Monday, August 29, 2016

My 2016 NEKF Striper Shootout - Giant flies and Linesides

A few months ago, Troy Meyerhoeffer (my regional pro staff director at Wilderness Systems) asked me if I would be interested in fishing the New England Kayak Fishing Striper Shootout this year. The annual event takes place in Salem, MA, and all the proceeds go to charity, namely, 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. I said yes, noting that I was worried that I would be exhausted from taking care of the new baby. "Don't worry", Troy responded. "We don't sleep anyway." I laughed, not knowing whether to be concerned or assured. Since pretty much all the fishing I've done this year has been fly fishing, I decided to enter the fly division. So, on Friday, I packed the truck full of gear and luggage and Cullen, Mary May, and I headed for Salem. Baby's first road trip!


 Touring around Salem, MA

I should preface this story by noting a bit about my background that some may not know. I've paddled lakes and rivers in over 20 states, including some fairly big water and whitewater. However, I had only paddled in saltwater twice prior to last Friday and never truly fished the salt. I was slightly intimidated by the stories of the tides, currents, and waves on the New England coast. Still, what better way to learn than the hard way.

I spent weeks before the event researching different areas near Salem. Using Navionics, satellite imagery, striper articles, and message board posts, I came up with a tentative game plan. However, I was not nearly as prepared as usual, largely because I had just started back to work after paternity leave, and baby was still keeping both my wife and I busy almost around the clock. Additionally, I wouldn't get to pre-fish due to work obligations. Thankfully, fellow Wildy teammate Eric Hromada offered to let me pick his brain a few days before heading to Salem. Not only did he reassure me that some of the areas I had scouted were good places to try, but he also answered a variety of questions about tides, currents, flies, bait fish, and various other subjects. Without him, I would have been a lot more nervous before the event. He is a prime example of the awesomeness of the kayak fishing community and a great teammate. Troy also gave me some pre-tourney advice, and the folks at Concord Outfitters recommended a couple flies on the way to the coast. Of course, we also talked a bit about catching trout here in western MA.


Baby is addicted to feeling that coastal breeze through his hair
 

Another important pre-story detail is that I hadn't done any major paddling in approximately 3-4 months. Outside of a few short river trips in the Deerfield, my fishing was either wading or non-existent. Given my out of shapeness, I knew I would be feeling it after a few days of hard paddling and casting big flies. As it turns out, I was right, but more on that later.

We got to Salem and settled in at our hotel before heading to registration. Salem was a nice little town, filled with different "districts" and lots of interesting history. After checking in at Winter Island and shooting the breeze with some of my Wildy teammates, we grabbed a quick dinner and I bid adieu to the family. I was headed to try and catch some river fish.

I finally got in the water around 7 PM and made about a 2 mile paddle to get to the area I wanted to start in. Unfortunately, it was close to low tide (the tides in the area are 10'-12'), and there didn't seem to be much going on. I began working a rocky drop off with a 6.5" foam head minnow. About thirty minutes into fishing, I felt a fish grab the fly and shake its head a few times. I didn't get a great hook set, and moments later, the fish was gone. I was bummed the fish had got away, but excited to have had a bite. However, the next few hours were a different story. For almost four hours I made cast after cast after cast with no luck. I tried flats as the tide rose, drops, oyster bars, rocky shorelines, and pretty much everything else I could find. I simply couldn't get bit. At this point, I was wishing I had some electronics, as I was one of few competitors out there chasing fish without a depth/fish finder.


 A nearly full moon over Salem


Eventually, I decided to make a paddle to spot that looked good on the map. After getting to the general area, I checked my Navionics app to see the depth contours. I noticed that the area was called "The Ruins". As I cast, I started thinking about how fishy that name sounded, until I thought of it in the context of the history of Salem. Ruins of what exactly? Suddenly, an eerie feeling came over me and I bolted without hesitation.

Frustrated, I decided to change things up. It was time to get back to basics. First, I decided to start relying on visual cues. Second, I decided that if I was going to get skunked, I was at least going to try throwing a surface fly. So, I swapped spools on one of my rods, cut off the deceiver pattern, and tied on a pole dancer variation created by my buddy Levi. I could see bait fish moving near a dock, and on the second cast a 10" striper blasted the fly out of the water. Although it didn't get hooked, it gave me a newfound jolt of energy. After all, it was past midnight...and past my bedtime.

Not long after, the tide swung from high tide to outgoing. I set up in an area with numerous current breaks and lots of artificial light. The light was attracting bait fish. I would throw the fly into the shadows and slowly work it into the light before stripping it back to the boat at various speeds. Before long, I saw a shadow behind the fly, promptly followed by an explosion. Fish on! I can't imagine how silly the grin on my face must have looked as the schoolie striper burst to the surface and proceeded to pull me around...andI didn't care either. As I worked the fish to the boat, I noticed another fish with him - a fish that was clearly larger than the one hooked up. After a fun fight, I got the fish to the boat. Measuring stripers turned out to be quite the chore, and I have no idea how guys get good measuring board pics of giant fish. After snapping a few of my 17-incher, I revived him for a second and watched him swim away.


Note the ever-important Mt Dew in the cup holder


Now I was intent on catching his running mate. I made 3 or 4 casts in the same area, but with no luck. I was almost ready to move when a fish comes out of nowhere and train wrecks the fly, jumps about 2 feet into the air, and starts pulling drag. It turns out that my silly grin could get bigger. This fish pulled drag off my 8 weight fly rod as if the fly stuck in his mouth was nothing more than a nuisance. He pulled me around as a few shore anglers watched and laughed. Eventually, he tired out and I got him in the boat for a few quick pictures, upgrading to 25.5".


Slowly upgrading


I worked the area for an hour or so more with no luck. At this point, it was almost 2 AM, and I was ready to start heading back toward the launch. I fished along the way, managing two more missed connections, as well as 19" and 20" bass. Still, I never could get on or stay on a big school. I got to the launch around 3:30 AM and noticed that the outgoing current had formed a funnel area not far away. It looked like a scene from a freshwater river or trout stream, a large current chute with rocky eddies on each side. For the first time all day, I truly felt like I was in the right place. As I paddled closer, I began to hear and see fish busting the surface. I pulled up in an eddy and began casting the surface fly. Pop, pop, pop...nothing. I grabbed the foam head minnow and made a cast. Strip, strip, strip...zzzziinnnnggg. The drag took off. It took everything I had to keep my boat in the eddy and out of the ripping current, but luckily the fish made a run into a backwater area. From the way it was fighting, I was sure it was a 30+" fish. Every time I had him close, he would rip 20-40 feet of line back out. The fight lasted over 12 minutes, and I'm not sure who was more exhausted by the end. My forearms (I switched the rod from one arm to the other) felt like jelly. My hands could barely grip the rod. When I finally saw the fish, I shocked and almost a little let down. Although 3-4 lbs heavier than the 25.5" fish from earlier, it only measured 26". I pulled up on some rocks to snap a few photos before releasing the brute.


 My biggest fish of the weekend, which felt so much bigger!
 

On my next cast, I landed a 24" bass and proceeded to lose two more before the frenzy ended. Around 4:45 AM I decided to load up and launch from a different spot. However, by the time I got in the truck I changed my mind. It was time to get some sleep. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I rolled into the hotel a little after 5 AM, slightly delirious and walking like a zombie. Oddly, I had a hard time falling asleep, but after I did, not even the cries of a newborn could wake me.

I woke up around 9:30 AM. Cullen and MM were awake in the other room, and we were all eager to get breakfast. Actually, I was less hungry than I was keen on getting some food in my stomach so I could pop some Advil. We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon exploring some of the town and scouting some potential launches for later that day/night. Although I had caught some fish in the river, I really wanted to get out in the harbor and coastal area if possible. We gorged on calamari and fried clams at the Salem Willows Park, people watched, and walked the shoreline before returning for a brief nap.


 Throwing down on some fried local seafood


I still wasn't sure where to fish that night, but Eric reported that the wind had made fly fishing nearly impossible in the harbor. After the checking the weather report, I decided to avoid the washing machine waves and again hit the river, which also happened to be Eric's advice. I met another teammate, Alex Post, at a new launch around 6:30 PM. I actually felt pretty good to begin the night and eagerly began casting.

It was close to low tide again, so I figured anything early would be a real bonus. Unfortunately, the water in the river dirtied up as the night progressed. For whatever reason, it seemed to be shutting down my bite. I fished hard through the night, with nothing to show. I second guessed a few choices, including not making a run to the funnel area, but I felt like I was in the right spots, despite the lack of fish. Eventually, I landed 15" and 18" fish on the edge of a flat on the falling tide and just before the sun rose. I then watched stripers blowing up on bait fish nearby for twenty minutes or more, but no matter what I tried, I just couldn't get a bite. I also noticed that at this point, I was beginning to lose steam. I was making dumb little mistakes, the kind that occur when you are too tired to acknowledge how exhausted your mind and body are. My stripping hand was throbbing in pain between my index and middle fingers, to the point it hurt to retrieve my line. All weekend I had refused to troll my fly (its just not my style, and I don't think it is legit fly fishing), and making cast after cast and strip after strip in a kayak in the dark had really taken a toll on my hands. Around 6:30 AM, I decided to call it a tournament.



A selfie from the beach at Winter Island

After 3 hours of sleep, I packed up, got the family ready, and headed for the check-in. I talked to Eric, who was also in the fly division, and he told me how tough it had been for he and numerous others. Although I was hoping it deep down, he reaffirmed that my fish might have a chance. After everyone checked in, they called up the top finishers to inspect and download their photos. To my excitement, I heard my name.

Then came the worst part - waiting. I ate my fair share of delicious BBQ and re-checked my ticket about fifty times during the raffle (with no luck). Finally, it was time to announce the winners. I'll start by saying there were tons of impressive fish caught in all divisions (youth, fly, open, and artificial). My name was called for third place in the fly division, and given everything involved, that goofy grin crept right back on to my face. I believe second place was 31" and first was 33", so I have some work to do next year. However, I got beat by two locals who fish the waters multiple times a week and are part of the local guide crowd, so I felt pretty good about where I landed. Wildy teammate and guide Mike Baker caught a 46" fish that won the open division. As if that wasn't impressive enough, he caught a 50+" trophy the night before the tourney started. I hadn't met Mike before the event, but I can tell you how excited I was to see him win. He is one of those guys who puts in the work and time, so it is really rewarding to see guys like that do well. Troy also caught a giant the night before the event.


 Mike Baker and I posing in front of the Wildy booth
 

Eric Harrison, who has been featured on this blog before, took second in the artificial division with a 48" giant. The biggest overall fish was 48.5". A huge tip of the hat to NEKF and everyone who put on the event. Everything was top notch and all for a great cause. After everything wrapped up, we all loaded up again and headed south to visit with family and spend a few days at the Rhode Island coast.


Lobster rolls for days!


A few people have already asked about some of the flies that worked well for me and what gear I used. My top flies included the 6" pole dancer spin-off in white and chartreuse, the 6.5" articulated foam head minnow in white with a rattle, and a 7" olive and white clouser minnow. Those were the three flies I caught fish on. I also tried a couple eel patterns, a squid pattern, and various bait fish patterns, with no luck; however, I think all could be productive at the right time. I was using 5'-7' 15 lb to 20 lb fluorocarbon and monofilament leaders that I hand tie. I had two rod and reel set-ups that I used throughout the weekend. The first was a 9 weight TFO BVK with an Allen Alpha III (size 4) reel. I had two spools, one with 350 grain Rio sink tip line and the other with 9 wt Rio Bonefish floating line. The second was an 8 weight Scott A4 with a Montana Fly Co. Madison II (7-8 wt) reel. I had two spools for it as well, one with 300 grain Rio sink tip line and other other with 8 wt Rio Bonefish floating line. Overall, I thought everything performed quite well. At times, I felt like the 350 grain was slightly much for the BVK. Maybe it was me, but it seems like the rod is best suited for a 325 grain line, at least when used from a kayak. I found it tough to get a nice quiet presentation at long distances, but again, it could be caster error. I also thought that the 8 wt Rio Bonefish was slightly slow to load on the A4, even thought the line is supposedly "upweighted" by .25 weights. Still, I am going to try the 9 wt Bonefish line on that rod soon to see how it does. I actually never ended up casting the Rio Bonefish 9 wt on the 9 wt BVK, so the jury is still out on that pair. I can say that the 300 grain sink tip on the A4 was ridiculously easy to cast. I mean crazy distance with little effort - definitely a winning combo.

On a gear-related note, I've talked at length about my love of the ATAK 140. This tournament further cemented that feeling. I stood and cast most of the weekend in all sorts of wakes, waves, currents, winds, and tides. The boat is an amazing all-around kayak, but it is just about perfect for fly anglers.


Nothing like loading your new hardware into a baby stroller


Now that I've had a few days to let the entire experience sink in, I've been thinking of a couple things. First, I've noticed a few things that separate great anglers from good anglers. These things allow you to go anywhere and succeed on any new body of water and in any conditions: preparation, effort, and willingness to learn (specifically, the hard way). Today in kayak fishing, I see so many guys who want everything handed to them. They don't want to work for it or put in the time to explore and fail and learn. But the guys who do always seem to show up with fish when no-one is catching or big fish when everyone is catching. I'll be the first to say that I got my butt kicked most of the time in Salem, but I learned so much and can reflect on it in a really positive way. I paddled over 15 miles, made hundreds of casts, and left it all on the water - giving it everything I possibly could. In no way am I saying that seasoned kayak anglers shouldn't be role models that go out of their way to help beginner kayakers. I'll be the first to offer info and advice to anyone who asks, but while some things are learned, others are earned.

Second, I don't know what I'd have felt like out there were it not for one simple exercise - the pull-up. Pull-ups are just about the only strength exercise I've done in the past few months (other than hauling around a baby), often doing 5-6 sets of 6-10 with different grips/hand placements every 2-3 days. If there is a better exercise for paddlers, I'd love to hear about it (although thrusters are a close second).

Third, I've had some thoughts regarding paddles and recent paddle fads, but I'll save those for next week.

I'll leave you with a few more pics from the trip.

 Great Aunt Betty and Uncle Martin spending some time with Cullen

 Homemade seafood pasta

 Walking the beach in Misquamicut, RI

 Snuggling with daddy during the weigh-in

 Little man looking sharp in his new beach outfit

Until next time, tight lines!

Friday, August 26, 2016

10-day Fish Pic Challenge - Day 6 - Susquehanna Catfish

Sorry for the interruption in my 10-day challenge blog posts. I've been traveling with limited internet access. However, a belated day 6 takes us back to my roots in central Pennsylvania. As a teenager, I waded or canoed the Susquehanna River and its tributaries at least once a week during the warmer months, and fairly often during the colder months as well. In August 2011, I got to fish a stretch just north of Harrisburg with my father and (now) wife. We caught a bunch of solid smallies that day, including a really nice fish pictured in the original post. However, the highlight was seeing Mary May and my father both land gorgeous cats on light tackle. Mary May's beast of a channel cat hit a 1/8 oz spinnerbait and hunkered down in a shoal. She originally thought she was snagged, but we eventually felt a head shake, which was followed by an awesome fight. Dad caught his blue cat on an inline spinner. I miss that fishery. Hopefully, we can all do it again soon!



Wednesday, August 17, 2016

10-day Fish Pic Challenge - Day 5 - Roanoke Bass

Day 5 of the fish pic challenge is a fish that is near and dear to my heart - the Roanoke bass. I caught my first Roanoke shortly after moving to central NC in the summer of 2008. Given their similar appearance, I thought it was a Rock bass; however, I was quickly corrected after posting a picture online. The Roanoke bass is a unique species of bass, although more of a sunfish than a black bass, that lives in only a handful of watersheds in NC and VA. This one wasn't particularly big, but it had gorgeous spawning colors.




Over the course of my time in NC, I caught numerous Roanokes, including many that surpassed the IGFA world record. Coincidentally, the IGFA record is 1 lb 5 oz, but the NC state record is 2 lbs 11 oz. The VA record is listed as 2 lbs 9 oz. I have heard numerous stories as to why those state record fish aren't recognized as IGFA records, but the real stories have probably been lost in translation over the years. Myself, Gary Ribet, the Froggy Waters Outdoors crew, and many others won't submit an IGFA record unless it also breaks the state record. Although I've caught some fish over 2 lbs, and even a couple around 2.5 lbs, I have only seen one fish that I believe would have broken the NC record. It was caught by a good friend of Gary in a central NC river. After a couple quick photos, it flopped off of a measuring board and swam away, so we will never exactly how much it weighed. However, I wholeheartedly believe it was over 3 lbs. In this day and age, I suspect someone will lust for that piece of paper that says they caught a world record, and we will slowly see the IGFA record go up in weight. For me, it was always about the fun and the challenge, rather than a piece of paper that hangs on the wall. Go grab your creek tromping shoes, an ultra-lite rod, and a handful of lures and get knee deep in a river full of Roanoke bass. There aren't many better ways to spend a summer day!

Monday, August 15, 2016

10-day Fish Pic Challenge - Day 4 - Pennsylvania Brown Trout

Day 4 of the fish pic challenge is a beautiful brown trout caught by my beautiful wife. It was one of her first winters in Pennsylvania, as we had come up to spend some time with my family around the holidays. She, my dad, and I decided to hit a local creek for a few hours and see if we could manage a few winter trout. First, we had to get her bundled up, which included a variety of cold weather gear and a mid-1990's Penn State Starter jacket. Fishing was slow, but we did manage a handful of trout, including this chunky brown trout. The following year, we could barely keep them off the hook in some of the same areas, catching dozens of native brownies. Despite everywhere I have traveled and fished, I will always have a special place in my heart for my home waters in central PA. It is a great place to grow up and learn to fish. Tight lines!



Friday, August 12, 2016

10-day Fish Pic Challenge - Day 3 - Bruiser Bass on Tournament Day

Day 3 of the challenge was a memorable day on University Lake. "U" Lake is the location of the annual/bi-annual Duke-UNC Charity Fishing Tournament. The fishing clubs from the two teams square off in a bragging rights contest that benefits charity (100% of the proceeds go to the charity of the winners choosing). The year prior, my fishing partner Santosh and I had won the event, catching around 20 fish over the course of the day. That blog can be found here. However, spring was unusually early, and fish were in an early spawn funk. We started the day with a solid 4+ lb fish flipping to wood cover. A short while later, we had a borderline 8 lber in the livewell. In the afternoon, we put the icing on the cake, landing another stud out of wood. Other than a couple short strikes, we didn't miss a legit bite all day, ending with 3 fish for 18 lbs 9 oz. That was good enough to win the event by roughly 3 pounds, making us repeat champs. Full details of the day can be found here.

Two giants from University Lake that helped secure a repeat win for Duke
(note that all fish caught swam away healthy and happy)


The following year, Santosh and I fished on different teams, as we had a number of young anglers joining the Duke club. It was a pretty tough day on the water with my new partner Dean, as conditions made it tough. We had a small limit until literally the last minute, when I landed a 7+ lber from under a dock to seal the deal. That win gave Duke the three-peat. That was my last event, but the Duke club also went on to win the last two or three events. Sadly, I don't think the tourney happened in the past year or two, but it was always a great time for great causes.