Thursday, September 27, 2012

Summer, pt. III - Striped Bass Edition


Time for the third and final installment of the CriticalAngling summer series. This time, we'll visit the Mid-Atlantic coast that is popularly called "Jersey Shore."

So if you recall, I got married back in June. We got married in Ohio near a lot of my wife's family. Most of my extended family, however, is located on the East Coast between New Jersey and Maryland.  While I have a lot of aunts and uncles in good health, they were too busy taking care of my not-so-healthy grandparents to be able to attend the wedding. So we took a short 4-day trip to see my family in both coastal states. I was able to do a little poking around estuary including a short afternoon trip with Capt. Joe Hughes of Jersey Cape Guide Service (

One thing I love about this region of the country is the food. My aunt lives close to Philadelphia, so cheesesteaks are prime for pickin'.

Gooey Cheesesteak on Fresh Deli Rolls. Mmmmm...

Down at the Jersey Shore, at the boardwalk, pizza is an all-time favorite. I have always been loyal to Mack & Manco, even after the partnership re-arrangement causing them to now be "Manco & Manco." You decide which one has the better ring to it. I'll be busy eating this delicious foldable treat.
Manco & Manco, formally Mack & Manco Pizza. The Best.
Jersey Shore style. G.T.L. baby...

A little south of the boards is a very lively ecosystem in a narrow, meandering inlet connecting warm back bay water with cooler ocean water. There are no jetties or dredged canals in this little inlet, which I think contributes to its fishiness. I have caught a lot of stripers, blues, and keeper size fluke (flounder) here in years past. I didn't bring my rods this time, so I was happy to just explore. There were Horseshoe Crabs waltzing along areas where sparse flooded grass tickled submerged rocks, and small croakers, silversides, and other baitfish joined hermit crabs in feeding on the discarded carcasses of kingfish (see video below).

Horseshoe Crab--A natural foot masseuse when wading at night. 

Finally it was time to meet up with Capt. Joe. This guy is just an all-around awesome person and that makes him an especially good fishing guide. Tiffany and I had fished with him a number of times before on our Jersey ventures, and we always enjoy his company whether or not the fish are biting. Fortunately, most of the time, they are--in no small part due to Joe's ability to pick out the hungry ones for us to seduce.

When I called Joe a few weeks before the trip, he told me he was pretty much booked solid. He saw a few hours on a Friday evening that he wasn't fishing, but would have otherwise gone to resting between a long day offshore and an early morning back bay trip the next morning. Somehow, he managed to squeeze us in and didn't seem the least bit tired. He worked his butt off for us and dazzled us with his South Jersey charm.

Fearing that the intense summer heat had driven the stripers off of the marsh flats for good--with water temps around 90F--Capt. Joe told me stearnly before we boarded that the plan was to start out getting some fluke on live minnows. While I'd rather toss artificials in skinny water, I love this region and I don't get out here much, so I took the same approach I've taken to fishing lately--I'm just along for the ride.
Fluke love 'em a nice bridge. 

Capt. Joe Hughes rigging up for fluke. Note the bridge.

We caught about 15 fluke between us in about an hour or so. That's pretty good action, but we were using live minnows. Tiffany kept getting snagged on debris, so most of those hookups were mine. Unfortunately, no keeper size fish so they all went back in the brine without pics. Had we caught a keeper or two, I'd not only have pics, but I'd have had a happy belly. Fresh flounder is nice fleshy white meat. Yum.

The sun was angling lower in the sky, and the tide was starting to pull all the critters from their shallow marshy haunts, so Joe fired up the engine and meandered us to the very back of "out back" as they call the bay area here. You could say this is the most "bay" you can get in the bay--the little creeks with all their elbows, colliding and re-routing around the undercut sod banks where fiddlers, shrimp, silversides and mullet abound.

Joe got us in position on the first flat, the water still up in--but quickly leaving-- the tall grass atop the sod. I think it was my fourth cast that scored the first fish. Did I mention Joe only fishes topwater this time of year? This is about irritating the stripers. And boy did we irritate them.
Tiff weighs a fine schoolie on the Boga. 

Over a stretch of bank no more than 150' wide, we spent the next hour missing as many explosions on our Skitter-Pops as we do setting steel into fishy flesh. There were even a few we came tight to, but came unbuttoned. I don't remember the number, exactly. Suffice it say we had fun.
Tiff reels in another from the magic flat.

The coolest thing was that on a single flat, the stripers were of mixed size. Often fish like to shoal up with same-size buddies, but I caught both the smallest and the largest fish of the trip within feet of each other. Little guy was about 16"; Big momma was about 29" and thick.

"Nice to see you, too," I imagine her saying...

Weapon of Choice
We were catching stripers in 85 F water only deep enough to cover their backs! We couldn't believe it. And they were healthy, happy fish! I even had one that Joe and I both agreed had taken lessons from a redfish: The angle of the sun didn't allow us to see the fish in the slightly stained water, so we blind cast at points and cuts in the grass. On one cast, I was popping with a good cadence, when a bulbous wake emerged from the right side of my popper 15' from the boat and proceeds to bolt like lightning to my left. He had just been sunning himself! No interest in the popper for that fish.

We started to run out of water beneath us on the prolific flat of choice, but more importantly our escape route was drying up faster. We had to cross a shallow stretch to get back to the dock, so we had to call it quits. However, Joe wanted to try one more spot on the way back in. Once in the safety of "deep" water (5 feet?) we were to quickly drift by a shoreline and make every cast count. The tide was pulling water fast around a corner, and the shoreline we faced was tucked up just out of the rapid current. Little schools of 3-4" mullet pushed wakes the surface with their bulky torsos and heads, back and forth along the exposed sod. Holes in the dirt wall where fiddlers took shelter were fully exposed and reminded me of a wall at my old school that I used to run by and drag my fully-extended hand along; the quick covering-and-exposing of the tiny holes in the wall would make a sort of 'bubbly' sound that I found pretty entertaining.
The view on the ride toward spot #2. This feels like home.

I had already made my first cast when Joe spoke up from the poling platform telling me where to focus my next shot. He didn't think I made such a wise choice. Just then, white water erupted from the bank and under my popper. "But CATCH THIS FISH FIRST!" Joe shouted, followed by a self-deprecating laughter for his speaking too quickly and erroneously. But alas, I wouldn't catch that fish, or the next one, or the next one. Tiffany and I must have missed 8 more shots along that drift. Oh well, it's good to know they're there. The heat didn't push them out. And just like my relatives in the area, they're residents of the Garden State...So we'll be back to visit them again.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Summer, pt. II

 Okay, so I hope you enjoyed my last post about honeymooning in the Keys...what an awesome start to summer.

When I got back from Florida, my friend Tom was anxious to show me some of the smallmouth bass spots he'd been scouting with some luck. This is on a small river in central Illinois. He showed me how he presents the fly on a greased line swing, which proved to be the ticket! Tom is a great angler who has a couple decades of flyfishing under his belt. He likes classic flies tied with natural materials. I like whatever works in a given situation.

In this case, we were using crayfish imitations. I tied on the only crappy rendition of a Barr's Meat Whistle I could tie the night before.
They've gotten a lot better looking since, trust me. 

The first smallmouth of summer was a beautiful 18" bronze

And there were a lot of bites when you could find them.
Tom also despises my homemade stripping basket. He's never fished the mid-Atlantic surf...

I love those red eyes.

This month they've switched modes to prefer baitfish patterns. Tom is a big fan of fishing two-fly rigs all season. Mostly he uses a 9' tapered leader + 2' tippet + weighted crayfish pattern, beadhead bugger, or Clouser minnow + muddler minnow, wet fly or unweighted bugger. 

If you ever fall face-first into a smallmouth, this is what you'll see.
I like my pictures like I like my potatoes--mashed.

Whatever Tom does, I try to imitate. It's worked so far. And it's almost time for steelhead around here--Tom's favorite. I'm hoping he calls me...

Monday, September 24, 2012

Quick shark vid

Took a quick video of a small nurse shark that shared the flat with me in Marathon key this summer.

Another summer behind us, more fish ahead

WOW! I really need to get disciplined about posting on here! I have had a hard time squeezing in fishing this season let alone posting about it. Anyway, here is a recap of my summer on the water. This edition will be dedicated to the Florida Keys.

I got married on June 1. What an awesome day that was. But alas, no fishing on the wedding day! I had to wait until we were on our honeymoon in the Florida Keys. My wife, Tiffany, and I, spent the first two days in Miami Beach and then drove down to the Keys. We started the whole shindig with a trip to the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame. 
Tiffany outside IGFA Hall of Fame

It's a small place but very nicely done--my favorite part was simulated fish-catching where you actually fight a mechanical fish while holding a reel rod/reel in your hand. The fish peels line off the reel and then you have to reel as the line goes slack. We had an offshore charter planned to catch mahi mahi and tuna out of Miami Beach on day 2, but the captain's dog ate a poisonous frog and died that morning while he was cleaning the boat, so he cancelled.
Fighting the elusive mechanical tarpon, at my secret indoor honeyhole. 

The Keys abound with beauty at every turn. What an amazing and indescribable place. I tried to capture some of it with my rod and reel, and Tiffany tried to absorb it with the camera. Still, we both put in plenty of hours behind the camera and with rod in hand.

Our first stop was Robbie's Hungry Tarpon restaurant in Islamorada. Here you can feed tarpon from 2-to-200 pounds right from the dock. Just watch out for aggressive pelicans. Or you can eat a delicious meal dockside and watch tarpon cruise by and eat out of other guests' hands. We did both.

He is used to humans. You fear him.  
I could get used to this. 

We fished everywhere from Islamorada down to Big Pine, although we spent time visiting each Key doing other activities. Without a boat but armed with our own spinning and fly gear, we targeted flats and bridges. We even had an expansive flat adjacent to our waterfront B&B in Marathon, so I spent some time wading there. Unfortunately, our week down there was unusually windy for summer in the Keys. Still, we managed to see a ton of fish and catch quite a few to make an interesting mixed bag. On the flats we saw tarpon, permit, bonefish, barracuda, small sharks and various stingrays. Of these, we caught none on the flats. But around the bridges and boat ramps, we managed to catch a number of jacks (Jack Crevalle), Mangrove Snapper, Snook, barracuda, and various Grunts. Some locals despise jacks, but I love them. They are very hard fighters and voracious eaters. One night around sunset I decided to cast a 5" pencil popper, and after a booming hit with cannonball-commensurate splash and few quick jumps, I lost a giant 4-foot-long barracuda to a bent saltwater-grade treble hook.
I think they're pretty. Both of 'em. 

Who's the snapper now?

Capt. Rich Burson of R-U-Fishing-Yet charters showed us around the Everglades and the famed Islamorada bridges. Just our luck, this day happened to be the windiest day of the trip. Winds blew 20-30 kts all day, picking up through the afternoon. We started out in the Everglades grass flats fishing "muds." Muds are areas that appear silty or cloudy because hundreds (sometimes thousands) of fish are feeding on creatures in the grass, releasing sand and mud into the water. 
Trout mud.

These muds can be acres in surface area. Where we fished, the muds were full of Ladyfish and Spotted Seatrout. People like to talk smack about Ladyfish (because they are more aggressive than the Redfish and Snook you are casting at and will steal the fly/bait away), but they fight hard and put on an aerial acrobatic show. We caught Ladyfish from 0.5lbs to huge 6+ lb'ers. We kept a bunch of these in the livewell to be used as live and cut bait for Tarpon later in the day. Tiffany stuck with the spinning rod, but I caught plenty of fish on the fly, including a nice 17" seatrout we ended up keeping for dinner (see the pic of prepared blackened fish). I caught a 20" trout on spinning gear that we released.
Transformer Trout (turned into lunch)

Released this 20"'er

Tiff & Trout

Around the mangrove shorelines, we looked for snook, but found a ton of Mangrove Snappers. We kept a 12"er for dinner in addition to the seatrout. That was enough of a fish kill for us. I don't typically keep fish, but in the salt I will take a few to be prepared fresh. Robbie's in Islamorada did a heck of a job for us on the Seatrout and Snapper.
Robbie's turned our catch into nom-noms

We made our way back to the Keys bridges to look for hungry Tarpon to eat our Ladyfish. After getting robbed of bait and hook twice by an enormous Barracuda, we motored to a different bridge, anchored, and dropped chunks of Ladyfish in the current behind the boat to lure the Tarpon near our live baits. To put it shortly, it worked! Tiffany hooked up with an estimated 140lb'er and fought it--her first ever Tarpon--for 50 minutes! It was a heck of a fight and I was amazed that despite all the pain and obvious agony, she never quit. She never tried to pass me the rod. This is just one reason I love my wife!
Tiff 20 minutes into the fight

50 minutes and it's a caught fish!

Estimated 140#

See you again bud!

We also did a snorkel trip at Looe Key (an offshore coral reef) where we got an even more intimate look at giant Tarpon, Barracuda, sharks, Yellowtail Snapper, and other fish species. 

Looe Key Reef

Sea Chubs

On the final day, we woke up very early to fish one last time on a great early morning tides. It was one of those times where first light and peak tide meet. So we begrudgingly woke up, zombied our way to the car with car, and drove 15 miles to the spot. And THAT'S when I realized I hadn't put the rods in the car. Sometimes you have to pause to watch the sunrise. The universe reminded me of that lesson that morning. 

What an awesome trip.