Thursday, September 15, 2016

Pond Purview

With just a short window between working on an essay about a redfish adventure my family took in Charleston, South Carolina, and making the monthly Round Valley Trout Association meeting on time--which I did not make on time, due to traffic--I grabbed my tackle tote in search of Wacky Worm O-rings, and failing to find them, too harried to dig around in my study/tackle storage room, I managed to pull a Senko pre-prepared off a pile of nick-nacks on my desk, tie it on, grab my camera, and take that favorite rod to the neighborhood bass pond half a minute's walk from my front door.
I must have fished 15 minutes before I caught my first bass, feeling despair lurking somewhere down there safely at least a few miles deeper than any possibility threatening me with sinking, but I really like this pond I fish a lot less than visit nightly with my black Lab Sadie, often viewing meteors overhead, sometimes scouting a fox (Sadie barking), and once encountering a black bear.

I've reported on the fish kill here of a couple winters ago. Obviously, the pond has a long way to go before it fishes as well as used to. All three bass I caught weighed less than former average, and it took me nearly 45 minutes to catch them. But they're real, beautiful bass, and to encounter any of these fish anywhere always signals hope to me. I live in the most corrupted state a free country has ever seen--New Jersey--and yet these wild predators of astonishing vitality, coloration, and innocence coexist amidst the most dense society in the nation. Why not laugh at ourselves and take that word dense more ways than one? Our crumbling roadways may be loosening up, but we're as stiff as mythical Jimmy Hoffa's bones somewhere in the Meadowlands when it comes to change that serves everyone's well being.

Monday, September 12, 2016

River Recharge

Day off, I got some writing done, and then took our black Lab, Sadie, to the North Branch Raritan River at the exit from AT&T, sort of hoping to add some photos to my river collection, but mostly just following through on my commitment to get away from nonsense we call real life. I didn't stay more than an hour, quickly catching the little longear I photographed on the same Muddler Minnow I've been using it seems forever now.

When I first stepped in the river wearing the Simms wading boots I enjoy not for the name but the result of design and workmanship, it felt cool--like fall--and the weather's shifted to cooler temperatures, well into the 90's late last week...and I had hoped those 90's would remain indefinitely. (Not good for trout, but I love really hot weather.) But the river's really low, and what will happen when October 11th arrives we might all guess--a lot of trout that would have been stocked in rivers like this one, may get shipped to South Jersey ponds. I hope to fly cast at least once or twice for whatever trout remain when I get at them.

Some other longears took the Muddler, and then I saw a smallmouth bass that wouldn't, so I cut off the Muddler and tied on a beadhead earthworm. Nothing seemed to want to take it, until finally a largemouth of about eight inches in clear view whomped the fly. I set the hook, feeling just for a sliver of  a second as if the hook might catch before the fish vanished.

I got some photos I'm not displaying that I like, only because they suggest future possibility. (I need to use my tripod well after sundown to get them sharp.) These photographs involved my interest just as I thought I was leaving, and more than anything else today, the effort went deep and sort of flushed out refuse that accumulates working a full time job at a specialty meat counter. It's not good form to complain about jobbing, when more than a few of us are out of work and need it badly, and it's not my intention to complain but to point out--as I try to do in this blog in so many different ways--that work and family and friends are just two of three basic necessities in life. The third is recreation. Whatever form re-creation of your human self takes. Tonight is another example of fishing and photography--dog walking too--merging seamlessly together.

Result? I enjoyed a long, deeply solemn--but solemn like drinking pure mountain spring water from between rocks--moment when hope just welled up from the river I stood in the middle of up to my thighs. Re-creation. Motive to move on. Had I not gone on this little venture, my batteries never would have recharged. Either you move towards some personal goal in life, or you go backward not to childhood, but to the inhuman animal.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fall Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass: Forage Shift

Fall Forage Shift for Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass

          At first, I dislike the change of season. I enjoy fishing a plastic worm or topwater plug as if the retrieve will take all day, because summer is the home season. An early September cold front presents a chill that makes me feel loss instead of anticipation. Nevertheless, bass fishing will get more exciting. By the third week in the month, I’ve adjusted to the new season just as bass begin to feed especially on fish as the summer smorgasbord recedes. Chilly days feel invigorating. By early November when bass fishing slows, I’m hoping for ice fishing. How odd for someone who likes a day when temperatures peak over 100, and yet fall is a transition I celebrate before eagerly accepting what comes next.

          With temperatures falling, adult insects, larvae, crayfish, leeches, newts and other salamanders, tadpoles and frogs, and the occasional small snake or baby muskrat become less and less available to bass. If you watch damselflies skitter about over an aquatic weedbed on a calm summer afternoon, you may witness a bass or two leap for these bugs that don’t seem to offer much of a meal. Most of the time, the damselflies seem too quick to get caught, but I’ve seen bass score by pointed leaps. The range of forage alternatives during summer amounts to a massive availability bass often don’t have to expend much energy to obtain.

          Fall bass prefer prey they can chase. The forage particular to summer recedes, as do weedbeds and terrestrial vegetation which help support it, and forage fish of all descriptions become vulnerable to bass’s increasing diet. The situation amounts to a fall forage shift.

          The most dramatic example occurs in the Delaware River. I’ve never seen it happen, but more than one angler has told me about smallmouth blitzes in late September and early October reminiscent of cocktail blues after spearing. By the billions, shad fry come downriver heading for the Atlantic. Rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, some evidence exists that shad fry is particularly healthy for smallmouth bass. Fish farms, for example, include Omega 3 in fish feed because it’s healthy for the product.

          In any event, forget live crayfish bait and tube plastics on the Delaware when the shad head down. Half-ounce lipless crankbaits cast a mile and can be zipped by quick retrieves right through pods of herding bronzebacks. Sweeping the rod to provoke aggressive reaction strikes may give you some of the best thrills you’ll ever experience on the river, because the bass strike as they do no other time of year. Topwater plugs effective also, quick, churning retrieves produce, rather than attempts to tease out reluctance. And in the shallower, fast moving water with eddies and slack behind boulders where bass stage to snatch fry headed downstream, a jerkbait like a Rapala or Smithwick’s Rattlin’ Rogue gets slammed like thunder.

          The lure doesn’t have to look like a shad. Nevertheless, I prefer chrome patterns for any and all plugs, if only because I think the flash better provokes quick, aggressive response. Sunlit afternoon or misty evening, the bass hit, and especially with sun rays to reflect, chrome adds appeal. Diving crankbaits especially produce around deeply submerged boulders and through deep currents. For open river situations, go with lip-less crankbaits you can retrieve at various levels of the water column.

          Small rivers experience the forage shift without shad fry in the mix. A wide range of species including spotfin, common, rosy face and satinfin shiners; blacknose and longnose dace; creek chubs; banded killiefish, and juvenile panfish and bass. They serve smallmouths’ need to increase in size and vitality. Nothing seems to work better than smaller jerkbaits like size 7 and 9 Rapalas, Rebels and any of the multitude of plugs from all over the world. Recently, Noel Sell introduced me to an Ecogear jerkbait from Japan, which cost him $18.00. It has an internal rattle and the rear lifts high as it floats upward. As the fall season deepens, live shiners become most effective in deep pools. Use a light wire, size 6 hook so the shiner swims freely hooked through the lips, and allow 18 inches between the hook and a medium split shot.

          Many New Jersey ponds have no soft-rayed fish forage, but lots of sunfish of a few species. Bluegills especially prevalent, other sunfish include the green and pumpkinseed variety, and on rare occasion a few warmouths may inhabit a pond, which resemble rock bass in shape and mouth size, but sunfish in coloration. Some ponds have crappies, and although I’ve never encountered yellow perch in any pond of just a few acres, I know of a 15-acre pond with plenty. Bass feed on the smaller of their own kind, also, and many ponds contain bullhead catfish. Small, slow-swimming bullheads serve as a summertime treat for largemouths, but may get eaten in the fall, also.

          Ponds thick with summertime forage cool faster than lakes, and a shift can happen overnight with largemouths slamming spinnerbaits and jerkbaits the next day. Despite a prevalence of bluegills and no soft-rayed forage present in many ponds, minnow-imitating jerkbaits produce as if shiners scatter everywhere. Any remaining weedbeds should be fan casted, and if a pond has no weeds, always fish any shallow flat and close to shorelines, particularly where any cover or overhanging trees present themselves. Corners and spillway areas may be especially productive.

          Lakes and reservoirs do have soft-rayed forage. Many host alewife herring—another example of forage loaded with Omega 3. Whatever the reason, gamefish of all kinds gorge on herring whenever they can. In lakes like Hopatcong, Greenwood, and Swartswood, reservoirs like Spruce Run, Manasquan, Monksville, and Merrill Creek, smallmouths may feed on herring more than largemouths, because of shared habitat. Round Valley Reservoir is also worth mention, but has seen a sharp decline in herring forage base, although I spotted a smallmouth of at least six pounds recently and caught another pushing three.

          Beginning in October, herring bunch together on the rocky drop-offs of points and ledges, and smallmouths seem to have the advantage of feeding on them, although largemouths approached with spinnerbaits in declining weedbeds and near wooden structures like docks will feed on any herring in their senses’ range. Besides, October largemouths associated, oddly enough, with rocks at the shallow end of drop-offs strike jerkbaits.

          Diving crankbaits with lips allowing the plugs to bounce off boulders and stones possess great effectiveness for largemouths and smallmouths alike down to depths of 15 feet or so, so long as the habitat isn’t weedy. Crankbaits tend to trip over submerged branches and other snags, but weeds get caught on the treble hooks. In addition to spinnerbaits, weedless jigs tipped with twister-tail or tube plastics get through thin vegetation with ease. Moderate retrieves broken by jerks of the rod tip cover water range and provoke hits, but if weedbeds remain too thick, a jig will get messy.

          We all feel the change in the air of fall. But in the water, where it counts for anglers, the bass never feel the loss of summer fervor.