Friday, August 31, 2012

North Branch Raritan River Bass Father and Son

Feels like forever since I last fished with my son. So proud of him venturing far off downstream, having said not a word of parting. I worked my way into the back of the stretch to catch my best bass of the evening, Matt disappearing deep in the dusk around a bend.

Often those tail ends hold nice fish. Particularly if the stretch narrows into a V pattern--doesn't have to be deep--sometimes a very good-size smallmouth just lets forage get sucked to it as if the stream formed a natural weir or sock seine.

Most of what we caught average stream bass, my total included six smallmouths and a largemouth, the largest smallmouth about 12 inches. Matt caught I don't know how many; he felt he did well. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Vertical Jigging and Herring Approaches for Fall Walleye and Hybrid Stripers

Last year, Joe Landolfi told me since it’s September, we could jig walleyes in Lake Hopatcong.

 “But the lake doesn’t turn over until mid-October.” I said.
He dismissed this as of no consequence, and we set our calendars for Saturday, October first. Over the past five years my son, Matt, and I have always waited to fish until fall turnover is all but complete in mid-October. But Joe and I marked fish at 33 feet.

          Turnover happens as water cools in the fall. Warm water rises, unless colder than 39.2 F. During ice fishing season, obviously the warmest water sinks, or else no surface layer of ice could exist. Summertime surface lake temperatures reach the mid-80s, and oxygen vanishes in the depths so that fish and other organisms cannot survive. As surface temperatures cool beneath the temperature levels of deeper layers of water, surface water sinks as deeper water rises. This is turnover. And by late October, the deepest water of Lake Hopatcong, about 50 feet, has turned over with oxygen re-established through all depths from the surface down.

          Walleyes like rocky, deep drop-offs, and especially the deep edge of such structures. It’s unlike a walleye to suspend in 12 or 15 feet of water over these habitats perhaps 30 or 40 feet deep. But this is what they have to do every summer. It’s useless to try to catch Lake Hopatcong walleyes on the bottom in 12 to 15 feet of August water—these depths are choked with aquatic vegetation and are the lair of pickerel and largemouth bass.

           Once turnover is occurring, walleyes re-establish themselves in favored habitat—and increase feeding.  Since Lake Hopatcong is full of Omega oil rich alewife herring about two and a half to five inches long, walleyes enjoy a great health boost during the fall. Alewives typically school massively around such deep slopes scattered with rocks, hiding amongst themselves and around the corners and beneath edges of all obstructions present. These clouds of baitfish show up on graph recorders, often with the fish alarm squaking and the screen marking predators with them. In addition to walleyes, hybrid stripers may be there. We've nailed hybrids jigging. The take may be subtle, but Power Pro braid doesn't stretch--jamn the rod up and the fight's on.

          Basically two ways exist to fish walleyes from September all the way through ice fishing season until they prepare to spawn after ice-out: vertical jigging, and using live alewife herring. Casting or trolling half or full ounce lip-less crankbaits, such as Rat-L-Traps, may produce, but both jigging and live bait fishing are intensive methods that keep lure or bait before walleyes’ noses longer than trying to manage a plug in such deep water.

          Rapala ice fishing jigs and Gotcha jiggers are classics.  Both have hook eyes on top and are heavily weighted so that they can be allowed to drop directly under the boat, then jigged just off bottom by slowly drifting, using an electric motor to position, or anchoring. If live herring are preferred, it’s best to use up to three rods per angler, setting two out with half to one ounce egg sinkers above a barrel swivel and 30 inch leader to size six plain hook, and slowly retrieving another using the same rig.

          I like to use six pound test, and have never had a big walleye snap the line. Set your drag at one third line test. A musky might cut right through, but they so rarely strike a jig or herring I don’t take them into account. But it does happen. Hasn't to me yet. Since we usually rent a boat from Dow’s Boat Rentals, and buy our herring here too, we always enjoy a story or two. The third weekend in October three years ago, a renter caught a 29 pound musky vertically jigging a Rapala ice fishing jig. The next day, which was the Sunday my son and I fished, he caught a 20 pound musky on the same lure. Every winter these jigs produce muskies through the ice, as well as quite a few walleyes.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Smallmouth Bass on Live Killies

Very short on time today and forgetful of my wading shoes, I got my boots wet with water levels risen after yesterday's storms. Instead of exploring range down or upstream from a bridge or pull off, I fished the same spot I got skunked at fairly recently using a Senko-type worm. Today I cast into that strip of shadow with killies, catching two average stream bass about 10 inches each.

I also fished all about these railroad pillars in likely water, but with a lot of sun on it and no bass today. The wind blew, such a problem I almost had to use split shot becasue the bow in the line kept the killie from getting down, but I managed.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Hot Rivers for Smallmouth Bass

Three summers ago on our annual Delaware River float trip out of Barryville, New York, I was appalled by green algae covering every rock resulting from low water and extreme heat. I had never witnessed this before. The North and South Branch Raritans are presently in fine shape; rocks should remain their brownish colors without hosting a green mess to foul lures and fish alike. I haven’t seen such a green reaction in these two rivers, or the Paulinskill and Musconetcong, although I did see a lot of green in the Pequest in March.

          Situated in Somerset and Hunterdon County, New Jersey, the Raritan rivers provide some of the best smallmouth fishing in the state. Many consider the South Branch below Clinton to be the finest smallmouth river besides the Delaware. Public evidence backs this claim. Three summers ago a 6.6 pound smallmouth was reported by The Fisherman magazine to have been caught in the South Branch on a live crayfish. Had this bass been weighed in prior to 1990, it would have been the new state record. Big bass inhabit the North Branch from Bedminster and below as well, as evidenced by a 21 inch smallmouth my son and I witnessed caught six years ago. We have ourselves caught smallmouths as large as 19 inches on the North Branch, but in both rivers average size is closer to 10 inches. A 12 incher is a good fish and will fight harder than either a largemouth or stocked trout of the same size. I won't venture to compare them against steelheads since I haven't caught enough to be certain. But I once caught a 13 inch steelhead with little account for itself.

          Smallmouths may be much more abundant in a given stretch than fishing results indicate. Last summer my son and I explored a few stretches of the North Branch within walking distance of home simply by wading, just out on an excursion for what specifically I don’t recall. I carried my digital camera to take pictures rather than fish, and my son carefully explored a 10 yard length of shallow undercut bank which, to my angler’s eye, seemed insignificant. The current running along overhanging brush had no more than a foot’s depth, the riffles leading into the cut flowed even shallower, and the stretch below deepened to a foot and a half at maximum. But we were amazed at about two dozen smallmouths ranging from five to 12 inches darting away downstream as Matt scattered them out. A dozen of them would have been sporting on a fly rod.

          Summer stream smallmouths take nymph and crayfish fly patterns, as well as streamers and poppers, often unhesitatingly and in plain view. These bass feed on larval insects as well as emergers. They also feed on terrestrial insects that fall into the rivers, crayfish—especially small molting crayfish, they love these and sense their presence like food in a kitchen—as well as shiners, dace, killiefish, and immature fish of other species.

          The range of lures and bait to possibly choose is wide and beyond this article’s scope. But for light spinning and no more than six pound test line, my current favorite is five inch Senko-style plastic worms rigged Wacky, hooked through the middle so that both ends flutter on retrieve. Senkos are heavy enough to cast long distances and reach bass that are unaware of your approach. Big smallmouths are usually shy and reluctant to hit; Senkos give you advantage.

          Otherwise, on occasion I like to haul a big bucket carrying a dozen large shiners into one of my favorite holes at sunset. I tie a size six, plain shank hook directly to the line, no weight, no snap swivel, and hook a minnow through both lips. These holes are at least six feet deep, but the shiner will swim at the surface. I cast directly onto the hole; the first cast is most important. Sometimes the biggest bass in the hole, which may be 16, 17, 19 inches, and could be larger, is aroused and on the feed at the end of the day, and will rush to blast the shiner with full force of muscle and weight before another bass gets to it. That’s a thrill to experience! This summer a smallmouth nearly three pounds blasted a fleeing shiner four times, the fourth time it leapt clear out and crashed down on top of the escaping fish! I had no time at all to let that bass run with it as it tore under and upstream full force, hooking itself and fighting like a full grown bulldog.

          When using live bait or soft plastic lures, don’t let the bass take line for long to set the hook in the hard mouth tissues rather than gut hooking it and jeopardizing life. You'll lose plenty fish but it's playing fair. Most will be under legal size, and if you’re like me, you release them all. They’re worth more in the water.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Comparisons Between Salt and Fresh Water

This article's only provisional. I say this because when I get a big idea, I feel real stubborn about doing it justice. A lot of people think I've wasted my life this way. I'm 51, but when I was 25, my father confronted me and said I had completed nothing since I had made a real nice living room table in 9th grade woodshop. Well, I had written at least 25,000 full-sized pages of notes for novels by then. They count for something. Some of us do things differently. And he had failed to remember the 25 fishing articles I had got published in very popular magazines and a newspaper during my teens. Back then you had to drive to the Trenton Times building to pick up your check! I thought nothing of that at all, and he drove me there when I was 16. 

I didn't remind my father. I let the issue drop, him staring at me, me staring back. Dad's a very successful man who relished rightful praises at an early age. 

Here we go. The comparison between saltwater and freshwater angling is limitless. No number of volumns on it would be complete. In the history of angling, the division has been sharp, and many anglers fish either saltwater or fresh. Of course, estuaries admit of every degree of mixture between fresh and salt water, which is an interesting thought. And I've caught sea-run brook trout on the Gaspe Peninsula a mile upstream from the sea, from pools interspersed by fresh riffles, wild char silver as steelhead.

Water is water, if the purest contains native and/or wild trout. You can drink that. Or at least some of us can without getting the heebee jeebies. Drink brine long enough and you will see worse than pink elephants.

But what impresses me most--the Great Lakes not withstanding--is not salt or lack of it, nor species and size--although I would love to catch marlin and tuna--but geography. Do you associate land with this concept? Come on! We're anglers. And watershed is a concept secondary to geography.

I love the ocean because it is deep and contains the unknown. Some think I'm foolish because where they respect fear and do not dare tread, I go. Or you might think at least I used to, since I clammed through many winters as commercial fisherman in my 20's, working wetsuited in the brine in weather as cold as 10 degrees. But that's just the external world. As a writer, I've explored interior. You know the phrase. "You're not yourself." Once you hear that a couple of times during your adventuresome teens, you catch on quickly, and make sure to have a self appropriate to present in real situations. But that doesn't stop exploration.

I love fresh waters because I actually feel the fact of their sustenance.

In a recent post on Alamuchy Mountain State Park and more included, I noted that sometimes water gives more pleasure than any beverage can. I don't care if it's a $10,000.00 bottle of wine; I think this is true.

Since we are terrestial beings (but with a great ambition for space), fresh waters set between land feel like home, and I always need them on frequent occasion. There are times when I feel more at home alone at a pond just before sun up than anywhere else.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." But the reason fresh water is left out of this poetry (David Bowie's included) is because of the closure implied by the words. In reality, nothing ends but for a ritual's sake. Fresh water is the medium of human sustenance, and at the very least a symbol, owing to its properties, of human rebirth, like a home is the place we return to and from where we set out again.

And the seas have always been mankind's greatest voyage; as those who read Homer know so well; as those who read Zane Grey feel so immediately with great zest; as those who read Ernest Hemmingway take direct points and enormous visage; as Rachel Carson surrounds us. They are where we came from. And as we have set our goal on Mars--a humble goal it will prove to have been--we as yet know so very little of our origin.