Monday, July 24, 2017

No Outing Fails to Surprise

Many outings fulfill their expectation and may leave a little wanting, but no outing fails to surprise. We caught nothing, and though for me this meant we broke even, Oliver really believed we would catch something. Big striped bass, flathead catfish, channel catfish exist in this river. Night requires time, patience, and perseverance to catch any, but on my first night attempt during August 2008, I caught a nine-pound flathead, which I thought must be a big channel cat before it came into view, and I lost a striper. Since then, I've tried two or three more times, neither myself nor my son and a friend caught anything but a smallmouth bass on a shiner, and a nine-inch striper on a Rapala at the mouth of the Pequest.

I don't believe it's a chuck-the-bait-out-there-and-wait appeal, even though all I did to catch the flathead was bait up with a dead eel, lob it out un-weighted (flow slow) just before sunset, and attend to baiting a live eel on the rod I intended to man. Within minutes, the flathead was on. The striper took some doing by drifting eels with current.

When Oliver and I left, he mentioned shallower currents and I knew he was onto the right idea. I knew current like this existed upstream a couple of hundred feet, but the way were situated with a party going on where he could venture, neither of us felt any gumption to try. He had anchored live sunfish with heavy pyramid sinkers. That might work, but we were aware it's hit or miss regarding the make-up of the river bottom, even with the long three-foot leaders. A number of times he found himself snagged before turning the reel crank to check on the bait.

Flatheads sometimes move into shallow, hard-bottomed riffles at night. In any case, working a stretch--and riffles at the head--makes sense. Involvement of any kind tends to yields results. But river night fishing for these big targets...I felt sure the first time I bought live eels for bait that this takes some time and figuring out. Every outing since has confirmed this feeling, and I wasn't fooled by the first, either.

I wanted to get out under night sky, fish, and above all enjoy good company...possibly gaining just a little more insight into the workings of this endeavor for elusive stripers north of tidal water. All expectations felt fulfilled. It's not that I'll ever become a regular at this, either. I'm just satisfied to meet the mysteries on rare occasion.

On the way there, we drove across the Pohatcong. Oliver had his mobile device pinned on the spot. Suddenly, I braked before a huge tree on the road. Rain had fallen, but at least in Bedminster, no wind accompanied.

"We're not far," Oliver said.

"Let's park and walk."

"Better back up and park on the side."


I put it in reverse and as I began to maneuver, Oliver said, "Is there another way?"

"Not that I know."

He was working that mobile device. "There is." Soon it talked to us. I typically find the likes amusing more than annoying. It showed us the way. We rode up and down two mountains. About five miles, I guess. I never would have needed a mobile device. I've never been in a situation when I needed one and have no desire to upgrade from my flip phone. Time it took us to drive around the tree....was probably more than walking would have entailed. Just an amused thought I had.

Mysteries. No stunning meteor on this night. But I haven't heard a screech owl in years.

Surprises. Dead wood tree on the road. Two dead-wood fallen branches on the road, separate places. And weirdly, as we fished near the time we quit at 2:30 a.m.--same time three fishermen across the river quit (they had fish on)--a large tree fell in the woods nearby. Not a trace of wind. I could tell by the sound of the trunk breaking it was dead and rotted. I reasoned and told Oliver that just maybe there had been wind earlier...which loosened that tree. Not much more likely than it falling after what we had witnessed. Another surprise for me is valuable for fishing knowledge. Still on I-78, headed for Exit 3, Oliver asked me if this rain would raise the river level, and so increase our chances. He didn't mean raise it dramatically. I said no. But coming towards Carpenterville, he remarked on us getting close to the river as the road began to descend fairly sharply. Some seconds later, I realized that even with the relatively light rain--sustained and for a little while pretty heavy--a lot of water was coming downhill, and said that, yeah, that level might be coming up a bit. As we set up a little while later, Oliver wedged a surf spike between rocks at river's edge. Just an hour later, he remarked on the level having come up a couple of inches. When we began packing to leave, I noticed three or four inches of water had climbed up that spike. For fishing, yes, a rise in water level not dramatic can be very good.

That screech owl. "We hear them in our backyard," Oliver said. That impressed me, but took a little of the faraway quality of the bird's call away. Some light haloing over horizon to the north made me long for my tripod...and reminded me I need to learn manual camera functions. More than any other attraction, the big fish that repeatedly broke surface mid-river interested me. One of them slashed water close, and I saw the break--immense and exciting. Oliver believed them carp. But he did remind me that carp typically break water around spawning time in spring. I drifted eels right down their ally.

There the current takes a great eddy formation. As far as I could cast--and with my eight-foot Tica I cast a 15-inch eel very far--the eels drifted upstream. The situation reminds me of tarpon fishing behind Big Pine Key. We drifted blue crabs directly on tarpon that turned over at the surface, never taking a crab.

I got into play. The little insight I gleaned involved  a definite idea less than further confirmation of the efficacy involved in letting all go to guide an eel the right way. The humble idea of conscious attunement was enough for me last night. I got snagged three or four times, and the first two or three mishaps resulted in lost eels and hooks....which didn't sit right with me. I knew it possible to open bail, let the eel find its way out and then to continue the drift, because I discovered this that first night in 2008. The last time I got snagged, the eel did just that and redeemed all former losses.

Above all, when drifting an eel, I do not impart much action. I figure the less a striper is alerted to any guidance extraneous to the river itself, the more likely it takes. So naturally, the more I'm attuned to the river, rather than distracted with myself, the more I am like the environment any striper out there occupies. There was often silence between Oliver and I, but more between myself and my activity. We spoke freely without any hindrance. At my best, I felt sleek and active while measurably doing very little. It was about 85 degrees out--at least 80--and upon setting up I had taken off my Woolrich wool shirt, which I used to help subdue wriggling eels to get them hooked. I felt all the more there in the wild with no shirt bagging my skin.

Most of my hooked eels wriggled and scurried. Once and awhile, I enticed them to do more of this. I was curious about where they swam in the water column, but not concerned that they cruise at bottom where they try to get under rocks or whether they swam freely. After all, if stripers were breaking water on occasion, it didn't seem best the eels swim deep. Somewhere out there in the vicinity we fished, the river is 35 feet deep. I've always felt this is probably excessive for stripers, but where I placed most of my casts last night, I hooked and fought a striper almost 10 years ago. A very different style of resistance to a rod than any kind of catfish. When Oliver tried a shallow-swimming surf plug, I thought it an interesting idea.

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