Friday, September 4, 2015

The Rewards of Bass Ponds

We meant to fish our North Jersey big bass pond, but found the gate padlocked. Matt sent an email, explaining policy breached, asking for an explanation. We moved on to another pond, which I posted about earlier in the summer: 

Matt quickly caught two 10-inch largemouths in front of and beside a dock. I walked aside and momentarily hooked a nice bass by dropping the weightless chompers worm at the edge of some floating weeds. I pointed out the shoreline where I had done well, presuming that's where the rest of the bass are. So Matt walked away to fish another shoreline entirely.

In the meantime, I found fishing tough, but managed to catch a 10-inch largemouth and a smallmouth not much larger. I fished the same spots I had last time, as if I had eliminated worthless water, thinking once how unfortunate my son had caught a bass on the first cast, quickly another, only to go without the rest of the hour.  

I had my moments. Fishing a good-sized pond on foot is better than fishing from a $100,000.00 boat in some ways. I like climbing those steep banks. It takes gumption. Most old men like me would never do it, especially without hiking boots, and it is in fact possible to break one's neck in such situations. That makes the effort all the more valuable, because something's at stake. You have to be careful or get injured. It takes effort, and you feel the reward.

It got dark. I looked for my son for five minutes, couldn't see him in the gloam. Refused to phone. Finally I saw him near a corner some 300 yards distant. Another five minutes passed and phone rang, he had walked up to the lot. When I got there after a short hike, he was coming back across the county road after exploring a marsh. He told me he had caught two more bass, one about 10-inches, another a little larger. He described drop-offs, submerged boulders, submerged brush, branches beavers had cut--excellent bass habitat. And he had lost a big one and another not so big, all on the weightless Chompers.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Fall Forage Shift is on the Way



           “Sounds like Christmas bells!” Marty’s fish finder alarm sounded constantly, a school of hybrid striped bass right under his boat 29 feet down.
          Nothing comes to mind to signify fall fishing so much as the memory of Joe Landolfi’s astonishment. Last October we witnessed our fellow Knee Deep Club member catching hybrids one after another on Lake Hopatcong. They stayed put for three or four hours. 
          By late September, all the gamefish in Lake Hopatcong and elsewhere begin to feed especially on forage fish as the smorgasbord of summer insects and other creatures begins to decline. But there’s more to the story than what finned forage is available to predators.

          Fish don’t fatten for winter. Cold blooded, they don’t hibernate—metabolism determines feeding behavior. However, every species has an optimal range of temperature response in which they feed most actively and grow best. Fall feeding is all about that optimal growth, the unrelenting drive to more life and power. 

          It may seem counterintuitive that fish come alive in chillier water. The colder the water, the more metabolism slows. But temperatures above optimal ranges condition fish to feed by the conservative strategy of reducing activity to save those calories that burn faster. Insects are an easy meal, rather than, for example, a smallmouth bass burning energy to pursue an alewife herring. Even largemouth bass may feed on insects alighting on the surface, and they certainly leap for damselflies.

          With temperatures optimal September through November depending on the species—walleye and hybrid striped bass especially thrive in colder water—gamefish give chase. Fishing with Joe last October, the action never ceased all day long. The hybrids and walleye feed on Omega 3 fatty acid rich alewives with a drive to live and grow awesome to contemplate for its ferocity.

          On the Delaware River, shad fry begin to come downriver in late September, headed for the Atlantic. Smallmouth bass will on occasion school up and herd these schools of Omega 3 forage, blitzing by attack formations like cocktail bluefish at the mouth of a coastal inlet. Walleye in the river busily feed on the same forage beneath the surface, as do young striped bass hatched as far north as Barryville, New York and possibly further. Even channel catfish get in on some of this action, especially on whatever is wounded by schools of smallmouth bass, which falls or flutters to bottom.

          Farm pond largemouth bass now go after bluegills any time during the day by sudden, swooping ambushes with gaping mouths open, water rushing past gill plates. The bluegills don’t swim passively along with the predator bass as they typically do during summer afternoons. I once fished in a heavy rainstorm with early October temperatures in the mid 70’s. Water temperatures warmed from about 68 degrees, and dozens of bass as large as four pounds struck, some of them leaping two feet out of the water to come down upon and engulf the spinnerbaits I buzzed, retrieving the lures just fast enough with rod held at 10:00 o’clock position to create a wake across rain-studded surface. I’ve never seen largemouth bass in such a manic state since, but have found that a warm rain any time from late September through October, so long as water temperatures warm, is a good time to fish.

          Pickerel feed primarily on fish year round, but fall is probably the best time to catch a big one, as they too experience optimal feeding conditions. During my teens, the Delaware and Raritan Canal had sand bars at the bridge over Quaker Bridge Road, Lawrence Township. By October, silver shiners schooled on top of the bars in a foot or two of water. Pickerel grouped around, and on occasion could be seen rocketing up out of the dark depths of four to six feet, snatching a shiner, and diving back down. During the 1980’s, the canal was drained and dredged. All the bars are gone and haven’t returned, but pickerel present in the canal today and elsewhere are emboldened and quite gullible for a live shiner, in-line spinner, or Rapala plug.

          The feel of a chilly, gray, fall day with a strong breeze is like the mood of walleye and other gamefish—harshly active and making their presence felt. Winter weather freezes the water and, comparatively, the angling action. But until it really gets cold, October and November’s subtle beauty, instead of feeling desolate and barren, invigorates and enlivens.      

Round Valley Reservoir Lowest I've Seen, and its Hot: Will Rainbows Arrive Soon?

Swung by to see my favorite reservoir after work. Fred told me it's down to the bottom of the ramps. See for yourself. Close. And on NJ, someone's post reported that water's being pumped into the South Branch. ( April, closer to normal levels may return. But the reservoir was very low in May this year.

What a heat wave! I like the hot weather and it's always a little sad to feel it go. But better fishing's ahead and I forget summer to enjoy it. The brisk weather too. Typically, rainbow trout come in shallow in about two weeks from now. Once that happens--surface temperature about 70--summer is over, no matter the hot day that might only happen singularly, not for a week, not even for two days.

It will be interesting to see if rainbows arrive on schedule.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

50th Anniversary of Delaware Watergap National Recreation Area

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the Delaware Watergap National Recreation Area. Seventy thousand acres of forest, mountain faces, floodplains, streams and elevated fields related to 40 miles of Delaware River flow has accommodated millions of visitors through the years. One way of getting there is by Interstate 80, a direct link to Metropolitan New York, from where many came during the late 19th century.

Some things never change; they just acquire a facelift, but the wilds of the Watergap retain a deeply remote value that resists the strains of civilization and should always remain protected.

I've floated the Delaware through various park stretches, once paddling a canoe with a friend 40 miles from above the park deep down into it. But most of all, I value the Dunnfield Creek for the pristine, springfed water. The native brook trout, too. But without that aquamarine clarity, they wouldn't thrive as they do. I once confessed to a NJ Audubon naturalist that every time I visit Dunnfield, I put my opened lips to the surface and drink. He implored of me never to do it again. I could get an amoeba.

The water is not really safe to drink for at least that reason. But I've never got sick and I value this bond with a New Jersey creek enough to risk my life again, I suppose.

I've backpacked the Appalachian Trail along Dunnfield and up to pass Sunfish Pond, worked my way back to camp in the designated area, tidy and neat, building a nice cooking fire. Have done this a number of times and the opportunity remains.

And there's Mount Tammany. I have better photo prints I haven't time to fetch and scan. How many times I've hiked the summit, I can't recall at present, but the most direct trail is the steepest I know of in New Jersey, and the views from the top magnificent.

If you want remote fly fishing, go to the Big Flatbrook way up in the northern reaches of the park. And visit the abandoned but preserved town of Wallpack. Millbrook Village further south on Mine Road, when the volunteers are present to offer presentations, is enough to draw you right out of contemporary times and link you with larger, not lesser, humanity.

Lake Hopatcong Knee Deep King of the Lake to Greet Fall

Usually in August, New Jersey gets a cold front that suggests fall to come. We've had a few cold fronts come through, but none of them with that crisp feel on my skin, anyhow. Today temperatures rose into the mid-90's, and it's been hot for days. Noel got out crappie fishing on the lake recently and caught only 20 fish, most of them crappies, but some other panfish mixed in. Laurie at Dow's Boat Rentals reports that the heat has slowed the fishing. Back in July, it seemed as if we would have another mild summer, but it's going out in blazes.

With any promise, I'll get out on the lake on a Thursday with Noel in a couple of weeks, although I don't expect to catch an eight-pound hybrid striper, or even a four to seven-pounder as Laurie reports recently caught on herring. Possibly in October.

Kids head back to school and boat traffic eases, but until that brisk breeze picks up at the end of the month, weekends will remain rather busy. Dow's will rent boats into November sometime. Just when depends on the weather. I find the fall fishing abruptly turns for the worse once that water gets into the 40's, but especially walleye remain vulnerable to herring, and vertical jigging technique. Anyone who wants to test pickerel as the weedlines recede can catch them on herring or live shiners right until the lake freezes. Fishing might be challenging, but catches are possible with truly big pickerel stalking the shadows.

Knee Deep Club hosts the King of the Lake multi-species derby on September 19th and 20th. Anyone can join the club for a modest fee and feel more a part of the lake community, possibly win cash prizes as well. Remember, if it weren't for Knee Deep, the lake's enhanced fishery with walleye, muskies, hybrid stripers, and bonus big trout never would have got the fast start the members made possible. Everyone's welcome here and Dow's is a great service for whoever has a NJ Boater Safety Certificate.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Ocracoke Shark Attack Revenge

Our last night on Ocracoke Island, we arrived at the beach at dusk, just as the surf reached high tide. Matt dug the pit where our black Lab, Sadie, began the digging, and we got a cooking fire going as the full moon rose just above the horizon out over the sea.

About two months ago, right here in front of the life guard stand where we cast, a man got attacked by a shark, bitten severely in multiple places. Ocracoke made the news worldwide.

Matt's had a tough time with sharks. At age six, he hooked one right here on this beach just after dark. He barely got hold of his rod before it would have got ripped out to sea, jammed the butt into the sand, and just held on with both arms as the fish raced towards Spain.

"You better take it."

So I took hold and let the fish keep running, no other choice. It stopped with about 10 or 20 yards of 16-pound test left on the spool. I managed to pump the fish back behind the breakers, when it turned and headed up the beach. Twenty minutes and 200 yards distant from my wife, son, our stuff, their flashlight dead, and mine about to completely die, Matt started screaming for me. So I put thumb pressure on the spool and let the line break, ran back. He thought the shark pulled me in, since he could no longer see my flashlight. Big shark.

Two years later, he caught a big bonnethead from a Big Pine Key bridge at night. I estimated 25 pounds and together we broke the fish off, no way to haul it up. I thought nice fish, but surely they get much bigger. First thing Matt did when we got to the cottage, he looked up bonnetheads in his Florida fishing guidebook. What do you know? World record was 23 pounds and some ounces from before 2007.

Ever since these incidents, he's been hot on sharks. Every time on the Banks, we've tried, but have had weather problems.

We had some chunky pinfish for bait. I ripped open the bellies and sliced them up so blood would get in the brine. Then I took 10/0 stainless steel hooks on 86-pound test Toothproof wire, tied off by haywire twists, weighted by five-ounce pyramid sinkers on sliding sleeves, and poked and twisted the sacrifices in tight under the spinal columns. The surf had calmed way down since our debacle at the pier earlier in the day. Full moon shed a lot of light, but the night felt real good. I thought we might catch a shark right where the old man in the news got attacked not long before and create a viral web post. So I imagined with pleasure, anyway.

Well, with two days of an incessant 20-knot northeast blow, that current pushing southward hadn't abated at all, despite the relative relief of the waves. The heavy lead rolled like sandstone down a 70 percent grade, and though we managed to keep bait in the water, it was a little like drifting salmon eggs for trout.

Matt had a great idea. "Dad, why don't you drive back to the house and get those anchor sinkers?" That would have worked. But this was our last night and we hadn't begun packing. We got two hours on the beach, roasting hot dogs and smors. And the three of us laughed at the confrontations between Sadie and ghost crabs as big as rats in the lantern light.

Matt will have a chance yet. And when we head to the Jersey shore for sharks next summer, perhaps, I won't forget the anchor sinkers, just in case.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Avon Pier with Driven Wind: No Hope for King Mackerel this Time

The alarm failed to go off, so we got to the ferry at 5:00 a.m. with about 30 seconds to spare. Twenty five minutes after we landed in Hatteras from Ocracoke, we arrived at Avon Pier, a menacing cloud bank straight out off the end over the Atlantic. That wasn't our chief concern and rain never materialized. Wind blew out of the east at about 20 knots, making the ocean a brown mess for the entire pier length.

We cast Got-Cha jiggers for about five minutes before giving up, just to make sure no tailor or cocktail blues would hit. Forget Spanish mackerel when the ocean is so thickened by churned-up sand it looks muddy, since the pelagic speedsters feed by sight.

I cast six-ounce anchor sinkers with the two surf rods; the 40-pound test fluorocarbon would serve as trolley lines to send live fish down to no better than sharks in the messy brine. Lots of king mackerel have been caught recently, but not on days like this. The sinkers held, by virtue of the four metal prongs that insert themselves into the bottom so the weight anchors in place.

Before we sent a nine-inch jack my son caught to the angry surface on the trolley line, someone caught a 26-inch red drum (puppy drum) nearer to the beach on cut mullet. Nice fish!

I had bought a Shakespeare six-foot standup rod rated for 50 to 80-pound test line at Dick's Sporting Goods a month ago, when I also checked out an Ande 30 to 50-pound test rated rod. I decided to go ahead and buy the Shakespeare just in case, but see about two heavier Ande rods online. I ordered two 5 1/2-foot heavy power, 50 to 80 pound rated Ande rods, and planned on returning the Shakespeare to Dick's. As events turned out, the Ande rods never got to the outfitter; I phoned several times, and with days left before we would leave for the North Carolina Outer Banks, canceled the backorder eight days overdue.

So I phoned T&W's Tackle in Nag's Head. A few days later, bought a Bill Fisher heavy power 50 to 80-pound rated standup rod, which I like a lot better than the Shakespeare, and it has a thicker tip. For all I really know, a slightly lighter tip will allow better play from a fish anyway, but who knows, when we get down here again in a couple of years or so, I may spring for another Bill Fisher.

Very pleased with our Penn Squall lever drag reels.

But we hardly had the chance to use them this year. Waves broke against the end of the pier and the wind created such a bow in the line from the Squall reel that we couldn't keep the bait quite in the water. Wind was blowing the line with such force that it lifted the jack off the ocean surface where it was supposed to swim frantically and attract jaws.

So we caught some bait stealers, little panfish on our light tackle. It's always a good time at the pier. We stayed out seven hours yesterday well worth it far and away. I always just let time go out there. Never looked at a clock.
Matt's Jack
Big waves got worse as tide lowered, crashing incessantly all the way out on pier's end.