Friday, December 31, 2021

Year of the Yak

The year of our lord 2021 was a game-changer thanks to a kayak that willed its way to me. Investing in a proper platform for outings on Long Island Sound and beyond had been on my mind for years. Things accelerated last March in the classifieds section of a Connecticut fishing forum. For sale was a second-hand Hobie Mirage Revolution 13 in good condition with a mess of accessories going for a very fair price.

Contacting the seller set off a chain of events and a roller coaster of emotions. As luck would have it another angler inquired just before I did. The seller honored this order while assuring me the other guy wasn’t a serious buyer. Daydreams of pedaling through epic blitzes were dashed when a text, apologetic in tone, explained that the buyer was serious after all and—poof—the Hobie was gone. It was business and life went on.

Two weeks later I found myself on that forum again with a blinking icon on the screen. Low and behold it was a message from the fella who beat me out for the kayak. He had realized that his back wasn't cut out for hauling around the heavy Hobie and wanted a center console instead. An interesting development, but by then the news was almost a week old and the kayak had been listed for sale again. Here’s the kicker, a new buyer was supposed to pick it up at the guy’s house yet never showed. By this point the Fish Gods had made their intentions clear—this kayak was meant to be mine. I sent a deposit to hold it and a few days later drove it home in the slow lane on 95 like there was a newborn in my truck.

One of the best parts about this new chapter is all the learning that comes along with it. While I made some memorable one-off trips in the past—Costa Rican roosterfish remains one of the coolest experiences of my life—I never put in enough time to get truly dialed-in on a kayak. The technology has come a long way since and this would be my first time using a yak with pedals and a rudder. A rookie season of trial and error lay ahead of me and I was stoked to reinvigorate my passion for angling by introducing new tools and techniques.

The first expeditions were family beach days where I brought the Hobie along to get my bearings. After ferrying my daughters around and making drifts for fluke (and catching mostly sea robins), I confirmed what I already knew—the MirageDrive is outstanding. The pedal-system really gets the kayak moving at a good clip and fingertip steering with the rudder control is a breeze. I also accepted that it’s going to take some getting used to how wind, tide, current, and pedaling influence my drifts.  

By the time the fall run kicked into high gear locally, things were clicking a little more on the yak. On a sunrise mission in September, I made a short peddle to a submerged boulder field that boaters often blow right by. It is ideal surfcasting habitat, yet the land around it is private and a pain to reach legally. The kayak solves that issue and for the first hour of daylight, each drift passed the point resulted in a hook up. Stripers and blues were fighting over my spook, sometimes slapping it a few feet in the air. That morning was further validation that the Hobie will be key for accessing spots that seem to be dwindling by the year.

Arguably my most gratifying kayak experience in 2021 didn’t involve a rod and reel. My friend Greg kindly invited me on an excursion to a salt pond for an afternoon of clamming and looking for Native American artifacts. We crossed the pond to a stretch of shore that has produced a number of ancient stone tools for Greg over the past few years. It was awesome exploring a beautiful and bountiful place that indigenous peoples had hunted and gathered for millennia. There must have been a horseshoe up my arse because my first time there I found a gorgeous quartz projectile point, nearly intact except for a missing ear on the base.

Later we anchored in knee-deep water over a patch of silt and sand that is home to quahogs—a species of shellfish that has drawn humans to salt ponds like this since the ice sheets retreated. Using steel rakes with wire baskets, we worked the bottom and occasionally heard or felt one of the hard-shelled bivalves knock against the teeth of our rakes. A dozen or so perfect specimens made their way home with me and were cooked on the grill that night. The kayak turns out to be an ideal mode of travel to reach clam beds and arrowhead spots and my hope is that these types of trips will only increase in frequency.

The last tour of 2021 came in November and had me in a wetsuit because of colder water temperatures. Hellbent on catching my first keeper-sized tautog from a kayak, I focused on jigging with Asian crabs over rocky structure in about 10-15 feet of water. After realizing I need more practice in the anchoring department, I moved on to peddling against the current in an attempt to stay on top of the desired spot. Situations like this are why spot-lock technology is so highly coveted. It was not optimal, but I managed to land a pile of shorts before finally putting an old bulldog on my lap.

With birds wheeling in the distance, I gave up on any shot of a limit and released the blackfish. For the next hour I peddled after a body of fish that would surface briefly, go down and then pop up again a football field away. The water clarity was crystal clear and I witnessed multiple stripers following each retrieve of the lure. Not giant fish, but it was a gas and my legs were burning from all the chasing. A memorable way to close out the inaugural season. 

At nearly 14-feet and 90-pounds fully rigged, the Hobie is a beast that takes some effort to get loaded and launched. Outings require a little planning ahead and a decent window of time to make the exertion worthwhile. Though I didn’t get out as much as I wanted this year, it’s a long-term investment and built to last. I plan to add a few creature comforts in the offseason, specifically setting up a fish finder. The kayak came with a couple older model Humminbirds that will do the trick until I upgrade down the road. Something to tinker with until we get ice strong enough to fish on. All in all, I’m pretty jazzed up on this kayak thing and look forward to the journeys ahead.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021


Ever been so consumed by a tradition that you couldn’t imagine going without it? For me that comes in the form of an unmissable camping trip each spring. Most of my life, the third Saturday of April has marked the start of Connecticut’s trout season. Our small group, made up of family and a few like family, have established a four-day holiday around what we call Opening Day, and have been observing it religiously for decades. Even after the official season opener was moved up by a week in 2015, we have stayed true to the traditional weekend. Whether acknowledging it or not, all along the annual trip has been more of a reunion and celebration than it ever was about fishing.

I used to joke that it would take the birth of a child to keep me from Opening Day Weekend. In reality it was a global pandemic that put a temporary pause on our longstanding rituals. A missed camping trip is a grain of salt compared to what many others lost to COVID, yet that didn’t change the fact that it felt damn good to be back together for the first time in two years. It felt like a homecoming.

When you participate in an annual excursion long enough, you are bound to encounter all types of weather, especially in New England. This year was one of those years that our gear and grit were tested right out of the gate. Conditions were cold with downpours—far from ideal for setting camp. Accepting the challenge, we took pride in making camp as comfortable as possible. Pop-up shelters and a borrowed propane heater were the real MVPs of the weekend.

As tends to happen with this crew, food and drink took center stage throughout our stay. The usual staples were there but new to the mix, and highlight by far, was slow-roasting a large piece of beef over the fire. It was my good friend Aaron’s brainchild. He’d done his homework (a.k.a. watching BBQ Pit Boys videos) and with help from my Uncle Derrick, they fashioned a spit with an old motor to rotate a six-pound-plus ribeye roast over hardwood coals for hours. The meat, cooked to perfection, blew our doors off and a new tradition within a tradition was born.

While not practiced as much as it once was, fishing is the common thread that originally tied this crew together. And, by the last full day in camp, a few fish were actually caught. My cousin Max landed the lone holdover—a handsome male brown fooled by a classic Woolly Bugger. I have DEEP fisheries staff to thank for a fresh batch of Survivor strain brown trout that were just stocked the day prior. A handful of the football-shaped thoroughbreds fell to a jig streamer from our pals at Farmington Flies. Though not too bright when I caught them, over time these ‘survivors’ smarten up and start looking and acting like the wild and holdover trout they are the progeny of.

When Sunday rolls around, it’s time to break camp as the reality of things on hold back home inch closer from the periphery. Throwing one last log on the fire helps stave off the feeling, as does downing a final hotdog before hitting the road. Like it or not, it’s back to work on Monday and, God willing, another 361 days until the next homecoming on that cherished patch of land. 

Soak it in, boys.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Cutting Teeth

It’s hard to know exactly when the last day of ice season will be. You can tell when it’s getting close, but the thought of sneaking in one more trip is always there. When it’s finally over, after the auger and tip-ups have been tucked away, it’s good to look back on how things transpired. This past season I was fortunate to get on the ice nine times with friends, old and new, and witness some memorable catches. The highlight, though, was introducing my daughter to the pastime that consumes me each winter.

Cora is no stranger to fishing. She’s been joining me on open water trips for panfish, trout, and snapper blues since she could walk. Ice fishing is a different ballgame though—conditions are harsher, drives are longer, trips start earlier. Cora had been inquiring about hardwater for a while. Now six years old, it seemed like the right time. The season is brief in Connecticut, and circumstances don’t often allow a youngster to tag along, but it happened this winter—twice—and I’m grateful.  

There was a learning curve for both of us. More planning and preparation involved than a normal outing. Each of our patience was tested. It takes time to get set up on the ice before you’re actually fishing. Then there’s no guarantee the fish cooperate. A few things helped keep Cora interested—the first was going with other kids her own age. A friend brought his two boys and they had a ball exploring while us dads put lines in the water. Another way we kept them engaged was assigning tasks to help with. It turns out that keeping ice holes clean of slush with a ladle is a perfect job for six-year-olds.

Keeping busy.

Lucky for us it got cold enough this past winter to lock up a tidal cove of a large river close to home. The cove is deep and full of fish, nothing I would dare ever eat, but there’s always potential for lots of action and the occasional surprise trophy. Flags started popping immediately as yellow perch zeroed in on our live shiners. A couple of the perch were pretty large and all of them were fun for the kids to pull up by hand and proudly display.

Cora hoisting an eater-size yellow perch (that we can't eat due to PCBs).

A Hali jig tipped with a wax worm will catch almost anything through the ice

We didn’t know it then, but the next time the kids came out with us turned out to be the last trip of our ice season. It was a cold start that morning with temps in the 20s, but never once did Cora complain of the cold. Her first pair of merino wool base layers helped, as did the hand and toe warmers. I also busted out the trusty pop-up shelter where she enjoyed a hot oatmeal breakfast, which made it worth the effort.

A big mistake I made was not buying ice grippers to strap under Cora’s small boots. We lucked out with crunchy snow on the ice for her first trip, but the surface was super slick for her second outing and she was falling all over the place, to the point I was worried about her getting hurt. Thankfully our host that day brought an inner tube to lug his gear out and I gladly towed Cora around in it, including to a few fish flags.

Enjoying breakfast in a warm, albeit worn, shelter.

Cora with her first black crappie.

The highlight of the day, in fact the highlight of my ice season, came just before 9 a.m. that morning when the flag of our farthest tip-up went up and, like a sled dog, I hauled Cora a few hundred yards over the frozen terrain. The spool was spinning at a steady clip—I pulled the trap, set the hook, then proudly watched my daughter fight, hand-over-hand, a heavy smallmouth bass. It was the first smallie I had seen from this spot more known for northern pike, so it was a welcomed surprise and a moment to celebrate, one neither of us will soon forget. Cora’s fingers went numb from handling the cold, wet Dacron, but her grin stretched from ear to ear, and so did mine.

A fine fish and proud moment.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Stealing Home

For the second consecutive trip, the morning bite was hotter than two hamsters farting in a wool sock. The type of bait and whether it was alive or dead didn’t matter; the pike were hungry and far from shy. Flags were popping all over our spread, but particularly along a weed line that ran perpendicular to shore. I had just released a small pike and was rebaiting the tip-up it stripped when I heard something hit the ice. I couldn’t immediately place the noise, so I scanned the direction it came from and noticed about 50 yards away the rod in my I Fish Pro was missing from view.

Over the past few years, these contraptions have helped modernize the way ice anglers catch fish with tip-ups by allowing anglers to retrieve fish using a rod and reel, instead of the traditional hand-over-hand technique. They were invented in Canada and popularized by YouTube channels like Uncut Angling, Jay Siemens, and Clayton Schick Outdoors. In Connecticut, where ice anglers can fish with up to six lines, it’s impractical to use just I Fish Pros, but friends and I have added a few to our line-up and it’s been a hell of a lot of fun. 

When it fully registered that that the sound I heard was my rod falling, I broke into the highest gear one can travel in Yaktrax across ice. A pike had taken my bait and the stiff wind had wrapped my bowed line around the tripped flag of the I Fish Pro. The fact that my conventional reel was in free spool didn’t matter; when the fish began to pull the fouled line, the rod jolted from its holder and was gradually towed toward the hole in the ice.

From a few yards out, like the scene in Sandlot where Benny steals home, I slid on my side and scooped up the dragging rod that was inches from disappearing. With some luck, I freed the braided line from the flag and kept the fish tight in the process. That kicked-off an eventful fight consisting of me dancing around the hole to achieve favorable angles while the pike peeled drag and changed directions like a warplane in a dogfight.  

By this point, one of my friends watching the spectacle unfold ran over to assist. After a valiant effort, the pike began to tire and its jaws emerged upward from the icy water. Aaron placed his hand under its gill plate and hoisted up a very well-fed northern pike. Sporting beautiful dark colors and a big head and shoulders, it was my best pike of the ice season and my largest ever taken on a rod and reel.

A couple of seconds was all the difference between me landing that fish and losing an expensive combo in a frozen lake. A lesson was learned about the need to be more cognizant of wind direction when setting the I Fish Pro, but that awesome fight and fish further cemented the tip-up’s place in my hardwater rotation. Thankfully things turned out how they did and I have noteworthy memory that will always be tied to that morning on the ice.

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Closure on the Closer

It was the last day of the year and final day of open season at the reservoir. Jeff and I pulled up at the same time from opposite directions. In a normal winter we would have been meeting at a frozen lake, but with no real ice fishing options we agreed instead to a morning session at the res. Jeff lives close by and had never fished it before, so he was in for a good lesson.

The morning was still pitch black and the rain seemed harder than forecasted. Though the thermometer read over 40 degrees, it was the type of wet cold that seeped into your bones. It had been raining quite a lot. In the span of just a few weeks, the drought that lasted most of the year was erased and the water level of the reservoir had risen dramatically to near full capacity. Great for drinking water, but from a selfish angler standpoint, it severely cut down the number of fishing spots around a place with limited access to begin with.

On our walk through the woods, I missed my mark for the spot I planned for us to fish. Instead of backtracking to find the trail, we stubbornly punched through thick underbrush to the water’s edge. There was no casting room where we landed, so we clumsily walked the shoreline over downed trees and boulders to the intended location. It was far from graceful with bait buckets and long rods in a tight corridor. When we finally got to the right spot, I realized my backpack wasn’t on my back. It was full on amateur hour.

While Jeff got situated, I retraced our steps to my truck where the pack was still on the front seat. It turned out to be a blessing—lying perfectly on some cobble along the shore was a giant cookie wrapped in cellophane. Jeff had dropped it in the scramble to the spot and we had a good laugh before splitting it for a hearty breakfast. Now we were ready to fish.

I wish I could say that we slayed walleye and trout at dawn, but it was quiet for the first two hours. The only constants were the rain and the wet chill that took a toll on our dexterity. Even the simple task of re-rigging took twice as long. The conditions also hindered my desire to pick up the lure rod and probe the areas around our baits. It was a hands-in-pockets-in-between-sipping-coffee type of morning.

Finally, a slip bobber started dancing on the surface. It was one of Jeff’s that had drifted towards a submerged tree near shore. When the float slid under, he connected with his first fish from the reservoir—a healthy rainbow trout. Catching at this waterbody on an inaugural outing is a feat in itself considering how many times anglers leave with their tail between their legs.

The bite seemed to be turning on because just a few minutes later another of Jeff’s bobbers disappeared. After a solid hook set, he had something on long enough to feel heavy weight on the other end. The immediate rush came crashing down when his line went slack. Jeff reeled up everything except the hook and shiner. Where it had been tied to his leader was a dreaded curly sue that revealed the knot had failed. A mishap that every angler has experienced at some point or another, but a gut wrenching one no doubt. There are state record-caliber fish swimming in this body of water and chances don’t come often, so the unknown of what was lost was painful.

There wasn’t much time to dwell on it before a third takedown occurred in the same area. It was one of my bobbers with a large shiner set 10-feet down. I gave it a second longer than customary and drove it home. The fish felt substantial and swam up in the water column. At the first glimpse, I thought I saw white-tipped fins of a walleye, but soon a broad, spotted tail of a trout broke the surface. Jeff laid a landing net in the water and I steered the fish in.

Inside the net was a thick silver bar of a brown trout; easily my largest from the reservoir in years. It was a male seeforellen with a slight kype to its jaw and in pristine condition except for an old injury to its right pectoral fin. An impressive specimen on its own, but what happened next is seared in my memory. When I went to remove the hook, along with my shiner there was another baitfish in his mouth. Initially I thought it was an alewife, the main forage in this impoundment, but upon closer inspection I noticed a hook through its back. Well I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the very same fish that Jeff lost only minutes earlier! We were floored—the excitement level on that patch of rocks was already high, but this put it into another stratosphere.

After plucking both hooks and shiners from its mouth, the greedy trout was photographed and sent on its way. We stayed for one more hour hoping for another bobber to go under, but the bite window had closed as quickly as it opened. Not often are anglers awarded that kind of closure after a missed opportunity. We’ve all been left guessing what kind of fish or how big it was after losing it. There was no guessing here—that brown trout was so dialed-in on hunting alewives that rainy morning, he let his guard down and got fooled twice by Arkansas shiners in mere minutes. Lucky for him, he was released unharmed to get bigger and wiser for next time. 

It was a neat way to close out the fishing season at the reservoir and to put a bow on a bizarre year in general. Cheers to a year ahead full of good health and new adventures—stay safe and tight lines!