rocky bottom below the boat. The key to finding larger fish seemed to be locating holes and crevasses that blackfish were hiding out in. Those same holes added to the challenge of landing a bigger fish if you were lucky enough to hook one.

With this style of fishing, it helps to have braided main line to better feel light bites and a long, heavy leader to stand up to the abrasion that comes with the territory. I needed all of my four-foot 40-pound leader when I battled my best fish of the day that almost never saw the net. When my jig sank down a few additional feet into one of those holes, it was greeted by a tap, tap, crunch. With the drag locked down, I tried like hell to pull the fish out of its lair but it bulldogged back down into the rocks until I felt myself hung up on bottom. Completely stuck. No headshakes, nothing. Somehow patience prevailed and after letting it be for 30 seconds that felt like 10 minutes, the blackfish worked itself out of the snag and continued to pull hard until it was flapping on the deck. I was proud of this one—not huge but my biggest to date and certainly the most memorable fight.

Over the course of a few hours that morning, we chipped away and eventually got our limit and released a bunch of shorts, a number of them just under 16-inches. Mike added a keeper black sea bass, which was a welcomed bycatch. Right up there with the fishing was the banter and camaraderie that comes along with togging. In a way blackfishing reminds me of some of the ice fishing that I do—friends jigging and BSing in close proximity, pausing once in a while to drink a beer or wolf down some food. I also like that it’s not super competitive out there. There are boats upon boats full of anglers, but they are all respectful to one another and everyone seemed to be bailing fish and doing their own thing. After a triumphant ride back to the marina, we got a workout fileting the 12 blackfish and bonus sea bass. I ate some of my share that night. I kept it simple with salt, pepper, and butter in a cast iron pan. It was as delicious as I had remembered it and couldn’t have been fresher. I’m not sure if that will be my only togging trip this fall, but if it is it was definitely one to remember.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Speak Up for Striped Bass

More than enough evidence has demonstrated that the striped bass population along the eastern seaboard is currently in trouble and has been for some time. Stripers have been in this spot before. Anglers helped put them there in the 1980’s and here we are again. Now things must change in order to right the ship.

The Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board has developed a draft addendum to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Striped Bass with proposed changes to coastwide commercial and recreational regulations to address overfishing. This document presents background on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) management of striped bass, the addendum process and timeline, and statement of the problem. Most importantly, this document also provides management options for public consideration and comment.

Public hearings to discuss and comment on the proposed regulation changes are underway. Connecticut’s two hearings took place this week. I attended the one in Bridgeport. There were approximately 30 anglers in the room, less than half of whom went on record. Staggeringly low in my opinion. I’m told there were about 50 people at the hearing in Old Lyme. Better, but still an embarrassingly small number of anglers. Kudos to those folks that spoke up in favor of stronger conservation efforts to protect striped bass. If you were there or couldn’t make it, you are still encouraged to submit written comments before October 7, 2019 at 5:00 p.m.

So please take a look at the document and proposed options. Make an informed decision on which options will best help get striped bass stocks back to where we need them to be. Whatever your opinion is, it’s important to make it known to the ASMFC. Comments may be submitted by email, mail, phone, or fax. Please use the following contact information. Email: and be sure to use subject line of Striped Bass Draft Addendum VI.  Mail: Max Appelman, FMP Coordinator Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission 1050 North Highland Street Suite 200A-N, Arlington, VA 22201. Phone: (703) 842-0740. Fax: (703) 842-0741.

Thank you. 

Friday, June 7, 2019

Confidence & Luck

Long before the first horseshoe crab bumped my wading boot this spring, I was wandering the isles of the New England Saltwater Fishing Show in Providence. I was there helping friends man their booth for Game On!—an up-and-coming lure company. As saltwater shows go, this is the big kahuna in our area. It’s a who’s who of the industry and its timing is ideal at the end of winter when anglers are itching for spring fishing around the corner. With an impressive selection of gear, tackle, and plenty of show deals, it’s a good opportunity to stock up for the coming season.

During downtime we took turns browsing the booths. It would’ve been easy to burn a few grand in mere minutes if I had it, but my line in the sand was $50. A sucker for wooden plugs that I don’t really need, I made it a few yards before dropping half of it on a mini, flat-bottomed pencil popper. I showed constraint over the next few isles until stumbling upon something a little more practical for my surfcasting needs—a bin of custom bucktail jigs made by Peace Token Fishing Tackle out of Cape May. The 3/8 oz. ones in chartreuse and pink screamed weakfish; my preferred size and color patterns for the elusive species that arrive in Long Island Sound around moon tides each spring. Still two months from their trial run, I was confident these jigs were catchers.

Fast forward through a crazy wet spring to mid-May and my first dedicated squeteague outing of the year. With wind whipping onshore and just one day removed from heavy rain, I could’ve should’ve turned around when I saw the deserted parking lot. A friend leaving as I rolled up confirmed it was dead out there, but I had come this far already and tossed my new jigs in tea-colored water for a half hour to no avail. The following night I returned and the couple tides in between had cleaned the water, yet the line of anglers remained sparse. I guess that happens when water temps are behind schedule and no weakfish reports have flooded social media. I welcomed the elbow room.

Despite an overflowing plug bag on my shoulder, the chartreuse Peace Token was the only offering I threw that night. I broke into my remaining stash of Uncle Josh pork rinds to sweeten the deal. The jig and pig combo looked tempting in the water. It didn’t cast as far as an SP Minnow or Mag Darter, but it casted far enough. The confidence was there, but so was lady luck. A couple dozen guys were out that night and for two hours of the incoming tide I didn’t see anything caught save for a sea robin. Then, after what felt like a thousand casts, there was life on the end of my line. As soon as my jig hit the water, something ate it on the drop. By the distinct headshakes, I knew what I had on and backed it up gingerly on the exposed sand. Derrick snapped a shot to document the moment and I released the fish, but knowing they tend to show in waves we were quick to get back out there.

That was it though; one and done and lucky as hell. That weakfish wasn’t big enough to earn the tiderunner nickname, but it was my best one to date. A beautiful fish and a rare one to me. Of course I returned on another high incoming soon after. A thunderstorm had just passed through and, for the first time I can remember, I was the only angler out there. The water was dirty, recent reports poor, and, I’ll admit, I wasn’t confident. It turns out I wasn’t lucky either as I didn’t even get a bump.

It helps when anglers are confident in their spot, their gear, and their offering. Some guys will tell you confidence is one of the more important aspects of angling. But it also helps to get lucky once in a while. When the stars and moon align and you are both confident and lucky, special things can happen—like catching your personal best weakfish on an otherwise lackluster night.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

We're Outdoorsmen

I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind, if even for a moment, but pushing back our opening day weekend to avoid what was looking like a certain washout would have bucked decades of tradition. The line my uncle said over the phone that finally put any notion to bed was, “We’re outdoorsmen.” He was right. Fuck the forecast. We were going when we always go and we were going to enjoy ourselves no matter the conditions. 

It’s funny how things work out because we ended up with two days of better than expected weather before any rain fell and the following weekend was a soaker anyway (ask my buddy Chad who camped along a Natchaug River well over its banks). Our deluge eventually came on Friday night, yet by then we had camp pretty damn tight with ample pop-up tents, tarps, and cordage, as well as a signal fire going throughout.

As it tends to be, the food on this trip was a highlight. Aaron made an incredible paella for dinner on night one that included Bluefin tuna from Cape Cod and fresh clams and mussels. Uncle D rolled out venison backstraps the next night from a trophy buck he took on state land back in muzzleloader season. It was paired well with delicious morels and black trumpets that he picked last spring, dehydrated, and saved for this very moment. Both nights also featured a charcuterie and cheese board and bourbon selection (thanks Tommy) that seemed to reach a new level this year.

The trip falling on Easter weekend threw us a bit of a curveball. We cut things short by a night so we could spend the holiday with our families. That turned a weekend that is typically light on fishing even lighter, but at least the spot where we did wet a line was new water for three of the four in our group. My uncle was the only one who had fished there before and it was fitting that he caught the lone trout of the trip to remind us what a holdover looked like.

We hung around well into Saturday afternoon with a slow breakdown of camp, partly to savor the moment and partly hoping our wet gear would dry out a little. Despite the rain, one less night, and an onslaught of ticks (four surgeries were performed via hemostat), it was another awesome opening day celebration. Regardless of what Mother Nature throws at us, we’ll be going back every third weekend in April. After all, we’re outdoorsmen.

A little hardwood for the fire.
Flowers for our hosts.

Camp life.
The important food groups.

Fire-cooked paella.

Connecticut-grown venison and shrooms on cast iron.

Best breakfast sandwich I've ever had.

The core.

Uncle D showing us he's still got it.

Ready for the rain (photo credit Aaron Swanson).

It finally came in buckets.

Farewell franks. Until next year...

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Holiday Bones: Christmas in the Caribbean

Editor’s note: This is a tale told by my friend Tommy Baranowski. It highlights a type of fishing that doesn’t grace these pages often, in a place I’ve never been, but his story and photos make me want to change that. 

Ever since things got serious between Amanda and me, we discussed spending the holidays far away from the usual hustle and bustle. I never thought we would be able to pull it off our first year as a married couple but thanks to a mix up by our wedding caterers, a little money found its way back to us and the planning snowballed from there.

As we both had the week off between Christmas and the New Year, the when was already settled; we just needed nail down where we were going. Eddie, a close fishing friend of mine, is a seasoned veteran of sight fishing for bonefish in the Bahamas. He’d told me for years I needed to get my ass down to the Abaco Islands to experience it. It only took a few discussions between Eddie and Amanda before she was sold. The trip was booked.

The months leading up to the trip entailed stockpiling an obnoxious amount of gear for a few days fishing. I have a habit of doing this every time I go on a fishing trip. For me the preparation is half the fun. Researching fly patterns, scouting on Google Earth, and grilling friends with experience in specific fisheries—these things help build anticipation. By the time we boarded our plane at Bradley, I had enough flies to supply every angler in the Bahamas.  My fly boxes teemed with Spawning Shrimp, Gotchas, Crazy Charlies, and a crab pattern my buddy Todd had perfected. The final rod count was absurd as well—five fly rods and two spinning combos for good measure.

Although our adventure got off to a rocky start, we eventually found all of our luggage as well as our rental car and were happily driving along on the opposite side of the road.  At our rental, we met Rex and Judy, our hosts for the week. They were honestly two of the nicest people you could ever meet. They helped us get situated and I got to work assembling rods and gear for the next day’s guided trip.

The following morning we woke up to the sound of a shitload of Abaco parrots. I think the island’s whole population was roosting in the trees next door. Things got real when JR, my guide for the day, pulled up in the driveway with his Hells Bay in tow. He stepped out of the truck in a full camo jumpsuit—my kind of dude. JR is a native Bahamian that happened to live just three houses over from our rental. We hit it off swapping hunting and fishing stories on the way to the boat launch. JR told me about the history of the island and its famous fishery, as well as what he does when he’s not guiding…hunting wild boar.

We turned off Abaco’s main highway onto a single lane logging road. It was straight as an arrow and went on so far that the two tire tracks on the ground seemed to disappear into the horizon. The thick pine and palmetto forest eventually thinned out and opened up to a small boat launch called Netty’s Cut. After splashing in, JR hammered down the throttle and headed to the fabled Marls of Abaco, a vast expanse of prime, wilderness and bonefish habitat situated along Great Abaco’s western shore. It consists of miles of mangroves and mud flats. The only way to reach them is in a skiff or small craft.

JR cut the motor and poled into the first spot.  We immediately spied water being pushed along the mangroves. After poling toward the commotion, we found a nice, lone bone milling around. JR positioned the boat and I launched a 40’ cast. The fish swirled on the fly, ate it, and peeled off to the races, putting me into my backing in seconds.

It’s hard to put down in words that feeling of catching my first bonefish on a fly that I tied. For as long as I’ve been into fishing, it’s a moment I’d dreamt about. A species that’s always been high on my bucket list. And, there I was, in a tropical paradise with a perfect specimen in my hand after a hard fought battle. Day one went on like that. Poling new areas, spotting fish and making casts. It was everything I wanted it to be.

The agenda for the ensuing days following the first guided trip went something like: wake up, eat breakfast on beach, walk up and down shoreline with wife and rod-in-hand, eat lunch, hammock nap, explore flats on foot while my wife reads in said hammock, watch sunset, eat dinner, sleep and repeat.

After a few days, I had learned a few things.  One being sun and clear skies were vital to sight fishing success. Being able to see the fish before it sees you is crucial. Two, wind sucked and I knew it would. Everyone I spoke to about fishing the Bahamas in December had one word of caution…wind. Not only does it make casting a bitch, it kills the ability to spot fish. Combine slightly overcast skies and a stiff wind and good luck with that.

On the day before my second guided trip, we took a ride to Cherokee, a small town that is home to the longest pier in all the Caribbean. The pier is situated on a picture perfect flat and while standing on it we spotted schools of cruising fish. Amanda and I found a spot on the small beach at the base of the pier where she could relax and read while I ventured out to fish. As I searched, I let myself get distracted by the crazy amount of conch shells I saw.  I stopped to pick one up that had particularly wild colors. When I picked my head back up, no bullshit, there was a school of at least 40 bonefish swimming by me. They were cruising up and down the shoreline and for the next hour I tried everything I could to get one to eat. Longer leader, lighter tippet, more lead time—it didn’t matter. On a whim I tied on one of the small crab patterns that Todd taught me a few months back. I made a cast and began stripping. A single bone in the big pack that kept swimming by peeled off like a rocket and wolfed down the crab! That eat was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

The weather turned to complete shit for my second guided trip. The day promised cloudy skies and wind forecast to 40mph. Yet, the show had to go on. This time the ride out to the Marls was wet and nasty. JR had to anchor the skiff once we set up on the spot. Not exactly how you draw up an ideal bonefish outing but fishing isn’t always sunny skies and butterflies. We waited and watched. I have a difficult time just sitting idle on a boat, so i stripped a bunch of line off the reel and started blind casting. A small patch of turtle grass about 60’ straight out in front of the boat caught my eye and I put my fly right in the middle of it. As I stripped it back, I was paying more attention to the scenery than my fly. When I focused, there was a monster bonefish right behind it. I didn’t even have time to think, just stripped, came tight, and let a string of profanities flow out of me. 

That fish was in a different class altogether than anything I had come in contact with prior. Just crazy strong. The first run was so long that the fly line completely disappeared out of sight. When I finally gained back the line and got the fish boat-side, it called bullshit and made the same exact run. This back and forth from the boat to my backing happened four times! Even when JR finally landed the fish, it was still green and didn’t give in easily.

I needed every bit of my nine-weight rod was to tame that fish, a battle-scarred beauty of seven or eight pounds. After a few quick photos to capture the moment, the fish swam away strong. It was surreal; absolutely unbelievable. I took a little time to collect my thoughts, but was back blind casting before long. This time I didn’t see the fish before it ate the fly, but I could tell by its initial run that it was another brute. With the bone now in my backing, we saw what you don’t want to see—a dorsal fin poking out of the water behind it. The line went limp and a shark won that round. A heartbreaker.

At that point in the day, the wind was no longer bearable. JR pulled anchor and we began the bumpy, wet ride back to the launch. Even leaving on that note, it was a truly a day to remember. A day that I am going to be telling other anglers about for the rest of my life. Before flying back to the frozen north, we savored a few more days on the island. We spent them soaking up every ounce of relaxation we could, already scheming about the next time we could return. 

With just a few hours left of our trip, Amanda and I ventured down the beach one last time to an area I had spotted a few fish earlier in the week. The wind had yet to let up but at least the sun was shining. I waded out to a small piece of flat scattered with patches of coral. A few rays and a small shark swam around me. As I stalked up to some coral, I came up on a bonefish so big it made my heart sink into my stomach. The fish was a rod’s length away, partly obscured by waves that were now crashing into me. Before I could do anything, the bone saw me, turned, and hightailed the hell out of there. The long walk back to the cottage gave me plenty of time to think it over. On one hand it was a tough way to end our Bahamian holiday, but on the other hand “the one that got away” meant that I had some unfinished business to take care of. Until next time, Abaco!