Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Few Attempts, And Some Fish

I snelled leaders Friday night, and got up before 6:00 a.m. this morning to fish our local North Branch Raritan at AT&T World Headquarters. My object had been to hook that big brook trout I had seen. But having arrived in the pre-dawn light with rain falling, I felt my attempt really aimed at anything. By the time I got my first strike on a shiner, my hands had begun to chill. The second trout to take a shiner hit it forcefully, and I hooked up almost instantly. The brook trout dove into submerged branches--I know the water was very cold because I reached under to remove the bare hook.

Whether or not the chill had much effect on the fish--it didn't seem to. These are trout, not warmwater bass. Besides the strikes at the three leftover shiners from pike fishing, I caught two rainbows and a brook trout on salmon eggs, missing many other hits, and struggling with two trout that got off the hook before I could land them. I didn't fish long. Soon I got back in bed and went to sleep.

After noon my son and I drove to Stanhope Bait & Boat to buy those shiners for our mystery bass. The great wooden blue bass that adorns the shop had glazed in the rain. Ghost Lake, in Warren County, on Shades of Death Road, had taken not the slightest stain from all the recent rain. It's a small clear water impoundment. I think I read somewhere it's 18 acres, but I would say half that. And throughout the two hours or so that we fished it, I saw a single fish, a sunfish, in the shallows. That's how cold the water was, like March. At first we fished the shallows, two to five feet deep, where we had done so well on a May day about four or five years ago. Surely one of those pre-spawn lunkers would lurk there. Nada. Not even a nine-incher.

Matt found the bass--and crappies. While I plodded along at covering those shallows, he went around and through the woods to the spillway. Soon I heard him hollering and grabbed the camera and ran, expecting he'd hooked a big one. I found him on his phone with an Aunt, having already thrown back the 12-incher.

"I'll get the stuff," I told him.

I hurried back to haul everything over. Here we stayed and fished the rest of our visit. Matt caught two more smallish bass and a good-size crappie. I caught two bass, just under, and just over, a pound, and a crappie. In the meantime a group of five guys had come to fish with plugs, and you knew they had no chance of getting a hit. Perhaps jigs fished very slowly would have worked, or a Johnson Beetle Spin fished directly on bottom, but no, that bottom is too silty. Matt caught his last two bass by dead sticking the shiner for over a minute in ten feet of water. And nothing acts like a live shiner on the bottom wriggling slightly in ways no one can impart to a lure.

We drove to Delaware Lake, that great lunker bass lake that gets the regulations that Merril Creek Reservoir does not for some reason. Just outside of Columbia, also in Warren County, I thought the lake did look promising, although Matt did not. I think it's 36 acres. The water had taken some stain. But aquatic weeds are underway with growth. We live-lined shiners along the impoundment wall near the spillway and back a way, nothing but the pleasure of variance and method. Matt just wanted to go home and catch some sleep.  

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"A Fishing Life is Hard Work:" Freeze Tonight, Chilly Rain Friday Night

Having planned a Manasquan Reservoir venture Saturday for months, immediate weather reminds me that everyday decisions trump events looked forward to at length. This is the time of year (oh?) when big bass are most vulnerable, the pre-spawn, and the ratio of lunkers to smaller bass in Manasquan is one of the best in the state. But with temperatures expected to plummet to the freezing point tonight during the coldest spring I can remember (a deep reservoir warms slowly), and perhaps rain falling through 40 degree temperatures tomorrow night, I've begun to rethink the plan.

I read what I regard as the best book on fishing several months ago, A Fishing Life is Hard Work, by Art Scheck, and especially loved the chapter about his encounter with a huge largemouth in Vermont--13 or 14 pounds. A piece like that really heats the blood and activtates imagination. I wondered where I might find out of the way places in New Jersey. I consulted maps. But before I might go way out of the way, it occured to me, there are at least two spots I want to try, maybe a third, one of these I know has big bass--a four or five pounder broke a bad knot several years ago, and it seems possible larger exist. And it may be cheating, but I want to buy extra-large shiners just to make sure I catch a big female, just this day, possibly this Saturday instead of the next Sunday. The water will be plenty cold anyhow. After March I don't approach largemouths with bait. But all three of these places I have in mind are small acreages and I feel I may as well get right to the point.

In the meantime, will I try for trout tomorrow evening? And Saturday morning I want to use leftover pike shiners for at least one large brookie I know existed last night. Of course, I would try salmon eggs for rainbows. But here it is going on May and I'm wondering if the water may be too cold for salmon egg results. Nonetheless, I recall an Opening Day morning at 19 degrees when we caught quite a few rainbows (this before they stocked only brookies so early). Popular opinion is that cold can really turn trout off; in fact, the word came around that this year's Opening Day bit the chill. But I'm left wondering then why we did so well on a morning that glazed hip boots.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Trout at North Branch Raritan AT&T

Finally, some sustained trout action. At first I thought the state stocked very lightly. We fished 10 or 15 minutes by the first bridge approaching from the north; my son got a hit on his Mepp's, and took a single hit on a salmon egg in my favorite pocket of the AT&T area. My son led the way downstream to the slower water near the second bridge. As I missed several hits and lost two trout, I reasoned that the high water (although without stain) created such a bow in the line that I couldn't adequately set the hook. Meanwhile, the sun went behind the trees, and my nerves raced since I did not want to get skunked. I must have missed four or five more hits when I got around to adding another split shot. I had motioned to my son, who had headed even further downstream.

By the time he moved next to me I said, "I got this one," sure it wasn't coming off, and he caught another rainbow on the Mepps. Action remained steady until dusk progressed beyond some point or other. The feeding abruptly stopped, although I caught a brookie after more than a dozen fruitless casts, which I presume is from last week.

Seven nice trout, most of them about 11 inches, ran through just about all the leaders I had tied over a week ago. Especially with challenged eyesight now, leaders are hard to tie and the process time consuming. But I knew the chore was worthwhile. I confess that I don't seem to have improved over the years handling such minute terminal tackle. I kept breaking the leaders with the trout on the rocks at water's edge. But I love using my tiny, three-and-a-half foot ultra, ultra light. I made myself patient and relaxed in dealing with my own, and my son's, leader and knot tying needs--but these hatchery trout really put the pressure on. Once they begin coming in one after another, the natural response is to enjoy the greed.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Meadowlands Stripers Striking Paddletails

Again the weather seemed right, as it did Saturday, and stripers responded at DeKorte Park. The double culverts in the corner drew all the action but a missed hit all the way out by the bridge over the sluiceway. I caught one on the way out, and another on the way back, both approaching 20 inches, and my son lost a better bass to a bad knot.

We ran out of paddletails! The area around the double culvert eats lures. In one of my photographs you can see the stumps from Atlantic white cedars cut long ago. We tried smaller swim baits without paddles on light tackle, but got no hits on these. The water was stained from recent rains, and the paddletails sent vibrations through it. I prefer to use an 8 foot rod with a heavier swim shad, because I can reach farther range, and work the lure better in very close--I imagine stripers move right up to the culvert mouths. 

Possibly, had we arrived earlier by two or three hours we would have caught more stripers. By the time we left at 5:00, the acreage had reduced to mud flats with several creeks coursing through them. But it was a very nice time. My son enjoyed having his first striper of the season on. And the energy of this place is very exciting. I bet no place in the world exists like the Meadowlands combining wilderness and urban landscape. Jets breathed just overhead coming into Newark, as American egrets passed over us between them. Trains rushed nearby while tractor trailors took the turnpike, and the Empire State Building and Manhattan skyline loomed large in the nearby distance. The Kingsland Landfill is still in operation almost a stone's throw away, and we heard heavy earth-moving equipment grinding down the day's work.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Great Evening for the Kids

I told my friend Steve Slota when we got to Spruce Run Reservoir this evening that we would get them tonight (pike included). My feeling left me no doubt. It didn't take long before I hooked an 18-inch channel catfish about a foot from the bank in the corner between the Van Syckles jetty and protrusion of marshy land. My son, Matt, and his friend, Tom, threw ball in the lot while we watched their bobbers, live-lined minnows, and cast Rapalas. To see a bobber begin to move is every bit as exciting as catching the lift of a tip-up flag ice fishing. This time I only noticed that one of the bobbers had vanished; urgently, I tallied the rods, then hollered for Tom.

"Should I set the hook?" Tom said. Plenty of time had elapsed.

"Tighten up," I said. He did. "Go ahead." He pulled back and the drag began to rasp. No doubt, this fish weighed. 

After two powerful runs, Tom had it near the bank, but all I could see was heavy mass, and for a second I mistook it for a hybrid striper. The fish was on its third run, fighting hard for a pike. He got it near us again, and this time we could see a beautiful length of pike, which took off for a fourth hard run.

"Let it go, let it go," I kept telling Tom, nervously. "It needs to be played out."

This time the fish seemed done, and I grabbed it quickly behind the gills, and lifted. The pike measured 30 inches, Tom's first. A dream more real than waking on Saturday morning, I suppose, and an achievement of his own for fighting that fish, which I will always remember. We released this pike, which genuinely came with surprising size after two years of his expectation.

I caught a largemouth of a pound or so on a live-lined shiner, took another hit from something good- size on an extra-large shiner I fished with a deliberate, slow retrieve. Whatever it was managed to get the shiner before I even tried to set the hook. It left me with an image of great, razor-toothed jaws having simply clamped down hard. I missed several hits from what I think were crappies, again very close to the corner bank. As I played around with these fish, I kept turning to watch the bobbers, most of them fished on the side of the jetty facing the open reservoir. The water on this side had taken a fairly heavy stain. Spruce Run Creek flowed clear, and filled the bay with fairly clear water (we saw no action in it). Suddenly I saw the big, red and white bobber move subtly. I hollered for my son as I ran to the rod. The bobber stayed in place. I wondered for a moment if I had imagined the motion.

"Should I set the hook?"

"No, wait." And we waited awhile. Then the bobber steadily moved off. "Ok," I said.

Matt played this fish on a heavier rod, but it still gave a good show; and proved to be his largest pike yet at 27 inches. This fish, too, we released. I caught a couple of crappies in the corner afterwards close to 14 inches, and kept one of them. Crappies are especially large in Spruce Run; I've caught them over two pounds here. They are also excellent table fare, although the fillets contain big rib bones unless the cage is cut out. In recent years pike are thought to be fairly short here, with fish over 15 pounds rare. As yet, I haven't broken the 10-pound mark, but four-pounders prove to be about the common average, a good match for light tackle. Simply no doubt exists that Tom's fish this evening rocked that ultra-light with eight-pound test. It's the same rod he'll use for trout as soon as the streams clear up.

Besides, this is New Jersey, not Manitoba. These fish beat pickerel any day. And Tom's dad knows this, even though he hasn't caught one yet.