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.
By Dave Anderson
It was cold last night. And two days of easterlies dropped the water temps too. A hard west made casting a breeze from the east-facing rock, but also made me thankful for the neoprene jacket I’d pulled over my wetsuit as a last minute decision. Stepping into the cool ocean water was not the comfort that it often is after an extended hike in late-July, it was more like a firewalk or succumbing to peer pressure—something you make yourself do despite not really wanting to, something you do so you won’t have to endure hours of self-flagellation later. I waded deeper until my feet could no longer reach bottom and began the 70-yard swim to a large offshore boulder.
Midnight had already passed when my feet found the submerged reef, I rested there in the water, catching my breath, the ocean was cold, but I knew the hard wind and 48 degree air temps would be worse. I stood and turned my back to the wind, as a gallon of sea water drained from my plug bag. I had tied an eel leader on before leaving the house and so the plugs would have to wait. I swung the eel bag around and pulled a 15-incher from the writhing pile of shiny black, hooked it and hastily lobbed it into the water, in an effort to keep it from balling up in my leader.
I made three casts, reeling slowly, methodically pausing every few cranks, allowing the eel to settle deeper. About halfway through my fourth cast, I felt like something wasn’t right with my connection to the eel, maybe it was weeded up, maybe I had allowed too much of a belly in the line. Whatever it was, I burned the eel in to investigate and as the bait approached the wash of waves in front of me, I felt a deep thump and slow pressure peeling away, pulling the rod down. I struck back with a deep thump of my own, driving the hook home and sending what felt like a solid striper on a hard run seaward. A few minutes later I slid a fish in the low 20s onto the rock beside me.
After a few more casts a very similar thing happened; the eel entered the wash, hung up and when I shook it free, boom, a fish crushed it, found the hook and then came unbuttoned. Looking back this morning, I feel like I want to dope-slap myself for not recognizing the very obvious pattern here. I stuck with the eels for another hour, fishing them the same old way with very little action before my mind wandered enough to put it together. And it’s not like last night was the first time I’ve come to this realization, there are times when the fish are keyed in on a reactionary bite and playing the cat-and-mouse game is often the key.
The water in this spot is quite deep for a surf spot, so I tied on a deep-running metal lip and fished it in a vigorous stop and go fashion. I hooked up right away to a fish that looked to be a touch under 20 pounds. All of a sudden I was getting a hit or a hookup every second or third cast, but sadly, the tide window was closing. Soon the modest rip would dissipate and, history had proved that, the bite would go with it. A few more teen fish took the swimmer before I hooked one with some shoulders. The fish held its ground, never ran, she just held deep and kept shaking her head and banging the rocks. I leaned on the fish and lifted her off the bottom. She turned to make a move and straightened the forward treble on the swimmer. That would be my last hit of the night.
I have always been a big believer in matching the attitude of the fish. This is why a Magic Swimmer reeled at light speed can be so effective in a blitz, it’s playing into the jacked-up nature of a pack of competitive fish. The same could be said for dead-sticking a dead eel on a bright moon night. The bass are often very cautious under the moon, especially with calm seas. It’s these times when the fish give us all the clues and we still fail to connect the dots that serve the dual purpose of mind-numbing frustration and experience gained, a hard lesson learned—not soon to be forgotten.
All that, and I still had to swim back.
By Dave Anderson
Standing at the edge of the stream, full dark, fogged in. I heard the approaching sloshing footsteps of my fishing partner’s boots treading the marsh, no rods… still March. He stopped a few feet away and we listened. The wind came up from the northwest, driving the cool fog down the neck of my jacket, I hunched over and leaned away from the wind, I listened harder. The tiny freshwater brook ran through a series of riffles, humming a consistent pitch—babbling a constant rhythm. Then we heard what we were listening for; the splashy bursts of herring tails beating hard against the current, preparing to run the shallow riffle ahead. It’s a sound that’s as indicative of the spring season as Christmas carols are to the holidays; at least for me. This shallow run is imprinted on the instinctive DNA of every herring born in this waterway; I know this because the fish only run at night here; they’re too vulnerable in daylight and they know this. It makes this stream unique.
I’d heard it hundreds of times before, but this time the sounds of those herring powering upstream, sparked an epiphany—well, let’s call it a potential epiphany. The beats of those tails and the fish’s unwavering devotion to completing their spawning tasks sent my mind into a silent dialogue about instinctual drive, predatory behavior and the way we all typically fish a herring run.
These herring are born in the pond, then spend a good portion of their lives offshore in vast schools, their instincts call them back to the stream to spawn. Impressive doesn’t even begin to describe that drive to procreate. If there was a way to translate these instincts into human thought, it would probably be something more intense than anything we have felt. This, it occurred to me, should weigh heavily in how we fish a herring run.
When we are fishing near the mouth of a run, those herring are in the home stretch, after hundreds of miles and a whole year or more at sea, being pestered by untold numbers of predatory fish, diving birds, nets, seals… they run riffles and climb fish ladders, they surge through flood waters and leap obstacles and here we are throwing a lazy Danny plug. In a rush of inspired thought—admittedly augmented by the sudden exercising of the fishing part of my brain—I saw the light on fishing the runs.
I have always been one to fish away from the run itself, favoring a deep cut or prominent obstacle in the shoreline nearby, my reasoning was that predator fish could use these things as an ambush and they also forced the herring, which often run in very shallow water, to swim over or around an area that made them vulnerable to predation. It worked, but it never worked great. Then I thought back to a full moon night in early May, standing at the mouth of a run, making a few obligatory casts before moving to one of my more classic locales. I heard bass blowing up on herring—I clipped on a Danny—nothing, as usual. One of my casts was fouled with weed and I burned the plug in, about 8 feet off the tip a fish blew up on the skittering Danny, but missed. I tied on a 2-ounce Pencil Popper and worked it wildly in the waning current sent seaward by the herring stream. I hooked up on my first cast with a smallish bass, right around keeper size. I had a couple other hits, but passed it off as a full moon anomaly.
My herring run epiphany has since told me otherwise. The instincts of a spawning fish put that task above all other things and when they’re nearing the sanctuary of their natal stream, you can bet that they are going to run that predatory gauntlet hard and fast. Every cautious swirl I’d ever had while fishing near a run flashed across the screen in my mind’s eye. I always chalked it up to there simply being too much bait, but I have seen the light. Now I feel that it’s more likely that the bass were confused by atypical behavior. In a lifetime of hunting herring in the runs every spring, a slow, lazy herring just didn’t seem right. And so, they followed, but ultimately ignored it. In all aspects of my plug fishing I have long felt that mimicking the attitude of the bait was a key to success, somehow I had missed the boat here.
As we prepare to enter the herring season—in some places it’s already begun—my focus for this exciting time of year is going to be on plugs I can fish fast. Tops on my list will be the Sebile Magic Swimmer. Instead of trying to mimic some battered herring on its last leg, I’m going to be trying to channel that instinctual drive to climb the stream and get it on. Casting that swimmer out there and burning it in, throwing a big wake and daring any bass in the area to pass up on the chance to take it down. I think it’s going to work.
What do you think?
By John P. Lee
During this last coastal storm, while the rest of us were worrying about power outages and downed trees, John was out on the Sound earning a buck...
By Dave Anderson
I just wanted to take a minute to let everyone know that John and I will be combining forces to give an in depth seminar titled “Spot Science” at the end of this month. We will combine our knowledge drawing from years of surfcasting, bait observation, boat fishing and diving to paint—what we hope will be—a clearer picture of the types of locations that are most likely to attract sizeable stripers to the inshore waters that surfcasters target throughout the year. There will be diagrams, underwater video and in depth analysis of several scenarios that produce big fish year after year. So come check us out at River’s End Surf Day, Saturday, March 24th (check back here or on River’s End Facebook Page for the exact time). The event is being held at River’s End Tackle, 440 Boston Post Rd, Old Saybrook, CT. We hope to see you all there!
By John P. Lee
We’ve had some weather lately in the Northeast, a run of gales. I work on a pilot boat out of Point Judith, Rhode Island. The boat is 64-feet long, but even so in a gale it becomes tiny. Here’s a short video I made last night before we headed out. A gale at sea at night is not a calming experience, not a yoga class. Back when I was a commercial fisherman, fishing offshore in the winter—one would think I would’ve gotten used to winter weather. Not the case. A nighttime gale still makes me restless, eyes peering into the darkness waiting for the next set.
By Dave Anderson
August 2017 came with the some of the best fishing... probably ever, in the Cape Cod Canal. An abundance of bait and bass presented anglers with the perfect storm that evolved into an endurance test. It also presented me with a very unique opportunity in that I was able to capture a wolfpack of stripers working an eddy and their reaction to pencil popper that included a fully committed strike. We hope you will enjoy the video and learn something from it; I know I certainly did.
By Dave Anderson
My wife and I often talk about the fact that we lead double lives, she is an elementary school teacher, and it’s kind of odd that I will never experience her classroom persona. In the same way, she will never experience my true fishing personality—sure, we’ve fished together, but my focus is on her, I am not concentrating on catching; my mind isn’t working as an angler, it’s working as a husband. And you can bet that she’s never going to swim to a rock on a new moon night!
Lila, my three year old daughter, on the other hand, sees another side of me that really no one else sees. She’s so innocent and up for anything that she sees the version of ‘me’ that is as close to the ‘alone’ me as anyone will ever get. I think (hope) that everyone has that person in their head that whispers things that could never be said out loud, sings silly—often crude—parody lyrics over familiar songs on the radio, has a certain pride for the smell and timbre of their own farts… that sort of thing. Her innocence and aptitude bring out the narrator in me and instead of just walking the beach, trudging through the woods, silently enjoying the site of a pair of sharp-shinned hawks or picking up an arrowhead, I find myself speaking almost everything I see for her benefit.
This has led to many silent victories of pride, “Daddy, shhh, hear that? That’s a blue jay!” “Look a deer scrape.” “I heard an owl!” “Is that a turkey vulture...?” Or the one that rocks me to the core, “Daddy, I think I got one!”
Its late-January so there haven’t been as many true excursions lately, but we still make regular drives to the ocean. Wintertime is THE time to scout private neighborhoods for fishing spots and places to park because most of the people are wintering in one of their other houses. However, I’ve learned the hard way that—even in the winter—you can’t stay too long, or else that one year-round resident will assume you’re casing the hood and the cops will pull you over. Been there.
If you’ve followed this blog or our social media for more than a few weeks you might remember the montage of ‘private property’ signs I posted, Lila was with me the day I shot most of those pics and was having a ball making all these frequent stops and looking at all of the colors and shapes of the signs. And because of that comfort level that she brings, I must have been speaking in very… let’s call it honest tones about my feelings regarding the people that believe they own the view, the water and the beaches. Along with the gasoline fueled anger they feel when someone dares to set foot inside their field of vision and the borderline orgasmic satisfaction they feel when they succeed in ousting a trespasser.
I walked into the house yesterday, I had been working outside for a few hours and I came into the living room to find the floor divided down the middle by a makeshift fence of laundry baskets, pillows, the coffee table, a couple small chairs, blankets and few large toys. Lila, who has been obsessed with walking around in just underwear and a t-shirt lately, declared loudly in her Moana undies and her ‘Star Gazer’ t-shirt, “This is private property!” She gestured in a wide circle giving notice that both sides of the fence were private.
I laughed and asked, “Who owns that side?” I pointed to the other side of the room.
“A farmer,” She barked, “and his dog has been pooping on my side so I had to put up a fence!”
My wife looked at me flatly as I smiled. In weird way, I felt proud of her for having such a solid grasp on how private property works. But in the same breath I felt a little embarrassed, with all of the crazy things going on in this world and all of the lessons I still have to teach her, my beef with the ornery owners of private land has been heard, processed and internalized… and she can’t even tie her shoes.
I don’t know if this calls my parenting skills into question, I don’t know if I really care. One thing I can hang my hat on for now is that I know she will not be leashed to a phone or video game, at least not for many years, because I won’t allow it. I believe that the people who have stayed connected to nature and the outdoors throughout their lives are among the most well-adjusted people on the planet. My connection is so strong that it almost feels like unconditional love. And you can bet that I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure she has every resource and opportunity to make and nurture her connections; in my mind there is virtually nothing more important.
By John P. Lee
I’ve had codfish on the brain lately—I hear the bite has gotten good around Block Island, maybe I’ll make a trip soon and put some fresh fish in the fridge. With my thoughts steady on cod (am I ready to go? Do I have my gear in order?) I re-read a post I wrote a number of years ago about a winter cod trip off Block Island. Even years later, I think it's still worthy of a read. I hope to see you out there. Enjoy.
I’ve had time to review the moment and I still don’t know what it is I’ve learned. Something lost.
A fishing rod, the best I’ve ever owned.
I broke it Christmas Eve morning, 2011. A day cold enough that without gloves on you would’ve lost your hands.
We were codfishing east of Block Island. I wish I could say it happened dramatically, the boat taking a heavy roll in a breaking sea, spilling bodies, water blowing through scuppers, and me—or someone—landing heavily across the spine of the rod, snapping it.
It broke almost by itself. The rod was leaning against the rail of the boat. The cod bite was on, a fish on every drop. Terry, the captain of the Tiger Jo, was steaming back to the north’ard so we could make the same drift again. When he throttled back down and the boat slowed, I reached for my rod, and the second my fingers touched it, it split in half—a clean break as if it were cut by a diamond saw.
I looked down at my busted rod. I was calm without trying to be. That was the odd part: calm without trying to be. There was no impulsive, staccato swearing, no grandiose announcement to those onboard that the day was now officially “completely shot, a total fucking waste of time.”
Pure temperance. Every parent knows the feeling. No school can teach it, no book. The important thing is that it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes we cave in and tip the scale wildly the other direction. Bless the moment when the scale hangs dead even. It’s rare.
It’s a rod, John, not a son.
Even so: I’ve seen grown men act badly when loved machines and fond objects go bust.
The rod was 20 years old. A West Coast salmon rod made by G.Loomis. I forget the model number—if I ever knew it. BBR, something like that. I bought it when I was a student at the University of Rhode Island, figuring it’d be good for striped bass. It had the right length, just over 8 feet, for both surf and boat fishing, and, more importantly, the power to handle the trophies I pictured myself catching.
I liked the cork handle, the trigger reel seat, the lightness of the blank, and how balanced it felt with a small conventional reel on it.
Then, three years after the purchase, the electric seatbelts in my 1988 Ford Escort lopped 8 inches off the tip. I was furious at the seatbelts, cursed the engineer who designed them—clearly not a fisherman, for a fisherman would never design a device so foolish. I sold the car shortly thereafter.
That break was the real birth of this rod, my ownership of it. I don’t think I could’ve planned exactly where the seatbelts broke the rod. The break was in the perfect spot and made it a supreme boat rod, perfect for drifting with heavy bank sinkers and large baits; perfect for deep water and strong tides.
Years went by. Seasons, fish migrations, salt spray, hard falls, sun, rain and snow, six roommates, six different rentals, a bought boat, a divorce, a sold boat, home ownership, the passing of my father in a car accident, and finally a lovely pregnant wife.
The rod surely didn’t give a shit about any of this, this history. The rod leaned, inert as a stone, in the garage awaiting spring, like Paddington Bear waiting for the little girl to come and buy him, and when she did the bear came to life and brought her joy.
It became my favorite rod, indispensable. I loved when people held it and said, “Nice stick.” I loved how faded and gouged the cork handle had become; loved all the scratches, the patches of rust around the guides.
The rod had become so far removed from the G.Loomis catalog, the high-gloss photography of beautiful rods and grinning faces, archetypal bends.
After I broke it I threw the two pieces overboard. If the birth was when the seatbelts shortened it, then the death was this, the slow-sink to the bottom off Clay Head, Block Island.
The codfish came to us as if summoned. Clam bellies on dropper-looped hooks, ten-ounce bank sinkers. My hands on the cork, pressing, waiting for the tap tap of a cod on the bait. Banter was high, a stolen day from chores at the house-- Christmas Eve, in fact--our wives at home wondering what the hell we were doing out there in the freezing cold and “Really—Christmas Eve?”
I didn’t sulk when the rod broke. I rigged up another man’s rod—the horror—and dropped a bait down. My concentration, though, was shot. I don’t think I put another fish in the boat. Every cod bite I missed.
When the rod hit the water, I watched its cork handle bob once on the surface, then sound. I’m not the most sentimental person. I threw it over, an act fueled partly by annoyance, partly by the need for a mystical sacrifice.
I could’ve sent the broken rod back to Loomis and they would’ve sent me a brand-new one. A friend—who knew the rod—told me this on the phone after the fact: “Loomis has a return policy like L.L. Bean’s.”
When the rod sank, I heard Jason, my friend and shipmate, say over and over, “That’s gotta hurt. That’s gotta hurt.”
As the rod kept sinking, now well out of sight, I mumbled words of remembrance and hope—a wish for a good future, for health. I gave thanks. I do things like this from time to time. It helps. Crazy as that seems.