By Jerry Audet
I really like to get outside on a daily basis. I think a lot of outdoorsmen and women would define it more as a “need”. I shy away from this language because, if for some reason I can’t get out, I don’t like feeling like I’m doing something wrong, or harming myself in some way. But regardless, I try and do something outside every day. I run, I fish, I ski, I walk, I take photos. I try to do something “significant”. For me, this is usually defined, arbitrarily, by being out moving in the woods, or on the shore, for at least an hour. If I do this, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. No matter how many things I’ve written, or read, or how many meetings I’ve had, or all the things I’ve fixed at work, nothing makes me feel like my day is complete like going outside and “doing something” for an hour or two.
But, it gets hard sometimes in the winter. I feel the “need”, but also feel all the factors working against me. Luckily, being from northern VT, temperature isn’t usually an issue. I’ve run when it’s been -10 outside, and think nothing of going for a walk when it’s +10. But fishing is complicated by water. Wet and cold is something that presents a whole number of other problems compared to cold alone.
One annoying problem that plagued me for years was frozen guides. No matter what kind of fishing you do- fly, spinning, conventional- it can be a problem. But as a fly fisherman, it’s especially obnoxious. I will admit, that since I didn’t fish so much during the winter until more recently, I just tried to deal with it. I’d fish until they iced- sometime in just a couple minutes- then just stop and break it out. I never looked up solutions. I knew you could buy some products to help, but it seemed like a waste of money for how little I need it.
This year, I stumbled upon an ingenious solution. Cooking spray.
Yep, like the Pam cooking spray you use making pancakes on the skillet.
I was skeptical, and decided I wanted to try it out on an especially terrible day. I had a chance to do that recently. While it’s actually been pretty mild since we got over that terrible hump in November, my brother in law and I recently went out when it was only 15 degrees, and the wind was honking. We poked around a local pond looking for a staging pickerel or- very optimistically- a bass. When I found a good looking little cove, we put down our stuff, and I began to work the edges of a steep drop off. Within only a couple casts, my eyes were completely blocked with ice.
So, I broke out the spray. Trader Joe’s, because that’s we had at the house. I didn’t really think about the bottle not spraying in the cold…which is what happened. It just dribbled out instead. So I dribbled some onto the guides of my little ultralight setup, and just for good measure, a little onto the line that was on the spool as well. Why not?
I began to cast again, noting that the spray on the 6lb braid in no way affected the performance. And the best part? After 10 minutes, I still had no ice! It worked great!
I only had one more little episode of ice the rest of the 30 minutes we spent casting, which was remedied with another spraying. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a single hit, and my hands were freezing (I hate fishing in gloves) so we decided to hike it back to the car.
Still, I felt the trip was a resounding success.
In winter, we have a lot of excuses to not get out. We have fewer hours of day light, and still the same daily requirements. Motivation wanes, as angling opportunities become far more “miss” and far fewer “hit”. We don’t need any more excuses. Eliminating as many extraneous complications as possible is essential. I hope this tip I’m sharing with you now is exactly that- one more extraneous complication eliminated. Or, one less excuse.
And I’ll throw out one more, potentially much more important, thought. This short post is a great example of a bigger lesson: there is always a way. If you want to fish, you should. Don’t let things like frozen guides stop you. Find the excuses, and eliminate them. If you don’t want to go, you shouldn’t. But if you do, you shouldn’t let logistics stop you either.
By Dave Anderson
There is no time of year that I think about plug colors more, than the winter. During the fishing season, I don’t trouble myself with such trivial issues. But the cold of winter and the pain of the long dark nights and the fact that I’m passing my time building plugs—forces me to leave the comfort of my usual philosophies on color. I’ll start thinking about the big rock on the corner of the cove where I know there must be piles of juvenile blackfish and then I’ll find myself mixing eight different shades of blech to match a tiny tog. Then my mind will wander again to this one spot where I have now landed five nice sea bass from the rocks at night, the next thing I know I’m driving to JoAnne Fabric trying to find the perfect bolt of thule to match their scale pattern.
Then I’ll have the ‘what the hell is wrong with me?!’ epiphany again and that will change exactly nothing about what goes on in the echoey halls of my fish-clouded brain. I know I am not alone in this twisted game of tug o’ war. And I’m quite certain that my level of color mania is mild compared to many of the plug lovers out there. I have said, countless times, that if a striped bass looked closely enough to detect scale patterns, holographic eyes, hand-carved fins or the 93 shades of pink you used to create your squid pattern, they’d see the obvious things that you just can’t hide—like the hooks or the lip or your leader or the hook rash or the lifeless eyes or the fact that it actually swims nothing like a real fish.
The most important part of plugging is not that your piece of wood looks like a real fish, it’s getting the plug close enough to the fish that they will take a shot at it. This may sound more than just a little presumptuous, but you have to consider the fleeting nature of just about any potential meal that passes within striking distance of a striped bass on the feed. It’s one living creature versus another—fear and speed versus instinct and ambush. A striped bass—feeding in an ambush situation—simply doesn’t have time to check to make sure the color is right before she strikes. In her many years of life experience she has missed more than a few meals because she didn’t react in time. If you ask me, this is the root of the reason that fishing with lures works at all—honestly, it really shouldn’t work! The fish have to react on first sight or risk missing out entirely. And this hold true for any predatory gamefish that uses ambushes to feed.
And now we come back to the variable of color and how much it really means. If I believe my theories to be correct than there really isn’t any reason to paint plugs at all or it shouldn’t matter what color they are painted. I’ll be honest with you, fishing on a new moon night with a moving tide, swinging a darter or dipping deep with a loaded needlefish, I don’t think the color means all that much… to the fish. But there is a deep psychological aspect to fishing with color. For instance, I would feel a lot more confident fishing an unpainted plug than I would fishing the same plug painted mauve over tan—because I personally find the bare wood plug to be more pleasing to the eye. It matters more that I LIKE it than whether or not it looks like a fish. So, in that way, the fact that a color works or doesn’t work is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We fish the colors we like more often and we keep them on the line longer because we—ourselves—like them better than the other choices available. This may also shed some light on the reasons why you can ask 10 different expert striper fishermen and get 10 different answers regarding their go-to colors for different situations.
As I wrote in the intro to this linear thought on color, I like to keep my colors very simple. It’s basically four food groups—light, dark, bright and simple natural. In the light category I would fish—with equal confidence—white, yellow, bone, cloud, old school herring, wonderbread, white/pink stripe… etc. In the dark category I would fish black, blurple, dark gray, black/silver scale, root beer, wine, midnight massacre, etc, interchangeably. In the bright category I’m a little more focused—I basically mean anything with a lot of chartreuse or fluorescent green—parrot, Block Island green, solid chartreuse… etc. In the natural category it’s about having that dark back and silver flanks; so literally any dark color (black, blue, gray, brown, olive, green) over silver. I tend to fish my light colors in daylight, the dark and bright colors at night and the natural tones in fading light situations like heavy cloud cover or twilight. Why do I use these colors? Because they work in those situations… or, they have worked enough that I have built up years of confidence in them.
Does all this matter? You’re going to have to decide for yourself, I won’t judge.
By Jerry Audet
This week is the first since sometime in early April that I haven’t surf fished. Therefore, understandably, rather expectedly, it’s a sad week.
It’s been a cold and windy fall. Exceptional, really, in a many regards. Too cold, with too low a success rate, to reasonably expect anyone to continue fishing the New England surf at this point.
But this isn’t about anyone, this is about me. And therefore, logic and reason seem somehow to not apply.
So instead, or rather in spite of, this reasonable assessment, I balk, and dive into brooding rebellion. I am moping around the house, forlorn; I get irritable. “Guys just give up too soon!”, “I’m more committed!”, “Remember that 40-pounder caught on the Cape in December? I can be THAT guy!”. Proclamations of a desperate man, illogical delusions.
Humans are drawn to consistency, to behavioral patterns. Daily, weekly, and seasonally. It’s good for mental health; indeed good for physical health. Studies have shown this - I know, I have read them.
So with the end of the season, I’ve lost my pattern, and with it, my stability. And as such, I feel unstable; or rather, perhaps, unwell. The rituals stop suddenly; the wetsuit doesn’t have to be rinsed again. I no longer have to check my leader, or prepare my peanut butter and jelly sandwich for the car ride home. Wherever my favorite yellow darter got to in the car, it can just stay there until May.
And so idleness, and emptiness, invade the places these daily and nightly conventions usually hold.
The end of the season, for me, is a lot like preparing for death. You know it’s inevitable; that it’s coming no matter your most fervent wishes it wouldn’t. You know, implicitly, at your first cast of the season that it will, eventually, end; but you push it away anyways. Denial. Seven months, after all, is a long time when viewed in the future.
But it feels so cheaply short when looking back.
And so the end doesn’t come suddenly, but it always feels like it. Again like the coming of death, or perhaps rather like aging, toward the end, I do not suddenly stop, I just do it less and less. I fall back on what I can do, what is available to me, filling in the gaps- things to prop me up as a huge part of my life fades away. I start running more; a lot more. I trout fish and hunt for bass and pickerel before the ice comes. I start trying to reconnect with my friends whom I’ve neglected and disappeared from over the last seven months. Part of me comes back into view, even as another part of me slides away. It’s good, I know, but it takes some time for me to actually believe it.
I know I cannot will the season to last; I do not command the relentless march of time. I will never be that much in control; so it is to be mortal. Yet, it doesn’t make it any easier when the final days come.
And so, while October offers seven day-per-week fishing windows, November, by some measure, is less- especially at the end. And December defines “inconsistent”; it is the end.
And it is, suddenly, here.
Still, until last week, every chance I got, I continued to hit the surf. I saw an extra sunny and “warm” day, and canceled a scheduled run I had, and fished the night tide. Nothing: no hits, and no fish. Then, I went again on a particularly calm night, despite knuckle-crippling cold. Everything felt oh so right that night. Yet, again- no fish. I left that particular night frustrated- my head and my heart arguing over what to do next. The former knowing the end had arrived, the latter refusing to believe it.
And, this week, there were no windows. It has been so cold; the tides are all wrong. I caught a cold and was waylaid for part of the week. In consequence, I have work piling up; and all my favors- begged, borrowed, and exchanged- are expired. So I am stuck playing catchup. And then, my wife asks me sheepishly, for the first time in years, to stay home and not fish. To help her decorate the house for the Holidays. How can I reasonably say no?
And so it goes. I always say, “this year, I will cut it off”. I will implement some hard deadline, predetermined in April; to mitigate the suffering at the end. Or rather, give myself some kind of parameter, something to motivate me; or end the suffering, depending on what the situation might be. And yet, every year instead, I just tail off. I keep a glimmer of hope burning that maybe there’s one more bite to be had. Herring moving along the coast, 40’s hot on their tails. Maybe an exceptionally stable sand eel bite. A push of teen bass through my area. So I go from five days a week, to three, then to two, then I’m dragging myself to the coast one night of the week out of spite and mutiny against something I wish wasn’t true, but I know that it is.
“You can’t catch them from the couch!” I tell myself, as ice forms in my guides and beard.
Then, the end really comes in ultimate finality. Sometimes I really don’t plan it, a couple weeks of bad weather and despite my best intentions, I never get out again.
Other years, it slips more slowly into the past tense…”the surf season was”.
But this year, today, I have made a choice.
The truth is, I am ready. Sadness, denial, loss- sure, I feel that. But also, acceptance. It’s time. For the first time in years, I’m making the choice, early, to stop. No tailing off. No final “one last trip just to say I did”.
The season could have been worse. I tell myself this to soften the blow. 740, or so, bass is a substantial number. Seven fish over thirty pounds is a number I can be proud of. I worked damn hard for those numbers. I’ve earned this rest. I can stop.
I can; I don’t want to, but I am; I can let the season go.
Consider this post acceptance; my formal resignation.
Until next season then. Until screeching Red-wing Blackbirds and deafening peepers. Until suicidally determined herring, and rich, sweet blooming Forsythia.
By John P. Lee
In the morning before school we walk down and check the pond. The pond is close to our house, a 50-second walk, cutting through a corner of our neighbor’s property. The boy looks into the pond. He is interested in ice. We do this almost daily, father and son. The water is very clear, I tell him that all the algae, the zoo- and phytoplankton have died. The water is clear because it has no life in it. He both listens and doesn’t. My words to him are meant to be osmotic—I want him to absorb things. Things that I have learned. I have no idea how I’m doing with this. Is my life—all 48-years of it—being properly downloaded onto his processor? Normally when we come to the dock there is always a fish, a small finger-sized largemouth or a sunfish. He looks hard, an ‘I spy’ game. But the fish are gone, slid out off the bank and into deep water. “When is the ice coming?” he asks. He wants to crush the ice in the shallows with his feet, the sound of cracking glass. He wants to stomp and throw rocks out and across, listen for that sound, the reverberation. I tell him soon. There is mist on the pond. We watch the mist. He asks about it, ‘why is it there?’ I tell him the pond is losing its heat, the air, colder than the water, is pulling the heat away.
We don’t know who our children will become and we don’t know if we will be here to see it. As a parent I too look for fish, I too look for ice, independently of him. But I want him to be this and that. Already in my mind he has become something which today he is not. We often lean too far into the future, warped inside the parent prediction machine. We walk back up the hill. The leaves on all the trees, including the big oak, are down. It feels like winter. “The ice will be here soon?” he asks. “Yes,” I tell him. “Tomorrow I bet, if tonight gets cold enough and the wind dies out.”
By Dave Anderson
In my life as a stay-at-home dad, it is customary for my daughter and I to make regular drives to the ocean. Sometimes we get out and hunt for hermit crabs; or sea glass. We might make a few casts. Or, sometimes, we just sit in the car and watch the waves. We often drive from spot to spot, (usually in the late-fall or winter) and just look—taking in the view and absorbing the rejuvenating aura of the sea. This is hard to explain to those that don’t know how to receive it. Lila definitely gets it, sometimes she forgets what it does to her and I’ll have to—almost—drag her to the car. However, when we pull up to the shore and look out upon the vast, expansive wilderness that is the ocean, I can see her little face relax; reflective of just how I feel. And then the perma-smile begins.
She might be freezing cold- with a half-cup of water pooling in each boot, but she will beg me to stay. Her pockets stuffed with shells and interesting rocks, soaked to the knee, she points out birds and every dead organism washed up on the shore. Examining everything at a Rainman level.
My pride cannot be measured.
Unfortunately, riding from ocean view to ocean view puts us in danger of crossing paths with…well, assholes. I know I’ve written about this before, but the idea that a person owns all that he can see from his yard really irks me. I am (usually) not trespassing, especially when I’m with Lila. I also like to think I’m a reasonably nice person. I mean, I also have a 4-year old child with me; it should be clear that my intentions are benign.
But, some of these entitled lowlifes just have to stick their nose where it doesn’t need to be sniffing.
Just the other day I was out with Lila; again, just part of our routine. It was a particularly cold and breezy day, the wind howling, the ocean lashing the rocky shore. We had no intentions of getting out of the car. We stopped at a boat ramp, then a long jetty with a wide ocean view, then the end of a dead end street with a nice high overlook .
Then, we turned down a street that leads to a beach that is private in the summertime. Now, mind you, there is no gate, no key card, no armed guard and virtually everyone is gone for the season. There’s a great view at the bend. So, we drove down , looked at the waves for, literally, two minutes and then headed toward home. There is a fork in the road to turn around at, and as we drove the 200 yards to the fork, we noticed a red car coming the opposite direction. The road is narrow so one of us had to move over; I would have, but the other driver did first. As I drove by I offered up a friendly wave; what I got back in return was the icy stare of a man that appeared to be fighting age-induced dementia.
Children can be so intuitive and Lila did not let the moment go unexamined. She piped right up, “Who was that daddy?”
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly, “but he didn’t seem too friendly…”
I swung the car around at the fork (like I have done hundreds of times) and headed out the way I came. I saw Mr. Wonderful’s car waiting at the end of the road, but it turned as we rounded the bend, I assumed he turned when he saw me coming back out. I guess I just looked out of place, I'm far from a millionaire, my car looks like the car you’d expect a fishing junkie to drive—it’s dirty, a little rusty, racks on top, but why assume the worst?
As I pulled out of the end of the road and swung to the right, I saw the old man again, waiting. He had to be pushing 80; out of shape, decrepit, and wearing a scowl that broadcast a clear message of pure, unwarranted, hate. He made sure to look into my eyes as we passed him; but I wasn’t going give in and stoop to his level. I just gave a short, ‘hi there!’ nod and kept driving.
I made it about a mile down the quiet road before this guy came speeding up behind me—and I’m talking like 65 in a 35. Now, suddenly, he’s riding six feet off my bumper. Remember, I have my child in the car. My blood was starting to boil. But I couldn’t jam on the brakes, so I signaled a right turn down a side road. He signaled too! So, I made the snap decision to stay straight. He stayed straight too!
Now my adrenalin and anger were combining; I’m seething, almost hyperventilating. I NEVER get like this. I’m trying to laugh it off, for Lila’s sake, but now I feel like I want confrontation.
I’m riding a mile ahead of myself on the mental map in my head, trying to decide how I will ditch this dumbass. Then I get the idea to just pull over, no signal, no brakes, no slowdown, just jerk the car over and stop. Without any more thought, I do it. Mr. hollow-headed-geriatric-moron does the same thing! However, my maneuver prevents him from getting all the way over, forcing him to pass.
He puttered by at the speed of an idling golf cart. I gave him THE dirtiest, scariest, hate-filled glare you can imagine. Like I wanted to tear his head off, reach down his sputtering neck hole and rip out his heart and then eat it, raw, as it reflexively beat out its last quivering attempts at sustaining this worthless excuse for a human being.
Because that’s exactly how I felt.
He went by, but pulled over in front of me and put his car in park. Then he just sat there, tilting his head back, eyeing me in the rearview. I so badly wanted to get out of the car and confront him, veins were erupting out of my forehead, my hands were clenched into involuntary fists, teeth gritting… then…
Quietly, almost a squeak, “Daddy…? Daddy?! Why are we stopping?”
I closed my eyes, pressed my lips together and sighed through my nose. Opening my eyes, I gestured to my brainless adversary, throwing both hands up as if to say, “What are we doing now?” He answered with the same gesture. So, against all of the urges in my soul, and the catcalls from the devil on my shoulder, I threw the car in reverse, backed into the nearest driveway and sped back in the direction I had come from.
I’d like to think that Jonny Alzheimer’s in the red car had a moment of clarity just then, and realized that this could not end well for him if we were to step out of the vehicles. Not because I am such a tough guy, but because he was probably 40 years older than me, with the physical stature of a decaying snake skin. Whatever the reason, as his taillights faded behind me, I saw him gun it from the side of the road and head off in the other direction, at a very high rate of speed—this told me he didn’t want us to follow him. I was happy to oblige.
I took the longest route home I could think of. I needed the long, slow drive to cool myself down. Lila started to complain about a belly ache and I knew that her senses had pieced together the anxiety hanging in the air, despite the fact that she couldn’t understand it. By the time we made it home, she was fine. But I was still deeply angered. After hearing the story, even my wife, the picture of calm and grace, asked me, “Are you going to go back to his house?” As much as I would have liked to go back and, at least discussed the ordeal with Mr. Wonderful, I have since decided that nothing good could come from that. All of the scenarios I play in my head end with me in handcuffs.
So I guess I’m just going to let it drop, at least until next time.
What would you do?
By Jerry Audet
Standing at the trail head, I know I look foolish. There’s a middle-aged woman in a full-length down jacket trying (unsuccessfully) to usher her muddy and joyous black lab into the back of her Honda Pilot. She pauses, staring at me, looking confused. My running shoes and short-shorts clash with the sling pack over my shoulder and the 6-foot fly rod in my hand. I pretend not to notice as she attempts to catch my eye; her mouth is slightly agape, as if she’s about to ask me something. I whistle a little, acting like all this is totally normal, as if everyone jogs with a fly rod. I move faster as another car pulls up, rushing to get on the trail- have to keep my spots secret.
It won’t take long to reach the first spot. I plod along at first trying to get warmed up, shifting my rod from one hand to the other attempting to find a comfortable carrying position. I notice a couple of juncos hopping along a berm, they are harbingers of winter; castaways of the Arctic, this is their south. It’s another sign that I’m probably wasting my time. Most would say that brook trout season is over, I refuse to believe it.
I know I probably should have just focused on running. Last spring I attempted to train for my first 100 mile trail foot race. I’ve done a few 30-plus mile races, but the “100-miler” remains elusive. Last spring I fell during a late season back-country skiing trip and hurt my back and leg, which halted my training for months, and precluded me from even toeing the start line. If it’s going to happen this year, I’m going to have to focus.
But, on this particular day, I couldn’t make up my mind on what I wanted to do. I was stressed out from trying to be an active, productive member of society. I just wanted to escape making any more decisions. To be present. Still, the pull between passions, is a constant for me. When you want to do ten things at once, time constricts; can feel suffocating. The question I have to ask myself is, ‘can I really do both?’” Or rather, can I really do it all?
After only a half mile of rocky single track trail, I arrive at a steep ridge, this is my first stop. As I shuffle down the bank, I notice immediately how high the water is. Turbid and tannic, it looks more like road runoff than an iconic, gin-clear, babbling trout stream.
I found this body of water using a State info-graphic about wild trout distribution in Massachusetts. It’s the ideal spot for me: under-fished, hard to access, even harder to fish. It can only be reached through a confusing labyrinth of trails; you can’t just park the car and wet a line. However, many times, I don’t even bring a rod, I just go and run and try to spot the little trout as they torpedo away from the bank and my thudding footfalls. I know I can catch them, which often, is enough for me. I don’t have to hold them.
But today, I find myself slipping and sliding down the bank trying to do exactly that. I get my line caught in a tree. After untangling, I start to creep down to the shore, knowing that my blaze-orange safety vest is a liability; but then again, I don’t really feel like being shot by a careless hunter either. I bend low and try to put my feet down lightly. Even though this is all likely a waste of time, I still take it seriously. I can’t help it. To be a fisherman is to be a persistent and relentless optimist.
Practically on my knees now, I deliver a bow-and-arrow cast across the small, swollen stream. I squeeze the tiny hook between my fingers, pulling the rod into an arc. When I let go, it shoots the fly across the stream, plunking down silently into the riffle. The simple casting technique avoids the tree limbs and brush on the banks. I watch, suddenly in rapture, as the miniscule black fly spins and swirls with the micro-eddies. I’m holding my breath and I don’t even realize it. Focus is complete. I mend my line once to keep the fly moving naturally with the drift, but it’s quickly out of the current and against the bank. I cast again. Nothing.
This fast little rivulet feeds a large pool where the brook takes a hard right turn. It’s an ideal ambush point, and actually a pretty complicated little hole. There’s the fast water and the break points as it enters the pool. Then there’s the slow, gently spinning eddy and cut bank. Several trees have fallen into the water here, excellent structure. As the stream leaves the pool, the outflow undercuts a log large enough to walk across, and changes dramatically in depth, inducing a rapid increase in water speed. Today, that portion is raging with the affects of the last couple day’s rain. I grimace, knowing intellectually this is never going to work, but emotionally denying it.
I make a few casts, but I’m probably fishing too quickly. I can’t make up my mind where the best lie is, and rush to try them all. This is one of my shortcomings as an angler who is also a runner- I want to do it all, right now. And in the back of my mind I am already thinking about the next spot on my afternoon route.
I don’t bother changing flies today, the greedy and aggressive brook trout is seldom fussy, and even less so this time of year. I just keep trying different presentations. I cast to as many spots-within-spots-within-spots as I can. I spend enough time at this location to start to get cold. I start to shiver. It reminds me I’m supposed to be running; supposed to have set a timer so I could also keep moving and get a workout. I never set that timer.
But, the tug of the trail does start to pull at me. The final straw comes when my line snags in a bush and I stumble into the water trying to retrieve it. It won’t stop my running, but I take it as a sign that it is time to move on. I scramble back up the bank, feet sloshing in my shoes, and continue on. I decide to put in a mile before I fish again; there is a good crossing about that far from where I am now.
As the clouds darken courtesy of an impending Nor’Easter, I pick up the pace. I’m gliding along now, catching my stride. A gang of blue Jays cackles and screams at me as I burst around a corner and flush one from the ground. I pause for a moment to try and apologize, but they only seem more perturbed by my human speech, rather than appeased by it. I spring away, leaving them to their chatter.
I bound along the trail, stepping up the pace, enjoying the closest feeling I’ll probably ever have to those flying Jays. I jump along rocks, and dodge downed trees. I’m seven years old again. I’m running from my neighbors barking dog, because it spotted me catching frogs behind their house. I feel now, as I did then, the same burning in my lungs and movement of air across my face. Grounded, connected to myself, present and past… free.
It’s not long before I reach the crossing, less than 15 minutes. It’s a raging, boiling mess, as it plunges over the rocky bed and pours over its eroded bank. It’s clearly angry, and I want no part of its wrath on this day. Onward.
I run on, covering more ground quickly. I decide to try a small bridge another half mile away. I bushwack a little instead of following the trail. I want to see if a particular log is still in the brook. Running in the deep leaves and soft ground is difficult. But, I find it after only a few minutes, still intact after a full year of flood and drought. That could hold good fish in the spring.
I get back on the trail, locking back into a solid pace. One more stop.
As I feared, the bridge is unfishable too. I stand, frustrated, panting slightly. I watch the water churn and tumble on its way to the sea. I’m several miles from the car now. Not far, but I’ve spent more time fishing than I anticipated, and it’s getting dark. It’s time to break down the fly rod, and head home.
I run back the easy way, on the fastest trail. I don’t scorch the earth with my pace, but rather try and keep my head up and enjoy the fading day. Soon, that brook will be covered in ice, devoid of fish. I reflect on my fishing-run. I’ve covered fewer miles than I hoped; and caught zero fish. A wasted trip. I start to get in my head, “I could have done…” or “I should have gone…” or the most persistent “I could have run further”. A waste.
“No,” I say under my breath. I realize that the stresses that sent me here have fallen away. This afternoon was anything but a waste. I lengthen my stride, and race the failing sunlight back to my car.
The little brook will still be there tomorrow.
By Dave Anderson
Jerry showed up at my house around 8 p.m. and we headed to a shallow bar that has a long history of late-season stripers. The fishing was decent, but far from spectacular, Jerry had the hotter hand, we topped out around 16 pounds, I don’t think we landed more than six fish. The night was quiet and calm, and as the tide receded, we inched out until we were more than 150 yards from dry land. We had camera gear set up on the shore, out of sight and mind, we never used it. We were getting cold.
This bar is a high confidence spot for me and it’s hard to leave, even when it’s been slow. I was trying to will one more fish out of the flat, black ocean when an unsteady whistle snaked through the periphery of my hearing like a faint whiff of smoke, the dark eye of my mind focused on a point along the blackened shore. “Dude,” I half whispered to Jerry, “did you hear that whistle?”
“No,” he said quietly.
Then the wavering call pierced the darkness again, I looked over at Jerry, “Listen,” I said, “Did you hear it that time?”
Jerry was silent, his silhouette bent slightly at the hip, leaning in toward shore, as if trying to hear it. And the whistle meandered again through the same spooky melody, uneven, seemingly blown through dry lips.
“I heard it that time, could it be a bird?” Jerry wondered out loud.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “I’ve never heard a bird like that in my life.”
We laughed and then I whistled back, doing my best to mimic the haunting song. The shadowy shoreline whistled back and I responded again—after two or three volleys, the whistling ceased, but I could swear I heard clumsy feet on the bank. I squinted at the two-dimensional ribbon of stubborn blackness, sandwiched between the pewter water and the deep glow of the new moon sky—I got nothing. I blamed it on the waves.
The fish had been fickle all night, taking a needlefish, then a large glidebait, then a few on a Danny—then nothing on the Danny, nothing on the needle, nothing on a Red Fin, nothing on an Atom Junior, then they were back on the Danny again. It had been close to an hour since our last hit. The whistle was still haunting me, I was worried about the gear. I just knew it wasn’t animal. We stuck it out for a while longer, but the cold was taking its toll, the inconsistent bite removing any hope for an adrenalin-fueled warmup. We made our final casts and made the long, cold wade back to shore.
The gear was still there, but the large flashlight I left on top of my camera case was now beside it; my senses told me that someone had messed with it, but I tried to brush it off as a coincidence. We gathered our gear and headed up the shore. I was trying to keep the pace pretty brisk, get some blood flowing. Jerry, a long distance runner, was unfazed.
Then a voice came seemingly from nowhere. “Were you guys SWIMMING?” It asked.
We stopped dead in our tracks, our eyes scanning the scene for the source of the sound. “Yeah,” I said with a chuckle, “we just swam back from Block Island!”
“COOL!” the voice called back; clearly this guy wasn’t getting the joke.
“Nah man,” I said, “We were just fishing, Block Island is like 15 miles from here!”
In that moment, I saw him. It was a long-haired dude, slightly overweight, kind of lounging against a driftwood log—not exactly a common sight at 1 a.m. on a Thursday in November. For the next five minutes the man on the log lead us on a dodgy ride through a wide array of subjects. He just kept switching gears. He talked about fishing, then spear fishing, then some shop in New Bedford. On a dime he changed to tautog and the fact that he didn’t believe the fish ever migrated—he figured people just stopped fishing when it got too cold and proclaimed that he was going to be fishing through the winter. (Good luck with that!) It was weird enough that he was even out there at that hour, but the fact that this guy seemed to have some general knowledge about several local fisheries seemed even weirder.
He didn’t have a rod with him and he seemed a little nervous, fidgety, and taken by surprise, as if he really wasn’t prepared to have to hold a conversation. Maybe a little messed up, a lot like people I’ve known or met by chance that were having a hard time staying within the lines after a dose of LSD. Think of it like being on a rollercoaster that you wish you weren’t on, using some Zen technique to keep from freaking out—holding onto reality, but only through intense effort. And, let’s be honest, some solo dude, sitting on a log in the middle of the November night looking at the stars and blabbering on about anything that comes to mind? He was clearly uncomfortable inside his own skin and miles from the nearest road. He very well may have been pulling back from the deafening drone of reality, channeling his inner Timothy Leary and running to the ocean to remove the weight of real life from the pressure points of his chemically-altered mind. I suppose it’s just as likely that he was a social outcast, who was really only 100% comfortable when he was alone. I didn’t ask and I’ll never know but, his tone rang with the shape of a constant smile, tainted with wonder and a general overtone of giddiness, spelled with varying hues of twisted happiness and sudden nervousness.
Then he asked, “Hey, was that your stuff over there?”
We both replied in unison, “Yup.”
“Oh man,” he said, “I saw that stuff and was like, ‘oh my god, what did I just find?’ At first I thought someone had forgotten it, but then I could tell it was, like, legitimately set up for something, you know? Don’t worry, I didn’t touch it… well, I did touch it, but I didn’t, you know, mess it up. It really looked like some badass equipment! Was that thing in the box, night vision?”
I laughed flatly, “Yup,” I said—now knowing that he had more than touched it, he would have had to actually open the box and take the camera out of the case to even have an idea that it was a night vision camera.
“WOW!!” he was gushing almost at the top of his lungs, “That’s SOOO COOOL! Night vision, man? Man, I knew it! That’s just too cool man! I knew I couldn’t just take that stuff, I knew it was set up, I knew you… someone, would be coming back for it!”
Jerry laughed in a tone that made it clear he was rolling his eyes, “Well, hey man, thanks for not stealing our stuff!” (We were more than a little lucky that he didn’t!)
“Was that you whistling?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “I was just trying to, you know, see if anyone was around.”
The guy went on for a few more minutes, he almost seemed proud of himself for knowing not to steal someone else’s shit! I really think he wanted us to acknowledge this good deed he had done by… doing what any normal person would do if they found $2500 in camera equipment on the shoreline—leaving it there.
We were finally able to bust free from the conversation and head back toward the cars. But his repeated and enthusiastic interest in the equipment made me feel just a little uneasy. He certainly seemed like a nice enough guy and seemed to be channeling some seriously positive vibes (man). But there was just this little sense in the back of my head that made me check behind us now and then until we were off the beach. He didn’t follow.
As surf fishermen, we run during the hours of misfits, lowlifes, lovers and coyotes. And these encounters, however rare on a remote beach, are always memorable. We see the edge of the land and sea as the place where our passion plays out, but in the darkness many others see it as their only shot at escaping to a world untainted. The night ocean is mysterious, it’s the edge of the last great wilderness, it’s unknown to nearly 100% of the Earth’s population. It has that special ability to erase civilization and remind us how small we are, and how individual we are and how insignificant our problems are—shore, ocean, horizon and sky. We are alive either way, but, at times, it takes something bigger than what our eyes can see or our minds can comprehend to actually believe it.
By Dave Anderson
I don’t know why, but I feel… almost embarrassed when I pile my family into the car for a week’s vacation and everyone has to sacrifice space and comfort for my fishing rods. My daughter is constantly grabbing the rods in the backseat which, as Newton’s Third Law dictates, has an equal and opposite reaction in the form of someone taking a rod to the face up front. A few times I have ‘taken a vacation’ from fishing too, but the last couple years we’ve changed our destinations from ocean areas to lake houses. I really don’t mind taking a break from striper fishing for a week, but fishing for largemouths and smallmouths kind of feels like a vacation from surf fishing… well, that’s how I rationalize it.
I’m the only person in my nuclear family that fishes. So we’re not touching down in a float plane, we’re hitting lakes in upstate New York and Downeast Maine, places that offer a definite feeling of being ‘in the woods’ but the shorelines are dotted with docks and houses and all manner of watercraft, powered and not, crisscross the lake constantly all day long. I’ve heard people say that the fish get used to this constant summertime traffic, but I don’t buy it.
I’m no touring B.A.S.S. pro, but I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on fish behavior. And even though my instincts tell me not to, I start the way we all do—it’s knee jerk, it’s a result of watching Jimmy Houston and Bill Dance every weekend for nearly 20 years of my life; the pads, the inflowing stream, jigs under docks—I catch a few, but nothing noteworthy and without a tangible pattern.
My best results always come from uncomfortable surroundings—for the angler, not the fish. On my trip to Maine this year, I found the most consistent action in a back cove where it felt like I was fishing with an audience, docks were well attended with wine tipping locals, kids and dogs swimming around… I felt like an intruder. It was also a major deviation from the rest of the lake; the cove was shallow, muddy and choked with grass and weed, protected by branches. I watched other people fishing and they all turned well short of that spot. I honestly think it was ignored because it didn’t fit the profile of how people were “supposed” to fish that lake. My other attempts, all over that lake, were slow at best—I was averaging about 1 hit per hour. But I still had one more trick up my sleeve.
We finally had a calm night toward the end of the week, the house we were staying in had a pool table in the basement so I was up late with my two younger brothers and my dad shooting pool. Everyone was getting tired so they headed to bed; I walked down to the dock to test my theory. I had taken a few bass off the dock, including a pretty nice one teetering around the 4-pound mark during the day. It was late, so I wasn’t planning to go all in, I just wanted to see what might happen. I hooked a feisty 2-pounder on my first cast in the darkness. Then nothing after that, but I had the confirmation I was looking for.
My belief in the night bite on these high-traffic waterways started last summer on a trip to a small lake in upstate New York. My daytime attempts were pretty weak, some small largemouths, two smallies in the 2-pound range. My night score was almost all bronzebacks with all but one of them going north of 3 pounds—one of them was a real corker, I wished I’d brought a scale. The thinking here is that when the boat traffic subsides the fish that have been hanging deep or buried in cover come out to hunt in the quiet of the night. And while night fishing for bass is far from a new concept, the percentage of anglers that actually do it has to be in the single digits—in fact I have never seen another boat out on a pond at night in my entire life.
My assessment of the lake in Maine was that there just weren’t high numbers of fish in the lake. I spent countless hours swimming, kayaking and walking the shores of this place and I only spotted a few small largies—no sunfish, no perch—and all of the bass I had taken were heavy for their size; sparsely populated lakes tend to produce bigger fish; a side effect of less competition. Another thing I noted was the loons were patrolling pretty heavily and eating bass that appeared to be as large as a pound. This only served to strengthen my belief in the night bite. Darkness offers cover, quiet and safety; no boat traffic and no fishing pressure—I’m always looking for plays that others aren’t running and ways to flip the script, favoring the comfort and attitude of the fish over my own.
As luck would have it, the next night brought more flat-calm conditions. I skipped the pool table and headed out right after Lila (my daughter) went to bed. I loaded my gear into the tandem sit-inside ‘yak that was provided with the house rental. Not exactly pimped for fishing, but it was my only option. I had already mapped out the intricate system of channels between the many islands on the pond and with a half-moon hanging high in the sky, I paddled away quietly into the dark.
The hardest part about night bass fishing is waiting for that first hit and on this night it took me a good 30 minutes to get it. I wasted little time in getting to the first spot I believed to be prime for night frogging. It was a broad and relatively deep (five feet or so) flat, stippled with lily pads and rimmed with reeds. I like these deeper flats because I feel they offer some comfort to bigger fish. I have always believed that bigger fish prefer to retreat to deep water rather than burying themselves in cover, and the openness of a deeper flat with cover offers a more direct route to the sanctuary of deeper water.
As I drifted through the lilies on that flat I found myself scratching my head, I had covered more than half of this 500 foot long flat without even a swirl. A light breeze came up from the SW and I found myself drifting into the water I wanted to fish. With my frog still floating 100 feet away, I held the rod with my right hand and paddled with my left trying to stem the breeze. What do you think happened next? That’s right, BOOM, my frog was assaulted and I had to perform a one-handed and blind hookset. It didn’t feel like a solid set, but the fish was heavy and actually made a decent run. The run wheeled the kayak 180 degrees while I tried to keep the line tight. I had her coming in good and then she jumped, I heard the gills flare, head shaking, she landed and the hook popped out a second or two later. I wanted to yell, but I just mumbled a sharp “NO!” reeled up, squeezed the frog and then fished the rest of the flat with no other takers.
I could go through the blow by blow of each fish I caught that night but I think that might be a painful read. What I was able to derive from that night is that the fish all came from three types of spots. Either moonlit grass flats, tree shadows cast by the moon or dimly lit docks. The concept of fishing shadows is a derivative of surfcasting and it works for freshwater bass too. The predator fish wait on the dark side of the shadow and look out into the light, when they see something they are able to ambush it more easily because the baitfish can’t see into the dark.
After putting a handful of bass in the 3-plus pound class in the boat, the moon—sinking low on the horizon—had changed from shimmering white to an amber slice of orange. I came around the point of a small island with a single house built on the east side. An L-shaped dock reaching past the arrowhead leaves and pads, anchored in the deep water of the channel where two tiny lights pierced the black surface. I pitched my little, yellow Boo-Yah Popping Frog tight to one of the pilings and inched it out incrementally, gurgling with each movement. The hit was not violent, it was just a sharp slurp—I set immediately and hard. The fish dove, peeling drag as she went, it felt big and I was determined not to let another one come unbuttoned. As far as freshwater battles go, this was one of the best I’ve had, she did everything, two deep runs, two angry leaps, switching sides… it was awesome. I finally lipped the heavy largemouth and felt the same feeling I felt the year before, “Man, I wish I brought a scale!”
By John P. Lee
For those without electronics, the lost art of manual depth finding…
The more I know about depth the better I feel about things. I don’t like to stab in the dark and stand in my boat and announce, often to myself, “This point here looks deep” or “This bay opening looks shallow.” I want to know as close as I can. In saltwater, when I’m out on the boat, my eyes are using the machines, the plotter, the fish finder, and I expect to know, quickly, what depth I’m in. I want the same things in freshwater, but the boats I use don’t have electronics, so I rely on old-school dead reckoning skills to chart the ponds I fish.
Sure, no doubt, an awful lot can be gathered about a place by simply looking at it. A steep bank down into water often does mean a drop off, and conversely, a gradual, mellow, slope of shoreline often does mean a shallow slope under water. The presence or absence of weeds is another indicator. But not always. The bay we thought was deep was shallow and we fished it all wrong. And the deep drop was only 12 feet not the 30 feet a fishing friend said it was. And so we fished that wrong too. And so on for cast after cast, place after place. Depth matters and the closer to exact we are the better. Depth controls temperature and fish become the temperature they choose to hang out in. If your kid in the heat of summer dives off the dock and swims down to the bottom and then comes up screaming—“It’s freezing down there! Freeeeezing.” That should makes us think: what temperature does a largemouth want to live in? There are likely way more temperature stratifications in a small bass pond than most of us think and a bass has a preference—a comfort zone—and it knows it. It’s hard for us to think this way. We stay close to our body temps regardless of the air temperature. A fish changes and this requires energy and metabolism. So depth matters.
The ponds I fish tend not to have the topographical charts that the larger more common ponds and lakes have. I like ponds—everyday ponds, everywhere ponds, farm ponds, kettle ponds, boyhood ponds—and often these ponds don’t have a lot of data attached to them. You need to get it. And I don’t mean every move you make becomes a data point, or that the whole trip is quantified. But I shoot for a general sense of awareness.
My tip—and it isn’t really a tip—but more of a way of life to higher levels of learning: anchor your ass off. Use the anchor as a sounding tool. This week, for example, I fished a pond near where I live, a pond that I’m learning. I fished three days in a row, from deep dusk to full dark. I must’ve anchored 45 times. I actually got a small blister on my hand from hauling and setting. Not every time I dropped the anchor did I fish that much. Actually, on one of the days I brought my young boy out and he just loved to set the small anchor, watched the line peel through his hands, and then haul, thinking he was the strongest boy on the planet. So with him aboard we made a lot of drops and I graphed (in my head) a whole run of water between two prominent points of land.
It’s fool proof easy: I know the amount of anchor line, 24 feet. And he’d let it down and I’d watch for the line to go slack on bottom. An even better way (and faster) would be to rig a 10-ounce bank sinker on a thin rope with marks every five feet, a true sounding lead. Back in the days of sail, they used a sounding lead to figure out not only bottom composition, mud, silt, clay, but also if they were gaining or losing depth. A vessel was said to be “on soundings” when it was nearing land and “off soundings” when it was offshore, off the edge of the continental shelf and over deep ocean water. We had fun with this: “Let’s take another sounding,” I’d shout, in my saltiest voice, and he, grinning like a pirate, would let the anchor fly.
And I would inspect the bottom contents. Am I in mud? Does the anchor come up with plants on it? What kind of plants? How dense are they? Is it sand? How does the anchor feel when it hits bottom? A soft touch or hard. Again, it’s not perfect. But it’s better than simply guessing. Every time I take a sounding I look at the bank—my distance from it and what the shape of the shore looks like as it runs into the water. Does my depth make sense? A picture begins to form in my head about the typography of the place. The picture becomes clearer the more I’ve charted the pond. Anchoring five times tells me something, but dropping anchor 100 tells me a lot more. I see a lot of largemouth fishermen not bothering to anchor at all. They fish quickly down the bank—cast, move; cast move. Looking for bites. It’s the way the tournament pros do it. I suppose that method has rubbed off on the rest of us. I like to find water that I think holds fish or find the depth that the fish are in, drop the anchor and start casting.
By Dave Anderson
What is the fascination with fire? Man’s quiet companion. The cure for solitude, the draw of warmth, a feeling of welcome. It can’t be something we learned to love; children are drawn to the sounds and movements of the campfire from their first step. The glowing faces, the relaxed mood, the warning: hot. Is it the unchained wildness of fire and that we have learned to contain it? Or could it be the juxtaposition of giving warmth, preserving life and leaving cold, smoldering black in its wake, taking life and livelihood as it leaps from grasses to trees to homes? We learn to make a fire, keep a fire, respect a fire and that it is the key to life if one is lost. We associate fires with good times, a night on the beach, camping with grampa, breakfast by the woodstove.
It might be safe to say that fire has been our most loyal supporter, the one thing we could not have survived as a species without; its very existence paving the way to life as we know it. I have walked a secluded beach where the hearthstones of millennia-old fires can still be seen at low water, the spirits of these people, l feel them, they live on in all of us. An instinctual respect. A deep vote of gratitude, hardwired to the flame that we all keep within us. Our soul, the electricity of life, kept, tended and protected like a campfire in a January storm. We will all awaken to find it crackling, just a glowing ember racing on the edge of a leaf, we will spring into action to save it, nurture it, feed it. Holding the tinder close—careful breaths huffed into cupped hands—and from the ashes and woven ringlets of rising smoke will come a flame and relief.
The fascination with fire is something more than we can fathom. It’s tied to us, it has sustained us and all of those who came before us. Just as the herring follows its instinctual compass back to its natal stream, we are drawn to the flame for reasons lost to time. Our lives could not exist without it. It was once the single most important component of survival—it was warmth, it was food, it was entertainment, it was family, it was protection, it was the first sight of home and the last sigh before sleep.