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."

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Waiting

The late, great Tom Petty said it best: "the waiting is the hardest part." That's how I and many other ice fishermen feel this winter staring at forecasts and hoping something will change. The issue is not just in Connecticut; since the New Year, large swaths of the Northeast and Midwest are experiencing a lengthy period of above normal temperatures. January thaws are nothing new, but it's hard to remember a sustained stretch of winter warmth like the one we're experiencing now.

I enjoy learning about weather, yet I don't pretend to fully understand all of the reasons causing this particular pattern that we're stuck in. Like the complex Pacific jet and the North American ridge that have been blocking the deep cold air bottled-up in the Arctic. Aside from the elephant in the room that is climate change, there are a lot of moving parts. 

Winter is far from over and we are due for a strong cold spell. However, the days are getting longer and the sun is getting stronger. Ice fishing seasons are always on barrowed time, but this winter, more than most, that seems to be true. We only have a few more weeks to turn the bus around. 

My friend Jeff landed this northern pike on the lone flag of our short-lived ice season

It's crazy how we got here. Only a few weeks ago, right around Christmas, I thought we were off to a banner start to the ice season. A string of frigid days and nights locked up ponds and even some larger lakes in northern Connecticut, enough for eager anglers to squeeze in a few days of ice fishing. My buddy Jeff and I were fortunate to get out one of those days. We fished on three-inches of strong, clear ice. Optimism was high for some classic 'first ice' action. That was not to be. While we were both more than happy to be out there, Jeff got the only flag of the trip and made it count with a feisty northern pike that we watched battle its way to the hole under our feet. 

Things went to crap pretty quickly in the days after that. I went on a family trip to the Catskills for New Year's Weekend—not a lick of snow to be seen. By the time I got back, any ice we once had wasn't strong enough to fish on any more. The real kicker though was having to nix my bucket list birthday trip to the shores of Lake Michigan. For years, a friend and I have been talking about pulling the trigger on hiring a guide to put us on the world-class giant trout fishery in Milwaukee Harbor. Southeastern Wisconsin had early ice around the same time Connecticut did, but the warm stretch during the first two weeks of January killed it. Just today I had to cancel my hotel and flights. Woof. 

God willing I get another crack at that Milwaukee trip in the future. In the meantime, I have my fingers and toes crossed in hopes of a local cold snap that makes just enough ice for us to scratch our hardwater itch. All I'm asking for is the chance to jig up a few trout and chase a few pike flags. We've waited long enough. 

Tight lines and be safe out there. 

Dogs on ice. Mustard only.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Seefer Madness (revisted)

January 2023...

Once in a while I find myself revisiting old posts buried in this blog. I thought this one, even eight years later, still rings true. 

Connecticut's current state record brown trout was caught about two weeks before I originally wrote this and it was certified shortly after. It was 33-inches long and weighed 19-pounds, taken from West Hill Pond just days after it was stocked from Kensington Hatchery. Not more than four months later, another beast, likely even heavier, was caught on a spinnerbait in Highland Lake, but the bass angler released the trout without pursuing the record.

I am still in firm belief that CT DEEP should not have stocked fish of record size without creating a way to recognize them for what they are. I would have liked these fish tagged or fin-clipped and, if and when they were caught and broke the record, placed in a subcategory under the state record brown trout listing.

It is highly doubtful any of those 400 monster seeforellens from the December 2014 stocking are still roaming today. Unless CT DEEP stocks more record-size brown trout, the next one to break the current Connecticut record will have to surpass 19-pounds by having spent some real time in a lake, feeding on something other than hatchery pellets. I hope I live long enough to see that day happen...


January 2015...

Up until a few weeks ago, “seeforellen” was a rather unfamiliar term in Connecticut, spoken only within pockets of ardent trout anglers and inland fisheries staff. Now, after a series of recent trout stockings and a little public relations, it has become a household name overnight, one that even carries a bit of controversy along with it. 

In the month of December, CT DEEP stocked over 400 surplus broodstock seeforellen brown trout in eight lakes throughout the Nutmeg State. These five-year-old fish were born and raised in Kensington Hatchery and averaged 15-pounds, with some well over the mind-boggling 20-pound mark. This created an unprecedented and incredible opportunity for Connecticut anglers, but it also sparked much debate due to the fact that several brown trout surpassing the current state record were released.

Reared in our hatchery system since 1992, seeforellens have a storied history in Connecticut. In a recent radio interview, Tim Barry, the supervising cold water fisheries biologist for CT DEEP, shed a little light on why these fish are so unique. “We are the only state in New England to have this strain of brown trout,” Barry said. “It’s originally a lake-dwelling strain that comes from Germany, and it’s known to be a late-maturing fish and because of that fact they tend to grow very large and live quite a long time, usually longer and bigger than most other strains of brown trout. We use them in a variety of different applications, but primarily in our lakes to try and promote holdover brown trout and bigger brown trout.”

One of the over 400 recently stocked broodstock seeforellen (photo courtesy of CT DEEP)

Since the early 90’s, countless seeforellens have been stocked in Connecticut waters in all different sizes from fry to adults, but releasing broodstock this large is not common protocol. According to a CT DEEP FAQ, “normally, these fish would be stocked at age two or age three, however, due to an issue with a disease several years ago, the hatchery staff needed to retain a large number of the disease–free fish to restart the strain. Now several years later they are much larger than we need or can handle. At this size, they are too large to be kept at the hatchery and are past their prime (their productivity is decreasing). In order to make room for the younger, more productive broodstock, we decided to make the most of these fish by giving a once in a lifetime opportunity to our angling community.”

Before I go any further, let me be clear in stating that I commend CT DEEP for providing us with yet another unique and entertaining angling opportunity. I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t be a blast hooking into one of these things, especially on a jigging rod through the ice. And if a youngster connects with a 15-pound anything, let alone a beautiful brown trout, forget about it, they will be hooked for life. However, hindsight is 20/20 and I think a few things could have been done differently in this whole process.

First, I believe the real-time promotion of the stockings via social media was a mistake. This allowed anglers to be at the precise stocking sites literally within minutes after the seeforellens were released. I get it; these fish were meant to be caught—it’s great publicity, especially in a day and age with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But with trout still milling around at the boat launches, there were cases of anglers throwing rocks to break ice to get at them and, much worse, there were multiple reports of unsportsmanlike snagging. Holding back on sharing the stocking locations by a few weeks could have allowed the trout to acclimate to their new surroundings a little. And though time consuming, stocking by boat several hundred feet from the launch would have given the seeforellens more of a fighting chance.

Another example of a recently stocked seeforellen (photo courtesy of CT DEEP)

It didn't come as much of a surprise when a photo recently popped up on Facebook of an angler hoisting a 19-pound seef just a matter of days after the initial stockings. It's most likely the first of a handful of "pending state record" brown trout we'll hear about in the coming months. While not everyone cares about angling records, for those that do, therein lies the hot button issue with all of this. In June 2011, Tony Urbanowicz broke a 31-year-old Connecticut brown trout record with an 18-pound five-ounce behemoth from the Saugatuck Reservoir. Yes, it too was a hatchery fish, most Connecticut trout are, but his seeforellen was stocked when it was six to nine-inches and survived years in the wild before eventually reaching its massive 32.5-inch length and 21-inch girth.

Maybe I was na├»ve in thinking Tony’s record brown trout was going to stand for a long time, especially since the previous record of 16-pounds 14-ounces from East Twin Lake lasted for over three decades. With the exception of a few deep lakes, Connecticut currently doesn’t boast many places that could produce a holdover trout of that caliber. And most of the bodies of water that can have certain restrictions (read: no boat fishing, no ice fishing or both) that make the feat even harder to accomplish.

Tony Urbaowicz with the current state record brown trout caught in 2011 (photo courtesy of Fisherman's World)

Regardless of what happens, I’m in the camp that’s not too keen on seeing a new state record that was stocked at record size. Perhaps any seeforellens stocked larger than the current state record should have been marked in a certain way, like with an elastomer tag or a tail clip, to denote as much. Maybe there could be a separate category for them in the records section of the Angler’s Guide or maybe there should be a steroid-era asterisk next to the new record like plenty of anglers have joked about.

However things shake out, the amount of buzz that has been created surrounding these giant trout is admirable. I believe the surplus broodstock seeforellen have provided a very cool recreational fishing opportunity, particularly for the next generation of Connecticut anglers. And while I may disagree with the stocking of state record-sized fish, the bottom line is that CT DEEP deserves to be applauded for the incredible overall job they do managing our freshwater fisheries, especially considering their limited staff and resources—the seeforellen program is another fine example of that. 

Monday, January 2, 2023

Chain Gang

Most years, during late fall and early winter, there are a few weeks between hanging up my saltwater gear and tuning up my ice fishing equipment. It's a time when I like to visit a favorite body of water in Connecticut—a challenging fishery with incredible scenery where I have spent many a chilly outing chasing trout and walleye.

Not many lakes and ponds in my home state are home to both walleye and the fast-growing seeforellen brown trout. Throw in a healthy population of smallies and crappie and, at least to me, that rounds out a desirable lineup of target species. And here, they all have the potential to reach true trophy size—think state record potential. 

One reason for this is their diet consists mostly of landlocked alewives, which you can see schools of dimpling the surface on calm mornings. Another reason these fish have the ability to grow so large are the strict angling regulations in place. Rules that limit big chunks of when, where, and how you can fish, which ultimately deter some anglers from even bothering to try.

All that said, for me, it's the chance of encountering something genuinely special on any given outing that is a main motivator for logging hours and miles along its rocky shores. Over the years, more times than I'd like to admit, I have gone home without catching a single fish. Yet each trip, skunk or success, I learn from, and if you are going to get blanked, it may as well be at a place as beautiful as this.

This past November and December I was only able to make three trips—two morning shifts and one evening. What's more sad than the lack of time I spent there were my piss poor results. I landed a handful of fish, but none that I actually set out to catch. One was a brown bullhead that ate a shiner I had set on bottom in hopes of a sunrise walleye. Another was an unimpressive largemouth bass that fell for a shiner suspended under a slip bobber. 

Most discouraging though, were the high number of chain pickerel that I landed on both lures and live bait. Pickerel are a native species that I respect, yet have never seen in these numbers in this body of water. It wasn't just me either. I talked to a few other anglers and a tackle shop owner that reported similar results—the most pickerel any of them had ever experienced. I don't know what to make of the population explosion, but I hope the trend doesn't continue in 2023. God willing I will be there perched on a rock next fall to find out. 

Tight lines and happy New Year!