From Surf to Stream in New York: Two Memorable Fall Fish

It’s the circumstances surrounding a catch, not the fish themselves, that often dictate what a fish means to us and why.

Two fish made this past weekend one of the most memorable of my fishing life. It’s the context, I’d argue, in which a fish is caught that gives it its value to us as anglers.

The first was, by almost any other measure, a relatively insignificant catch: It was a bluefish, about 18 inches long, that I unhooked and released back into the Ocean Beach surf.

But on any given day, there’s absolutely nothing I’d rather be doing than fishing the surf, and living in Upstate New York, I get a chance to target stripers and bluefish a half a dozen times per year if I’m lucky.

Luckily, a friend and former college roommate, Curt Dircks, and I have kept an annual tradition alive that has us fishing the surf in Ocean Beach, New York (on Fire Island) at least once in the Spring and once in the Fall, and often times a handful of times throughout the year.

We had a trip set for this past weekend, but anglers know better than most that life rarely goes according to plan.

Dircks, a new father, was also in the midst of starting a new job, and still trying his best to keep a tradition alive. Work held him up, but he told me to head out to Fire Island (accessible by ferry only) and start fishing while he made his way out from New York City.

After waking up at five a.m. in Utica, New York, and driving the five hours, I couldn’t argue with getting a head start.

Fishing the surf is the most fascinating and engaging type of fishing I’ve ever had the good fortune to try. If you’re a restless soul that likes to keep moving and searching, it can be especially endearing. Because conditions are always changing in the surf (the tide is either dropping or rising, winds are switching, fronts are coming and going) there’s always the possibility that feeding fish will show up in front of you at any given moment. When you consider that these feeding fish, off the coast of Long Island, anyway, are striped bass that can reach 80 pounds, or bluefish that can travel in schools so vicious that they’ll turn bunker pods into oily shreds in a matter of minutes, it’s an exciting proposition.

On Friday afternoon we were looking at light winds out of the south and west, but the strength was predicted to increase substantially into Saturday morning. Forecasters were throwing around words like ‘gale’ when talking about Saturday’s weather. Winds out of the South and West usually give me hope, because they’re brining warm, dry air, which should lift the barometer, and make fish more likely to feed. Typically an east wind, brining moisture and colder air, will have fish moving off the beach, and less likely to feed (“When the wind’s from the east, fish bite the least…”)

By the time I’d made it over to the island, suited up in waders and a dry top, and onto the beach, the light south winds were picking up. It’s also worth considering that while a prevailing wind might be good in the sense that it’ll make nearby schools of fish more likely to feed, casting with it is a different story. From Fire Island, a 27-mile-long barrier island south of Bay Shore, New York, casting into a south wind can be challenging, to say the least. I switched from a 1/2-ounce bucktail to a 4-inch, 3-ounce diamond jig in hopes of punching through the wind. A diamond jig is a relatively simple lure, that can imitate a variety of baitfish, and particularly a large sand eel, like the ones I was seeing dart through the waves crashing at my feet. After about an hour of hurling the jig into the wind, moving down to stretches where drop-offs are nearer to shore, and thinking “this was easier ten years ago,” I was retrieving a cast when I got a vicious hit.

When I went to cast again, the line parted and the jig went sailing. I felt the fluorocarbon leader and noticed, albeit too late, that it was frayed. This could only mean one thing: bluefish.

I tied another diamond jig on and kept casting and connected with my first fish at about 5 p.m. It had been 12 hours Since I’d dragged myself out of bed, it had been close to six hours in my Jeep, navigating metro area traffic for my least favorite hour of driving, and finally, I was fighting a fish in the surf.

It was not a 20-pound striper, as it turned out, but if you love the surf, and get to fish it as seldom as I do, then when you are bringing in any fish after months without setting foot on a beach, it’s a surreal and incredible feeling. Bluefish are especially promising, in my humble opinion, because where there’s one, there’s typically a ton, so hooking up with a blue in the surf often means you’re in for a day of fighting and releasing them. That would not end up being the case for us, but landing that first bluefish, it certainly seemed possible. Once you’ve landed the first fish, once the “skunk is off,” then everything else about a trip is gravy on top.

It’s a good thing that bluefish cooperated, too, because for the next seven hours, despite switching to a variety of different bucktail colors and working more than a half-mile of shoreline, I couldn’t find another fish in the surf. It’s worth noting here that one of the elements that, for me, makes surf fishing so incredible is that even when the target species isn’t cooperating, you’re still liable to see things like… oh, I don’t know, humpback whales breaching off the beach, which, when you think about it, is something people up and down the coast are paying good money for on whale watches. To see a whale breach from shore never ceases to amaze me.

After waking at sunrise and spending four hours in the surf without a fish, it was decision time. Weather forecasters were calling for heavy rain and potential storms on Sunday. I would not suggest carrying a 10-foot rod, a backpack with a change of clothes and other necessities and twenty pounds of surf gear through the pouring rain unless you absolutely have to. For five minutes at a time, over the course of Saturday morning, I agonized over the decision whether or not to take my surf bluefish and beat the weather off the island, or stay and fish through it. I checked the forecast for Upstate New York, and it looked much more promising, so I decided turn Sunday into a trout-targeting day.

The Fire Island ferry.

I caught and early afternoon ferry and returned to Upstate New York, and the next day hit Nine-mile creek in Onondaga County.

When I arrived at 1 p.m., I took my trout set-up off the top of my Jeep, where I keep it in a Thule rack designed for skis, to find that the handle was actually missing off of the reel. Somehow, no doubt owing to the fact that my Jeep shakes considerably at certain speeds (which I’m looking into), the handle to my trout reel had actually come loose. If that seems impossible, as it certainly did to me as I stood there in awe looking at the set-up like a kid looking a Christmas tree devoid of presents on December 25th, all I can offer is that I have no other explanation for a runaway reel handle.

I was about to cut my losses and head home when I remembered that a Bass Pro Shops was only 20 minutes away in Auburn, New York. I made the 20-minute drive, and the sales associates in the fishing department, God bless ’em, gave me the reel handle I needed. That truly was an act of kindness that made an enormous difference in my weekend.

The first trout of the afternoon was nothing to write home about….

I fished nearly a mile of stream, landing only one small brown trout. I tried to keep reminding myself that, amidst a global pandemic, with runaway reel parts, just to be fishing at all was great fortune.

Then, about 45 minutes after last light, I cast into a promising pool about a half mile from where I’d parked and started fishing.

I could not turn, stop, or control the fish that took the Phoebe Wobbler with the 5’6″ rod. It darted back toward a sunken branch, and then under a cut bank. Despite turning up the drag and bending the rod in half, I simply could not change this fish’s direction. For five minutes that felt like forty, this fish tore downstream, into brush, and beneath undercut banks. For several moments during the fight, I wondered what the hell I would do if I lost this fish — how I’d ever stop thinking about it. You’re wondering to yourself: “Do I horse him in, for fear of a longer fight giving him the advantage, or just let him run and keep the pressure on?”

By some miracle that I doubt I’ll ever understand, with 10-pound-test braided line on a 5’6″ ultralight rod, I brought the trout to shore.

This 21-inch brown took some care to land on ultra-light gear after dark. I’m going to need a bigger net…

It measured 21 inches and change, and had the Phoebe so embedded in its jaw that one of the treble hooks broke off as I tried to work it free.

After staring in utter awe at the best brown trout I’ve ever caught in my life, I tried to revive him in the current. It took two or three minutes that seemed to last forever, but finally he gave a shake of his tale and darted back into the current.

In a forty-eight hour span I’d managed to land a bluefish from the Long Island surf and a brown trout from an upstate stream. I’d had a surf rod bent on one of nature’s most violent feeding machines while whales breached on the horizon, and had somehow brought a trout more than half the length of my arm to shore in the complete dark on an ultralight rod. I felt, and not for the first time, like perhaps the luckiest guy in the world at that moment.

Fall colors were on full display in Camillus, New York.

I wondered if any other sport could give us that sense as often as fishing seems to for me.

Three Semesters At Trout School

This past year, as March was turning to April, and our nation was rushing en masse to clear the shelves of grocery stores of soap and toilet paper, I decided to get back into trout fishing. 

9MileTrout
My first trout in April were… not huge.

In all honesty, that might be a bit of an overstatement. I was never a trout fanatic, at any point in my life, and it was less of a decision to “get back into” anything and more of a desire to get out… side. With stores shut down, including my current employer, it seemed like a good time to remember why, as children, we were always counting down the hours until school was out, and the days until summer finally started. Even if our childhoods were different in many respects, I’d guess that some of your best memories, between the ages of 5 and 15, were made somewhere where there was water, mud, grass, perhaps a couple of critters (did anyone else hunt salamanders and crayfish?) and where a blanket of sunshine surrendered to a ceiling of stars. 

With work life on hiatus for the foreseeable future, and striped bass still too far south to road trip to, I began an online search for wadeable streams with stockies. 

I’m lucky to live in Upstate New York, a state where there’s no shortage of trophy trout water. It turns out, The New York State D.E.C. tells you exactly which trout go where. The D.E.C. site lets you know which bodies of water are stocked with which subspecies of trout. I had two goals in mind when I began searching for creeks to fish: I wanted numbers (I didn’t have a ton of confidence in my rusty trout-stalking skills) and I wanted a shot at brook trout.

Virginia Brook Trout
A Rapidan River brook trout caught in Virginia.

Whether it’s their brilliant coloring, the fact that they’re the New York State fish, or that I’d only caught one in my life prior to this year (a gorgeous, albeit tiny wild brook trout in the Virginia mountains, with a Tenkara rod), brook trout, or at least the idea of them, have always fascinated me. 

I found Ninemile creek,  a stream that met all of my criteria: It was generously stocked in April, it was stocked with brook trout, and it supported populations of wild brook trout, too.

Fishing the stream this past year has been a beautiful education into the world of trout fishing that has kept me coming back on almost every day off that weather permits. 

At first, there were the stocked trout, between 5 and 10 inches, that I was, honestly, thrilled to catch (remember the alternatives involved sitting around watching Covid numbers rise on the news). I quickly traded my 6’6″ spinning rod for an ultralight St. Croix paired with a Johnny Morris Carbonlite reel and even the smaller trout became more fun to fight. 

Blog2Then, I caught my first stocked brookie. I was elated that it was something different than the brown trout I’d grown used to. As the summer went on, I caught a few browns to 10 or 11 inches, but kept coming back in hopes of more brook trout.

In July and August I learned, first-hand, how the summer heat makes shallow-stream trout fishing … challenging, to say the least. I slogged through two skunkings and tried my luck in other parts of Ninemile and at West Canada Creek and Oriskany Creek.

But something about Ninemile kept calling me back. In September, I splurged on a new 7.5-foot, 5-weight fly rod and a handful of streamers to see if I could land a brook trout on the fly. I’m still trying.

brooktrout
The colors on my first New York State wild brook trout seemed stunning.

About mid-September, I was fishing a small pool on the stream when, after throwing my lure behind a Golden-Retriever-sized boulder, I saw a streak of submerged orange flash from behind the rock and dart after my Phoebe. I kept throwing in the current break, and caught what I believe to be my first New York wild brook trout. The fish was a beautiful shade of dark orange, with red spots, with blue halos, up and down its flank. The color of the fish was astounding, and it sent me home researching everything about brook trout: spawning colors, range, diet… you name it. 

I honestly couldn’t imagine topping a wild brook trout (except maybe on the fly), but I kept returning to the creek anyway.

Browntroutnet
A fifteen-inch brown filled up the net.

A fifteen-inch brown trout in mid-September, a fish about twice the size of my usual catch, had me on cloud nine for about a week. The fish wasn’t enormous, by any measure, but it was one of the largest trout I’d ever caught without any kind of help. I’ve been lucky to have fished all over the country, but in many of the places, enormously helpful guides who volunteered their time and local knowledge told me what to throw and where to cast. Trout from Colorado and Montana certainly mean the world to me, since I had an opportunity that very few 24-year-olds get, but there’s something about a 15-inch trout that you caught without a soul in site that’s especially memorable. 

What I have loved about returning to the stream most, however, is that I’m never 100 percent sure what to expect. Over the course of the spring and summer I’ve seen cardinals, blue herons, beavers, deer and even one very lost-looking carp. I’ve seen the stream gushing after downpours and stagnant and shallow in the summer heat. 

Even though I might have hoped for them, I certainly was not expecting the brook trout, or the wild brook trout, on any given trip.

And in late September I caught what I’d describe as the most surprising fish of my entire life.

On the trip prior, I’d talked briefly with a fisherman who told me he’d seen a trout with “spots the size of silver dollars” in one of the pools. He claimed the fish was pushing 25 inches or better. Part of me wanted to revel in that kind of hope, but if you fish enough, there’s a part of you that takes any story you hear with a grain of salt, too.

Half an hour after sunset, with barely any light hanging in the sky on the first day of fall, I made my umpteenth last cast into a pool in a new section of the stream I’d discovered two weeks prior, after wading even further down, under a bridge, and closer to where Ninemile flows into Otisco Lake. 

I hooked a fish that turned downstream and wouldn’t stop. At one point the trout held in the current, and I stood there, the ultralight rod bent in half, and wondered if I’d snagged one of the carp I’d spotted on a previous expedition. 

20inchbrown
My first 20-inch brown trout is a fish that I’ll never forget.

Muttering silent prayers and easing the fish toward shore, I finally landed a 20-1/2″ brown trout. It was the largest freshwater fish I’d ever landed without a guide. It was a fish that I never would have expected to be in that stream at all before I’d caught it. It was a complete surprise, and I was absolutely shocked at its size, and that nothing between the tiny hooks on the Phoebe Wobbler and 10-pound-test braid on the small spinning reel had given way when the fish surged downstream. 

troutandrod
The trout lies next to a 5’6″ ultralight rod, for comparison’s sake.

How, in a stream that had been all but dry in the middle of summer, in a stream I’d waded in for months, was I holding a fish that I could not even get two hands around? 

The feeling of sudden and simultaneous learning and disbelief was surreal, and, in my opinion, it’s the  exact one that keeps us coming back to whichever body of we keep returning to. 

The Ancillary Elements

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A Ninemile-Creek brook trout.

Earlier this Spring, amidst the Covid-19 crisis, I began trout fishing more than I had in the past. I did some research and it turns out New York State lets you know exactly which species of trout it stocks (and how many) in each body of water in a given county.

As you’ll note from that chart, Ninemile Creek in Onondaga County not only gets more brown trout than surrounding waters, but brook trout are stocked there as well. The sheer number of trout gave me more hope than I might have had otherwise, and I gave it a shot.

I was pleasantly surprised (alright, downright elated), with the cooperative fish, though none were what a true trout aficionado would call ‘enormous.’ The largest brown I landed was probably between nine and eleven inches, and most were between five and seven. The brook trout that I was able to catch was one highlight, but another was the blue heron that I seemed to see on every trip.

The gigantic bird would be upstream, patiently watching the water while taking sideways glances at me as I waded closer. If we wound up fishing too close to one another, he’d take off, but I’d see his shadow on the water as he flew overhead an hour or two later. Some research revealed that while these birds can have wingspans of up to six feet, they rarely weigh more than six pounds. While their diet consists mainly of, you guessed it, fish, they’ve been known to target and eat small mammals, too.

On nights when I was the only human fishing Ninemile (as far as I could tell), it was a calming reminder of how ingrained in our souls the sport is to see another creature plying the same water, for the same fish, albeit for a different reason.

JerseySurf1
Pulling a phone from inside of waders to capture a breaching humpback is harder than it seems. 

When May and June roll around, I can’t help but think of striped bass. Being in the surf targeting stripers is something I love more than I can articulate. The feeling of being in the breaking waves, hurling a bucktail into the Atlantic, has always felt, to me, like standing on the edge of a cliff with an infinitely fascinating world stretching out in front of and beneath you. The fact that that universe’s contents are hidden from us 99 percent of the time somehow seems to make it even more intriguing.

In rare instances, we get glimpses, and a few weeks ago I saw something from the New Jersey surf that I’ve only seen a handful of times in my life from shore: I saw a humpback whale breaching. To see one of the largest mammals on the planet hurling itself into the air less than a mile from where you’re standing in knee-deep water is utterly awe-inspiring. You’ll see fishing boats gathering around the whale as it rises, feeds, and submerges. Then, suddenly, a 60-ton creature is airborne in the center of a small fleet of fishing vessels.

JerseySurf2Luckily, I was able to land a few small stripers, but I reminded myself that all over the East Coast there are people on whale watches, paying good money for something that I just witnessed for free.

When talking with friends and family after the trip, about how “freaking cool it was,” to see a blue heron fishing not ten feet from me, or a humpback whale breaching less than a half mile from the beach, I’d stop myself mid-sentence and think, you sound like a kid rambling on…

And inevitably that maybe that inner kid, the one fascinated by blue herons and humpbacks… is what we’re looking for on the water as much as anything else.

First Fish of 2020: Last-light, tiny Stocked Trout

9MileTroutThis fish might not look like much, and by all accounts, it isn’t. It’s a small brown trout that the state stocked in Nine Mile Creek, about an hour from where I live in Upstate New York. I did some research before heading out, and it turns out the state tells you how many fish they stock, and where, if you’re interested. As you can tell, Nine Mile gets more trout than most places, so I decided to give it a try.

I’ve never been much of a trout fisherman, truth be told, although there’s some tremendous trout water right around where I grew up. Our early April outings were usually, as kids, a desperate attempt to escape the mind-numbing cabin fever that had set in by the time trout season finally opened (sound familiar, my housebound brethren)? We were happy to be outside doing anything that wasn’t snow-related. In Upstate New York, April 1 isn’t necessarily the end of winter, per se. I can remember a few years when we didn’t have at least one April snowstorm, but there aren’t many. So, although in other parts of the country the month might be a 30-day segue into summer, around here it feels more like a month where you wait, and hold your breath for winter’s last punch.

I don’t have anything against trout, mind you. It’s just that, by the time we could realistically target them, I was so focused on getting ready to take a shot at striped bass on Cape Cod vacations, or chase largemouth bass from a pond prowler in local ponds, that they were kind of an afterthought for me.

NutsytroutI have friends, and cousins (like Chris Crittelli, pictured to the left) who are much better trout fishermen than I’ll ever be.

That’s not to say that I’m dismissing the species altogether. If anything, the behavior of larger, wild trout seemed so intimidating to me that I never thought I could realistically dial in the fishery with much success (and I certainly haven’t yet). I’ve read (almost) every book and story that John Gierach has ever written, and there are a slew of similarly intelligent, talented fishermen who have waxed poetic about trout. I have had the chance to fish with a few anglers, like Matt Wettish, who are masters at catching gigantic browns in Connecticut.

But on Nine Mile Creek this past week I discovered something about trout fishing that I’d forgotten. On a pond or lake, you’re probably moving around looking for structure that’s likely to hold bass. Cast under a dock, or a weedline enough times without success, and it stands to reason there aren’t a ton of fish holding there (or feeding ones, anyway). On a trout stream, like in the surf, the water is always moving, so it’s possible, at any given moment, your quarry might just come to you. And to stand in a body of water that is changing around you by the minute, presenting new opportunity where none existed only a few casts ago, is kind of an exciting thing.

Now, yes — those larger trout will likely be holding, like bass, in deeper pools, and around structure. But if you’re a novice enough trout fisherman to be excited with a small stockie like the one pictured above, then every new hour presents, at the very least, possibility.

I realized two things while holding the small (alright, tiny) trout for a photo before releasing it: 1. I have a lot to learn about targeting and catching a species that my home state is famous for and that 2. If the circumstances are right, and you were going stir crazy enough between reading about mortality rates (my heart goes out if you or a loved one are fighting this #@$%ing disease), washing your hands, and putting on a hazmat suite to get orange juice, then even one, very small stocked trout can make you feel as jubilant as a kid again on an April afternoon.

And if there’s one reason that we’ve kept at this sport well into adulthood, it’s because the feeling, that feeling, hasn’t changed all that much since those first few fish, even if — especially now — almost everything else has.

Social Distancing, Roads and Rivers

Moose

“There are people in my life who sometimes worry about me when I go off into the fields and streams, not realizing that the country is a calm, gracious, forgiving place and that the real dangers are found in the civilization you have to pass through to get there.” – John Gierach

When you turn on the television, there’s incessant updates: A news line runs along the bottom of local channels updating you on death counts, hotlines for people who suspect that they’re infected, and warnings about not leaving your home for anything but necessities.

The government is scrambling, taking unprecedented measures, in an attempt to help the millions of recently unemployed Americans looking for answers. Restaurants are closing, or offering takeout only, and in places like the Post Office, there are shoe-shaped stickers on the floor showing customers how far apart they should stand.

You’d feel ridiculous wearing a face mask and gloves to get orange juice, soda, peanut butter and bread, except for the fact that everyone else is, too.

And whenever you start thinking that these are stressful times, and you can’t wait until they’re over, you just think: “Thank God the people I love are okay…”

And if there were ever a time when a stream, river, pond or beach offered a welcome escape from the stress of everyday life to a greater degree than it does during this Coronavirus epidemic, I haven’t lived through it.

The photo above is from the Moose River between Otter Lake, and Thendara, New York, taken a week ago, today.

The trout weren’t cooperating (or, more likely, since I’ve never fished the Moose before this year, I was working the wrong stretch), but I can remember few times in my life when it felt better to just cast into moving water.

Perhaps it’s because the post office, grocery store, supermarket, and highways are either empty or sparsely populated with terrified neighbors, and it’s a disconcerting reminder of our global predicament.

But an empty trout stream looks exactly as it’s supposed to: It’s the one thing that still feels normal, right now.

I want you to know that if you’re behind a glass barricade so that we can get our groceries, if you’re working in an ambulance, at a police office, a post office or a restaurant so we can maintain some semblance of normality in our own lives, I’m grateful for you and saying a prayer for you.

And if you’re on the water, whether it’s after trout, those first migratory stripers that will be showing up in New Jersey, pike, pickerel or panfish,  I hope that you have more luck than I did this past week, and I hope you’re reminded that being a fisherman is a gift, a truth that is perhaps more evident now than it ever has been in the past.

 

The Gear We’re Playing with at Bass Pro Shops

One of the many benefits of working at Bass Pro Shops is that you get to see a lot of the newest gear that’s coming out, almost as soon as it hits the market. When you’re responsible for maintaining, cleaning and organizing an entire department, you can’t help but notice the newest rods, reels and lures that are hitting the shelves. Since winter is the absolute best time to evaluate the newest products on the market (because you’re either ice fishing or going stir crazy), I thought I’d share some of the highlights.

ShimanoDCShimano Curado D.C.: The D.C. has been an interesting conversation starter with gear aficionados because there’s the perception that the reel can in essence ‘prevent’ an angler from backlashing. Basically, the D.C. has what Shimano calls a ‘mini computer’ that is supposed to monitor the speed of the spool, and slow it down to prevent those monofilament cluster****s we’ve all had blow up on us. The neat thing is that you can turn the D.C. feature on or off, so at the very worst, for $250, this is still a top-of-the-line Shimano baitcaster. I will not say that the reel can, in effect, prevent backlashes altogether, because that hasn’t been our experience with it. I will say that it’s a light, smooth, beautifully machined baitcaster from a company that I trust, Shimano, where they seem to be at least trying to prevent one of the most frustrating problems in baitcasting history.

snakeSavage Gear 3D Wake Snake: If you would have told me that big largemouth bass will eat small snakes that are slithering across the lily pads before I’d fished with guide Brett Isackson in Florida, I’d have… given you a suspicious look … at the very least. After fishing with Isackson, who crafts his own snake-imitation baits from the remnants of discarded lures, I’m a believer. Savage Gear just makes some cool stuff, to put it bluntly, and although a few of us have wondered what it’d feel like to cast off a lure that costs $18, we might fork over the money if it was a proven pike- or muskie-magnet. The ducks that they make, to target muskie who are crushing ducklings on top, are gruesomely awesome to consider in action.

planoPlano Edge Tackle Boxes: The claim that Plano’s making with the Edge line is that the boxes prevent gear from sliding around inside, and getting into a tangled mess. There are two types of boxes, the one pictured here is a crankbait box, which has soft-plastic rubber fingers inside to keep lures in one place, and another style with a sticky surface inside the box to keep lures and terminal tackle in place. (Open the boxes, the bottoms actually have a type of adhesive material). There’s no doubt in our minds that the boxes are solving a problem, we’ve all untangled a mess of hooks or interlocked baits. The question is: Is it a problem that is worth paying $50 to solve? The quick take on these is that yes, they’re very cool (albeit a little heavy) but unless you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, you might be better off saving your cash and spending the two minutes untangling hooks.

river2seaRiver2Sea S-Waver Swimbait: If you do not think that a largemouth bass will eat a stocked rainbow trout, read the book Sowbelly, by Monte Burke. (You know what, read that book anyway if you haven’t already). My point is this: The biggest bass in California, and a handful of other states, are looking for more in a meal than a measly crawfish. They’re looking for something exactly like a stocked trout. Now, whether or not we have bass big enough in New York state to realistically be targeting trout the size that River2Sea is making is debatable (although I’ve heard some powerful testimony to suggest that we do). But nevertheless, anything that’s feeding on rainbow trout, whether it’s pike, muskie or enormous bass, would have a hard time discerning a River2Sea replica from the real deal. Again, the price here is a potential sticking point, but if you’re targeting enormous muskie or lake-record bass, you’re probably not trying to do it on the cheap, are you?

DoubledawgMusky Innovations Double Dawg: The first thing that strikes you about the Double Dawg, when you pick it up, is how damn big the thing is. I mean, I have caught several fish that were neither as long, nor as heavy, as this lure. There’s no mistaking what you’re chasing if you’re hucking this thing: You’re either going to hook the most pissed-off muskie in the lake, or at the very least go home with a sore shoulder from casting this thing enough. But if you’re looking to move a lot of water and create a commotion with something that’ll get the attention of a muskie or a giant pike, we’d have to imagine this would do the trick. If you are able to catch a largemouth bass, perch or pickerel on this thing, we’ll nominate you for a Nobel Peace Prize. (The Nobel committee does not respond to, or as far as we can tell, even recognize our nominations).

Hopefully this gives those of you in the northern part of the United States something to read, ponder and consider while we wait out the warmer months. I’ll try to keep the gear reviews coming, if and when we get new products in that are worth writing about.

Thank You

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I’ve had more help from family than any one person deserves (Uncles Tom and Don pictured above).

On this holiday, when we all get together to share a meal, watch some football, reminisce about great memories from the past and plan a few adventures for the future, I couldn’t help but think about how grateful I truly am for help from so many people around the country in the past 33 years.

My parents have given me more opportunities than any one person deserves: My mother is the kindest woman you’d ever meet, and helps anyone who asks for it. My father was the most driven, hardest working person I’ve ever known. For as long as I knew him, until the absolute final weeks of his life, he woke at dawn, walked for two or three miles with our golden retriever, was to work by seven, and rarely came home before 9 p.m.  He lifted himself from the absolute utter depths of poverty to park a Lincoln Town Car in a three-story suburban home. My mother’s kindness, compassion, and forgiveness and my father’s work ethic, drive and faith are characteristics that I’m grateful to aspire to emulate every single day.

I am so lucky to have a large Irish Catholic family that our grandmother, Marilyn Jones, kept together for as long as I’ve been alive. I’m lucky to have cousins that have joined me on fishing adventures everywhere from Naples, Florida to the flats of Brewster on Cape Cod and in countless missions to places like Sandy Pond, Chittning Pond, Sauquoit Creek and the West Canada Creek, right in our own backyard.

Thanks to my father I was able to pursue a love of the written word at Syracuse University. Thanks to the editors at On The Water I had chance to work at a fishing magazine, and thanks to Gerry Bethge and Outdoor Life, I had an opportunity almost no one gets: fishing 36 of the lower 48 out of a Jeep.

The anglers — from Brooke Hidell in Maine who I just spoke with last week, to John Kobald in Seattle — and everyone in-between: I want you to know that I think about those trips, those fish, and your sincere hospitality and help, every day.

Thanks to Emerson College I was able to at least get a start on my dream of building you a fishing magazine, a project I’m still thinking about, and working on, every day. And thanks to Buff and Outdoor Sportsman Group, Todd Smith specifically, I got a chance to try and raise a few dollars to contribute to the Melanoma Research Foundation in memory of my Dad. The editors at B.A.S.S. gave me a crack at a second Catch a Cure, and Native Eyewear, Get Vicious Fishing,  Rick Roth at Mirror Image T-shirts, and Sunology Sunscreen all got on board to help. Thanks to Joe Higgins, who creates some beautiful artwork, I was able to work at a truly fascinating shop while I lived in Salem, Mass.

I’m thankful to be working at Bass Pro Shops, where passionate and kind co-workers have helped me out time and again over the past two years. (I’m hoping I survive my first Black Friday).

My father had a fondness for nature, one that was no doubt distilled to its purest form by the incredible hours he forced himself to put in at an office on a daily basis. He always made note of the geese flying overhead this time of year, and I’m reminded to appreciate those subtle but important details every time I hear them heading south. My grandmother appreciated the overwhelming beauty we’re able to see every day, and she didn’t take a single sunset for granted. Hers is a gratitude I try to maintain as often as I can in her absence. In our first Thanksgiving after her passing, the Buffalo Bills, a team she loved to watch every Sunday during football season, pulled off an impressive victory to continue a shockingly strong run of wins this year.

Almost our entire family cheered them on, and I’m grateful for those people who’ve been with me, and have supported me, for as long as I can remember.

If you’re reading this, I’m thankful, and I hope you have as many altruistic and helpful souls in your life as I’ve been lucky to encounter, so far, in mine. Whether you’re a guide who helped on Fish America or Catch a Cure, a professor or former classmate at Emerson, or one of the kind customers or co-workers I’ve met at Bass Pro Shops: Thank You.

 

 

Bass Number 30,000: On The Water with Roy Bilby

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Bass number 30,000 for Roy Bilby.

The air temperature was hovering in the high 40s on an October morning when I met Roy Bilby on the Mohawk River. Fog was burning off the water, and a sweatshirt wasn’t enough to keep warm before the sun pulled itself overhead, but a bite in the air wouldn’t stop a man who was after his 30,000th bass.

Roy Bilby is a local pro, a member of the Mohawk Valley Bass Anglers Club, and a carpenter and locksmith at Suny Cobleskill when he’s not on the water, which is … rarely. The man once went 230 straight trips without coming up empty. 

Over the years, the Upstate New York fisherman has kept incredibly detailed logs that he says make him a more efficient angler with each outing.

After catching one smallmouth against a lock gate on the Mohawk, Bilby pulls out a tape recorder and makes vocal notes of where the fish was caught, the temperature of the air, water, the lure being used, and the size of the fish.

“When I get home, I’ll play this back and add to a detailed journal,” he explains.

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Bilby’s license plates suggest dedication.

Bilby is an energetic, careful, detail-oriented fisherman, as you might imagine, but after six hours on the water on a day when it didn’t crack sixty degrees until we’d been on the water for four, I realized that it wasn’t so much that he was detail-oriented, meticulous, or that he was a student of the fish that accounted for his astronomical number of  caught bass.

On a day when few of us might even be on the water to begin with, the bass were not cooperating. After three hours at various spots, we were coming up empty. But Bilby once strung together 235 straight trips without getting skunked.

“We were on the water until midnight for that final skunking,” he remembered. “My buddy, with me at the time, didn’t want to go in, he didn’t want to be the one on the boat when it ended. But if you’re just going to fish until you catch a fish regardless of circumstance… well, anyone can do that.”

It was that resolve, the determination to fish until midnight before calling it quits, that allowed Bilby to reach the 30,000-bass milestone.

More than skill, which I can testify that he has as in spades as an angler, more than attention to detail, which you can clearly see that he demonstrates with his copious note-taking, and more than luck, which he admits plays a small part in any fishing, and certainly a streak like the one he’s had, it’s just pure, relentless resolve that gets you to 30,000 fish. Bilby won’t quit.

Bass number 30,000 was an otherwise unimpressive specimen: It was a smallmouth between one and two pounds, and one of only four we scratched together on the day, but its significance was overwhelming.

Even the most dogged fishermen among us, if we truthfully assessed our lifetime totals, aren’t anywhere near Bilby’s numbers. With a garage sporting 160 rods, three boats, and more lures than some small tackle shops, Bilby’s passion for the sport far surpasses the average angler’s.

And it’s that drive, resolve, and refusal to quit that has got him to 30,000 bass, and I suspect it’ll have him at 50,000 before he quits keeping track.

If there’s something we can take away from a man who has caught more fish than most of us ever will, it might very well be a lesson best illustrated by a relatively small smallmouth bass caught after four empty hours on a brisk October day when the fish simply weren’t cooperating: Keep moving, changing tactics, have faith (on the back of his jersey he has inscribed, “Prov. 3:5-8” — (“Trust in the lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding”)) — and don’t quit.

Who knew?

Lessons Learned from a Fishing Professor

The amount of joy derived from any given fish caught is inherently tied to the amount of effort and time taken to be in a situation to catch said fish in the first place.

This past week I had the pleasure of fishing with a former professor of mine at Emerson College, Gian Lombardo. While I was a student pursuing my Master’s Degree in Publishing and Writing at Emerson, I’d get together with classmates after one of Lombardo’s courses before hopping the commuter rail that took me from Boston back to my apartment in Salem, on the North Shore.

This fluke, one of the biggest I’d ever caught, was a day-maker.

During one such post-class conversation, we got to talking about how Lombardo felt more like a friend than a professor, like someone genuinely pulling for, emotionally invested in, his students. I made a comment about how he seemed almost like an Uncle, someone who cared about our well-being both in and out of the classroom. The nickname ‘Uncle Gian,’ was born, and it stuck.

In a city like Boston, and on a campus like Emerson’s, full of bright young minds studying the latest media trends and editing video in high-tech laboratories at the hub of New England’s cultural capital, fishermen in the mix will inevitably find one another, by virtue of our scarcity amidst that particular population.

So while taking his Book Overview course as part of my degree, I inevitably wound up talking to Lombardo about striped bass, bluefish, sea bass, scup and tautog, which he’d pursued his whole life from his home in Connecticut, and I’d been chasing on family vacations to Cape Cod, and later in places I was lucky to live, like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and visiting another fish-minded friend on Long Island’s South Shore. He’d later go on to help me work my mission to raise money for melanoma research into my academic program at Emerson.

For the past two years, Lombardo has been kind enough to invite me fishing to his Connecticut home, and it has been a learning experience on every level.

Most of my saltwater fishing experience has come in the surf, which I’ve fished on Cape Cod, in New Jersey, and on Long Island. In the surf, we might study tide tables, wind predictions and water temperatures  before setting up a trip, but my recipe for any success has usually been: Get and stay in the surf, casting relentlessly until striper and bucktail meet.

Targeting fluke, black sea bass, scup and stripers by bucktailing the rips in Long Island Sound is a different game, albeit a fascinating one. This past week Gian and I plowed through a bit of a chop to get on the water for the second straight year, and prevailed.

I won’t say ‘we,’ found the fish, because I didn’t have much to do with it, but Gian put us on a school of black sea bass, a handful of which were big enough for the cooler, and the largest fluke I’ve ever landed in my life. It wasn’t a ‘doormat’ exactly, but to someone who could count the number of fluke he’d caught on both hands, catching one of New England’s most coveted food fish, and one big enough for the box, was absolutely incredible.

We targeted the rips and structure that Lombardo, who has been fishing Long Island sound his entire life, was more than familiar with. Early in the afternoon, in one of those moments that keeps you returning to the water, we saw bluefish blitzing on bunker so viciously that they were pushing them almost out of the water in surging waves.

The fascinating aspect about the trip for me, was a notion about catching fish that was slightly different from the one I’d held prior. While relentless dawn-to-dusk effort can and will yield results, precision, timing, attention to detail, and a record of prior successes can make an enormous difference on the water.

Lombardo had plied Long Island Sound carefully but regularly in his 16-foot skiff, learned the rips and structure, how each weather pattern might affect them, and the fish holding on them. We wound up with a cooler of sea bass and, by my standards anyway, a damn big fluke as a result of that experience.

The fish would have been memorable by any measure, but the three-hour drive there and back, the  brief return to the Ocean, the active and successful lesson in bottom-fishing for some of New England’s most coveted species, and the professor-like patience for a former student who showed up almost an hour late (I know, I know, we’re never late for fishing, work or church, as Paul reminds us in the classic A River Runs Through It) tied it all together in a way that I couldn’t have predicted but wouldn’t change. That fluke was one that I won’t soon forget.

In The Depths of Winter….

CamusAs we embark into February, many anglers are thinking: “This is as far from the beauty of short-sleeve, carefree, see-your-reflection-in-the-water fishing as we can get without coming back.” And you know what? You’re right.

My father was a philosophy major at Syracuse University, and I followed in his footsteps. We were both likely thinking the same thing: Examining the ideas behind ideas is fascinating and gives us a foundation for further critical thinking as move through life’s challenges and unexpected experiences… AND… this might serve as a good undergraduate degree for law school.

His favorite philosopher was a man named Albert Camus. Camus was famous for espousing existentialism, which focused on the absurdity, or absurdities, we encounter in everyday life. I recently purchased The Myth of Sisyphus at Barnes & Noble, in an attempt to greater understand the philosophy that drew my father in at Syracuse. Camus’s existentialism basically touted that life was a meaningless struggle unless… unless… we were devoted to cooperation, solidarity, and joint effort.

Camus concludes that to look elsewhere for meaning in our everyday lives is pointless, but we can find the exact, precise hope and meaning we are searching for in ourselves, in one another.

It is a strange paradox that years after his passing, I understand my Dad more with each passing day. He found his meaning in helping others, namely, those who were fighting uphill battles in courtrooms. He defended and supported people who almost no one else would.

Fishing the entire country showed me that our nation and the world that we live in is a an inherently good place, full of beautiful souls, and you only need to open your front door and find the courage to explore it to realize that reality in its fullest. Raising money for melanoma research deepened that faith in me more than I could ever articulate. People helped me on a mission through a tunnel where the light at the end is, right now, faint at best. The hope for a cure, like the hope to start a fishing magazine from scratch that readers all over the country love, read and contribute to, is existent, but it necessitates work and faith before we have something concrete to continue to build on.

One of the quotes most famously attributed to Camus is one that I think is appropriate as we head into some of February’s darkest, coldest, days.

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned  that within me there lie an invincible summer.”

That invincible summer, in me, was created and maintained by hope and help from so many of you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.