Friday, February 5, 2016

A Stony Brook Fish Story

The Bend

Yet another reflective story as winter seems to wind down now, ice-out perhaps coming very early and ponds, lakes and reservoirs remaining open hereafter. My best friend from my teens emailed me from California last night, and suggested I write a story around the four-pound smallmouth he caught in Stony Brook, Princeton Township, back when we were 15 and 16.

"Steve, you're dreamin'!" I replied. "It was 2 1/2."

Something flashed through my mind when I read his request. Now it occurs to me the theme involves concrete essence, a most radical idea introduced by philosopher Aristotle about 2500 years ago in ancient Greece. All the more radical, when you consider his best friend was Plato. For Plato, essences or Forms were out of this world. But instead of agreeing with his mentor that the body is a prison, Aristotle seemed never to forget the enjoyment of his partying days, and pointed to ordinary things and creatures as important.

About that riotous youth he enjoyed, when he got it together after long, hard nights to mind business, peddling herbs brought in the money.

When I look at the photograph of my second-favorite Stony Brook spot, the Bend, it makes me want to be there, slate knocking under my feet, assuring me of life's value as I cast a mellow yellow Mr. Twister, a foot-long smallmouth hammering it.

Now imagine if I were Platonic, had died and escaped the "prison" to dwell among the Forms. According to Plato, you're supposed to behold the Forms when you're dead. Suppose I did something naughty and looked the other way, back down to earth, to see something "corrupted" like this photo. What if, for all the Platonic High, what if those weighty rocks, supposedly no good for their tendency to go downward, made me remember how good it is to be somewhere? Plato's eternal Forms aren't really in any place since they're not concrete.

I'd come straight back to earth and be reborn, if I had the choice.

My favorite Stony Brook spot is called the Eight Foot Hole. A number of us still call it that on rare occasion. A spring release at bottom is good for both bass and holdover trout. Sometime during the past decade, my nephew once caught four rainbows there in August, and it's where in 1977 Steve caught his 2 1/2-pound smallmouth.

A number of us camped in the woods streamside, and on a number of occasions. Fair bet kids don't anymore, and even back then, there was never anyone else, but no one ever troubled us. Steve caught his bass in the evening, and I had come prepared with a wire-mesh catch bag for just the event of a big one caught. We also caught some 10-inchers--back then legal size was nine inches--and put them in the bag, too, keeping them in the water overnight.

And then before dawn, we got up, fixed scrapple and eggs by a nice fire, and hiked the mile to the Princeton Day School ponds...with the smallmouths that survived the near-jogging pace, to be stocked in the lower pond. We know they lived, because I caught the big one a year later on a Hedden Plunker off the surface. We even loaded a section of water with rocks, hoping the bass would reproduce.

We had permission to fish the ponds. The school Headmaster sang in the Episcopal choirs I sang in. But stock them? Well, we were kids.

Who knows. Maybe both Aristotle and Plato are right. Maybe this earth gets "stocked" with naughty people from Nowhere.    

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Ice-Out Largemouths Top to Bottom


           February typically features ice-out throughout most of the state, if ice fishermen still catch largemouths on tip-up baited shiners on north Jersey lakes into March. I recall an 80-degree afternoon with bass caught from a shallow pond’s surface, and heard later about ice fishermen the same afternoon on Lake Hopatcong. It’s not impossible to tempt largemouths on the surface late in February, so long as water temperature is rising and at least about 47 degrees F. There’s a way to do this that may be as tempting to you as it is to bass.

          Some plastic jerkbaits, like the Rebel Minnow, rest on calm surface at an angle with the plug’s rear submerged. The head portion is the only part breaking the surface. A very slight rod twitch raises the rear and quick slack allows it to fall back. That’s all the action needed. I only fish this way with 2 ½-inch plugs when water is cold, sometimes waiting 15 seconds or more between twitches, keeping alert because bass don’t clobber the plug. They dimple the surface by sucking the plug down at the rear, subtle as a trout’s sip rise.

          I’ve only found this method effective for fishing ponds towards evening after a mild afternoon, the surface calm and water cold, yet having warmed perhaps six or seven degrees compared to the previous afternoon. Bass feed more opportunistically in springtime cold water than during fall, because they need calories to nurture eggs and milt, whereas all the science and research they do not put on fat for winter. They’re cold-blooded. They need no additional fat to insulate the body. With water temperature spiking in the upper 40’s or perhaps surpassing 50, especially a pond’s northeast corner may be a shallow hotspot. Since the sun positions on a more southern axis this time of year, its warming rays will especially fall on such a corner.

          The same principle holds true for lakes and reservoirs once they warm sufficiently for bass to invade shallows: try northeast. Use another technique, however. Suspending jerkbaits have been all the rage for years now, and with water temperatures still on the cold side, the ability of these plugs to remain stationary a few feet or so beneath the surface lends them well to slow moving bass. Larger 4-inch plugs may be effective, since they run a little deeper, cast better and may attract bigger bass. The trick is to impart subtle life-like action, not by simply twitching the plug in place every 10 seconds or so, but by sending a message to largemouths’ lateral line sensory receptors that this hunk of plastic, which doesn’t really look much like a baitfish, behaves a little like one. Try making a fairly pronounced twitch, followed by the lightest touch of animation you can give the plug. Break action irregularly with teasing intent since baitfish pulsate electrically with tiny flight impulses. They’re ribbons of life, and if you can make a plug seem nervous, you’re more likely to provoke an aggressive reaction. Don’t be obvious; it’s hardest to work a plug with finesse, but if you get results, well worth the effort.

          Shallows may yield a few bass and big ones, but nevertheless, at this time of year bass typically hug bottom structures in deeper water, water too cold to move metabolism and motivate bass into shallow ambush positions. Baitfish aren’t very interested in venturing to feed on zooplankton or what have you among residual weeds, either, yet ways to catch largemouths deep on lures instead of live shiners may be of particular interest.

          My favorite method employs an old standby. Any jig and spinner arrangement will work, but I keep a dozen or more of the old Johnson Beetle spins, 1/8th ounce, and while obviously this is going light, it works. Some swear by full-sized spinnerbaits, but I’ve never been able to fish a large Colorado blade slow enough. The Beetle Spin features a removable wire arm, which is like a spinnerbait frame you can detach from the jighead. For our purposes, leave it on. The tiny size 0 Colorado blade doesn’t spin, not at the rate I retrieve the lure. It barely sort of waggles. Fish the lure right on bottom, barely inching it, working it even slower than surf fishermen drag Ava jigs in the fall surf for stripers. And they say you can’t fish an Ava slow enough.

          Obviously, this bottom method won’t work in residual weeds. And on the face of it, it looks like a method for smallmouths, but I’ve caught more largemouths this way. The ideal situation is a sandy, gravely or clay bottom right at the edge of residual vegetation about 10-20 feet deep. It works in the deepest water of ponds—so long as bottom is not slimy or silted with residue that will foul the blade—and it works in lakes and reservoirs. I called it tick spinning way back when I was 14, because I could hear my watch ticking at a quicker rate than I seemed to turn the reel handle, while imagining the ticking of the tiny Colorado blade making little flickers, not pulses of vibration. Believe me, that crawling of this lure on hard bottom works, and don’t worry about the blade not really spinning.

          So much is written about tube jigs because they work. The plastic tentacles are perfect for teasing cold water bass, the appendages seeming to come alive in subtle, alluring ways on their own. Bass don’t only feed on baitfish this time of year. Nematode worms are the perfect example of food that resemble these plastic feelers, nematodes sometimes existing in clusters, and like all living things, emitting subtle vibrations through subtle movements, captured by the amazing sensitivity of bass’s lateral lines. Bass sense monofilament or braid line motions too, which is why I regard the first cast to a likely spot most critical, although not so urgent as to hurry subsequent retrieves. A bass will likely be more interested in the alluring motions of a tube jig than be distracted by line—a proven fact, since bass get caught! And fishing real slow, shaking the jig right on bottom to make it nervous, doing your best to keep the jig in place while tentacles vibrate, works.

          You need quality braid line. Since braid transmits motion from the rod to the jig more directly than monofilament, don’t compromise. Don’t even use a monofilament leader; use fluorocarbon, since fluorocarbon is a better quality connection. Tie the two by uni to uni splice. Don’t complicate the matter with a barrel swivel. Ten-pound test braid will tie six-pound test fluorocarbon just fine. Larger 4-inch tubes, as well as smaller, may be effective depending on the size and weight of the jig, depth fished and size of bass pursued.

          Bass fishing is usually tough this time of year, but not as tough as open water during unrelenting winter. Early warm fronts can make bass vulnerable, and in any event, if you want to get a jump on the season, fish ponds. Especially shallow ponds with somewhat stained water ice-out first and warm faster than any other waters you can choose. Before you know it, you’ll be retrieving full-sized spinnerbaits at a moderate clip.             

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park: Mule Barges, Rough Men, and Bass

Delaware & Raritan Canal

The Basin

Coal barges pulled by mules, maneuvered into Baker's Basin by muscle, took refuge here from the Delaware & Raritan Canal current. Rough, wearied men rested on the 10 or so acres overnight, not so exhausted. They built bonfires, partied and drank. The stories told here are legend no one will ever know. Nineteenth century history never printed. Free as the air we breathe. The lusts that gleamed in fire-lit eyes as men rapped back and forth about women must have been enough to power a tractor trailer.

I heard about bass caught here when I was 10, so I cajoled my father to drive me over to have a look, having memorized directions from the father of a girl I knew, a father who cast big bass plugs into the pond.

Dad drove me over. There were about a dozen black men hanging out, and I felt deeply curious, because they didn't seem in the same space I came from at all. One of them turned and glared at me with wide open eyes holding great power. Mine didn't flinch. From the passenger seat, I held his enormous gaze, and analyzed it as I concentrated. Not exactly hatred or negativity, though that was there with rage just behind. I swore I saw the faintest glimmer of desire to know, rather than destroy.

"This place is wild!" My father said. Without saying another word, he simply swerved the station wagon around before he ever stopped, and vacated the grounds.

I understood and said nothing.

Four years later, by my request, a friend's father drove the friend and me over. We fished. Maybe that's when I first noticed the Allied Van Company immediately in front of the gravel lot, off U.S. Highway 1, loaded with tractor trailers. One form of commerce transportation to another.

I caught a bass and couldn't believe fishing as good existed so close to home. I had caught bullheads in the canal downstream, crossing Route 1 on my bicycle as a 12-year-old. But largemouth bass?

I fished here often, completely unafraid of my neighbors from Trenton. I don't know what Dad thought. Probably nothing. Most adults repress their fears and hope for the best.

It's good I went that first time with Dad. Then, the original mule entry existed. Four years later, a mere ditch pipe exchanged water where the open swath had been filled in. I saw something that existed since about 1830, when canal construction completed.

Now, not mule barges, but bass cruise in from the canal and winter over in the calm basin water, deeper and better habitat for bass in cold water, water in which they don't have to expend such energy with low metabolism struggling against a current. Just like the barges at night.