Saturday, February 2, 2013

Early Beginners: Fishing from the Start

This piece was published in Pennsylvania Outdoor Journal a year or two ago.
Every Kid Would Love to Fish

          When I see a youngster fishing with a parent, I consider that child lucky whether he or she catches anything or not. Every three to five-year-old introduced to fishing loves it. The first good-size largemouth my son caught at age three, a 13-incher, seemed to give him the sense that the world is his for the plucking, and to care for as well, as he released a living creature himself. When he grew just a little older, he wanted to fish almost every day after pre-school. And I was willing to take him for an hour or two a couple or several evenings a week after work. Since he truly loved to fish, his total intent was infectious and I found my own desire to fish fully reawakening after a 25-year slump. Suddenly he caught as many bass as I did, a five-year-old with masterful finesse of plastic worms.

         I had done something right in how I had introduced him to fishing. And from that advantage he had developed very much by his own efforts, yet by always being visible to me, and with me as his own source of know-how.

        At ages two and three, a parent or guardian needs to do all the casting for a youngster. Not only is such a young child simply too small to put a bait or lure out there, he has very little idea yet of the pursuit, the placing of the lure or bait where a fish might be. Buy him a rod of his own. Cast for him. The ideal lure for bass, if you’re not using nightcrawlers or shiners, is the plastic worm since you can help him retrieve it slowly. Let him reel in a fish; help him if it’s big.

          I went ahead and built for my five-year-old a 3 ½-foot spinning rod for trout, the same size rod I use with salmon eggs. When he was three, I cast salmon eggs for him on the same rod he used for bass, and he caught some trout. He had not yet caught a “pickerel pike,” at five; but he felt very eager to do so. So late in April I took him to a pond I knew had pickerel in it, and baited his hook with live shiners. He caught one that afternoon, all he needed to fill his day.

          Kids are interested in catching all kinds of fish. My son is 12 now and hasn’t yet caught a carp, very much wants to. Without time to fish for carp early this past fall, I did at least buy a mulberry purple bait concoction and gave it to him to add to his wide selection of lures and tackle, a promise that we will go this next year. It’s important to show kids very different methods that varieties of fish species require to be caught. By age three a boy or a girl has a rudimentary grasp of many differences of approach; how it is you fish should be pointed out. So long as a three-year-old grasps that there is a way to do it, by the time he is five he may be on top his game with at least one method, and possibly more.

          By the time a child is six, have him learn to tie knots. Kids this age become interested in such skills, want to do such things. To know the Uncle Homer knot or the uni or both are notches they can cut on their belts. It’s the same with different lures and methods. A six-year-old wants to know how to use these devices so fascinating to him. As long as you relate to him at least one way to use each of the lures he owns, he has a basis on which to build upon variations of method. Tell him there’s more than one way to do, but show him at least one way.

           For example, with weightless plastic worms I told my son to cast and count slowly to 20 before he twitched the worm off the bottom, then to count to 10 and twitch it again by moving the rod tip about a foot or two, and so on. He got that down pat after a couple of outings. Seeing this under control, I told him so. Always confirm with your son or daughter that he or she has it right:

          “By now you know what 20 seconds feels like, don’t you think?”


          “So now just fish that plastic worm by what feels right.”

          And as I noted earlier in the article, he was a young master in his fifth year, very intent upon catching fish while watching his dad doing just that. So, besides how I instructed him, he imitated me. The best you can do for your son or daughter is be an active, open model from whom he or she can learn by observing.

          As kids grow older, all sorts of other life influences draw them in many other directions. Fishing for them may seem removed from the mainstream of life. And we older adults always used to speak glowingly of getting away from it all. Today kids don’t seem as much to share that value of getting outside; they seem to want to be very much with their generation’s technological involvement. However, older kids are very environmentally aware. If you train them to recognize that equipment, tackle, methods, approaches, environmental appreciation, and successes are like any other endeavor in life, they might understand, as they grow even older, and that they really got their basic education and appreciation of life out fishing with dad.


Matt's Uncle Jim points out how to use a particular camera.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Round Valley Reservoir Has a Lot of Shoreline for Trout to Cruise

The whole air mass moved with the weight of a mountain as if falling into the weather system it followed. One of the gusts at ground level must have been 50 mph. I was reminded of having climbed Mount Washington winter of 1985, sleeping on the summit, and hiking in snowshoes along the Presidential range the next day, actually picked up and tossed into drifts by 80 mph gusts. The surface of Round Valley Reservoir tore, shredded by the wind gust that seemed to bear down from above into the water. I wasn't sure the turmoil would get trout on the move or not, but as I think of the situation now, no, any feeding activity would have peaked last night with the storm and the fish probably have been inactive since. Not that trout in 40 degree water streak about in feeding frenzy.
I wonder how many more I'll catch this patient season. I have little doubt I'll catch at least one or two. I've witnessed them feeding steadily in late February. It's just the matter of being there when conditions are right and trout are present. Round Valley is a big, 2000 plus acre reservoir with miles of shoreline for trout to cruise during the cold water season. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dreaming the Rational World, Looking Away from Conventions

Is that all for ice fishing this winter? Fifty-five degrees today, 60's tomorrow, so the ice we got is gone as far as fishing on it is concerned. 

Round Valley reservoir never produced so much as a lattice of ice and rarely does, as deep as it is. I enjoyed ice fishing Saturday so much that I was tempted to go out again if any ice were to remain. I've cut back on my time out, in order to work on my novel and poems. 

With enough success to make a living by writing, I would have more time to fish and more travel options. That's dreaming, but it would certainly be impossible to achieve if I didn't believe. From the age of 16 I dedicated myself to writing. This is how I've lived ever since, not by doing the expected. I've always managed to find work to pay the bills, but I quit college (earned an Associate degree at age 45) to take advantage of commercial clamming and the unique allowance for study and writing with low, self-employed hours. 

I've never complained about this, but it sure has had its shadow of doubt, since it's very difficult to go your own way, against how the world is arranged for people who toe the line. But although people used to presumptively speak of the "real world," as if there's another which isn't, when in fact no unreal world can exist, reality is just so, and living by principles in congruence with reality doesn't require a college degree and a formal job with a boss.

Dreaming in class (high school), going straight out and achieving what was imagined while fishing after school was a way of actually meeting the world's reality directly. Reality doesn't mean anything if nothing of dreams is achieved. So positive imagination is a good thing indeed. Achieving nightmares may be exciting, but is never as good as joy. The bright dream is rational, and conventions are shadows, if enlivened by spirited responses to break the chains. 

When classmates I knew in high school began referring to "the real world," I looked the other way.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Early Spring Largemouth Bass: The Ice-Out Advantage

Ice-Out Largemouths

The Early Advantage

          Some of us who ice fish try to stretch the season out by acts that may either appear crazy or clever, like placing wood planks over water between the bank of a lake and the thick ice mass still remaining beyond edge melt. People have been known to ice fish on an 80-degree March day, although thick, hard ice remained beneath the surface slush. But if the preference is for open water, or a quick fix from short jigging rods to standard spinning, often New Jersey ponds will provide the advantage of open water action while tip-up flags still go up on the state’s northernmost lakes.

Spots that Harbor Spring Fever 

          Ponds usually open up in early March in north Jersey, earlier in central and southern regions. Stained water warms fastest; but any pond will warm faster than a lake, unless a lake is very shallow. In any case, the best action very early in the open water season is usually had late afternoon to sunset after at least a fairly mild, sunny day. A calm water surface can actually invite surface fishing. As counterintuitive as this may seem, an extremely subtle approach to topwater fishing is very effective.

           If the water is broken by a chop, a mild air temperature will mix into the water at the surface. Ideally the wind dies near sunset, but in-line spinners and small spinnerbaits can be especially effective if it doesn’t.

          Usually a single mild day is followed by a return to cold. It’s as if largemouth expect this and move into shallows nearest to a pond’s deepest water, to where they retreat once the cold returns.  The ideal spot for such an evening is a northeast corner near the deepest water with some cover or decayed weeds to attract baitfish. All afternoon the northeast area has soaked in sunlight like a sponge, and the water temperature has reached, perhaps, 47 degrees. Bass and baitfish alike will go to such warmed water like a magnet. So long as the temperature at sunset does not dip too quickly, some amazing wake up action can be had.

          Perhaps a few of such evenings happen very early after ice-out before a real warming trend sets in that lasts at least a few days. As late afternoon water hits 50 and beyond for two or three days running, baitfish and bass have enough energy to range through wide areas. The shallow flats come alive. Many years ago we used to fish an old five or six-acre mule barge basin of the Delaware and Raritan Canal from late February to Trout Opening Day. Often the question was whether the bass were back in the corner or up on the flats. Some good catches were made in the corner. But when lengthy warming trends set spring in motion, we made even better catches in a half acre or so area of 1 to 3 feet of water.  Most of the bass we took from the surface. But there’s a special way to do this. I didn’t discover the method myself; my older mentor showed me.

Special Lures and Choice Live Bait

          The basin with its northeast corner near its deepest water and flat at the southern end of the pond is archetypal for the two kinds of shallows to look for in a variety of waters very early in the spring. We caught a few of the bass in the corner on the surface. Forty seven degrees, the critical point, may be all that’s needed to do this, so long as the water has warmed fast. But by topwater fishing I certainly don’t mean a big chugger or any standard topwater plug; catching bass by summer tactics in 47-degree water is unheard of. The method is much subtler.

          The difference between a plastic Rebel Minnow floater/diver, and a balsa Rapala is absolute. And the division is never so apparent as in early March. Rapalas, when the retrieve is stopped, float upward fast, too fast for cold water.  Rebels rise slower, and a slow retrieve with jerks and pauses every few or more seconds may be effective. As a surface lure, the Rapala sits high and evenly on the surface, and is thusly ineffective this time of year. Here’s why by comparison: the Rebel sits lower on the surface and at a slight angle. Only the head area breaks the skin of the surface. By barely twitching the plug—the 2 ½-inch size has been more effective—the rear lifts. The head dips slightly; but the action that draws bass seems to be that very subtle lift of the rear of the plug almost to the surface. And they don’t clobber the lure; sometimes they will take it with a dimple as subtle as a trout’s nipping a fly.

          The Rebel Minnow straight out of the box works this time of year. But I have wondered what results plug modification may yield. To tinker and experiment for as much time as this would require I have never tried. Perhaps a Rapala with weight on the rear treble would be a start, to achieve an angle relation of the plug to the surface as steep as 45 degrees. But I would think the action would not be subtle enough, and have no inclination to even try it. But who knows what someone might come up with otherwise.

          With the Rebel Minnow as an obvious favorite, my second favorite is the Johnson Beetle Spin. This method inversely complements surface fishing and works in cold, deep water. It’s just like barely dragging a jig right on the bottom, except that the spinner arm makes it somewhat snag-free, and mostly the barely turning small Colorado blade seems to attract pick-ups. It works with a very slow retrieve on cold days in the 30's or 40's. Stay with the 1/8th-ounce size.

          On days in the 40's and 50's, particularly when some chop scatters light beams, the blade of an in-line spinner reflecting sun near, but not necessarily at the bottom of a lake or pond, can draw strikes. I remember as a youth I felt surprised that a C.P. Swing retrieved at medium speed in 45- degree weather could catch bass. Spinnerbaits work, too. I prefer small ones this time of year. Particularly they are good in cover.

          Suspending minnow-type plugs can be just the ticket in shallows warmed into the upper 40's, but not quite breaking into the 50's: sometimes letting the plug hang motionless for a minute or more results in a take. Very subtle twitches can give life to a plug that otherwise hangs very loose. Larger plugs like the Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue may have their moment especially on big bass warming their eggs before the spawn. The Rogue sits at a slight on the angle on the surface, too, and can be fished similarly as the smaller Rebel.

          Live bait really deserves more than just a passing reference for bass fishing this early. I get in the mood for it; there’s something naturally appropriate about putting a live shiner out to be devoured in the cold. Of course, almost all of us who ice fish use live bait; and there’s no stigma about not getting a fish to take a man-made artificial. I feel that seeing a twitch in the line indicating a take and then watching line pay out as I open the bail is thrilling. The combination of more natural movement on the line than by artificials—of the shiner on the hook and of the take and letting the bass run for at least ten or fifteen seconds—with the cold, bleak March environment yields a feeling of connection with life that is exquisitely subtle, which lures cannot match. I’ve tried live shiners in the summer and it is not the same feeling.

          For live bait only use shiners or some other type of minnow. Killies work if you can get them, but they don’t have the shiny scales to reflect sunlight and to possibly provoke reaction strikes. To get the shiner down to 10 or 12 feet all that is needed is a leader loop attached to a size 8 snap swivel. Patiently let the shiner swim its way down to the bottom. Give it a minute or two. Then work it with slow, two to three-foot lifts of the rod. Let the snap swivel get pulled about a bit down at the bottom. Even on very cold, mile-high sky days fishing the deepest water of a pond this way can work.

          Otherwise, try spots oriented to deep water. Perhaps the shadowline of what is a weedbed in the summer seven feet deep near 10 or 12 feet of water, maybe the outer edge of a brushpile extending out from a bank towards such depths. The sides of a point may hold bass. A channel trough along a steep bank can be dynamite. Fish methodically—find bass—but keep it very slow with shiners.

We Just Don’t Call it the Pre-Spawn

          Not until April. Pre-spawn is thought to be the period of about a month before bass actually spawn around May. But by now, this present time named ice-out, eggs are growing in females and they need energy to grow and mature. It’s quite likely that hormonal influences in the females provoke them to feed a little more in 47-degree water in the spring than they would in 47-degree water in the fall. That largemouth fatten up for winter to protect against cold is a myth. Largemouth are cold blooded, do not hibernate, and we ice fishermen know very well that they feed—and move—all winter. Fisheries research has shown that with dropping temperatures in the fall largemouth do store energy as fat rather than as protein. But there is no evidence of weight gain of fat for the winter; rather, it is some other correlation with reducing metabolic levels.

          At any rate, I have never caught a bass in 47-degree, sun warmed water on a Rebel at the surface in the late fall. Those fish are headed downward in the fall. And in the early spring they are risin’ in the sun.






Sunday, January 27, 2013

Early Season Northern Pike New Jersey Region

Jump-Start the New Season

Pike Pounce on Shiners and Spinners Earliest

New Jersey’s northern pike fishery is enhanced to a real presence, and early season after ice-out is the best time to enjoy it. Southeastern New York is void of pike, perhaps because pike fishing is great to the north and west. But thanks to New Jersey’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, plenty of these large freshwater gamefish are available here: Spruce Run Reservoir, Budd Lake, Pompton Lake, Farrington Lake, Cranberry Lake, Passaic River, Pompton River, and Millstone River all have been stocked for years; Pompton Lake holds the state record at 30 pounds, 8.5 ounces.

Pike spawn shortly after ice-out, moving into shallows as early as late February, depending on when ice melts. In lakes and reservoirs they seek out the mouths of creeks and streams, and areas of residual vegetation in shallow coves. Key spots at Spruce Run are the entryways of its five feeder streams, especially Spruce Run Creek and Mulhockaway Creek. The former is best fished from the earthen jetty, the latter by boat. Budd Lake has three creeks that attract spawning; Pompton Lake is fed by a larger stream, for examples.

Early spring is the habitual time for river pike to move upstream, not to a headwater destination as salmon do, but into slow backwaters and in lakes, tributary streams. A friend reported that a creek in Verona hosted three-foot, Passaic River northerns in March. Since pike turn upstream for these areas, dams are often great spots to fish. The Wilhousky Street dam on the Millstone River in Manville is worth a shot. Not only does it block migration further upstream, to the left of it facing downriver is a slow, shallow backwater eddy.

I prefer live lining shiners at least until April water warms above 50. Medium shiners under three inches long work, but large shiners allow lengthier casts. Unless heat waves, like those we’ve had the past couple years, send the pike towards a summer pattern, they are accessible in shallows until about May 1st. They can be caught in a foot of water, or the 10 foot depths around the Spruce Run jetty. It won’t be impossible to hook up with in-line spinners, spinnerbaits (slow-rolling them off bottom especially), and suspending jerkbaits like the Rapala Husky Jerk. But consider the following. Over winter a slightly higher statistical average of pike forage dies and sinks to bottom. Into March, pike will scavenge on carcasses. So if pike will hit dead bait (freeze some herring and try them on bottom next year, their body oil attracts), this at least makes my predilections favor using shiners and fishing them slowly near bottom until water hits 50. Use no weight if line-lining besides a barrel swivel. The shiner will swim down to bottom. Just lift rod tip every 10 or 20 seconds or so, and retrieve slack.

When I began pike fishing seven years ago, I was prepped by a distant relative who had caught a 40- inch pike off the Spruce Run jetty using a live bait release reel, and a heavy stick. For bait he uses seven-inch rainbow trout purchased legally at the Musky Fish Hatchery. My impression, owing to the previous 30-pound, 2-ounce state record at Spruce Run, was that pike were much larger than they usually are. I had also witnessed a 39-incher caught on Budd Lake, and I’ve heard of them as large as 48 inches from the Passaic. But an average pike weighs less than five pounds. If all you care to catch is a fish over 20 pounds, you may fish the rest of your life for nothing. So my advice is to use light tackle. I like the same 5 ½-foot, medium power St. Croix I usually use bass fishing. And I risk 6- pound test, although I do use 15-pound test fluorocarbon leaders against razor-sharp teeth. A small circle hook will, in almost all instances, get caught in the corner of the jaw. I stay with plain shank, size 6 hooks just because I like them—but I set the hook quick so that the fish is good for release.

Pike will not usually bunch up at a creek mouth. The entire football field length of water inside the Spruce Run Creek mouth and jetty is worthwhile, for example, and we catch most of our pike towards the end of it on the reservoir side. I find that especially into dusk, pike move into very shallow water of two or three feet along Route 46 at Budd Lake in the spring. Near the theater and marina spring water enters the lake just west of a dock structure, a spot accessible by boat. Pike require either persistent casting search (my preferred method) or patient bobber or possibly bottom fishing with dead herring or shiners before weather warms up. When still fishing, multiple rod sets are best, but quicker retrieves are sure to draw savage strikes in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers alike once water temperatures move through the 50s.

Make no mistake about it, these are large freshwater gamefish. Don’t feel that we just don’t have it anything like upstate New York, or Saskatchewan. Of course we don’t. Pike aren’t native here, and our waters are not up to supporting such size. So accept what we do have and be there, instead of imagining something else. In any of the waters I’ve mentioned it’s possible to catch a pike over 15 pounds, and on light tackle that’s a tussle to remember.