Friday, June 8, 2012

Delaware River Summer Smallmouths, Walleye, Striped Bass

I did manage to fish the Delaware and Raritan canal for half an hour this afternoon, and couldn't tell if I got a hit, or caught bottom for a second when I lifted the Senko. A few sunfish took it otherwise. Water was stained, but not so badly as to be unfishable with a worm.
It was nice to simply work a Senko, fully intending to connect, working it well, but having no desperate need to catch anything, although my intent increased as time ran out.
Enjoy a piece on the Delaware I wrote last year. Below:

Thanks to Interstate 78, the Delaware River in Warren County is little more than a half hour away from much of the Somerset and Hunterdon County region of New Jersey. Smallmouth bass, walleyes, muskies, and channel catfish are within reach from the bank and wading within city limits of Phillipsburg, and The Fisherman magazine occasionally reports striped bass over 20 pounds caught late at night on live eels, particularly after 3:00 a.m. If you try for stripers, don't weight the eels, let them swim with the current. If you hook a bass, turn off the lantern before the bass nears landing! I lost a bass that took off with such power when it caught lantern light in its eyes, that the hooks tore. If you want to get away to quieter stretches, River Road from Carpentersville south to the Hunterdon County line at the mouth of the Musconetcong River has many access points along its length.

          Smallmouth bass are the Delaware’s main attraction from the confluence of the East and West branches in Hancock, NY, to the tidal zone in Trenton. My family recently enjoyed an annual float trip from Sparrowbush, NY, to Matamoras, PA, and despite off-color water last year, we caught plenty of bass on Rat-L-Trap plugs. These lures prove effective if water is stained perhaps because of the rattle, although that seems unproven, but nevertheless, they are great for walleyes as well. I managed to get a typical walleye—about 18 inches—alongside our raft and was about to use the net when it threw the hooks of a chrome Rat-L-Trap. 

          The trick is to retrieve the plug near bottom without snagging. Rat-L-Traps sink at a rate of about a foot per second. Since you won’t always know how deep the water, let the lure sink as you count until line slackens when it reaches bottom. For subsequent casts into the same area, repeat the count minus two or three.

          Diving crankbaits are great for smallmouths and walleyes so long as you feel the diving lip trip on rocks every so often. Retrieve speed can be modified so the lure does not dig directly into bottom (you would feel it!) and get snagged, yet the plug strikes raised rocks. Crankbaits come in varieties that run three to six, six to 10, even 12 to 15 feet deep, but the deepest diving strain with resistance on the line and are meant to be retrieved on heavier baitcasting tackle.

          The best way to explore the depths—some holes in the Warren County stretches are as deep as 35 feet—is with jigs from an eighth to 3/8ths-ounce tipped with Berkeley Gulp! synthetic bait or live nightcrawlers. Jigs will get lost to snags, but buy them in quantity wherever you can get a good price, and you won’t feel the loss as you would when snapping line on an expensive plug. Soft plastic Mister Twisters, etc., work well on jigs and make less of a mess than synthetic leeches, but synthetic bait does put a powerful fish attracting odor in the water. In dark depths this may be an advantage.

          But smallmouths in particular like shallow water too. Pockets of calm water associated with fast moving currents, eddies behind boulders, edges of shoreline where calm and fast water meet, are structures with increased oxygen in warm late summer water. My personal favorite for such spots is the #9 Rapala floating minnow plug, but all sorts of minnow imitations work, as well as small spinnerbaits, in-line spinners like Mepps and C.P. Swings, and topwater plugs early and late in the day. Spinners work best by a straight, moderate, steady retrieve close to bottom if some depth is encountered. Minnow plugs come alive by erratic rod tip twitches but remain virtually lifeless without the wrist creating minor art with the lure.

          When the annual tail end of the summer river season nears, the food chain based on insect life breaks down. Until late September, fly fishermen catch plenty smallmouths on nymph imitations otherwise suited to trout; the bass feed on larval as well as hatched and terrestrial insects, small, molting crayfish, and a smorgasbord of immature fish species. Streamers, poppers, even dry flies sometimes work. Shad fry will soon descend downriver on their seasonal trek to the Atlantic, and smallmouths school and herd this Omega acid rich forage for their greatest health boost of the year. Walleyes gorge on them as well. They do not fatten for winter, but enjoy peak activity and growth with optimal or near optimal water temperatures and increased oxygen levels, especially if the river runs somewhat higher than normal.

          I’ve never seen it happen, but reputable writers have reported that sometimes the bass attack shad fry on the surface in sudden blitzes the way hybrid stripers go after alewives in Spruce Run Reservoir or Lake Hopatcong in June. A half-ounce chrome Rat-L-Trap casts forever with a medium power spinning rod and six-pound test line, and resembles a small shad very closely. If you spend a late September or October afternoon scouting the river scenes along River Road and catch sight of this action, don’t be without a few of these plugs!


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Gallery of Fishing Wear: Clothes Say so Much and so Little

What does this gray-toned photo make you feel? Going through fish photos, it caught my eye to immediately comfort, just the opposite of a shiver of repulsion for the cold and seemingly lifeless light.

Evaluations come from perspectives. Late fall and low light have yielded us so many good fish that my unhesitant feeling felt enlivened in a very comfortable way by my glance at the picture. I see it from the point-of-view of our good times. The red jacket is like a splash of cheer Matt's facial expression hints at.

The next photo below fell into the pattern for this blog post (I just opened a hard copy photo album to see what it would present me). That's me fishing a trout stream--loaded with native brookies--below Mt. Washington in New Hampshire a few summers ago. I look like such a goof! Why would I bring that shirt to go fishing? I look exactly like a guy who would shiver with repulsion at the photo above.

Finally in our dress gallery, my son has no hat on and his hood off because it was mild. (I have some pictures that feature his face completely covered ice fishing at a degree or two above zero.)

Chips Ahoy! He's eating a cookie.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Largemouth Bass in the Grass: What to do When Weeded Over

Largemouth Bass in the Grass:

What to do When Weeded Over

I did fish the eight-inch Chompers over the duckweed at Colonial Park today as mentioned I would, but would have done better with a weedless frog. I had seven strikes and missed all of them. The worm is too long a target for what bass can't see. Several of these fish leapt straight into the air attempting to take it, but I only came close to hooking one.

I'm posting an article on the subject I got published in The Fisherman five or six years ago. Hope it's helpful.

I got a tip that the other pond in Watchung is full of bass. Neither of us had a hit fishing the larger, so my son and I rode up and parked below the embankment, climbed, and saw wall to wall carpeting—not a single pocket of open water. 

I thought we’d been played for a joke, but my son wanted to fish. A couple of weeks before, he bought a package of Mister Twister Hawg Frawgs. I remembered this once I found them in his box as we stood on the bank. An inset hook assured me they would ride over the weed mat.

Hawg Frawgs made trails over duckweed retrieved at a steady medium pace. I wondered how deep the water beneath. I heard a slurping sound, and before I could turn to see my son, he exclaimed, “I got one!” I noticed the bass had hit right near the dam.  

Fertile and Foul

Some ponds, like the one in Watchung, amass fertility to the point of producing huge amounts of vegetation, and these weeds die in the late fall adding more muck to the bottom as they decay. But it turned out the pond in Watchung does have some depth. This I discovered later with the weeds gone. Now that it’s been dredged, it's deeper than ever.

Usually such fertile ponds have combinations of vegetation species in areas of greater and lesser density, with or without open pockets and areas of deeper open water.  Lake Muskenetcong in North Jersey is a 329-acre lake that used to have many large weed mats in the summer, but invasive water chestnuts virtually covered the entire acreage by late in the summer of 2009. Other New Jersey lakes like the Swartswoods have dense mats that cover depths of eight and ten feet, plenty of water for lunker largemouths. (Don’t be too surprised to find them in very shallow, weed covered water.)

Some ponds have shallows covered mostly with an algae mat. If the water quality is good, other vegetation species exist under the algae, and maybe some lily pads grow in the midst of the algae mess. Such combinations of aquatic vegetation provide fish with more cover and possibly forage diversity--choice targets.


How do you approach an ugly mass of algae and take your casting onto it seriously? This time of year, the water may be very warm everywhere, and under bright sun it’s a good bet the biggest bass fin in the shade of some of the densest vegetation, so just imagine they’re there and give this infrequently performed approach a chance.

Largemouths seem to hover just underneath these surface mats, not only around the edges. A big algae mat over a broad shallow flat can produce anywhere, and methodical fan casting is the way to go. In the pond at Watchung, I found the bass seemed to be anywhere: right by the dam, out from it by ten yards, and so on, all up and down along the banks of its three acres. Don’t be too picky about making a plastic frog behave like a frog, although sometimes a bass will short strike, as if the retrieve is just a hair too fast.  Reel in and cast right back out behind the hole left behind from the strike—sometimes a bass will connect the second time the plastic is offered.

On some outings, fishing on top of the weeds is just one strategy among a number of others. On Lake Musconetcong, for a past example, I used to fish the open pockets and weedline edges early, late, and in the rain or thick cloud cover. But a Mann's Phat Rat served the purpose of thick vegetation as the morning wore on. And with sun overhead, fishing right on top of the weeds anywhere may yield a few stubborn fish. It’s much the same on the Swartswoods. While the heat of the day suggests fishing a plastic worm along deep weedlines, a big bass may explode right through algae mats over two or three feet of water.

Lily pad circles or fields amid other weeds, or other combinations that catch the eye, tend to attract largemouth, too, as I've mentioned. Always fish combinations of vegetation and other structures like deadfalls, stumps, or submerged boulders. But don’t get stuck in your idea of where the bass should be. Give an honest, thorough effort to the spot you’re fishing, then move on.

Lures and Retrieves

Two basic choices: plastics like Senkos, traditional plastic worms, and Hawg Frawgs, all rigged with inset hooks, and soft plastic weedless surface lures like Scum Frogs, Phat Rats, Phat Frogs, Snag Proof Frogs, and the Laker Mouse. Don’t weight your worms or Hawg Frawgs unless you want them to fall through small pockets. A large split shot at the eye of the hook does that—or a tungsten bullet weight especially. A steady medium retrieve over a mat usually does the trick and covers water.  But if you’re not getting action, make the retrieve erratic, but teasingly so. Bass may blast the weed mat and leave holes two feet wide behind.


I fish on the light side because it affords better casting range and I prefer the smaller lures. Some would think it nuts to fish with six-pound test in weed mats for bass, but I’ve hustled some fairly big ones out. Nevertheless, as a rule, these situations demand 15-pound test quality braid, and I've never gone back to fishing too light for what a really big bass would require.  A medium power rod at the least--fast action--gives the advantage of quick and firm response to a hit. Set the hook after a pause when the hit comes.


Bass tend to come out to the edge of open water early and late, in the rain, or under thick clouds. But during the day under sunlit heat, the weed mats can be the best place to fish.  There are those exceptions, like the pond in Watchung, where no matter what the weather, a weed mat extends from shore to shore, and all four corners. The Phat Rat is good in the rain on Lake Muskenetcong and the Swartswoods because it can be maneuvered over the weeds and through small open pockets where standard topwaters will foul.

It may seem counterintuitive that a fish situates underneath the thick turf and can blast through it to a lure on top, but you may find they blast basket holes through the stuff.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Kids and Nature: Absolute Necessity?

 It was December when this major snow hit many years ago and my son Matt, then six, went walleye fishing with me on the Delaware at an obscure spot where a fire doesn't bother anyone. Look below, and you'll see there was even a ring. It was not a campsite.

Honoring children and the outdoors is a paradox: sometimes you have to smile; you have to show you are not oblivious to the humility "real outdoorsmen" might expect you to feel for having this care. But you smile all the more effectively if you conceal irony of your own behind the appearance they care only to see, perhaps.

The issue may actually be, in fact, as serious as whether human beings and life on earth will survive or be destroyed.

If we disconnect from nature, we are de trop as French philosophers put it. We don't depend on nature, we are in, of, and we are nature. Anything else is a lie. All that we produce and call human-made is no more than rearrangement of the naturally given. And lies can't do that.

I didn't teach my son to build the fire that afternoon. I asked him to join me. Yes, he built it.

Monday, June 4, 2012

12 Inch Plastic Worms for Giant Largemouths, Charter and Guide Service, Adventure

 Small bass like the two caught today in all of 20 minutes fell eagerly for the eight-inch Chompers, thus having spiked my confidence in the bag of 12-inch plastic worms reserved for our Florida trip in July. I imagine an 18-inch worm might work, but we don't really know where to go in the Everglades region near Miami. I once hooked a striped bass of eight or nine pounds on a 20-inch live eel. 

My son has the scoop on trails to search for Burmese pythons, diamond-back rattlesnakes, and the like, but unless I do some real digging online and otherwise, actually find places to go without a boat for one dawn venture, we're going to go by local maps and local word. From there we head to Big Pine Key where we'll do most of the fishing.

Some day we'll go only for Florida largemouth, really seek big ones. I'm not sure we would hire a guide. We've taken charters and guide service to have excellent times, but nothing beat renting a 19-foot boat with 90 horsepower and taking it out to sea beyond the reef. I witnessed a look of fearful apprehension when I once related the story, so when I do now, I always make sure to frame it in the context of my 13 years' experience as a commercial shellfisherman, owning nine boats through that time. You have to have the sea run in your bloodstream.

Anyhow, I'd rather rent a bassboat than be taken on one.

Even if it's dinged up.

That's not saying anything against the social opportunity charter service offers, as well as opportunity to learn quite a lot. It's just my personal predilection to place doing things myself first. Hiring a guide or taking a chartered fishing cruise is relaxing and allows you the pleasure of being taken along without exercising nearly as much of your own responsibility, but it puts you in the role of student, students always outfitted by one institution or another--even autodidacts are beholden to book authors this way--which takes out the thrill of wild adventure.

I spent two weeks as an apprentice shellfisherman, quite an adventure thereafter for 13 years, working in New Jersey waters in January in wetsuits for as long as five hours at a time.

Caught the bass photographed above at Colonial Park, plenty of duckweed to try running worms over the top some other time with more time to spare. Speaking of which, did you know that the first taxes collected in the original Colonies for public American schooling were on the sale of striped bass?

Fishing is behind everything.


Driscoll Bridge over the mouth of the Raritan River where it empties into Raritan Bay, en route to shore striper fishing.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Catching Good Size Largemouth Bass among Pine Barrens Flooded Timber and Grassy Shallows: Plastic Worms and Topwater Plugs

Boy Scouts of America is one of the national organizations that not only provides excellent fellowship for boys and involved parents alike, but opportunities for outings available no other way. Boy Scout Camps exist for whole ranges of activities, including fishing in waters that get no other pressure. Arrangements are made between troops and other organizations for outings, and special places like Bass Lake on the Lakehurst Naval Base become available on occasion for those who participate and contribute.

Last year, I caught a bass on my second cast from shore. We hadn't arranged to get kyacks, canoes, and a 16-foot jonboat as we did this year since the main focus involved fluke fishing from a headboat. Nonetheless, the boys and myself managed to catch well over a dozen bass right along the accessible shoreline near the campground without much cover for bass, one of these good-sized at 19 inches, caught by Anderson Matinho.

So I knew good-sized bass lurk in the lake, and my fantasies before getting here this weekend blazed vividly surreal with a number of three-pound plus bass lipped back in the flooded timber. I get just like a kid sometimes with visions welling up into my mind.

But sunlight struck hard on the water, and the breeze bore down pretty hard. With some time to fish from the banks before boats arrived, more than a dozen of us, including some parents besides me this time, fished hard for over an hour for one 14-inch bass caught by one of the boys. It wasn't a sinking feeling I had, but a complete shut-out. My world goes from vivid expectation to a sudden turn towards considering something else. Once again--I was sure of it--my visions had deceived me. Not that they always do, and perhaps they never do. Maybe I just get distracted sometimes.

The boats came, the boys and parents loaded in unhindered, and although one canoe remained unoccupied and a friend of mine hadn't gone out, I had no motive, was tired. I went to my car, put back the seat, and fell asleep. More than hour later I awoke and considered I might go home early to get much needed writing done, my son could ride home with friends. But I strolled over to the lake and it just happened that Peter Kemp, photographed at the top of the page, tied into the largest bass of his life, a nice fish about 18 inches, right out in the deepest, open water. I hung around with mildly improved interest, just casually tracking events, and after how long I don't remember, the jonboat became available.

I loaded my gear and invited Paul Matinho along; a young Scout also came with us. No sooner had we anchored in the timber, I caught a small bass on Senko-type worm with inset hook. Word came pretty soon that fishing merit badge counselor Fred Matero and Alex Rundella, the latter an older Scout highly skilled at fishing, had done very well. Of course then I felt the wolf rise, not envy, not even competition so much as the necessity to join the pack.

The jonboat felt more than clumsy without oarlocks. It had oar rings, but the oars slid precariously and a lot of noise scared off bass I'm sure. This didn't irritate me, but next year I'm bringing my Minn-Kota electric. We came in for dinner, my having caught four bass and Paul having lost one. I wanted Paul to connect, but he certainly had connected even without boating a bass or less common pickerel. A good time. Awesome news from Fred--he had caught 11, one four pounds, another close to five, and he swore he had hooked a seven-pounder. I then went to Alex who told me he, too, had caught 11, one of them very good-sized. All 22 of their bass and my four we caught on plastic worms, but not necessarily in the timber. This situation had caught Fred's interest, "The biggest bass, besides Alex's, were not back in the timber but near the grass in a foot-and-a-half of water." This in broad daylight no less. Although the lake has the typical Pine Barrens tannic stain, the water is fairly clear.

Just before dinner, I got out in a canoe and nabbed another small bass. Then after dinner, Alex and I headed out in kayaks well after sundown. Fred was not far behind. Alex and I put worms aside. He had a Bill Dance popper; I had tied on my favorite Hedden Baby Torpedo, which is a fairly good-sized plug. The wind died.

Alex's first cast yielded a 16 1/2-inch or so bass. The full moon came up as darkness fell, and action seemed to roar steadily back in the trees. I felt amazed at how well my casting played out, never getting snagged. I remember once a good bass exploded on my plug between two trunks with about half a foot of space between. Another time I saw a great head and open mouth erupt just as I began to lift the plug for the next cast, the bass almost slamming into the kayak. The best of five bass I caught doused me all over hitting the plug next to the kayak and racing back and forth with its broad back completely exposed, this fish at least 18 1/2 inches. Alex and Fred, who caught another five or more bass, can attest to hearing a howl when this bass got hooked.

The way I got so many surface strikes after dark required that I became myself a part of nature so I could impart an artistic version of fright into my Heddon Torpedo. I got several chase/whomping/ pounding strikes by cadenced retrieves on the manic side made haywire in very subtle ways, not simply pulling the lure fast in a complacent, I'm-in-control way, but by really being in control, which meant having an actual vision of what it could be for such a surface creature as a plug to be totally frightened, skipping slightly as I pulled it quick, sort of danced it by a trance of pretend terror. And this actually got bass to rush from yards away. I saw the wakes in the dark for as long as eight feet closing in so rapidly the bass exploded on the plug and then into the air.

I got up well before dawn and out before anyone else came out of a tent, except one older Scout who magically appeared bankside as I pushed off in a kayak. Six hits on the Torpedo broke dead calm before Fred showed up. He effortlessly tossed a black worm towards the grass I mentioned, both of us in the back of these 15 or 20 acres, and tied into a very good bass he estimated at four pounds, lost in standing grass. Back to worm throwing, I quickly missed two hits that surprised me, they came so fast, then boated a chunky 18-inch or so bass, quickly releasing it and pressing on. Having missed another hit or two, I moved further back in water six inches to a foot-and-a-half deep, drawn by the sound of opened largemouth maws that actually produced deep popping sounds by catching air as they closed upon whatever forage scurried right up in the grass. There was a miniature point, a 45-degree turn in the grass edge, and I lobbed my worm in close, water I later discovered measured about 10 inches deep.

When I set the hook, I couldn't actually see the bass in the dim light, but the form became immediately apparent, water bulging over a back it could barely cover. I estimated the length at 20 or 21 inches. I kept kicking myself for this loss, if mostly to put the excitement aside to continue my exploration. I hooked and lost a nice bass in a little canal five feet wide, then entered this canal to find a foot of weedy water with lots of small fish forage. I soon caught a bass of about 16 1/2-inches where this back cove and series of canals and miniature coves opened upon the main lake, and soon afterward paddled in hard for breakfast with Fred, who had scored a single bass. 

Both of us completed an outing we'll remember and we want to explore these waters more in-depth another time.