Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lake Hopatcong Hybrid Stripers and the Sunglasses Story

Eventful day on Lake Hopatcong. I haven't seen Joe Landolfi since November last year because we had no ice, but I can tell we will be fishing at least once a year for many to come. I remember the two outings last year as if they happened this fall. 

Today we fished a hump out away from the shoreline, and I recognized Marty Roberts immediately, called over to him, and the fun began. He had just begun to nail small hybrids of about two to three pounds, battling them on a couple of ultra-light rods, each baited with a live herring on a simple hook and split shot rig. Anchored, he insisted on putting the bait directly down in 29 feet of water. No more, no less. Who could argue? He seemed to have a magic touch. Joe and I agreed it was uncanny; we both felt this. That depth wasn't exactly the breakline between flat bottom and the sharp rise to shore, but the graph alarm rang constantly like Christmas chimes. And constantly, Marty retrieved presents.

I had met Marty at Dick's Sporting Goods in Rockaway Township a year or so prior. I was looking for something, don't remember what. He dropped me a question about what I examined, and conversation ensued. He had read a blog just before coming there, on hybrid stripers at the lake. I told him the title of the post, just guessing.

His face lit up. Absolutely astonished, he said, "How did you know that?"

"I wrote it."

His eyes opened wide as silver dollars, "That's you!?"

Now Marty relaxed in his boat. "Bruce, fishing has a lot to do with attitude," He said. "It needs to be positive." He sat back, legs stretched over the port side gunwale. I felt his leveling with me--right there and then--would be one of the best rewards of the day.

Joe and I caught a couple of hybrids, missed a couple of hits, and against Marty's advice, we prepared to move on for what Joe hoped would be six- to eight-pound fish.

"You should stay right here," Marty said.

I laughed and shrewdly pointed at restless Joe, "Marty, I'm obsessive enough to stay right here another five hours. Joe never knows where to begin." He's never patient enough to stay.

Joe's the veteran. He's been on Hopatcong for decades and for a time was a large presence on the lake; he still knows an astonishing number of people out and about.

Marty phoned later to report four- and five-pound hybrids coming over his gunwales, and we did return, this at the end of our five or more hours in total out on the lake, although by the time the 9.9 Mariner got us there, action had slowed. It was about time to go anyway.

Earlier along our haphazard way, we gave a point of land scant attention by vertical jigging, but we soaked our intentions through another range of water by drifting herring, wind allowing us to pass horizontal to shore. Joe was absolutely determined to teach me how to drift that bait. Wildly edgy by turns of success and misfortune in life, a talented cabinet maker who ran his own business, hiring employees and enjoying a net gain of a quarter million one year, and then losing everything but black depression, I've seen him turn his life around time and again, a man who never loses his appreciation for living, devastating depressions never convincing him going on isn't worthwhile--he never gives up--and this is what I like best about him, the liveliness he always contributes to an outing. His focus of concentration is a talent in many respects, including making sure he gets across to other people by finely detailed explanations when they matter. But I'm as stubbornly skeptical as any you may find. I couldn't buy his idea that hybrids on the bottom--and walleye--would swim up from 32-foot depth to a herring passing over 17 feet up. I still don't trade my feeling about that for his. It's dark down there. Could lateral lines sense a target from that distance, given that vibrations from surface chop send even more information downward for fish to pick up, washing out a little blip from a herring? I don't know. Maybe those lateral lines and those little fishy brains are advanced enough to tell the difference. Anyway, fish marked on the sonar at 15 feet as we passed over. Were they hybrids?

As far as I know, walleye at this time of year don't suspend. They are in their element among rocks on bottom. But herring do suspend. So in spite of my opinion, walleye may suspend also; even with the lake turned over this isn't out of the question, just beyond presumptions I feel strongly about. It makes sense that herring avoid schooling right down among rocks where walleye typically lie, but walleye eat just about nothing but herring in Hopatcong, so maybe they do rise, even though oxygen in the depths this time of year allows them more suitable habitat other than open water. I don't know. But there's even more to consider. Most of the rocks--mostly schist, if I'm correct--of Lake Hopatcong situate shallower than 20 feet. It's not that more walleye are at bottom 20 feet or shallower this time of year, but that they don't have the incentive of stone in most of the deeper water. 

So.....who knows.

But I catch a lot of walleye on bottom 35 feet deep or more.

That stubbornness I mentioned got the better of me as we continued to drift. I let my weighted rig down to bottom on the sly and got snagged. (A bottom bouncer rig supposedly avoids this, but I used an egg sinker.)

"I have to fail first before I learn anything," I said.

I retied, committed now to adjusting my way to Joe's.

No one I know of has failed in life to the extent I have, proportionate to potential I have always known I possess. The relatively little I have complained about this has ripped right back at my own face, so while I may lack positive attitude in some respects, to recall Marty's observation of me, it's not petty, it's ultimately something very deep resulting from a life-long refusal to get altogether indoctrinated to going styles, educational or otherwise. I like to carefully turn the table on what is perceived as the truth, by a truth I have originated. Often this solves a problem. But in the big picture, it's as if an awful lot of solutions have to add up to my getting ahead in the eyes of the world.

Joe does the same. 

We both lay back in the bottom of the boat to relax, Joe launching into one of his many fascinating stories from life. He told me half-a-dozen or so. Just before he began his best, the Sunglasses Story, I quipped that I was a little tired, and actually I was afraid the week's lack of virtually any sleep, busy at writing projects, was going to make me nuts if I didn't watch out. I drive about 1100 miles a week for my job, and while I don't complain about it--a lot to be proud of with writing efforts I produce on top of this--staying sane really is an issue, and while I never, ever give in to any sort of helplessness, never let nerve fail, I do have to be very careful sometimes, think and act to balance what could be a lot more trouble otherwise. Thinking always gets me through to normal life again. Sometimes it seems impossible. Until once again it isn't. And all the while, no one else notices anything amiss.

Here's what it can be like in another way:

Joe dropped sunglasses into Lake Hopatcong. He swung the boat in their direction to try and retrieve them, but the water was rough and he couldn't see them as they must have suspended just under the surface. There's a reason I don't say they sank, and I will get to this. Joe's told me he can't write for beans, but he tells stories better than anyone I know. Hours in a boat after fishing years together can get interesting. A great Jewish prophet, who knew he didn't have to be a prophet to say this, said that all true living is in meeting. In other words, if you can't share stories, you're missing out in a dire way. Print doesn't offer a stage for gesture and expression, but it does allow deeper comprehension, if you will engage it, so let's get to that story. To lose Gucci sunglasses to a 2680-acre lake, then to catch them inadvertently the next year while trolling for muskies, alludes to another theme of age-old prophets: redemption. Something fouled the thrumming of the foot-long lure, the rod taking on a little bend, but not bouncing to the vibrant resistance of a fish, as if otherwise a perch or crappie got inadvertently snagged. Hopatcong's water mass flows, but very slowly. The sunglasses hadn't traveled very far in the direction of the Musconetcong River below the dam, but they neither floated nor sank to bottom. The plug--the lure--ran about 10 feet down, where the Gucci glasses suspended in-between surface and bottom like a fish. The event signifies how Joe manages to live by so many amazing falls and rises. Life comes back if you troll for it.

Getting those sunglasses back from a lake that big. Joe beats odds.

On that first, long drift pass for those hybrids I was skeptical about, as we talked, a hybrid nailed my herring over about 30 feet of water. Joe's stories had revived me completely, no longer tired at all. I didn't feel pulled precipitously close to the edge. 

Hours earlier, we had taken one of Laurie Murphy's boats out from Dow's Boat Rentals. I wish more of us would get over to her venue, rent, and buy bait and tackle. It's a real place and a real lake. Reality makes all the difference to living a good life. Places off the screen. 

Upon return to Laurie's shop, I said to her, "The whole country's dead."

She said, "Business is down to about 10 percent of what it used to be."

It was no occasion to be a chump and speak any words of hope. "The issue, rather than money, is fundamental. People's motivation is lacking," I said. Then I changed the subject and the three of us laughed about Joe's sunglasses, the story still  vividly present in Laurie's mind, as Joe had come in that day of return happy as a high-flying kite.

My post would end well on that note, but I must explain Joe's hybrid mounts, one of them now up on the wall of a local bar where Joe knows people. Joe didn't know Marty. For once, I knew someone on Hopatcong Joe doesn't. Just before we parted company with my acquaintance, Joe said to him, "I have two hybrid mounts on Laurie's wall, an eight-pounder and a six or seven."

"Oh, yeah!" Marty said. "Laurie gave me a mounted hybrid from the shop!"

"Oh, no!" I said. "I bet Marty has your striper!" I was laughing all the harder because I sense social connections already there before people meet. And I felt confident Joe will be on the lake at least once more this fall, while I have only more outing ahead here this year, with my son.

It's confirmed. Marty has Joe's striper. Joe took the other mount off the wall of the shop, and placed it on the back seat of my Honda Civic. I never asked why, respecting instead his personal privacy, because the one thing I knew for certain--his fish, his mount. After more than a decade, admired by countless customers--I soon discovered--it will now spend time at McKenna's Pub near the lake, a favorite of Joe's, before it may finally arrive upon a wall of Joe's own. Just after I snapped a photo of him with the striper, he went in and placed the mount high over people at the bar.  

Marty tells me I need positive attitude.

Joe caught a sunfish on a Gotcha Jigger deep.

Joe and his stories.

Small hybrid I caught while drifting.

Hybrid angler Joe had us stop to speak with.

Joe's other mount now at McKenna's.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Round Valley Reservoir Rainbow Trout in close to Shorelines

Rainbows have been in for almost two weeks at Round Valley. I saw a few caught today and Tuesday, nice 16-inchers. I put out a line both days and got no hits. But I had the dock space today, enjoyed the view greatly--being there is so much better than viewing photos--and read Bay Country by Tom Horton about the Chesapeake, the chapter on eels most fascinating yet. I learned a lot about eels as a nine-year-old, and caught many too. Tried to harvest them commercially in Little Egg Harbor years ago, but stuck to hard clams instead. 

Eels and clams go together, though.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Snake Road Shawnee National Forest

My son, Matt, and I flew to St. Louis, Missouri Friday, drove to Carbendale, Illinois for lodging, and drove further to Shawnee National Forest Saturday and Sunday. Snake Road divides La Rue Swamp on one side, and Pine Bluff on the other, a unique ecological situation about 4.5 square miles in area. Each day, Matt and I walked the 2 1/2 mile or so length of gravel roadway and back, making forays into the swamp and up in the bluff, turning over stones and logs in search of snakes, lizards, frogs, and salamanders, finding many.

The Illinois Basin is the remnant of a Devonian inland sea--sort of a huge extension of the Gulf of Mexico, but the continents were not the same about 480 million years ago. They migrate about Earth's face by a process named plate tectonics. Pine Bluff is limestone, sedimentary deposits primarily from coral and shells, and you can stand back and imagine time layering 150 feet deep because it's right there before your eyes to take in and feel directly. The western cottonmouth photographed above we encountered on the roadway itself, but we found a couple of them in crevices high up on the bluff. Cottonmouths, which spend the summer in the swamp, cross the road, climb up into the bluff, and hibernate deep in crevices. They don't have this sort of opportunity elsewhere, but they don't hesitate to take it here. And thanks to the inland sea from almost 500 million years ago, no other place in the nation exists where western cottonmouths are so well adapted and abundant. This guy or gal I photographed on the road seemed about as eager to check us out as we were interested in he or she. We found two that had just left the swamp to cross the road for the bluff no sooner had the temperature peaked on Sunday with bright sun--which wasn't quite 60 degrees. It was chilly. But I haven't felt so liberated by losing myself thoroughly--finding myself again, really--in vistas by standing and seeing very long and deep into the bluff's greenery and feeling the space between me and the distant heights as if life permeated everything in the sunlight, haven't felt free this way for many years. The temperature in the 50's didn't feel forbidding at all.

This global village we live in and think is so important is like a small clearing in an immensely free forest.

About 35 species of snakes exist in Shawnee National Forest along snake road. My son has the list, but I'll spare naming each. Fifteen additional species of amphibians and reptiles are present (including the giant alligator snapping turtle). The frog photographed is a Blanchard's cricket, the red eft had the brownest back of any I've seen. We came upon two rough green snakes, a smooth Earth snake, western ribbon snake, and a tiny copperhead in addition to the western cottonmouths.
I once came upon a copperhead the same size as we found here on a sidewalk at Avaya Communication here in Basking Ridge, New Jersey where my wife works. It was 60 degrees out, the snake slow. I took out my credit card to push it out of the way and it slithered into ground cover along the building. Afraid the next guy would just step on it, I had no fear at all that it would snap at me.

LaRue Swamp

 The limestone bluffs of Pine Hill rise 150 feet above LaRue Swamp

Smooth earth snake

Western ribbon snake