Saturday, October 29, 2011

Lunch Date with the Delaware and Raritan Canal for Pickerel

Picture's a month old. I had some fun fishing the Delaware and Raritan Canal a few times, but the pickerel and largemouth were small. I went yesterday, which seems a season ago today now that six inches of snow has accumulated so far. I have to tell you I got a thrill at the end of my 45 minute stint. First, I had fished along the bank on the right side of this photograph taken in Weston from atop the lock trestle. No hits, nothing. But having re-crossed the lock, I was attracted--for good reason--to the cul de sac to the side of the flow through the lock passage. Duckweed covering a good three or four yards of deep water with a log jam would hold fish. Was it just too close to the exit way? Well, why would it be? Especially with that strong flow beside this calm pocket it could be special.

So I just dropped my killie (leftover from my Sandy Hook trip a month ago, but live and frisky) and it obliged me by swimming down and back under the duckweed. I watched as line slowly unwound from my reel spool. Nice. That killie was really going back where something might be watching it, gathering the juice of its own desire. But of course I remained skeptical. You have to or else exhaust yourself with hope.

Then that line just shifted into rapid motion as quick as a switch you never knew was flipped. I swear it peeled off faster than those hybrid stripers took our herring a week ago. I set the hook, felt nice, then the fish was gone. Baited back up, did the same.

Now most of the time when we shoot a lure or bait back into a spot where we just lost a fish--nothing more happens. That was the only fish around. Most often. I knew it all depended on whether this spot--yeah, a pretty substantial space, deep, lots of cover--actually held, well, possibly a number of fish. We think of pickerel as territorial loners (not bass necessarily), but this is not always true--if pickerel closely bunched together do ignore each other totally.

Just like the first time, the line raced off again. This time, when I set the hook--I got the log jam. The fish--whatever it was--had gone directly into the thick of the wood like the grain of it's age, which my hook held fast to like an anchor.

The line snapped, and that was all. I had somewhere else I had to be, quick. Who bothers to fish the canal anyway? But I have to tell you there's really nothing like it for just messing around with a few fish in wood cover. And I'll be back.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jersey Hybrid Stripers: Herring and Vertical Jigging Produce

I like having daylight savings time this late in the season. I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m., but reset and got up at 4:50, walked the dog, and by the time my son, Matt, and I had finished breakfast I was alarmed to see it was 5:46. Normally we get to Dows Boat Rentals about 10 minutes before opening. But passing Morristown on Interstate 287, no sign of light had crept into the sky. I actually spent a leisurely five or 10 minutes speaking with Laurie, and we still got to Racoon Island well before sun-up.

The cold was not nearly so severe as it has been for us on Lake Hopatcong this time of year. About 40, with a light breeze: it was enough to chill Matt's hands and face, and I had him open vermiculite hand warmers first thing so he could use one while traversing the lake. The surprising event was such a chill all day--it never warmed above 55, I'm sure, if that. Surface water temperature held at 58--two degrees higher than this time last year.

My idea was to start with live herring, then switch to vertical jigging within an hour or less. Nightcrawlers served the purpose of placing a few yellow perch in the live well so I could put one out for a musky as we drifted and jigged. A few large sunfish, and a very small largemouth fell for the crawlers as well. But after about 20 minutes to a half hour of waiting for a walleye (I assumed) to hit a herring, Matt's first significant fish proved to be a hybrid bass, close to 16 inches, which we released.

But it seemed that in no time we started to tally up quite a number of bass. Apparently pods of them were working the area of Racoon Island's large drop-off. We fished 25 to about 35 feet deep. After we had caught four or five between about two and slightly better than three pounds, I changed my mind about rushing into jigging. We were definitely in sustained action, the sort of thing that does not happen every time out. Would it last?

By about 10:00 a.m. we had caught about a dozen, all of them close to two pounds, and better, one of them four pounds, four ounces, and our three and a half dozen herring had dwindled to under a dozen--fortunately half a dozen or so leftovers from previous renters swam witth our limit of hybrids in the other live well. I had intended to use more than two dozen of our herring going after pickerel with quarter ounce lead heads tipped with these fiercely active, shinery-than-shiners fish---and to stay out until 5:00 or so, which it turned out Matt wanted no part of.

I negotiated through until 4:00, it turned out, charming him along. He kept telling me the fish gods were not happy with how greedy I was after we had caught 17 hybrids. He was more than satisfied, he told me, smiling. He was. And I was happy that he felt such accomplishment. But anglers who are driven to fish more than catch will understand that I already felt all that action as past, much as I enjoyed it. My attention riveted on trying to get a walleye or another hybrid (one of mine hit a Rapala ice jig) to strike, and to fish places like Sharps Rock and Chestnut Point with some thoroughness. I did manage to try for pickerel and largemouth for a half hour, and had one hit.

I needed to exercise my alternate approaches. Otherwise I played Matt along, and made sure we left well before 5:00--although I got some agreement that next year we do stay to 5:00!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

North Branch Raritan River Release: Thinking Trout, Fishing Smallmouth Bass

I stepped into trout-cold, painfully temperature decimated water wearing only shorts and sneakers. Earlier air temperatures had reached 72, but last night fell through the 40's, leaving the North Branch Raritan at who-knows-what until it rose into the 50's--felt like lower 50's--by this evening.

You might think I'm jumping the gun, since the river isn't stocked until Wednesday next week, but I doubt I'll even bother with the hatchery supply. I thought about it while fishing, and the prospect then of catching even a glorious 22 inch brown or rainbow--no doubt such a fish is glorious--just didn't interest me, its having come from a truck hours or a day before. To catch one of these fish a week later--or in January--is more sporting. I like to catch trout the day of stocking in the spring; although most of those are small, but in such numbers that it's quite understood this is hatchery fishing. And it does have challenges.

However, the hatchery scene can appear grim. The thought of us not so much reducing trout habitat--we still have about 50% of the orignial brook trout range in New Jersey, and many pure, spring water small streams flow in this state--but making man dependent on his government to supply trout from a truck can be deeply dismaying. Sure, I get out there with the other enthusiasts and have fun, too. Normally I don't think about this dark side at all. I'm one of those good natured guys who actually takes measures in his life to maintain a positive outlook. But it bothers me just now and this afternoon that so many seem to believe that a government social program is about all fishing in New Jersey can amount to. I have to admit that I like my solitude. And to a certain extent this solitude is protected by others being ignorant in this way. Or is it really?

It isn't as simple as that solitude is protected by others not knowing. I don't think ignorance in any form ever protects anything. It's almost as if many aren't--in a deeper sense--out to fish. Ostensibly--certainly they are, and enjoy it (but only some really). They got there by governmental publicity. Through years of it in the newspapers. Stocked trout are such a long tradition now that no one remembers how the flocks of people wore down stream banks in the first place. But it's a tradition of government--at least by the sheer numbers of frustrated fishermen--more than angling. However, at bottom the desire of each man, woman, and kid who purchases a fishing license and trout stamp trumps that governmental scheme. It's a close call, but I'm positive that what fundamentally moves these people is a pure and authentic desire to get out and pursue happiness by an attempt to catch fish. It is as individualistic as this, and readily shared with anyone--a son, friends--who someone bitten by the bug feels will respond and join him.

No, I was after smallmouth bass this evening. And smallmouths were never stocked by a government, but by anglers who smuggled them in on freight steam locomotives from the Midwest. Smallmouth bass have hunted in this state for 150 years. They are absolutely wild. And I don't disagree with wild browns and rainbows, even if originally stocked by state government. Ultimately, it's an act of futility to disagree with the past. If you don't accept deeply the past for what it was, yet assert disagreements with wrongs, you will not understand those wrongs nearly as well you might if you dare to empathsize with those who committed them, which can be a very difficult act, if really successful at all, perhaps years later you realize something you tried to understand. Sometimes the present too needs to be absorbed even when wrong is done if all you can really do is witness. Sure, I get out and fish hatchery trout. And I view this scene in many different ways, not all of them consistent with the mood I'm in now, nor am I one of those who thinks "Government is the problem," that's not what any of this means. I think in essence what my position does mean is that economic solutions are better than governmental what are in fact economic problems, not that I am blind to how mixed up things are today.

Anyhow, two weeks ago manic bronze bass rushed at top speed for shiners I retrieved back after missed hits. Once in the water today, I knew this would not happen. I was surprised that my first bass (after a missed hit) swirled my weightless killie off the surface. Both were the average nine inch, bulldogging bass.

I did better in the hour of fishing this evening than I did on two summer afternoon excursions to the South Branch this year, except that I did lose my largest stream bass of the year near Three Bridges, although I doubt it was better than two pounds. I fished my favorite North Branch honey hole once or twice for no big ones this summer, but did well otherwise further downstream. Plenty tell me the South Branch is New Jersey's best smallmouth stream (other than the Delaware), but I just haven't experienced this. I may be wrong, but my bet is that the Paulinskill is better than both North and South Branch. Yes, for smallmouths. I have caught smallmouths from Princeton Township's Stony Brook in November, plenty. I think I have from the Locatong Creek in November as well, although I won't trouble myself to look it up in my log right now, and I have in the Delaware in December. But this is it for me on streams this year, I think, unless I do try for such trout... and wild trout on the Pequest in December.

Anyhow, you see that shadow line along the undercut bank across stream in the photo. That's where I got one of them, and the other just upstream in deeper water along a fallen tree. Wading out there, something that seemed larger than a muskrat, smaller than a beaver came swimming up mid-stream, and when it turned towards me, I remembered being attacked by two muskrats (I tore away) wading Little Shabakunk as a young boy. They terrified me. I was ready to brandish my rod. My right knee is too bad lately for sudden, evasive moves like scrambling up a high bank. The beaver turned back to face forward in mid-stream--then slapped its tail and dove. Small beaver. And later I got a clear look at its tail.

It's wonderful to get out and be released from all the demand out there. Not that demand is a bad thing! Plenty of us have been released from demand--jobless!--and it sucks. Lately I love my job, but it's all a performance, it's like trying to perfect a dance routine and no matter how much that is enjoyed, the freedom of just doing as you please to catch a couple bass on a nice stretch of clear water river away from it all--despite the pain of that cold water, after about an hour it really hurt this evening--such solitude returns you to life as it must be sometimes. Otherwise you can't be fully human. Something essential is cut off.

And that's a tradgedy no government will ever repair, by  the way. The best they can ever do is protect this freedom for a man to get up and go out alone.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Lake Hopatcong Vertical Walleye Jigging Underway

Joe Landolfi has more experience vertical jigging walleyes than I do, so when he told me the action begins in September, not mid-October when the lake is just about, not quite, turned over throughout its depths, I listened. And I was very surprised that we marked fish at 33 feet today. All week it's been in the 80's, surface water temperature was as high as 66, but it was relatively cool at the end of August and much of September, at least some of the month. I suppose, however, that so much rain has to do with it. Laurie Murphy at Dow's Boat Rentals said the same after we came and discussed it.

After an hour of fishing my graph recorder went on the blink. Joe got it back up for a short while. We tried again and gave up on it; it was useless, some electrical disconnection. But in no time at all he didn't miss the device. Wind kicked pretty hard, so we snapped on 2 1/2-ounce striper bucktails and confidently judged depth, as well as kept a tight, vertical line with a fast drift.

Instead of worsening, wind softened. I jigged up a perch from 20 foot depths just east of Sharps Rock, having changed back to a half-ounce Gotcha jigger. But the real action came west of Raccoon Island, in the area of the ledge. First Joe jigged up a pickerel from 15 foot depths, then I missed a hit, and finally he caught a three-pound, five-ounce walleye, straight from the drop in about what clearly seemed 15 feet of water.

It had been a dark day, threatening and chilly, great walleye weather, and at the end of our last drift, at Nolan's Point, rain began to fall! Laurie assured us it's early yet for jigging. The Fisherman is still reporting catches after dark on live herring. But even for one walleye in the middle of day, I hand it to Joe, or photographed him anyhow, who's been catching them with his friends from September on for years.