Wednesday, June 24, 2015

5 Essentials for a River Float Trip

Recently I was contacted by Salt City Optics (who specialize in prescription sunglasses for various activities), who is putting together the "Dress for the River Project".  The magic question is, what items are an absolute must for a river trip?  I decided to come up with a top 5, which excludes a kayak, paddle, and fishing gear, which are no-brainers.  Without further adieu... 

1.  Life Jacket - By far the most important item I take paddling, I never hit the water without wearing one.  In/on my life jacket, I always carry a whistle and knife.

2. Sunglasses - Nothing bugs me more than having to squint all day. And a nice pair with polarized lenses can be a key to catching more fish. I rock my Smith Optics Backdrop Evolve glasses everywhere.

3.  Water - Dehydration is no joke, especially on long, hot summer days.  I prefer water, although Gatorade, Vitamin Water, etc. would also fit the bill.  My love of the Hydro Flask has been published many times on this blog. It keeps my water cool all day with no ice, no matter how hot it gets. 

4.  Chapstick - I hate chapped lips and chapping can happen very fast out on the water.  I always carry a chapstick with SPF 15 or higher.

5.  Sun protection gear - For me, this includes a long sleeve Columbia PFG shirt, hat, sun screen, and often a buff to cover my neck and face.  Cancer is no joke.

Of course, there are numerous other items I could add to the list, including food/snacks, a first aid kit, a survival kit, proper wading shoes (I prefer the Columbia Drainkmakers), and rain gear. 

Stay safe and have fun this summer.  Tight lines!

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Textbook Post Spawn Beatdown

It was mid-morning and I found myself with a few hours of free time, a rarity these days.  It was a no brainer - I loaded up and headed for the water.  But in the back of my mind, I knew that this time of year can be tricky in New England.  Early to mid-June is the post spawn period in bass fishing.  It represents the phase after bass have finished mating and spend their time relaxing and recovering.  Coincidentally, at the start of the month I published a couple articles that talk about catching post spawn bass.  And trust me, I practice what I preach, fishing topwaters, jerkbaits, and finesse plastics around points, drops, edges, and isolated cover.  If all else failed, the lake I was fishing also has an abundance of chain pickerel, and I was hoping that they would keep my line tight if the bass wouldn't cooperate.  It was one of those days with a lot of variables, and experience made all the difference - eventually resulting in a pile of nice fish.

I launched amidst blue bird skies and perfectly calm water.  When I say calm, I mean zero wind, which is a rarity here in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.  I knew the conditions would hurt the bite, but I was eager to test my skills.  I started by throwing a variety of 4 baits - a soft plastic jerkbait (fluke), finesse worm, topwater frog, spinnerbait, and bladed swim jig.  I eventually rotated in a paddle tail swimbait, lipless crankbait, and wake bait as well.  However, there was only one thing that was working early - a combo of the fluke and finesse worm.  The bass were hunkered down in deep weeds and reluctant to come out.  However, many would slowly follow the fluke and reveal themselves.  At times, I would see them come out and nibble the bait, literally just mouthing at it.  But that was all I needed to see.  I would reel it in and cast back with a finesse worm, then patiently wait.  They just couldn't resist the lazy, gyrating fall of the worm.  The first half dozen bass I caught were between 2 and 3 lbs - not giants, but not babies either.  I knew if the wind would turn on, it was going to get even better.

My biggest chain pickerel of the day

On the other hand, the chain pickerel seemed to care less about the weather conditions.  They were regularly eating the fluke fished slowly along weed lines and around emerging vegetation.  After a few fish in the 18"-22" range, I lost a giant that looked to be in the high-20s.  Then, my wish came true.  The wind picked up.  And the rest of the trip got insane.

I barely put down the fluke the rest of the day.  Instead of lackadaisically hitting it, bass were crushing it.  Pickerel were erupting on it at the surface.  There were times where I would catch fish on 5+ consecutive casts, and often a mix of the two species.  The key was to make the fish aggressive by playing to their instincts.  The wind is your friend when bass fishing, no matter how much kayak anglers (including myself at times) complain about it.  This is even more true during the post spawn.  You don't want fish to be able to see your bait perfectly, especially in the super clear water of New England.  You want them to simply react.  That is why a fluke is such a perfect post spawn bait.  You can fish it fast and get the fish amped up, causing them to react, or simply kill it, and make it look like an irresistible dying minnow. 

The 2nd biggest bass of the day - caught on a Berkley Jerk Shad

I would find patches of isolated vegetation and throw the bait 4-5 feet past the far side of the patch.  These patches ranged from roughly 20 feet across to as small as 3-4 feet, and were a mix of dollar sized Lily pads (watershields) and emerging grass.  I would start by working the fluke slowly on the far edge of the patch.  But as soon as I got near the vegetation, I would begin to work it as quickly and erratically as possible, keeping the bait at or just below the surface.  If nothing bit by the time the bait reached the near side of the vegetation, I would kill it on the weed edge and let it fall toward the bottom.  Fish were hitting during all stages of the retrieve, with most coming a few seconds after I changed speeds. 

Chain pickerel are rapidly earning a special place in my heart

It was one of those days where you just shake your head and smile.  Blow-up after blow-up would be followed by witnessing fish rush out of the weeds and inhale the fluke on the fall while standing in the ATAK.  Eventually, I began calling my shots and even caught a few strikes on video, which were filmed with one hand while fishing with the other.

After about 4 hours, I had to head back to the launch.  I had just had my biggest chain pickerel of the day, a 25 incher, explode out of the water and devour the fluke, so turning around was not easy.  Thankfully, I had a hot date I couldn't miss.  Still, despite the great day, I had lost two jumbo pickerel and a 5+ lb bass, so I wanted a bit of redemption.  I stopped along a deep weed line on the paddle back to the truck and began working the fluke.  When it got to the near weed edge, I again killed the bait.  As I did, I saw a nice bass come out of the weeds, stare at the bait for a second, then open its mouth and suck it on!  The fish wanted no part of getting in my kayak, as it made multiple runs into deep water, then back into the weeds.  I dialed back the drag on my reel as the fish darted under the boat.  Finally, I got the brute to the kayak and was able to lip him.  It wasn't the monster I had lost earlier, but the 19.25" fish was nothing to sneeze at.  I snapped a few pictures and let him go.

The fish capped off a day where I landed approximately 20-25 bass and probably 40-50 chain pickerel.  My biggest 5 bass went 92.25" and my 5 longest pickerel went 119".  It was another awesome day here in New England.

The big bass for the day at 19.25"

In the past, I haven't been a big fan of fluke fishing.  It gets to be tedious and takes a while to perfect.  But I really enjoy fishing it around vegetation, because it is so versatile and there isn't as much wasted time and effort.  It is funny how all soft plastic jerkbaits are now universally known as "flukes", when in reality the Zoom Fluke is just one type of soft jerkbait.  I have come to prefer the Berkley 5" Saltwater Jerk Shad to other soft plastic jerkbaits.  I love the colors they offer and think it holds up better over the course of a day.  However, the tougher plastic probably results in a few more missed bites as well.  I rig it weedless and weightless on a 5/0 Gamakatsu EWG thin wire worm hook.  I typically fish the bait on 15 lb monofilament line, although I believe braid or fluorocarbon would also work fine.  I spool the line on an Abu Garcia Revo STX HS.  I prefer the STX HS because it is high speed (7.1:1) and has an awesome drag force for the price point.  I pair it with a Carolina Custom Rods Jerkbait and Topwater rod, which is 6'9" and has a particularly short butt section, making it easier to work baits all day without becoming fatigued.  It is also super lightweight and sensitive, allowing you to detect slight bites as the lure falls.

Mullet - it's not just for haircuts

Oh and that hot date, we headed east, caught an awesome concert, and had an amazing couple of days staring at this...

The beautiful Rhode Island coast

Until next time, tight lines!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Fishing Report - Cayuga Lake, Ithaca, NY

A few months ago, I got the idea of surprising Mary May with a trip to Ithaca, NY - the town where she went to college.  I decided to also run it by my good friend Bill (who is no stranger to references in this blog), whose girlfriend Courtney is also an Ithaca College alum.  Shortly after, we were planning a couples trip.  We put together an awesome to-do list of places to eat, waterfalls to hike, wines to sample, and shops to visit.  But no list could be complete without some fishing.  After all, Ithaca is situated on the south end of Cayuga Lake, a finger lake known for its vegetation and dock fishing.  Bill and I knew that the only way to squeeze it in would be to fish the first few hours of daylight each morning...and that is precisely what we did.

Loaded up bright and early at the rental


I had spent some time scouting the lake before the trip - examining Navionics, scanning Google Earth, and scouring message boards and websites for trip reports.  They certainly don't call it a finger lake for nothing - as it has almost a perfectly straight shoreline, with no coves or major creek arms.  And unfortunately, the south end fishing reports weren't terribly comforting.  The vast majority of bass anglers preferred the upper end of the lake, which was about an hour drive from our rental.  However, the southern end was supposed to have some smallmouth and pike fishing, so we would have to hope we could grind out a few bites.  The plan was to fan cast a large flat, which we suspected was covered with grass.  We would fish the flat out to a large drop-off, figuring that we would find fish scattered on the flat and bunched up on certain sections of the drop.  But mother nature wanted none of it, and we were forced to improvise.

We pulled up to the lake around 6 AM on Saturday morning to find 2-3 foot whitecaps rolling down the lake, due in large part to a constant, hefty wind blowing straight out of the north.  Plan A was out.  Instead we opted to paddle up Falls Creek, which was somewhat protected from the wind.  It also had a few side pockets and coves, although most of them were partitioned off with barriers - possibly to protect spawning areas.  Still, our hopes were high.  Sure enough, on cast number 3 I landed our first fish - a chunky 12" largemouth that hit a finesse worm in about 10 inches of water.  And from there, the bite never let up. 

Most fish were situated around chunk rock, gravel banks, or laydows, and were eating a variety of baits.  We ended the day with 9 bass in about 2.5 hours of fishing, although we probably lost or missed another dozen.  They were split at about 50% largemouths and 50% smallmouths.  The big fish of the morning was a 3 lb largemouth that Bill caught, but he lost a really nice smallmouth next to the boat.  The best baits were green pumpkin finesse worms fished weightless, 1/4 oz Premier League Lures spinnerbaits, and 4.5" soft swimbaits.  I was also again impressed by the wind resistance, stability, and tracking of the ATAK.  It really shines as a lake boat.

Catch and release!

The next morning was a completely different story.  There was almost no wind, but a storm from the day before had caused the south end of the lake to get muddy, limiting visibility to only a couple of inches.  In hindsight, maybe we should have revisited Plan A, but instead, we decided to explore some other creeks and channels that run through Ithaca.

The ATAK and my new Bending Branches Sun Shadow Crank paddle

It was urban bass fishing 101, casting to pipes, steel beams, concrete walls, and other man-made structures.  But, the Sunday bite proved to be a grind.  The only bait I could get them to eat was a black finesse worm fished very slowly, and there was no real pattern to where I would get bites.  Most were around rock or concrete, but others near wood or docks.  It was a post-front pattern at its finest.  Although we didn't get as many bites, the fish that did bite were mainly decent sized smallmouths - in the 15"-17" range.

My biggest smallie of the trip

My advice for folks interested in bass fishing the Ithaca area would be to come up with a few plans based on the time of year, much like we did, and systematically try them all.  Definitely be wary of the wind and weather, which can be brutal when it blows down the lake.  Lakes like Cayuga change drastically between late April and late June, as vegetation emerges, fish go from pre-spawn to spawning to post-spawn, water temps change, boat traffic increases, and baitfish move to different areas.  Note that because of the shape, much of the lake won't always be terribly conducive to kayak angers, so plan accordingly.  However, I suspect that Cayuga is a very bassy lake, particularly up near Seneca Falls, and it certainly has plenty of beautiful water to explore.  Until next time, tight lines!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Kayak Bass Fishing Magazine Officially Launches

This past week, Kayak Bass Fishing (KBF) Magazine made its debut.  Texan Chris Payne is the man behind the mag, and he deserves a ton of credit for all of his hard work.  Creating a magazine from scratch is a tremendous feat, and KBF really impressed.  I was thrilled to be able to contribute two articles, both with New England/Northeastern twists.  One talks about late spring and summer patterns for fishing topwater baits and the other details my approach to fishing lakes with lots of vegetation during the post spawn phase, which is often when vegetation gets particularly thick.


The inaugural issue also featured a hit list of authors - including fellow Wildy pros Jeff Little, Juan Veruete, Alejandro Perez-Arteaga, and Thomas Philippi, as well as number of good friends, new friends, and folks I know via social media.

Here is a link to read the magazine, which is free:  At the bottom of the page is a link to subscribe (also free) to the magazine.  Every subscriber helps keep KBF free, so if you like it, please sign-up.

Tight lines!

Friday, May 29, 2015

The ATAK has Landed - a Preliminary Review and First Trips

The hype machine is running full blast in the kayak fishing industry these days.  Unfortunately, not every product lives up to the billing.  It is one reason I encourage kayak anglers to try before they buy, no matter what type of product. One of the most hyped kayaks of the past year has been the Wilderness Systems ATAK 140 - a boat designed to be a super stable, all-around fishing platform.  After test paddling a prototype, I had to have one.  As the Wilderness Systems crew worked to perfect their craft, we all "patiently" waited for shipment notices.  Finally, the magic email arrived, and a few days later I had an ATAK in the garage.  Of course, the maiden voyage was soon to follow, and I walked away impressed.

The Advanced Tactical Angling Kayak (ATAK) 140

Preliminary ATAK 140 Review:
Initially, I had a couple worries about the ATAK.  I wanted a big water boat that would perform well on large lakes, in the wind, and inshore at the New England coast, but with the added size came added weight.  The final version is listed at 86 lbs (92 lbs with seat), which is significantly heavier than any other kayak I have previously owned.  However, I found that although it is heavy, the molded carry handles made it fairly easy to move solo.  In fact, loading it into and out of the pick-up was a breeze.  I do highly recommend using a bed extender. I purchased a Boonedox T-Bone a few months ago and it has been great for loading and hauling longer kayaks.

The Ridgeline is loaded and ready to roll

At 34" wide, the boat is insanely stable.  In fact, I had multiple people paddle up to me while on the lake and comment about how stable it looked.  One onlooker commented, "you aren't a small guy, but you are moving around with ease".  I took it as a compliment.  It is a fantastic fishing platform and deck space.  The other thing that really stood out about the hull design was the deck height.  At 15.5", it caught very little wind, which made target fishing super easy.  It also tracks very well in the open water and carries speed well.

I also love all of the GearTrac around the boat, as well as the FlexPod removable console, Conseal deck kit, and multiple storage compartments.  The FlexPod also fits the Thresher and will fit more (maybe all) future WS fishing kayaks.  The AirPro Max Phase 3 seat is insanely comfortable and has exceptional back and butt support.  At this point, I'm not sure how much use I will get out of the rear rod pod, but I like the concept.  I easily carried a decent size tackle bag full of plastics, 4 tackle boxes, 4 rods, and other miscellaneous gear...and had room to spare.

Sliming the ATAK

Now for the cons.  First, I wish it came with accessories.  As is, I will probably end up adding at least 2 flush mount rod holders, 2-4 Mighty Mounts, some GearTrac, and a paddle clip.  I'll also have to pick up a couple more ZookaTubes. I really appreciate a clean deck and minimalist boat, but the ATAK left me wanting more.  The paddle holder bungee that is built in could use a little bit of fine tuning, as I don't love how it uses the same SlideTrac as the seat and also doesn't have a very deep paddle groove. Speaking of the seat, screwing and unscrewing the seat to the boat is cumbersome.  Given that it was designed to slide forward and back, I am not sure I could think up a better system, but it leaves something to be desired.  However, I did find that it is easy to carry and transport the seat with it bolted to the boat, unlike the Ride 115, whose seat I remove after each trip just in case.

The other cons are the obvious physical drawbacks of a big, wide boat.  It requires quite a bit of paddle power to get the boat moving from a stopped position, but as I mentioned, when it reaches speed, it maintains it quite well.  Still, it isn't going to be mistaken for a speed boat, although it will compete or outpace many of the wide fishing kayaks currently on the market.  It also doesn't maneuver extremely well, but again, there are trade offs between maneuverability and tracking.  And as I mentioned before, the weight is pretty high, but it is what it is.  The final thing I will mention is that the bow sits very close to the water line.  On choppy days, it is likely going to equate to some spray near the foot pegs and may benefit from scuppers in certain conditions.

Overall, I loved the boat.  I really want to be critical, and there are some things that I, personally, would change, but it is hard to argue with a good thing.

First Trip Fishing Reports:
Let me start by saying that I hate fishing on holiday weekends.  Really I hate fishing most weekends, which is why I gravitate toward remote rivers or other off the beaten path bodies of water.  But Mary May had to work on Memorial Day and I was home alone, so it was time to launch the ATAK.  I started at a fairly local lake in the mid-morning, and just after a passing shower.  Unfortunately, the pressure system stalled over the area for a while, and the bass just weren't active.  However, the chain pickerel were.  At times, it was like I couldn't keep them off the hook.  Although fun, the chain pickerel in that particular lake don't get terribly big, and eventually they got annoying.  I could see some spawning fish and knew a couple areas of the lake were probably loaded with bedders.  I just have no desire to target spawners, and kept fishing weedlines, laydowns, and and drop offs.  After a few short fish, I finally landed a solid bass on a long, rocky point.  He ate a fluke as I worked it over a boulder.  It was a start.

All smiles despite the gloomy skies. Also, I suck at selfies.

About that time, the weather began changing, and the bite was constant the rest of the trip.  I worked a weedline in 6-8 feet of water that was dotted with docks.  I was picking off bass here and there on a finesse worm and Rage Tail Craw.  Most were in the 12"-16" range.  Finally, the weedline dropped off even more - reaching about 12 feet.  I made a long cast to the outside post of a dock with my finesse worm, let it sink, and gave it a slight shake.  As I did, I felt a light bite and set the hook hard.  The fish was fighting oddly to begin with, and I suspected it was a pickerel.  But then it made a hard run toward the kayak and I caught a glimpse of a nice bass.  The brute pulled drag from my spinning rod as she towed me down the shoreline.  After a minute or two, I was able to scoop her into the boat as I stared at my largest Massachusetts bass to date.  At 21", she qualified for a MA angling citation.  I paddled about 20 yards down the shore to a cottage where I had seen a couple in the yard moments earlier.  I asked if they would snap a quick picture and they kindly obliged.  After a few Polaroids, I let her swim away.  Her tail was beat up and her nose scabbed.  She was skinny and clearly a late spawn to post-spawn fish.  Still, she had some serious shoulders and I couldn't help but wonder how big she was before the spawn.  Content, I finished off the trip with a few 1-2 lb largemouth before packing up and heading for lunch.

The western Mass giant

Originally, I had planned to fish a second lake after lunch.  However, after ending the morning session on such a high note, I had mixed feelings about going back out.  But who was I kidding - I was going back out.  I decided to head for a lake that has plenty of big pickerel, including numerous citation size specimens.  So I wound my way into the Berkshires and launched around 3 PM.  A quick scan of the lake was slightly disheartening.  4 other boats, each with 2 anglers, were already out and about.  But it was too late to turn back.  Seeing that most of them were fishing very shallow, I started out deeper, throwing a BBB Cane Thumper swimbait and PLL spinnerbait over drops and patchy weeds.  This technique produced a handful of pickerel to 21". 

Then I stumbled onto some big clumps of isolated weeds.  I caught a couple small bass on a finesse worm, then switched to a drop shot.  Although it didn't yield any big fish, it did produce 4 species - bass, crappie, yellow perch, and chain pickerel.  Unfortunately, the latter cut my line and I decided to stick with bigger baits.  Before leaving the spot, I took a couple more casts with a 5" finesse worm.  I got a light bite and presumed it was from a small pickerel.  But as I pulled the fish from the water, I realized it was about a 12"-13" Brook Trout.  The fish was latched onto the end of the worm, and as I lifted it into the air it let go and swam away.  It was one of the most strange catches I've ever had.

The rest of the day I mixed it up, and caught fish doing just about everything.  At times, I pulled up into a foot of water or less and would sight cast to roaming bass with a finesse worm.  Then I would pull offshore into the wind and catch pickerel and bass in weedbeds with spinnerbaits.  Next I would zigzag to the nearest wood cover and catch bass flipping a BBB Fighting Frog.  By about 6 PM, I had caught 30+ pickerel and about a dozen bass.  At that point, the wind had died down, so I kept it simple, alternating between a Premier League Lures blade bait and a fluke.  It became one of the most fun bites I have had in a long time.  Some fish would crush the black chatterbait.  Others would follow or miss it, so I would toss back a fluke.  Pickerel would erupt on the fluke time and time again, often slapping it into the air as I worked it fast just below the surface.  Some would slash and strike 7-8 casts in a row, while others only needed one chance.  It was nearly non-stop action until it was time to leave.

A chunky bass that fell for the fluke and my favorite power source - the Bending Branches Angler Pro

Although the lake didn't give up any of the giant bass I know it holds, I caught 14 solid largemouths to 3.5 lbs and well over 40 chain pickerel to 24", in addition to the mix of dropshot panfish.  It was a great finish to an awesome first day in the ATAK.  The boat has some serious mojo!  Now I hope the encore performance can live up to the maiden voyage(s).  Until then, tight lines!