Saturday, August 4, 2012

Catch Smallmouth Bass Now and Later: Delaware River Shad Fry Forage Soon to Descend

Delaware River Shad Fry Forage Soon to Descend

Catch Smallmouth Bass Now and Later

          Thanks to Interstate 78, the Delaware River in Warren County is little more than a half hour away from the Bedminster area. My son, Matt, and I have done well for smallmouths from the bank and wading within city limits of Phillipsburg, and The Fisherman magazine has on occasion reported walleyes, muskies, channel catfish, and late at night—striped bass over 20 pounds. If you want to get away to quieter stretches, River Road from Carpentersville south to the Hunterdon County line at Riegelsville and the mouth of the Musconetcong River has many access points along its length.

          Smallmouth bass are the Delaware’s main attraction from Callicoon, NY, to the tidal zone in Trenton. My family enjoyed our annual float trip from Sparrowbush, NY, to Port Jervis, NY, last year, and despite off-color water we caught plenty of bass on Rat-L-Trap plugs. Tomorrow we may enjoy better water. These rattling lures prove effective wherever fish lurk in the river if water is stained, and are great for walleyes as well. I managed to get a typical walleye—about 18 inches—alongside our raft last year, about to net it when hooks of the chrome Rat-L-Trap threw. The trick is to retrieve the plug near the bottom without snagging.  Rat-L-Traps sink at a rate of about a foot per second. Since you won’t always know how deep the water is, let the lure sink as you count until line slackens only on the first cast. If you’re lucky, it won’t snag almost as soon as it takes bottom.

          Diving crankbaits work great for smallmouths and walleyes, so long as you feel the diving lip trip on rocks every so often. You can modify retrieve speed so that you don’t dig the lure directly into bottom (you’ll feel it!) and get snagged, but stay very close. Crankbaits come in varieties that run three to six, six to 10, even 12 to 15 feet deep, but the deepest diving crankbaits give great deal of resistance, so they're meant to be retrieved on heavier baitcasting tackle.

          The best way to try the depths—some holes in the Warren County stretches are as deep as 35 feet—is with quarter-ounce jigs tipped with Berkeley Gulp! synthetic bait or live nightcrawlers. You’ll lose jigs to snags, but buy them in quantity wherever you can get a good price and you won’t feel the loss as snapping the line on an expensive plug stings. Soft plastic Mister Twisters, etc., work well on jigs and make less of a mess than synthetic leeches, but synthetic bait does put a powerful fish attracting odor in the water. In dark depths that may be an advantage.

          However, smallmouths in particular like shallow water: pockets of calm water near fast moving currents, eddies behind boulders, edges of shoreline calm, exist as reliable holding water, and in fast water, smallmouths benefit from increased oxygen levels in warm late summer temperatures. My personal favorite for such spots is the #9 Rapala floating minnow plug, but all sorts of minnow imitations work, as well as small spinnerbaits and in-line spinners like Mepps and C.P. Swings. Spinners work best by a straight, moderate, steady retrieve, close to bottom if some depth is encountered. Minnow plugs come alive by erratic twitchings of the rod tip, virtually lifeless without this action.

          We are nearing the annual tail end of an annual river season when the food chain is based on insect life. Until late September, fly fishermen catch smallmouths on nymph imitations otherwise suited to trout, and the bass do feed on larval as well as hatched and terrestrial insects, as well as small, molting crayfish and a smorgasbord of immature fish species. But shad fry will soon descend downriver on their seasonal trek to the Atlantic, and smallmouths school and herd these Omega acid-rich forage for their greatest boost in yearly health.

          I’ve never seen it happen, but reputable writers have reported that sometimes the bass attack the fry on the surface in sudden blitzes the way hybrid stripers go after alewives in Spruce Run Reservoir or Lake Hopatcong in June. A half-ounce chrome Rat-L-Trap casts forever with a medium power spinning rod and six-pound test line, resembling a small shad very closely. If you spend a late September or October afternoon scouting the scenes along River Road and catch sight of such action, don’t be without a few of these plugs!


Friday, August 3, 2012

Grunts: Fighting Panfish of Southeast Coastal Waters

 We've caught them from Outer Banks, North Carolina piers and from a bridge and boat both inshore and at the reef in the Florida Keys. As humble by name and size grunts are, they fight very hard on light tackle for fish without pelagic build (but look at the shoulders), and they taste great from the pan. That photo of the open mouth reminds me of a philosoraptor dinosaur. The coloration is for their peculiar kissing behavior, actually a territorial face off. Fish do some weird things; the grunt also is named for the pig-like grunting sound it makes. They don't sound exactly like wild boars the way Floridian pig frogs do (amazing to hear at night in the Everglades), but the mandible features without the mouth opened wide like that in the photo vaguely resemble pig snouts. The blue-gold wavy patterns on the head give a stunning view, and the eyes seem as innocent as a Pollyanna cartoon figure.

Most of them measure about 11 inches long and take shrimp, frozen or live, with a firm whomp. Set the hook pretty quick or suffer it swallowed. Even with 20-foot depths, unless current is strong and/or wind brisk, a good-sized spit shot is sufficient. Since grunts have no disarming teeth, mono is fine, and we go with six to 10-pound test. Ten-pound test relieves the nerves when a big fish opts for a shrimp, which happens in the Keys inshore waters and certainly the reef. I hooked something five years ago I may not have been able to hold had the hook not pulled. But light tackle is light tackle and you can't compromise if you use it. The best you can do is turn the key on the outboard and follow along. Perhaps if the fish does not dip into coral and fray the line hopelessly, you'll gaff it.

If wind turns the boat into a trampoline, go with a half-ounce egg sinker, possibly three-fourths ounce. A size 2 plain shank hook is all you need besides a disgorger on occasion. Drift or anchor. Either way produces, although anchoring can draw fish in that become interested in the action rather than spooked. From piers--again--shrimp is best. And avoid those heavy sinkers. Conventionally named "saltwater," they're just conventionally convenient, the default choice against the extra step of thinking that lighter may be better--and usually is.

Action with grunts can be episodically non-stop and typically alternates with runs of other species like snappers south, and spot and croakers northward. When we fish shrimp, we hope for an unusual, large fish and almost invariably hook up with one. We also take a few grunts or other legal panfish and use them for cut bait, which results in fewer but larger fish. And some more grunts. 

I like to take a few for dinner and breakfast. Scaling a grunt is like scaling a bluegill. The large, abrasive plates resist difficultly, and like sunfish, the fins can smart. Just make sure the fish remains moist or take them directly from the live well to the cutting board. No reason to grunt even if you bloody your own skin a little.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

King Mackerel, Spanish Mackerel, Cero Mackerel: East Coast Near Shore Speedsters

Growing up, I got fascinated in stories of huge Boston mackerel catches (by number) just off the Jersey coast in May, but my impression was of smallish, not very gaming fighters. So when I encountered my first Spanish mackerel on Kitty Hawk Pier, Outer Banks, North Carolina, I felt doubly stunned: the fish hit me awestruck by the beauty of the blue side and golden spots, and I felt no doubt by the shape that it was fighter. They are.
King mackerel, like that photographed above, are fished off the ends of Outer Banks piers, for just our familiar example. A spider anchor is cast with a stout surf rod--a 12 rod is a good idea, these anchors weigh a lot--and the line from a big game rod and reel gets lowered on the clip line with a small live bluefish hooked with a treble hook/wire rig, a tailor blue of about 12 inches. Other fish like pompano serve when blues aren't around, caught from the pier on light tackle, sometimes volunteered by other anglers. It takes all day to get a king, but it does happen, and usually does, although cobia, tarpon, barracuda, and sharks show as alternatives. Kings range from South Florida northward past the Banks: nowadays some of them frequent New Jersey with the warmer climate.                                       

And so do Spanish mackerel, fully regulars along the Jersey coast now, dashing into the surf as far north as Long Island perhaps. Mackerel pelagic sight feeders, they have dangerous teeth, but use wire and they will avoid the lure or bait. Twenty five-pound test fluorocarbon is maximum, tied directly to braid without swivel attachment. Hard to catch in the surf, irregular schools dip in and out, staying mostly a couple or few hundred yards out. As quick as they come, they're gone, so trolling is highly productive, although in southern inlets where great congregations may amass, live-lining baitfish is extremely fun and effective. Just about all that goes for trolling are Clark spoons, size 0 or 00, although thin, flashy casting spoons like Deadly Dicks and Sting Silvers catch surf Spanish. From the piers, Gotcha jiggers are all that gets used for Spanish, rods turned downwards over the rails, depth achieved. Some mornings fantastic action results, others slow, although most summer mornings--and evenings--see some. Spanish usually run not much over a pound to about three pounds, although five- pounders get caught every summer with some frequency. Schools tend to be uniform by individual fish size. The world record is 13 pounds from Ocracoke Inlet, Outer Banks, North Carolina.

That's a cero mackerel just above that my son caught in Bahia Honda Channel, Florida Keys. These fish more often run in the five-pound range, although the world record, I read, is only 11 pounds. This one about 21 inches, the pelagic tailfin impressive, also the gold, horizontal line and small gold spots. Cero remain mysterious as yet to me, although I've known a few things about them for years and Matt's catch came as a very welcome sight. I don't know what kind of schooling presence they have at Bahia, for example, which is just inside the Atlantic and prime territory for pelagic race runners to streak in and out. We didn't try trolling flash spoons; this one hit a live shrimp on retrieve. Light tackle fun, the fish captivated us both when it came in sight. Captain Ryan O'Neal, who charters at Ocracoke Inlet, told me that cero come on occasion, but no one has spoken of them in New Jersey yet that I know of.

Spanish Mackerel

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Round Valley Reservoir Bass: Summer Success

After work outing on Round Valley Reservoir with Fred Matero resulted mostly in smallmouth bass on jigs and Senko-type worms, although I got a largemouth, photographed. We ran straight to the back of the reservoir to rock bottom near vegetation clusters, plenty of deep water nearby of course since no place on this reservoir doesn't drop away.

This was my first experience on Round Valley catching more smallmouths than largemouths, but for Fred it's the usual.

I have a hunch that next time we go, sometime in August, one of us will catch a good bass. Fred lost a pretty good sized smallmouth this evening, and anyone familiar with Round Valley bass has heard about huge bass, and knows that plenty lunkers and good fish exist.

It was good to be catching bass on Round Valley again since May. I never seem to be able to connect fishing from shore after Memorial Day, but I caught more this evening than any one time out so far this year on the reservoir, most about 12 feet deep, thanks to Fred and his deep V-hull. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Whitewater Bay, Coot Bay, Florida Everglades National Park Service Naturalist Tour

Whitewater Bay is Florida's second largest body of water, second to Lake Okeechobee. It extends for many miles; the photo I took  is merely set against a flank. The bay has long protrusions and giant coves making it quite possible to get lost. We got there by Everglades National Park Service tour boat, a trip that felt a lot better than I expected on a guide boat for anyone to pay $26.00 and get on. No one of the six or seven others onboard annoyed my wife, son and I; we all developed something of a rapport, including the two guides, and the places we visited--the length of the brackish canal to Coot Bay, across Coot Bay to the creek that leads to Whitewater Bay--fascinated us, spoken about at length and in telling detail by the naturalist.

We did see six crocidiles in the canal, one of them 13 feet long or so. Water clarity darkened by a high tannic acid level, we spotted no fish. But the fishing in this region is reported to be outstanding. What crosses your mind when you view the mangrove roots I photographed? Possibly snook hid right there among them. And mangrove snappers are abundant. Tarpon scout both bays and bull sharks use them as nurseries. Many other shark species frequent the bays as well as many other fish species. Especially the much larger Whitewater Bay is an estaurine wilderness of the first order, just like a womb of the surrounding Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic. It is connected by an inlet to the Gulf many miles from where we entered six miles above Flamingo where Everglades National Park reaches Florida Bay. The park service rents boats with 40-horsepower outboards to ride up the canal to Coot and Whitewater bays to fish.

We walked many trails between Port Royal near the entrance and Flamingo; my son and I even drove 40 miles into the Glades and back at night. Matt photographed snakes on the road, including a 10-foot Burmese python. He grabbed the tail, getting sprayed like a garden hose with musk as his hold on the snake slipped, the python turning on him. By quickly evading a strike, Matt gave himself a Charlie horse he didn't feel until the encounter was done. He semi-circled back, grabbed the tail section and got the snake on the road to photograph it. Nor did we notice the cloud of mosquitos around each of us, and that our bodies hosted hundreds.  



Looks as if shot from space...
Burmese python
Banded watersnake
Scarlet snake (this series of three snakes we photographed on road to Flamingo at night, and the python we found at Flamingo).
We called this a chameleon while growing up, anole.


Five lined skink, I believe, unless a Floridian look alike.
Key deer