Monday, December 18, 2023

Best Laid Plans

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." -Mike Tyson

It was the height of the fall run. A Friday in late October tailor-made for paid time off. The primary thing on my mind was false albacore. The goal of this trip was to catch my first of the season and, more importantly, my first ever from a kayak. By now, anglers had been getting their fill of little tunny locally for two months. I was not among them.

After losing the only albie I had hooked all season weeks earlier, I was eager to settle the score. Getting one in a kayak would wash away that feeling and more, but I had to put myself in a spot with high probability and that meant heading an hour east. Also in tow were blackfish gear and a bucketful of crabs. My thinking was to check-off the main target then pivot to tuatog. 

It sounded good on paper. 

I had fished the area before from shore, but not much by boat and never in my Hobie. Between advice from a friend and studying the Navionics app, I pieced together what seemed like a solid game plan. The sunrise was gorgeous and conditions were tranquil, at least to start. After pedaling out to where the cove opened up to Long Island Sound, I spotted the first telltale feed, a little tunny porpoising like a half-moon through the surface of the water. They were around and eating. What could go wrong? 

Well, anyone who has spent time targeting albies knows that some days it seems easy and other days they make you want to pull your hair out. It was definitely the latter on this outing. They were in sparse pods and popping up only intermittently. There were times they'd be on top and within range long enough for one cast, but no sustained feeds where you get multiple shots. It was challenging to dial in a pattern and they were eating microscopic bait that I couldn't identify. To round out my excuses, the flat calm conditions were ideal for spotting these fish, not catching them.

In the hours spent chasing, dozens of boaters motored by en route to their favorite rock piles. I eventually conceded and joined them, hoping to salvage the trip with a blackish limit. The conditions were evolving though: the tide flipped; the wind picked up; a chop developed. Anchoring in a safe manner proved difficult and pedaling against the current to stay planted above structure wasn't easy either. The scenario was perfect for spot-lock technology that I didn't have. Despite jigging up a handful of tog, none were close to keeper size and the expedition was starting to look like a bust. 

I had a hard stop in order to get back home in time for school dismissal. During the long pedal toward the launch, I scanned the area of the day's first albie sighting. Deteriorated conditions established a renewed confidence if I could only get within range one more time. As if the Fish Gods were throwing me a bone in the 11th hour, a small platoon of albies slashed on top about 20 yards off my bow. A few cranks of the reel handle after a well-placed cast and the line came tight. YAHTZEE!

A bundle of frustration and second guessing evaporated in that hookset. Battling a not-so-little tunny from a kayak was everything I expected and then some. Being low to the water and that close to the action was an awesome feeling. The fish made a few memorable runs and had me reaching the rod tip beyond the bow because it was changing directions so much. Throughout the fight, it was pure adrenaline. When it hit the net, it was immense relief. A really cool moment for me that almost didn't happen, but I'm sure glad it did. 

Just like I planned it. 

Thankful to get the hook-up and fight on film. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

Artificial Intelligence

I love everything about American eels. They are arguably the most effective and versatile bait when targeting striped bass. Many a book chapter, magazine article, and blog post have been written about their ability to entice stripers into gulping them down like candy. An eel was responsible for my largest bass ever landed and I’m sure the same can be said by countless anglers up and down the Striper Coast. 

For a long time now, lure makers have been trying to, with varying levels of success, duplicate the American eel’s shape, suppleness, and action. I have been fishing eels in nearly every fashion possible for as long as I can remember and don’t plan on giving them up entirely anytime soon. All that said, they are expensive, can be a pain to deal with, and are sadly becoming scarcer as the years tick by.  

Companies like Lunker City, Hogy, RonZ, Al Gag’s, Berkley were some of the OGs of my early days of fishing eel imitations, and they still make great baits today. However, it’s been intriguing to witness the arms race of long, slender soft-plastics come to market over the last 20 years. By names like Got Stryper, Game On!, Fish Snax Lures, JoeBaggs, Zinger Baits, and Gravity Tackle to name a few. There are limitless combinations of size, color, and rigging options available to today’s angler for nearly any situation they could encounter. So much so the choices can be overwhelming.

Over time, I have been building up my arsenal of soft-plastics and my confidence in using them. I am starting to find more consistency in my success and part of that can be attributed to selecting the right bait and rigging style to match the spot and its conditions on a given outing. Like in every kind of fishing that I do, it has been a fun, never ending journey of learning. The farther down this rabbit hole I go, the more I realize how much there is still to learn, explore, and experiment.

We’re on a loop. Enjoy the ride.

The author with a healthy striped bass that fell for a 13.5" GT eel rigged on a 1/2 oz. jig head. 

Monday, September 11, 2023

Triathlon Bass

While there was no swimming or running involved, this lazy man’s triathlon did have its share of driving, cycling, and walking. An end-of-summer fishing adventure with a good amount of time and energy expended to reach a chosen spot; effort that would pay off in spades just a few casts in.  

Wearing wetsuits and standing in water 50-yards from shore on a dark night, it was challenging not to think about the plethora of brown sharks that chomped striped bass catches all over Long Island Sound this summer. Jim, the trip planner and my host for the night, started with a live eel. I opted for a lure that punched through the light breeze to reach the dying current, which was going from right to left around a rocky point with an ebb tide.

This lure was an Xplorer, the brainchild of a talented angler and plug builder named John Stirpe. Made of resin with a portion of its core being urethane foam, it is a unique and versatile floating swimmer that digs on a fast or slow retrieve, flashing a super realistic paintjob. It was gifted to me by my pal Eddie, a fellow fishing and artifact junkie from Massachusetts. He has fooled a number of plus-size striped bass over the past few seasons on Xplorers. Knowing I had coveted one for some time, Eddie generously mailed me a plug from his personal stash with the understanding that I would fish it hard.

Our first casts came right after full darkness set in. I was aiming to about 1:30 on a clock face. On my second cast, my lure had just splashed down and something whacked it, even before I had a chance to put my braid on the line roller. A good omen no doubt and I hollered to Jim to give him a heads up. While retrieving the very next cast, a fish slammed the Xplorer and immediately thrashed around on the surface. It then made a bee line right at me and I reeled furiously to stay in contact. When the bass realized it was hooked, she did an about face and flexed her muscles, peeling an impressive amount of line in the process.

This was the biggest test yet for my 'Montauk Eel Rod,' a Lamiglas blank cut and wrapped in 2015 by a friend and expert rod builder, Billy DiLizio. A rod soft enough to throw and feel lighter offerings, yet with enough balls to put the screws to big striped bass, which is exactly what I was doing in this moment for fear of having it bitten in half by the taxman. A strong fish, but beaten pretty quickly and still green when my Boga Grip clasped its lower lip.

In the faint beam of my headlamp, the bass did its best planking impression just under the surface, allowing me to snap a half decent photo with the Xplorer still in its jaw. Before letting her go, I lifted the fish quickly out of the water and watched the numbers on the scale drop to a hair below the 36 mark. This was a notable catch for me in a few ways. It was the largest striped bass I had caught in years, the largest ever landed on that particular rod, and my largest ever using an artificial lure. Stoked doesn’t begin to describe it. Do I wish I had gotten a better photo? Yes, but there was no good way to document it without bringing the fish to shore and risking its health and possibly missing out catching other fish. I took solace in how strong she bolted away for deeper water.

The fish were there as soon as we arrived, and likely before that, though they seemed to vacate the boulder field soon after, as the moving water grinded to a halt. Jim ended up losing what felt and sounded like another big bass on an eel and I had one more hit on the swimmer. That was it, though we kept trying for a while before the long walk, pedal, and drive back. My partner was on vacation and could have kept fishing for another 12 hours, but I had to be presentable at work the next morning. Still, I wouldn’t have changed anything. I floated on air the whole way home and for some time after. 

That was a memorable fish and experience, and I am grateful for the many cool pieces that came together to make it possiblefrom Jim organizing the trip, to Billy wrapping the rod, to John building the plug, to Eddie mailing it to my door. One of the greatest things about fishing is, you just never know what is going to happen on any given outing.  

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Vacation Blitz

“Lotto fishing,” quipped the Cape Codder from across the street. “You need to be in the right place at the right time and get lucky.”

My family and I were renting the same cottage that we have each summer for the last several years. While chats with the neighbor are minimal during our stay, I always take stock in what he says. A hardworking waterman, in summers past he had gifted us freshly-raked little necks. This time he offered fishing advice, or at least hope that something special could happen if luck was on my side.

There was a pile of striped bass feeding just offshore of the outer beaches, and they could easily follow bait to within casting range at a moment’s notice, but you needed to be there when it happened. Reports from other anglers and tackle shops nearby confirmed as much. So, while it was a family vacation, I put in as much time fishing as I could get away with.

Our third day there was the Sabbath. We spent it at our favorite bayside beach. I brought my fly gear along and spotted a few spooky stripers on the flats during low flood tide. Despite some casts in front of moving targets, there were no takers. Come to find out, these bass have been dialed-in on crabs more than usual and I made the mistake of having only sand eels in my fly box. The lesson here being that you should always hit the local fishing shop at the beginning of vacation. Even still, it was really neat to see stripers hunt the shallows in August, and I hope the adrenaline rush from sight-casting never fades.

After the Bay, we went mini golfing, grilled burgers back at the cottage, then biked down the street for homemade ice cream. It was still early, around 6 p.m., when we decided on a whim to see the water again, this time the ocean. I put the surf rod on top of the truck just in case. I had fished and blanked on this stretch of shoreline the previous two sunrises. No signs of fish or bait that I could tell, but the large seals cruising the surf line hinted otherwise.

The evening beach crowd was in full effect when we arrived. Large groups of vacationers sitting in Tommy Bahama chairs, set up in half-moons facing the water. I spiked my rod and laid a blanket on the beach berm, but no one sat. We all stood there soaking in our surroundings, enjoying the waves crashing at our feet and the sun getting lower in the sky behind us.

My wife pointed it out first. A few hundred yards to our left, there was a large patch of water darker than the rest, parallel to shore with a commotion of birds flying around it. It was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; a bonified blitz that was slowly moving south towards us. I could see a line of fishermen at the water’s edge in the distance, but it was hard to make out if they were hooked up or not. To be honest, I didn’t freak out right away because the action looked beyond casting distance. Once I saw splashes tighter to shore, on the inner side of the main body of fish, I bid adieu to my family and began a brisk walk to intercept the melee.

The walk changed to a jog when bent rods came into view. The beachgoers I passed were completely oblivious to what was going on, at least for the time being. I stopped well short of the nearest angler, it was a kid from Canada who was catching hickory shad on epoxy jigs when we first arrived. The fish he was casting to now were striped bass, thousands of them gorging on unidentified baitfish.

The plug I had been using most on the trip to this point was a pencil popper in a green mackerel pattern made my 247 Lures. That was before I broke it off earlier in the day and watched it bob-away in shark-infested waters. What I reached for next was more sentimental, a flat-bottomed pencil turned decades ago by the late John Haberek.  I clipped on the Hab’s, leaned back and launched the furthest cast I could. A striper crushed it on the surface before a full turn of the reel handle. It had been a long time since I had hooked one in the Atlantic surf—it felt damn good.

When the bass came through the last wave and hit the wet sand, a few inquisitive kids stepped forward asking all kinds of questions. As instructed, they avoided the pointy dorsal fin and ran their fingers down the flank of the fish before watching it dart back into the wash. By now my family had caught up and served as a cheering section and paparazzi rolled into one. The highlight of the whole vacation was sharing the unfolding scene with them. A second cast into the outskirts of the frothing water produced a tight line nearly as fast as the first. Another bass, not especially large, but aggressive and punching above its weight class in the ocean currents.

The next 20 minutes went on like that...wash, rinse, repeat. Acres of boiling water sluggishly moved down the beach as anglers followed along, fighting and releasing fish, then leap-frogging others who were hooked up in order to get in position for their next cast. The noncombatants behind us watched in awe at what was taking place. There was good reason to be amazed. I had been visiting and fishing the Cape for more than two decades and had never stumbled into anything like it. Only once before did something remotely similar happen to me on vacation, about 25 years earlier with my Uncle Frank in Charlestown, Rhode Island, but even then, that blitz was all bluefish.    

While it all felt surreal, I was ready for this exact scenario, beaching a half dozen stripers up to the mid-30-inch class and dropping a few others. By the time we made it back to our blanket, the top-water action drifted far enough away from shore to make the decision to call it a night easier. A few anglers kept up in pursuit, but the damage was done was for us. My girls and I absorbed what just went down while enjoying the last frames of sunset.

Each of the next four days, we spent significant time along the Cape’s outer beaches and never saw another fish or bent rod, still marine life was all around us. We were treated to an incredible display of whales a few hundred yards offshore, humpbacks full-on breaching and bubble-net feeding for hours. Another lively sighting was a giant ocean sunfish, mostly exciting because its fin poking out of the water looked awfully like a shark fin as it passed us on the beach.

Toward the end of our trip, I visited a tackle shop to stock up on crab flies and replace the pencil popper I had lost earlier in the week. In comparing notes with one of the employees, he experienced the same blitz we did, and shared that the next three evenings at that beach were dead; no signs of life anywhere. In turns out, we were in the right place at the right time and got lucky. That’s lotto fishing for you.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Summer Medley

Salt air and fireflies.
Flounder, quahogs, and blue claws. 
Summer ends too soon.

My brother summited California's Mount Whitney and left a Connecticut Yankee sticker.

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.