Saturday, April 28, 2012

Jersey Shore Bluefish Rite to Remember: The Blues of an Eager Boyhood


There are many ways to talk about blues. Sometimes referring to bluefish as blues carries an undertone. No one seems to have done it with more subtlety than John Hersey in his book Blues, a personal account of fishing for bluefish written in a somber, reflective style. The book never is depressing; its weightiness is like blue water itself. He celebrates bluefish as flashes of electric current in a stable sea, and informs us about the fish. He makes me consider bluefish flanks as the color of lit sky produced by atmospheric chemistry and brilliant sunlight, the atmosphere itself a kind of shield absorbing the manic plethora of fire, as if the color symbolizes transformation of energy to a level suitable to life on earth. Getting the blues is not necessarily an undesirable state, and the energy behind them is far fiercer than may appear—just like that of these worthy fish.

          A fairly recent weekend trip to Sandy Hook with my son, then nine, narrowly escaped being a loss. The weather nearly ruined the weekend. But that first weekend in May four years ago, Matt had reason to become as eager as I had ever seen him, except in the grip of excited streams of fresh ideas in the comfort of home.   

          The outdoors limits intentions upon it because it is what it is. The mass of a beach, surf, and sky over sand is a weight and complexity that absorbs awareness itself, however detached and facile an individual may be otherwise. The surf, or any other body of water, tends to get the better of a fisherman’s pursuits, whether the fisherman is a young boy or a seasoned angler.

          This is partly why we fish. Fishing reminds of us of how resistant the world is to our wishes, teaches us universal lessons. Otherwise, there’s good reason for why there’s no place like home; within the familiar artificial environments we create for ourselves we may be free to launch our spirits like nowhere else. But the outdoors exercises our bodies and spirit, not to mention reason and reflection. Home might get boring all too quickly if we didn’t go out. Or if not boring, downright decadent and unhealthy. 

          That May weekend my son and I embarked upon one outing among many over the course of the year spent without quite knowing what to expect.

          Matt had the Friday off as teachers attended an New Jersey Education Association convention. I had to turn burgers for a Cub Scout fundraiser all day, but had time in the evening to prepare for the trip. Me, Matt, and his uncle Jim, fished Saturday late afternoon and evening near the Highlands Bridge at the mouth of the Shrewsbury River where it empties into Raritan Bay. The wind blew directly out of the east at what seemed about 25 knots, and we had seen the ocean on the front of the barrier beach where we had wanted to fish. It raged, the surf unfishable.  

          With so much water pushed ashore and into the bay by the wind, our prospects seemed slim there too. A six-ounce sinker hardly held bottom. Sea Cabbage loaded the cut bunker bait and lines, but Matt caught an 18-inch bluefish, which gave me thrilled relief, and yet the thought of dawn the next day felt onerous. I phoned my expert surf fisherman brother, Rick. He said we could forget it; wind would blow all night and into morning. I too believed the fury would not abate. Matt’s uncle wished us well with his cheerful temperament perhaps a little more hopeful for our prospects in the morning than I was, and parted from us to drive home to Maplewood.

          We stayed at the Best Western in Hazlit. Matt insisted we stay up and watch TV. The previous fall when we first tried one of these overnight surf fishing adventures, I refused to do this. Getting up at 4:45 a.m. is enough of a challenge. But this time I was sure that watching a movie would pass without sorry consequences, whether fishing would be worthwhile or not in the morning. So we stayed up until 11:30.

          My eager response to the alarm was bred from a 35-year habit. Ready to go, I felt no self-division from a wrong choice the night before. Matt had no trouble either. We had only to pack clothes, leave the key at the desk, walk out to the car neatly arranged for action. But the drive ahead seemed ominous. The parking lot seemed deceptively calm as we departed at 5:00.

          I pulled into the first parking lot for fishermen, not far beyond the entrance to Gateway National Recreation Area. Daylight had begun to ease into very thick fog. Off-white gray enveloped the surf and most of the beach without heavy wind hustling those horizontal columns of mist westward I'm familiar with, yet the surf sounded rough. Then we saw a human figure emerge from obscurity. 

          “Catch any?” I asked.

          “Just took a few casts,” he said. 

          By that I imagined the worst. But I continued walking to see the surf for myself, which didn’t look bad. Rough, but fishable.

          “Let’s get the stuff,” I said.

          Matt said, “You think it’s good?” 

          “We can find out.”

          The bunker in the iced cooler stayed fresh overnight—it was still half frozen in vacuum sealed bags. With my big Spanish war knife I whisked one open, and cut a chunk of the greasy, foot-long fish with a head about a third of the total body length. A 30-pound test wire leader fully 18 inches long received the 7/0-stainless hook at the snap, baited with reel drag set at 1/3rd strength of 16-pound test monofilament, a five-ounce pyramid sinker on a sliding sleeve rode above a 65-pound test barrel swivel. I cast each of our rods. Into two PVC sand spikes I dropped them.

          We set up collapsible arm chairs to lounge, but it worked out better that we never used them. Within minutes Matt’s rod doubled over. He grabbed it, but missed the hit. I felt the confirmation, positively liberated from the feeling of being oppressed by the dark, cloudy onshore blow. The weekend pivoted in our favor. Sometimes even very auspicious days make the surf yield nothing. Maybe we would catch fish.

          I baited Matt’s rod again and took a long, sweeping cast. Surf casting with a ten or eleven-foot, stiff spinning rod is a beauty that beats fly casting by sheer force. And the value of each infrequent cast is far greater than standing on a bank or in a boat and simply whipping a light-weight plug, feet firmly set and a six-foot rod in one hand. When surf casting, you have to move your feet forward to load up the momentum of the five-ounce sinker—which is terrific power, an accident could kill—while a rod almost as stiff as a pool cue bends under momentum like a willow branch. All of the action functions under the control of your whole body, moving as a flowing unit, unrelieved until the sheer joy of the cast is felt with the line released and lead weight soaring like a little space capsule. The sinker makes contact with the water beyond breakers as many as 100 yards out. Fly casting never knows quite the same grace under pressure.

          Once again Matt’s rod doubled, and he was on it fast. The fish was on and no 18-inch cocktail blue. Jagged surges assured, though—bluefish! Three explosive runs. 

          With experience catching stripers from the age of six, Matt played this fish well. It “took drag,” as we say, stripped off yards of line. I walked into the wash maybe five minutes into the struggle, clad in breathable waders. He got the fish near my feet, and with my left hand I grabbed in the middle of the 18 inches of wire—much easier than getting cut by monofilament—and then quickly clasped the blue behind the head with my right hand.

          The fish went about eight pounds, and the set of razor-tooth studded jaws would crush with force many times that weight. Even the wire leader had to be replaced, as badly serrated as it remained.

          Onto the sand with this fish—blues to my taste are good eating, and the dark meat reminds me of the dark meat of turkey. It isn’t as mellow and soft, and I like the pungency of bluefish.

          We would load quite a few fish into our pile. I’ll never know why Matt got 90% of them. The small area where I kept casting his rig yielded by far the most fish, which made him proud. One of his fish was no blue at all, but a fine silvery striped bass of 29 ½ inches and about nine pounds, an inch and a half over keeper size. The blues ranged from five to about eight-and-a-half pounds. I had fought one larger, 12 to 15 pounds. It stripped off about 20 yards of line on its last run pulling the hook free at full force.

          What we kept—ten fish including the striper—I strung onto a long length of rope. This would be a day to remember well, and not only because fish would fill our freezer and feed us for six months. As I shouldered out about 80 pounds of fish across the wide beach to the lot, and backed the car to our catch, I knew that being a good father is more than offering advice.




Friday, April 27, 2012

Brown Trout on Rapalas and Fathead Minnows: Be the First for a Fast Breakfast Limit

          I really hear it only when it catches me unawares: the pure fusion of sensation and spirit in birdsong before dawn. Perhaps because I am still awakening, the effect of the sound under a dome of darkened sky with a pinch of blue can be such an uncanny invitation to the wild. But the trout I have come to take were put there only days before. Nature has its way, however, whatever the conditions. These trout follow nature just as certainly as birds seem sometimes to suggest the Sirens in Odysseus’s ancient Greek mythical adventure—something strange about the wild minutes from home can make a man want to follow nature, too.

          It comes from a deeper place where trout, bird, and man share a secret unity that, like Odysseus, we must perhaps restrain ourselves from knowing or be lost, because ultimately it cannot be known, is bottomless—we must recognize our own end is happiness.

         Before dawn intense contemplation accompanies great mystery for an anlger engaged in the pursuit of hatchery browns.

          Sometimes something so ordinary as trout stocked from a truck can be reassuring in a comfortable way of knowing that life is planned. We have our means to pursuits such as trout fishing. But the very best is to get well beyond routine, yet be able to embrace practice with gratitude, skill, and economy. 

A Few Days After Stocking—and Early

          You can limit out faster the Saturday or Sunday after a Wednesday stocking than on that day of stocking itself. No hurry is needed. The plan I will disclose works for me, and within an hour or so I return to my car with familiar sun warming the seats.

          Typically, browns feed slowly the day they get stocked. Here in Bedminster, with the North Branch of the Raritan running through it, browns get stocked on Wednesdays beginning the first week of May, with the river closed until 5:00 pm. Plenty limits caught attest to a robust fishery, which a few browns escape up tributaries to reproduce. Limits tend to be slow in coming, though; conversation and cursing at missed strikes quicker than fish making it to the bank.

          I always get a chance to get out well before breakfast on a weekend in May, and I always return home to clean my limit, go back to bed for an hour, and then reawaken to fix a big trout breakfast for my family. (We like to crack eggs and apply spiced breading.)

          If you want to compete with me for these fish, you’ll have to wake up while it’s still completely dark and park near the river with blue barely breaking the sky. Most of these mornings, the next guy comes down to the water when I’m walking out with my limit. Many people seem to have a strong inclination to avoid that edge of time between darkness and the very beginning of light.

          Too early,” I’ve heard.

          Unless it’s Opening Day, that is. It’s well known that plenty of others will make their way to a great spot before sun-up.  I remember an Opening Day when my son and I claimed our spot in the dark a full half hour before the next guy showed up. (My son slept with a blanket around him.) Not a minute later, someone else came, and then later, more. The crowd began arriving at about the same time.

          But extra early during the morning in May you can accomplish two advantages: catching browns when they feed and feel least wary, and beating everyone else to them. A third advantage, as a subset of the second, is the solitude you can enjoy. The quality of light itself is removed from the full daylight we feel accustomed to all day, as well as removed from lit rooms artificially normal for us at night. So being outside in that dreamy sort of light, with the visual distinctions of things not so hard and fast as under normal daylight, is a solitary refuge from the ordinary. It’s possible to be refreshed like no other time of day. I find that by leaving an hour or so after I have arrived, I do that special time honor.  Full daylight has replaced it, and leaving with peace still lingering is best for me.

          And it certainly is nice to get back in bed at home.


Feeding Time on Slower stretches and Flats

          So early in the morning, browns will be where they will not be in another hour’s time. The best spot may be a slow stretch from a couple of feet to four or five. And when the trout scoot back into deeper water or beneath undercut banks or into other cover, they will not feed with the abandon that they feed with now. I never fail to see browns rise, sometimes jump, and by casting to them sudden strikes, almost inevitable, come.

          These fish may be exercising some selection in feeding as all wild trout are known to do, maybe not; these are hatchery fish and research has shown that in their radically simple hatchery environment, they grow smaller brains than do wild fish of the same weight. But hatchery browns take the smallest Rapalas, those tiny plugs about an inch long you could cast on a fly rod, shorter than streamer flies. They also hit fathead minnows. They’ll take medium shiners, too; but you don’t need to invest the cash unless you want to tempt a breeder. For all three of these selections, an ultralight spinning rod and reel filled near to the spool edge with no more than four-pound test, manages fine.

          But to catch a quick limit, it may not be so simple as choosing one or the other, lure or bait. I start with the Rapala. I catch a few browns, usually the first cast or two yielding a hit. The Rapala is efficient in the lowest light—no fumbling with the minnow bucket, the retrieve quick, covering range. If I hook up and land the fish that hit, I catch two, maybe three, then the bite suddenly stops.

           No doubt, hatchery browns have some degree of selectivity, or perception of threat. It’s time to pull the bait and switch.

          One or two trout will come quickly on the fatheads. If I see a rise and can reach it with a cast, it’s almost a done deal before I sweep the rod and release the line for a cast. When a trout takes, I open the bail and give the fish line. Browns typically run fast, stripping off as many as seven or eight yards of line before abruptly stopping. They actually chew on the minnow. You can feel the bites. But once that initial run is over, the trout has the minnow in its maw, so set the hook. That hook should be a plain shank size 6 or 8. Use no terminal tackle. Don’t weight the line with a split shot or strip lead unless you try deeper water. Once action slows, trout seem to have become aware of my presence while more and more light is edging the trout toward abandoning feeding. Right after using the Rapala, the trout sometimes swirl hardheads down off the surface, but the bite usually begins to slow by the time I’m working on the fifth fish. (It’s been like this for years.)

          The last two trout may be harder won. I typically move to a nearby section of river, but I don’t toss the Rapala first. I’m more comfortable now with the minnows and often catch my last two.

          Certainly with fatheads more trout could be caught on into morning by either wading the stream to fresh stretches and holes, or car hopping to different stocking points. The really quick action is over.

          I’ve had it all to myself, and typically I greet the next guy coming in as I leave. takes you to a comprehensive article on salmon egg fishing. 




Thursday, April 26, 2012

Environmentalism and Angling--Cleaning Trout to Cook Them

 I went back to the AT&T bridges at sundown and had the river to myself; it was as if people feared rain, and clouds billowed low. All to myself, the last of five rainbows took a while to catch. I quickly caught four, then went downstream to fish fast water that changed since I last drifted eggs through. I needed waders, so I went back to slow water and must have missed a dozen hits before I caught the fifth. I released the decent 11 1/2-incher--a fighting fish on a three-and-a-half foot rod so light I can almost tie it in a knot, outfitted with two-pound test--and then I walked out with two of the earlier I had tossed up on the grass. Not all the trout took the eggs lightly, but most of them seemed to just slightly tug the salmon eggs off the hook as they usually do.

To write a blog post on environmentalism and angling, I cannot hope to come close to being exhaustive. Suffice it to say I will relate ideas in future posts as well.

It is so ironic to come home with a couple of trout, clean them with no complications within a minute's time, wash the fillets in the sink, place them directly in the frying pan, and to know and experience that this behavior is truly environmental, satisfies to the depths, and yet that we anglers are being harrangued by radical environmentalist "animal rights" professors who claim that to do this is morally evil!

We eat. And to produce your own food with such skill--very few anglers can clean a brace of trout in less than a minute and have them in the pan the next--unifies the spirit with reality rather than complicates it with divisions. To be lost in complications, divisions--that is what evil is.

Read one of those professor's books and see how the intent seems to be to do just that to you. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rainbow Trout: Choose Right Hooks!

Photographed my first rainbow of the year. So good to get out, walk through a wild space with a song sparrow calling to me with news of peace in the air. I don't write only about fishing. I write enormous volumes of material on all sorts of subjects onward from age 17. Sometimes the concern seems to weigh heavier than tungsten. If you dare to take such on and don't have a way to get some levity--you're going to lose it. As if what you consider is heavier than ground supporting you, you go though. And once that happens how do you get out?

I always have. But I recommend the likes to no one I know.

I only have to drive less than a mile to fish the AT&T bridges. I got there around sunset, and if it weren't for the loss of my size 14 hook, would have caught more than three rainbows on salmon eggs, missing hits from more. I did tie on a size 6 plain shank to observe differences. From hits on every cast, I went to one dubious tap for about a dozen drifts and quit.

Water's in good shape today. More rain's on the way. Next time I go, I hope I don't forget my size 14 hooks. I had my leader wallet, none in it. And I've given up on tying snells. Even with glasses my eyes aren't good enough. As a teen I enjoyed tying up a leader wallet full.

Monday, April 23, 2012

World Headquarters under Watchung Ridge Shadow

That's how the AT&T World Headquarters stretch of the North Branch Raritan appeared on April 15th last year. Of course this year the plants were about as green as July with the early heat. Bell Labs (now Lucent/Alcatel) relates the world's ancillary electronic diversity to this spot. One bridge is the entryway and the other, the exit. Experimental minds at work over many years laid the groundwork for what was to fill headquarters and is now. Alexander Graham Bell didn't begin in Murray Hill, New Jersey, but his bust remains under Lucent/Alcatel's purveyance. I go fishing under these bridges and wonder about the Watchung Ridge above--ancient volcanic remains--and how World Headquarters situates so smoothly in the shadows as one of many expressions in millions of years of environmental continuity. 

Not that we aren't significant!

All that depressive mongering about how immense time and the universe is, and how therefore we are insignificant. To think so many fell for this strategy. No Way, and I am not a religious Fundamentalist in response, as if you haven't figured this out reading my blog.

With the rain torrents, water levels have risen and perhaps will fall enough by Wednesday for some salmon egg drifting. Friday evening low tide will be right at DeKorte Park. So I may go to the Meadowlands yet for striped bass.