Thursday, September 7, 2017

NEKF Striper Shootout 2017: Recap

Last year, I got to participate in my first ever New England Kayak Fishing Striper Shootout. The annual event takes place in Salem, MA, and all the proceeds go to charity, specifically, the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It attracts tons of kayak anglers from all over New England, including many of the biggest names in the sport. In 2016, I was fortunate enough to finish third in the fly fishing division with a 26" striper. This year, my goal was a 30" fish and to finish higher than last year. I guess one out of two isn't bad. Here is recap of my 2017 NEKF Striper Shootout.

The Wildy team at the event (minus Tom Adams)

MM, Cullen, and I got to Salem on Thursday afternoon and settled into our AirBnB before chowing on some local seafood. After putting Cullen to bed, I snuck out to hit the water. In actuality, I never launched the kayak. At low tide, I was able to drive to a few spots in Salem and Marblehead and see different channels, structures, and contours just before dark. I also located a couple spots where I could launch fairly easily and park overnight. After stop number 4, I had a game plan and opted to head back for a good night of sleep.

This year, my strategy was fairly simple. I wanted to fish the incoming tide in an area with some rocky points and gradually fish to another area I found last year that I was confident would hold some fish on the outgoing tide. Unfortunately, a wave of thunderstorms was projected to hit the region. Before registration, the storms were supposed to hold off until 5-6 AM, but by the time we had eaten dinner, the storms had shifted and were projected to hit between 9 and 10 PM. Although that timeline disrupted my plan, it gave me plenty of time to setup and fish the outgoing tide. So after prepping my gear, MM and I began binge watching "Orange is the New Black" on Netflix while I impatiently checked my phone and braced for the impending weather. However, the rain never came, and suddenly around 8:30 PM, the storms projected over Salem disappeared from the radar map. I threw on my gear, kissed MM goodbye, and headed for the water.

We got to visit the oldest candy company in the US, where Cullen got his first chocolate

I launched and began a 2.5 mile paddle to my first spot, stopping only briefly to throw a few casts around a school of bait I saw moving near a long dock with bright lights. Those casts produced nothing, and I eagerly finished the paddle to my intended starting spot. I began casting a 6" articulated streamer in a general baitfish pattern with mixed white, pink, and olive colors. On my first cast, a small schoolie flashed at the fly without hooking up. It was a sign of things to come. On my next cast, I allowed the fly to sink a little longer and slowed my retrieve, making short, abrupt strips. Midway back to the boat, my line went tight, and I set the hook into a small but tenacious little striper. The 14" fish was a start. I snapped a couple quick photos on the measuring board and watched the little guy dart off under my kayak.

My first striper of night one

On my next cast, I landed a 16.5 incher, which I also photographed. It turned out to be my last photo of the night, but not my last fish. I ended up landing fish on three more consecutive casts, and over the next two hours, I would land 41 stripers ranging between approximately 12" and 18". Although small, catching that many fish on the fly in the middle of the night from a kayak was insanely fun. Then, another wrench got thrown into my plans.

My second striper, and last photo, of night one

I began to see what I originally thought were small baitfish or baby squid darting around in massive schools. They were pinkish red, and many had black heads. However, I eventually caught one in my hand and realized they were worms -- slimy, creepy little worms. I suspected that they hatched in the warm backwater pools and were being pushed out with the current. They were everywhere, and the striper had clearly shifted from eating baitfish to eating these worms. I tied on a small red and orange clouser minnow and started casting it, but despite using a variety of retrieves, I didn't fool anything.

Stripers were rising everywhere eating these worms, but despite trying a variety of flies, areas, and techniques, nothing was working, Clearly, the fish were dialed in on the worms. Although it was an awesome spectacle to behold, it was beyond frustrating. Around 2:30 AM, I packed up my gear and headed back to our rental.  Still, the night would throw me one last curveball. About midway back, I was thinking about my strategy for the next night when it hit me: I had forgotten my identifier in the pictures. I couldn't help but laugh. I had the best night of striper fishing of my life, at least in terms of quantity, and I didn't have a single qualifying picture to show for it. Suddenly, my game plan for night two changed.

I cannot say enough about the ATAK 140

After picking up a couple hours of sleep, I began to think about my strategy. I decided I would rather put a fish on the board versus going for broke, so I decided  I would return to the same area as night one long enough to land a few and then move to another totally different area to look for bigger fish. However, I wasn't going back to the first area without a better plan of attack for fishing the worm hatch. A quick Google search was loaded with interesting info, much of which confirmed my suspicions. The worms are called cinder worms, and they are a notorious and fairly rare phenomenon in New England. The "hatch" isn't really a hatch, but instead a spawning ritual. When the temperature and lunar phase get right, the worms become active and come out of the mud in backwater areas. The current then carries them to sea, and they spawn along the way. These periods make for notoriously tough fishing due to all the bait in the water, but multiple articles noted that dedicated anglers can fool big fish. So, I scoped out a few worm patterns online and began to formulate some ideas. I had some materials with me, but my supplies were limited, so I made a quick trip to Orvis to grab a couple flies and some materials. In the end, I had four cinder worm flies made of different materials, but they were all floating or slow sinking flies with black heads and red bodies in the 3"-4" range. Admittedly, a couple looked much better than the others, but as I would soon find out, looks can be deceiving.

I'm not sure which one of us was more excited to visit the Orvis store

I launched from a different spot on night two, and after a short paddle, I was making long casts along a channel edge. Although the fish were around, they were clearly sluggish. I was getting a lot of short strikes and lazy strikes, as well as follows and flashes with no hook ups. Finally, I hooked and landed a 14.5" fish. The schoolie must have felt extra special after the 6+ photos--this time with identifier front and center. Two fish later, I hung a 15.5 incher and snapped a couple photos before the release. I ended up with seven fish before the bite seemed to shut off. Then, I expected the cinder worm bite to take over. Although I was seeing thousands of worms in the water, the fish didn't seem to be feeding as heavily as they were on the first night. I was hoping that would actually work to my advantage. In this case, I think the worms were more bunched up than the night before, so I paddled to what seemed to be the front of the worm hatch and began casting.

My first fish of night two

A few fish were clearly cruising around and sporadically feeding. I was trying to target single feeding fish with a rabbit strip fly, but was having no luck. I then switched to a worm pattern with a really basic body and foam tail section. I serrated the tail to give it more action. After a few casts near some feeding fish, I made a couple quick strips followed by a long pause. Suddenly, I saw my line begin to go tight. I strip set, and immediately a fish began to pull drag. In my experience, that is the sign of a bigger striper. The little fish like to shake their heads to try and spit the hook. The big fish just rip drag and use brute force before trying the head shake technique later. The fish would make a run, then I would get some line back. Then we would repeat the dance. Every muscle in each forearm was burning as I fought the brute on my 7 wt., the lightest rod I had brought for the weekend. Eventually, the fish came boatside, and I knew it was a nice upgrade. The 25" fish had a big old gut that I presume was full of cinder worms.

My biggest fish of the shootout

Unfortunately, the fish had bit/broke the tail off my fly. Thankfully, I had one more similar fly, so I tied it on and began casting again. About fifteen minutes later, I hooked into another fish, this one measuring around 20". Unfortunately, the fish bit/broke the tail off of the other fly. I am not sure if it was due to the worms seemingly overwhelming the channel or the fact that my only productive flies were in pieces, but that would end up being my last fish of the night. I did lose one fish that hit on a long pause and ripped drag, but I never got a good hookset. It felt like a nice fish, but I will never know for sure. I was back to the apartment around 4:30 AM and was able to pick up a few hours of sleep before Cullen was up for the day and making his presence known.

After cleaning up, we headed for Winter Island. I checked in my fish, and we visited with folks for a few hours while feasting on some delicious BBQ. I really  had no idea how I did, as most reports were either of tough fishing or giant fish. When it came time for the announcements, third place in the fly division went to Rick Hacker with a 20.25" fish. My name was next in second place, and first place went to repeat champ Joe Gugino with a 29-incher. On the Water magazine posted a full recap last week of all the winners in all the divisions. Needless to say, there were some impressive fish caught, including a bunch of mid-40" fish that didn't place in the open division.

Despite the physical toll this event takes (my stripping hand was all sorts of achy), it is one of my favorites. I think its partly because I don't feel a lot of pressure at this event. Sure, I want to do well, but it is such a different challenge compared to the freshwater fishing I typical do, and I love that. Particularly, I love the learning aspect of it. I like to pick the brains of the guys who fish the area regularly and chase giant stripers all the time. It is just really fun. Plus, what other event lets you fish all night, sleep a little, eat seafood all day, and then repeat the process!

After a few days of saltwater fishing, this is what the drying rack gets used for

This year was filled with extra learning. I went in hoping to land a giant striper on a big fancy 9" articulated fly, and I left with my biggest fish caught on what boiled down to a 4" strip of foam with some yarn wrapped around it that I colored with a sharpie. It certainly wasn't the prettiest, but sometimes, we as anglers get caught up in how a bait or fly looks in our hand versus in the water. Also, I know this probably sounds like a shameless plug, but I cannot get enough of the ATAK 140. I love my new Radar 135 with Helix PD pedal drive, but for fly fishing, stability, paddlabilty, and features, the ATAK 140 is really in a league of its own.

Like last year, we headed down to Rhode Island for a few days at the beach after the event ended. It was a great ending to the trip filled with more seafood and a couple beach naps.

More seafood feasts...check!

                       Family shot...even if someone was distracted                                          Did I mention beach naps?!

Loving the big waves on the last day

Until next time, tight lines!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Case for No Electronics

I recently wrote an article for the Wilderness Systems website stating my case for fishing without electronics, at least sometimes, if not much more often. The piece can be read at the following link:
In the morning, I had a fish finder on my kayak. In the afternoon, I ditched it and just went fishing. This was the second fish of the afternoon. For various reasons, I haven't used a fish finder since.

Generally, I prefer informative or "how to" writing, but I really enjoyed writing this subjective piece. In it, I tried to emphasize that by no means I am suggesting that electronics aren't valuable fishing tools. However, I think they become a crutch at times, and even a hindrance, depending on where you fish, your strengths and style of fishing, and numerous other factors. Additionally, as I noted earlier on Facebook, I give serious props to the guys who regularly crush it fishing almost entirely based on electronics (Eric "Slappy" Harrison immediately comes to mind). So, please consider this a food for thought piece and keep an open mind. I hope you enjoy it! Tight lines!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Five Ice Out Techniques to Land Big Bass

People complain too much about winter. I might at times, but it is a great time to catch up on projects, like a full renovation of a new (to us) fixer upper house or baby proofing for a 9.5 month old who is on the move. However, I am more than happy to see winter go, as spring means flowers, grass, and open water! To commemorate ice out this year, I wrote up a fairly in-depth blog for Wilderness Systems about how I approach ice out fishing. I think people complicate ice out too often, and although it can certainly be tough, stay patient and spend a little extra time looking for those keys area. It less about covering water, and more about finding and picking apart productive water. Below is the intro to the article.

"As winter finally fades, many kayak anglers throughout New England and other regions are getting to see open water for the first time in months. The period between ice out and the spawn is short in many of these areas, so the fish do not take long to get active and start feeding. Largemouth bass generally use channels, troughs, and ditches to move toward shallow areas that warm quickly. Smallmouths tend to school up around deep to intermediate structure before the pre-spawn kicks into full gear. These fish can be targeted with just a few lures, a depth finder or lake map, and some patience, and this is how."

The rest of the blog can be found over at the Wilderness Systems blog (click to re-direct and read). I hope you enjoy! Tight lines!

Monday, February 20, 2017

DIY European Whitetail Deer Mount

A do-it-yourself Euro mount of my buck from this year didn't sound too hard. After all, I'd seen a few of my friends on Facebook do it. Yet, as I sit here now, freshly done with the process, the $75 fee to have it done by someone else doesn't sound too bad. I'm going to step you through the process of my homemade European mount, and you can decide for yourself if you want to go the DIY route.

Step 1 - harvest a nice buck

First, I'll start by saying that I shot the buck in early December. I knew I wouldn't get to the mount until the end of the season at the earliest, so I cleaned a lot of the meat from the neck and hung it in the (unheated) barn. I guess I could have made room in a freezer for it, but that would have been a real pain given the antlers. Eventually, the season ended, and I had to catch up on other projects, so the head hung for another couple of weeks. Finally, it was time to give it a go. I watched a number of YouTube videos and read a number of articles about the cleaning process. Honestly, a lot of the articles simply were not helpful. They either weren't detailed enough or were only convenient if you have certain tools/equipment that I don't have. However, this video was far and away my favorite: Not only was it informative, simple, and detailed, but the guy in the video has a sweet western PA accent. In addition, like this video, I don't have immediate access to a pressure washer or air compressor--two tools that are often cited as "necessities" in so many Euro mount articles. Although they certainly would have helped at times, a little extra time, effort, and elbow grease did the trick.

Overall, the head had a bit of a funk to it, mainly smelling like decaying meat, especially when I peeled off the skin. However, it really wasn't that bad...until I got to the mouth. At that point, a pungent smell that I won't soon forget wafted into my nostrils. The tongue had begun to decay...and it wreaked. Plus, it had partially turned to mush and coated parts of the mouth. So, in step 1, as soon as you decide you want to do a mount (i.e., when the deer is still fresh), cut the tongue out of the deer. The brain also began to turn to mush. Although gross, it didn't smell that bad, and it actually made it fairly easy to remove, but more on that later.

It took about 40 minutes to remove the skin and cut some of the bigger chunks of meat from the skull. At this point, the only tool I had a used was a small skinning knife. I prefer a small knife that is easy to finesse into small spaces and around delicate features. In addition, I highly recommend having a picture of a Euro mount in front of you, especially if you haven't done one before. Parts of the skull, such as the nose and sensory pits, are easy to break or mangle. Plus, a picture provides a good reference for identifying features of the skull that aren't necessarily common knowledge, which will help in the cleaning process. With my head "fairly clean", I went outside to start the fire.

In the video above, water is boiled on a hot plate, and many articles recommend using a turkey fryer. I don't own either of those items, and I certainly wasn't going to do it inside on the stove, so I planned ahead to do it over a fire. Thankfully, we have a couple nice fire pits at our house. I had saved a box of wrapping paper to get the fire started, to which I added the Christmas tree and some logs from our land. The fire was ripping in no time. Still, it took about 45 minutes to get the water in a 17 gallon tin wash bin (full of approximately 14 to 15 gallons of water) to get to a simmer. I also added a quick squirt of dish soap into the water to help breakdown oils on the skull.

Boiling the skull in the yard and enjoying the day and view

While the water was heating, I went back inside and grabbed some electrical tape. I used the tape to wrap the bottom 3"-4" of each antler. Although I wasn't using any sort of bleach or chemical in the water, the antlers have quite a bit of dried plant material on them from the buck rubbing trees, and I wanted to preserve it as much as possible. I then zip tied the antlers onto a long branch, placed the branch across the wash bin, and put the skull under water. I will warn you, do not fasten the zip ties too tight, as you may want to adjust the skull a bit during the boiling and cleaning process. I then set a timer for 2.5 hours and headed back inside to spend time with the family, although I did pop back out every 30 minutes or so to add wood to the fire.

After the 2.5 hours, I removed the skull from the water and began cleaning. At this point, I was using a mix of a knife, needle nose pliers, hemostats, and a wire brush. Although I was able to clean off a bit more meat, cartilage, and membrane, it needed more time in the water. However, the lower jaw did pop right off, and the eyes weren't too tough to remove. In hindsight, I would give the skull at least 4 hours (maybe even 5 or 6) during the first "slow boil". So, back in it went for another 2 hours.

The work station after the first 2.5 hour soak

Finally, I grabbed the skull again and removed as much material as possible. However, it was simply too dark to continue working on it. Although the area I was working in is well lit, it is lit by one large spotlight-style bulb that casts shadows that made it difficult to effectively work, especially around delicate areas like the nose cavity. So, I threw the skull in a box and stored it in a heated area overnight, mainly because I was worried that the water in the skull would freeze and lead to damage if left in the barn. If you plan on doing your Euro mount the long way (i.e., without a pressure washer or compressor), start the process early in the morning. However, even if you get all of the meat and material removed in one day and are ready to whiten the skull, I would let it sit overnight to dry, then wipe the skull with a rag to remove any residual oils.

Back to the fire for more soak time

The next day after work I grabbed the skull again for an hour or so of cleaning before dark. Although some of the material had become overly dry and hard, I was able to remove a lot more material, including a lot that came off easily using a wire brush. In addition, I used a screw driver to essentially scramble anything and everything in the brain cavity. I then ran water from a spigot into the cavity to flush out the material. I repeated this process 3-4 times, and afterward, it looked pretty good. The biggest problem area remained the back of the skull near the "ear lobes". I tried to remove the lobes as noted in the video above, but they simply weren't ready yet. Specifically, I put needle nose pliers in the lobes and tried to twist and work them free, but it just did not happen. I recommend using short pliers instead of long pliers during this step, as the long pliers wanted to flex and bend. I knew I had to remove more material, so I put the skull back in hot water.

This time, I wasn't doing another fire, and my wife was kind enough to let me do it in the kitchen since there wasn't much left to do. Thankfully, it didn't really smell, and two hours at a steady simmer did the trick. Some chunks of meat and material came off in the hot bath, and the rest of the meat was fairly easily removed with pliers, forceps, and a wire brush. Additionally, the ear lobes popped right off (see detailed instructions in the video above). At that point, it was time to prep the peroxide bath. Initially, I mixed a concoction of peroxide, baking soda, and water. It formed a paste that I used to coat the skull. I then let it sit for a few hours. Unfortunately, it didn't really do the trick. So, I decided to mix a batch of peroxide and water in approximately a 1:1 ratio. Note that you will need two important things during this step: an ideal size bin and a lot of peroxide. Some folks heat their peroxide-water mixture, but I kept the mixture at room temperature to avoid antler discoloration caused by the steam. After eventually finding a plastic bin that was a decent size (tall sides, long enough to fit the skull, and fairly narrow), I added the peroxide and water. I only had three bottles of peroxide (two "regular" bottles and one with a spray nozzle), so I could only cover about 1/4 of the skull, but thankfully, I was able to completely cover the teeth and most of the nasal cavity. I then regularly sprayed the skull with about a 60:40 peroxide-water mixture and also poured the mixture in the bottom of the bin over the skull every hour or so. I let the skull sit and doused it for about 36 hours. At that point, the skull wasn't bleach white, but I felt it was the perfect tone--white enough to look clean, but off-white enough to look natural. I really don't like the look of the uber white skulls.

The skull soaking in a whitening mixture

Mounting the skull was pretty easy. I used a piece of old barn wood, a 4" decking screw, a 7/64" drill bit, and a drill based on the video linked above. I drilled pilot holes in the board and skull. Then, I put the screw through the wood and into the skull. I added a hangar on the back, and the process was finished. Although this is probably obvious for most, make sure that you hang the mount in a stud or using an anchor of some sort. Additionally, I will note that I drilled everything at a slight angle because I liked that look better. A more vertical mount limits what you can see of the the more intricate parts of the skull, and after all the work that went into it, that seemed like a real waste.

The finished project hanging in the nursery

So, would I do it again? I think I would, but I would ABSOLUTELY borrow a pressure washer. I would even go down to the local gas station with a pocket full of quarters and use the air compressor. Additionally, I would tweak some of the "boil' times (particularly, a longer first soak), and I would definitely clean the skull more before starting the process. If you are going to do everything by hand, buy forceps with large finger holes. The ones I used were what I generally use for fly fishing, but they got really annoying during skull picking because of how poorly they fit and moved on my fingers.

I hope this blog helps you on your quest for the "perfect" DIY Euro mount of your next deer. It is quite the process, but it is totally worth it. Until next time, tight lines!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Massachusetts Fish & Wildlife Video - The Value of Hunters and Anglers

A lot of folks out there still have mixed feelings about hunting, and even fishing, due to the nature of the sports. If you are like me, your reasons for hunting and fishing are numerous and diverse, and it is important for people to know why we hunt and fish, as well as the benefits of hunting and fishing. This recent video from Mass. Fish and Wildlife did a great job of conveying just how much outdoorsmen and women do for conservation and preservation in MA. Hopefully, we can continue to see progressive strategies and management from MA Wildlife in the future!