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!

Monday, January 4, 2021

Hells Bells

Our limit of 12 lines was set under the ice before the sun lifted over the trees. Despite only having a half day to fish, hopes were high as we drilled the first holes on this waterbody of the season. There was a layer of gray ice on top of a thinner layer of black ice; enough to feel comfortable, but an approaching storm bringing warm air and heavy rain meant a total reset was imminent.  

It’s funny how two anglers in the same area using the same thing can have completely different results, but that’s precisely how our day started. We had a mix of tip-ups and jigging rods spread over a familiar spot. They were baited with medium shiners that Buddy was able to secure on short notice. For the first two hours, my partner’s flags popped left and right resulting in more than a dozen yellow perch to my none. When one of Buddy’s perch came topside, it puked up dragon fly larvae and gave us a neat glimpse at what some of the fish were eating below.    



Out in deeper water, I hopped around and jigged the extra holes we drilled at first light. There weren’t many targets showing on my sonar, but I eventually coaxed a bluegill into eating a Hali jig. If not familiar, this little lure has a gold drop-chain hook and I tipped it with a piece of fish meat. The flash and action of the jig call fish in, but the freebie on the hook is what seals the deal. The dark bluegill was a modest first fish of my ice season, but I was happy to be on the board.  

The calmness was soon broken up by a jingling sound behind me. Bells clipped to a jigging rod bouncing violently set me in motion like a fire alarm. The drag on my reel had been loosened, but apparently not enough as the rod managed to free from its holder and inched closer to the hole in the ice. I grabbed the sliding rod and, all in one motion, cupped the spool and reared back to set the hook. 

By the weight on the other end, I knew straight away this wasn’t a panfish. I tightened the drag, yet left it loose enough to protect the light line for what turned into a lengthy back and forth. As the fish tired, it flashed under the hole a few times revealing the telltale markings of a northern pike. After a quick photograph it was sent back down to keep on growing. Still, it was a solid pike, especially on the rod and reel.

Once the excitement settled down, I set out for one last jigging mission. Every so often I picked my head up from staring at the fish finder to scan our spread. After one such check, I looked back down at the screen to see a large mark merge with the small mark of my jig. The hit and hookset were simultaneous and the rod immediately bowed over. It was on the lightest rod and reel combo on the ice that day and, while it was a smaller pike than the first, the battle was just as spirited. Thankfully the Hali’s tiny hook perfectly pierced the outer skin of the fish’s top jaw or else there was no chance of landing it. Catching those fish back-to-back further cemented just how much I enjoy fighting pike through the ice on jigging rods.

While my time was up, Buddy stayed through the afternoon and returned for a few hours the next day with another pike and more yellow perch to show for it. Unfortunately, after that, the integrity of the little ice we had came into question. The warmup and rain on Christmas Eve were the death blow for this spot and a handful of other places in Connecticut that had fishable ice. It was a tease by any definition, but I was grateful to have been on ice at all. As I type this in early January, I’m holding out hope for an extended cold spell and the semblance of a real hardwater season, yet the days are getting longer and sun is getting stronger so it had better happen soon!