Monday, May 22, 2023

Runners of the Tide

It has been an enjoyable start to the surf fishing season so far. The main reason being that my uncle and angling mentor is in the midst of a saltwater renaissance. After not sharing a tide in years, we have been out together this spring a half dozen times already—learning from each other while rehashing old memories and making new ones. Often it is not the fish that make these trips standout. Then again, sometimes it is unforgettable catches or bite windows that are engraved into our consciousness for years to come. 

For us thus far, this season has been all things squeteague—an intriguing and handsome fish that migrates to the same haunts each spring like clockwork, some years in better numbers than others. This year seems to be a very good year for weakfish in Connecticut waters. They are not everyone's cup of tea. Some can't stomach the crowds they draw. Others are after something bigger, or maybe they loathe the endless bumps from horseshoe crabs mistaking wading boots for potential mates.

While I hardly enjoy a packed beach, I'll put up with it a few times each May. Thankfully when prime tides are very late or very early, even the most popular spots can be a ghost town. Catching the inaugural squeteague of spring almost feels like getting a monkey off my back. They can be challenging, partly due to the finite window of time we find them from shore with any kind of consistency, and partly because hooks often lose purchase in their weak mouths after seizure-like headshakes. Patience and a loosened drag can help.

A big draw for me is witnessing the overall natural spectacle that is taking place; a convergence of fish, shorebirds, and arthropods that has occurred here each spring for millennia. Also, when everything lines up in your favor, you can experience a window of unparalleled action. Waves of weakfish charging up the beach and multiple rods bending in unison. A brief period with a bite so intense that you better make sure your offering is in the water and swimming well. 

We were fortunate to experience two evenings like that recently, where for about 30 minutes it was lights-out action. Up and down the waterline, all you saw were anglers in various stages of hooking, fighting, or beaching weakfish. I landed more in one trip than I had in multiple years. Some of them hit my jig only a rod's length from my feet. It was nutty for a little while and then it wasn't. That's the way it goes sometimes. And the more time you put in, the better the odds you'll eventually stumble into events like that. I am just glad that I was a small part of it, standing there right next to my uncle.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Opening Daze: 2023

“Warmest Opening Day Weekend yet.” 

It started as a simple, and quite inaccurate, weather prediction made by Tommy before our annual spring pilgrimage to the West Branch Farmington River a few years back. It was so cold, wet, and raw that particular weekend, that the botched forecast became lore amongst our crew, and the acronym WODWY has lived on in text messages leading up to the camping trip ever since.

The running joke finally turned reality this year. Warm was actually an understatement; it was straight up shorts-weather for the first two days of our outing. While 80s in April felt a bit out of place, no one dared complain with hard frosts and deluges of years past seared into memory. Of course, it couldn’t be beach conditions the entire stay, and what’s Opening Day Weekend without precipitation? It rained just enough at the finish line to necessitate drying out gear in the ensuing days.  

In between the warmth and the rain, we packed in another banner celebration of spring. We ate, we drank, hell, we even left camp twice to fish. Hendricksons were hatching, but the river's resident trout hadn’t yet decided to eat them. Even so, we were grateful for the unfussy, freshly-stocked rainbows that tightened our lines. All in all, WODWY was an awesome experience. One more good notch in the belt of tradition. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Spring Seef

Coming off a winter with zero chances to ice fish any of Connecticut's deep-water lakes, I had been itching to visit one in a kayak this spring. It took a little help during Holy Week for my cards to line up right. With a day off of work, kids in school, and ideal weather conditions, excitement levels were through the roof as I drove north last Thursday.

When I finally launched at 8:30, it was 46 degrees with fog thick enough to make me question how well I knew my surroundings. Later in the morning, when it eventually burned off, temps spiked over 20 degrees. Thankfully there was little to no wind to speak of, making the surface of the lake smooth as glass and allowing sound to carry more than usual. The loud and eerie calls from a handful of loons fishing nearby reminded me of time spent on Woods Pond in Maine as a kid.

rigged & ready 

After peddling halfway to the planned starting point, I saw a fish eat on the surface close enough to warrant a hasty cast. It resulted in a reactionary strike and a long-distance release, but it was a welcomed sign of activity to come. As I approached the deepest bowl of lake, there were two gents drifting in a small jon boat – the only other anglers on the entire body of water.

My game plan was the same in the kayak as it was when I have been fortunate to ice fish here: vertical jigging with soft plastics and metal spoons to imitate the lake's main forage of landlocked alewives. Whether my fish finder was not up to the task or I still haven't fully dialed-in the unit yet, I couldn't see my jig or targets on screen in detail like I usually do while on the ice. Though still confident in my method and the spot to keep doing what I was doing, part of me felt like I was fishing blind.


soft plastics

That method consisted of jigging on bottom and up through the water column with occasional pauses in hopes a chasing trout would pounce on my offering. More than few times I stopped to cast at the ever increasing number of trout feeding on top. Some of the takes were gentle sips while others were a porpoising action that revealed flanks of spotted silver and copper. There were unmistakably large fish in the mix. I reached over the side of the kayak and cupped in my hand what they were eating—small midge that were emerging from the lake bottom about 75-feet underneath. As the sun started to peak out, the hatch shifted from midge to larger stone flies. It was a sight to see.

elephants eat peanuts; big trout eat midge

a stonefly takes flight

The brown trout eating on the surface were keyed in on bugs, wanting not much to do with the baitfish offerings I presented them. Never during the trip planning stage did I ever think a fly rod and assortment of dry flies would be needed. I hooked and lost one more on the surface, but ultimately decided my time would be better spent targeting the trout I couldn't see eating herring down below.

During one of the many retrieves with a lead head and soft plastic, something heavy doubled over my new St. Croix rod on its maiden voyage. With the water so clear, I got the first look of the fat seeforellen brown trout when it was still more than 10 feet deep. I had stared down at many silvery trout on this lake through holes in the ice, but never before in open water. The sharp single hook of the jig was firmly planted in the trout's jaw, yet the jerky headshakes and barrel rolls on its way up from the depths had me muttering a hybrid of prayer and cursing. When it finally came within arm's length, I slid the net under the weight of its body, hoisted up, and let out a sigh of relief.

On a bump board on my lap, the fish measured a hair over 22-inches. More impressive than its length though, was its girth. This trout was built like a Mack truck—a body type achieved on a healthy diet of fish, not just bugs. The population of illegally-introduced alewives in this lake is booming, and the seeforellen strain stocked here are taking full advantage.

herring eater


catch & release trophy for CT waters

After admiring the trout in the water, one of the heaviest I have ever landed in Connecticut, it kicked away strong, straight back down to whence he came. It was an awesome feeling and affirming moment. The idea of a solo kayak mission on this body of water had been consuming me for months since the winter that never was. While I may never luck out with the same extraordinary conditions again, it was satisfying to know that I could pull this type of trip off and have a chance to catch big trout like that, or bigger. 

Morning grew late and the fog completely burned off, revealing a bright blue sky and a completely different day than when I started. It was darn right hot out for April. The amount of fish eating up top dwindled. I missed one more solid hit just off bottom. My time on the water was growing thin, but the long peddle back to my truck was an enjoyable one. I hugged the shoreline and snuck right up on a pile of largemouth bass of impressive size, yet couldn't coax one into biting a tube. There were two bald eagles perched in a tree along the last leg of my journey back. A fitting way to finish an outing that I will look back on for as long as I'm around. 

a gorgeous body of water
had to pullover for this on the way home; spring in New England

celebratory libations

Sunday, February 12, 2023

One-Day Season

Last weekend's short-lived arctic blast produced just enough ice in Connecticut for one memorable day of hardwater fishing. Knowing this was essentially a one-day season, we got an early start and had lines in the water before first light. The little ice we had was strong and crystal clear. The first spud into it sent a loud reverberation across the waterbody. By mid-morning the ice was turning grey with air bubbles. By early afternoon, there was more water on top than there was ice below. It was time to go home. 

Those hours in between though were glorious. It was a scalding hot bite at times; the type of action you dream about when a lake or pond first freezes over. There was a point when I had three of my allotted six lines out of the water at once because I was unhooking fish and rebaiting tip-ups. Four of us fished together and we all caught our target species of northern pike, with a few good ones in the mix. A highlight for me was catching three of them by rod and reel. Something I have been exploring more of and recently wrote an article about.

It's not lost on me how lucky I was to get in a few hours of ice time this winter. The stars and moon aligned with the conditions, timing and location. For how crappy this winter has been in terms of local hardwater opportunities, this was an outing I will never forget. 

Monday, February 6, 2023

Taste of Summer

An 11:30 a.m. low tide and 50-degree air temp helped form my decision. The plan was to rake local quahogs for a Sunday feast of stuffed clams and clams casino. After having success at this particular spot in September, confidence was high that I would find hard shells where I left them. That morning I layered up like it was a winter steelhead trip and waded into the 41-degree Long Island Sound. 

The tool for this is a long-handled rake with steel tines protruding from a wire basket on its business end. When the tines come in contact a clam, there is a distinct feel and sound that helps differentiate between a quahog and say a rock or empty shell. Let me cut to the chase and admit that I didn't hear any good sounds while raking that morning. I tried out deep, in shallow, and even on an exposed flat at dead low tide. For more than an hour, I moved all over the place and used muscles I didn't know I had, yet never zeroed in on where the bivalves were burrowed. 

One thing I learned is that I still have a lot to learn when it comes to clamming. Perhaps they were in water deeper than I could wade. Or maybe the clams were buried deeper in the sand and mud than the rake could reach. This is not a heavily pressured area, so I know it hasn't been picked over. Wherever they were, it wasn't where they were just a few months ago.

On to plan B. 

There was just enough time to call an audible. My wife and daughters were coming to meet me and friends at the beach for lunch. I reached them before they left the house and requested another tool for a different kind of clamming. Soft shells, affectionately known by many as "steamers", are also found in this general vicinity, but in a precise area buried under a specific substrate. 

While the quahogs here live in soft sand and mud in open water, the steamers prefer life under a rocky bar that extends perpendicular to the beach. Getting at them requires a short-handled tool, like a garden claw or trowel. Instead of wading and raking in water, this method consists of kneeling and digging on dry land during the low tide window. My tactic is to throw a heavy rock on the bar to see where the soft shells spit sea water from their siphons. In the summer, one toss of a softball-sized rock could unleash several clues on where to pinpoint digging efforts. On this day, nothing. Zip. Nada. 

Instead of calling it quits, I dug a trench where they'd normally be and, sure enough, I found one about six inches down. It was a slow slog, but I kept at it and they came in small bunches of two or three every couple minutes. It was hard work for an appetizer, but I was pot committed (pun intended). The take home count was around 50 steamers, which is a perfect quantity for our family of four. Everyone was happy for a taste of summer; broth, butter and all. 

While I didn't come home empty handed, I did strike out on my original plan. Winter clamming for quahogs is something I'd really like to focus on. It goes to show, no matter how much time we spend on the water, there will always be so much more to learn. 

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Winter Purgatory

Usually my inaugural fish each year is caught while ice fishing in Connecticut. It goes with saying that wouldn't be the case this year. Every day this month at the climate station in Bridgeport has been warmer than normal. The average monthly temperature there of 40.1°F is 8.4° above normal. The same goes for Hartford where the second warmest January on record is underway, 9° higher than average. For ice anglers and snow lovers, we are stuck in winter purgatory; a seemingly permanent state of early March.  

With no ice fishing opportunities within a two-hour drive, I have been looking for other ways to scratch the itch. I had a few hours to myself on a recent afternoon and decided to spend them along a stream I had not seen since May. A fresh rain had the flow in its sweet spot. I started out with the dry-dropper method and never strayed from it. The first combo of flies was my go-to; a #14 Stimulator dry with an #18 bead head pheasant tail nymph trailing below it. Kneeling on the bank beside a familiar riffle, I watched a small wild brown trout attack my dry fly. A surface eat in mid-January for my first fish of 2023. I'll take it. 

After several drifts with no love for my nymph selection, I swapped it out for more of an attractor pattern; a trusty San Juan Worm. That seemed to get their attention and a couple more wild browns quickly came to the net, each slightly bigger than the previous. I also missed one or two others due to late sets on the dry fly. It felt good to wield a fly rod again and shake the rust off. No native brook trout on this trip, and what the browns lacked in size they made up in their beauty. Just gorgeous creatures. 

The second and last stop of the afternoon was a short drive downstream. There were trout rising to what I believe were small winter caddis. I didn't bother embarrassing myself with a cast in this shallow, slow stretch; instead I just watched them feed for a while. I walked up to the next riffle and missed a fish on top during my first drift. That was it. A couple hours of fresh air and a few tight lines. It may not have been ice fishing, but to quote a legendary Stones tune, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime you'll find you get what you need."