Monday, September 14, 2015

Beginner Tips for Choosing and Using a Baitcaster

Since moving to New England last year, I have had a surprising number of questions about baitcasting gear. Actually, I shouldn't find it that surprising. I very, very rarely used a baitcaster until about 2008. Now, I use them the vast majority of the time. Not only has it expanded my horizons in terms of techniques, but allowed me to use a much wider variety of baits and is much easier on my gear (and therefore my wallet). The key to becoming good at anything is practice, and using a baitcaster is no different. You will backlash. You will ruin some line. You will want to quit at least once. But if you are a serious angler, it is a great skill to learn! I put together the following video about beginner baitcasting tips, which includes choosing a reel, adjusting your brakes, casting tips, and more. If you have any questions, please feel free to give me a shout ( or comment below. Tight lines!


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Wilderness Systems ATAK 140 Review

While back, I gave a very initial review of the Wilderness Systems ATAK 140 kayak. Since then, I've spent a lot of time in the seat. In fact, despite owning a number of boats, it is the only boat I've paddled since May. So as you can probably tell by that statement, I am a fan of the boat. Here is my updated Wilderness Systems A.T.A.K. 140 Review.

I’ll start by giving the basic specs and features, which are pretty much straight from the Wilderness Systems website.

·         Length – 14’1”

·         Width – 34”

·         Weight –  86 lbs (92 lbs with seat)

·         Max Capacity – 550 lbs

·         Deck Height – 15.5”

  • AirPro MAX Seating System w/ Extended Travel
  • Enclosed Bow Storage w/ Integrated Paddle Park
  • FlexPod OS Removable Console
  • Utility Tray w/ Removable Cover
  • Open Deck Walk Space w/ Traction Pads
  • 5.5" Midship Hatch
  • Rectangular Stern Hatch Provides Hull Access & Versatility w/ Bungee & SlideTrax
  • Bow & Stern Oversized Metal Grab Handles
  • Molded-In Side Handles
  • Foam Battery & Rod Stager in Stern Storage Area
  • Rigid Carry Handles
  • Self-Bailing Scupper Holes
  • Keepers XL
  • Pre-cut Conseal Deck Kit
  • Scupper plugs included for bow hatch

I first saw a prototype of the ATAK at a demo day early this spring.  My initial thought was, “holy cow, that thing is a monster.”  Then, I got in and took it for a test paddle.  Now, I can’t stop paddling it.  The ATAK has become my go to boat for the rivers and lakes of New England, and continues to impress me even more.   I’ll break it down by category, and go through the pros, cons, and details of the boat.

This is as stable as any kayak on the market.  The stability isn’t just about the width (34”). Much of it can be attributed to the unique pontoon hull design.  Standing is a breeze from the high seat position and easily doable from the low position as well.  The standing platform is roomy and comfortable, making it easy to paddle while standing.  I rarely find myself sitting in this boat, with the exception being for longer paddles or in really high winds.  And when seated and paddling or fishing in the high position, the boat does not feel top heavy or tippy, and I’m not a small guy. Stability easily gets a 5 out of 5.

Speed and Tracking:
At 34” wide, I wasn’t expecting much speed out of the ATAK, and I was OK with that given its stability.  However, it surpassed my expectations.  It takes a few starter strokes to get it moving, but when you hit cruising speed, it maintains velocity very well and is a fairly fast kayak compared to many of the wide fishing kayaks on the market.  One reason it can maintain speed so efficiently is because it tracks well, and there is very little energy is wasted when paddling.  In rough, windy conditions on a large NY lake, the ATAK outpaced a 30” wide kayak, which was designed for a mix of recreational paddling and fishing.  It easily cuts through chop and glides over waves, although you may find yourself taking some spray from time to time.  Speeds gets a 4 out of 5, and if you wanted to get specific and rate it against other 34” or wider boats, it is an easy 5 out of 5.


Just as the ATAK needs a few strokes to get up to speed, it requires a few starter strokes to turn on flat water.  From a dead stop, it can take a bit of effort to pull a 180-degree turn.  However, it maneuvers significantly better when moving or in flowing water.  But again, maneuverability is relative to boat design and what each individual paddler is accustomed to.  The part of maneuverability that sets the ATAK apart from most other fishing kayaks is how it handles the wind.  Here in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, we get a lot of wind.  It’s low profile hull design sheds wind with ease, and even in high gusts, you can drop the seat into the low position and keep on fishing at a pleasant drift rate.  Because of this, I feel like the boat doesn't require a rudder. I give it a 4 out of 5 for overall maneuverability.

Capacity, Comfort, and Fishability:
This is another area where the ATAK really excels.  It’s large, covered front hatch can handle enough gear for a multi-day camping trip, and has stayed bone dry for me, in even sloppy conditions.  It’s FlexPod, which was developed with electronics in mind, has plenty of room for a battery, wires, and extras and has also been perfectly dry inside.  It is easily removable, which is great when traveling or for maintenance.  The utility tray is perfect for a water bottle, scissors, pliers, and a hook sharpener, and the mid-hatch is great for the wallet, keys, and phone.  The rear tank well easily fits 4 large tackle boxes and a tackle bag, but can also fit various size crates and coolers.  The rear storage is made to hold rods, anchor poles, or batteries, and includes foam blocks to help hold each in place.  All in all, you have a ton of storage on this boat.  Combined with the sliding AirPro Max seat, huge standing deck, AirPro 3D seat (add-on), and nearly unlimited potential for customization, it is an extremely comfortable fish catching machine.  It is a 5 out of 5 in this category.

In addition to features I’ve already mentioned, the ATAK comes with a pre-cut Conseal deck kit, a paddle/push pole bungee clip,  oversize carry handles, molded side handles, a paddle keeper on the front hatch, and multiple areas with bungee cords.  If there has been a knock on the ATAK, it has been its lack of accessories, such as rod holders or a light pole.  However, I think the lack of these accessories can push you to be more creative when rigging the ATAK.  I’ve already seen multiple types of rod holders, gear track, and various accessories rigged all over the boat.  Plus, it keeps you from paying extra for unwanted add-ons.

I will note that the carry handles on this boat are phenomenal.  Even my wife, who often finds that handles dig into or hurt her hands, mentioned how much she likes them compared to the other boats we have. 

The boat also includes small recessed areas with bungees in the rear tank well.  They were made to fit tackle boxes, but all of mine are too large to fit.  However, I’ve found them to be great spots for stowing rain gear, Boga grips, water bottles, food, or first aid/emergency kits.

One other feature that has been much discussed is the weight.  At 86 lbs, it isn’t a light boat.  However, I’ve found that it is fairly easy to transport in the back of my truck, although I recommend a bed extender to make it both easier to load/unload and safely transport.  It is also easy to load onto trailers.  The ATAK could potentially be car topped with specific types of roof racks, but it will require a physically fit individual and some practice.  The lack of external side handles and 34” width make it difficult to lift overhead, so developing a loading system over time will be important. 

Although it doesn’t come with a full angler package, like most of the Wilderness Systems fleet, it still gets a 4 out of 5 for features.

It shouldn’t be difficult to tell how much I like this boat, but that doesn’t mean it is a perfect kayak.  Although mine has yet to leak, some have reported small FlexPod leaks around the seal in rough weather.  The fix is simple enough (adding a piece of weather stripping inside the pod), but it is still a hassle.  Others have added weather stripping around the large front hatch as well.  In general, I find that the bow of the boat sits low in the water.  This is great for shedding wind, but means that the front scuppers allow a bit more water onto the front portion of the deck (below the foot pegs) than most kayaks.  In some situations, it may be best to plug them.

I am still not sure how much I will use the rear rod pod/hatch.  I wish it included a molded or riveted piece for a lock, because I think I would mainly use it on longer road trips when I want to know my gear is secure.  However, I think a locking mechanism can be customized fairly easily.  I am also not in love with the bungee paddle clip.  When the seat is fully back (where I prefer it), the clip is very close to the seat rail, making it awkward/difficult to reach. Also, I wish the recessed area for the paddle/push pole were slightly deeper, as I find my push pole often becomes dislodged in rough conditions.

The 3D seat is a perfect platform for anglers who stand a lot, especially fly fishers.  However, going back and forth between the AirPro Max and AirPro 3D is difficult, and requires unscrewing and stowing the Max seat each time.  Another option is to slide the Max seat fully forward, step over it, and use the 3D, but that process may be best executed on land.  Also, when sitting in the Max seat, the 3D seat will bump the head/neck of taller anglers unless you slide the seat forward.  I am being picky, because these issues can be remedied with minor adjustments, but be aware that it will take some time for everything to gel.  The 3D seat also limits the types of rod holders you can use on the stern, as some will stick up into the seat or its legs, so take some time to think about what you prefer before installing accessories.

And although I touched on each of these above, and believe the solutions are simple, many have complained about the weight, lack of extras, and transport difficulties when car topping.  We all have individual preferences and prefer certain features/specs in the kayaks we paddle, because there is no perfect kayak. If you are in the market and comparing boats, know that there will always be trade-offs. If you are on the fence about the ATAK or have questions, don't hesitate to post them here or shoot me an email ( 

Overall, my ATAK scores average out to a 4.5 out of 5, and that seems about right.  It exceeded my initial expectations and continues to impress.  The next step will be adding some customized features now that I have had sufficient saddle time – including additional gear tracks, rod holders and full electronics.  Check out the Wilderness Systems ATAK Owners Group, where folks are constantly showing off their mods, add-ons, and customizations.  I always recommend to try before you buy, so if you are interested in an ATAK, go paddle on first…I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bending Branches Sun Shadow Crank Paddle Review

Last spring, I was seriously contemplating adding the Bending Branches Navigator paddle to my collection. It is strong, light, and beautiful. Then I bounced the idea off of Confluence rep and outdoor Renaissance man Andrew Miller and he said something that really stuck with me. What makes a wood paddle so great is the feel. There is nothing like the feel of a wood paddle in your hand - the grain, the texture, the character. So I went back to the Bending Branches site to re-evaluate. There were two full wood kayak paddle options - the Sun Shadow Crank and the Impression. After making a pros-cons list, I decided on the Sun Shadow Crank, and I could not be happier.


The Sun Shadow Crank (SSC) is a strong, ergonomic wood paddle for folks who want to combine beauty and performance. I opted for the "Day Blade", which is best for high angle, aggressive paddlers. It also comes with two other blade options for low angle paddling and fast paced, touring cadences. The Day Blade moves a ton of water and has performed well in both lakes and rivers.


The shaft is composed of laminate basswood and the blades are mix of red alder, butternut, and basswood with a rock guard around the edge. It is a gorgeous paddle and I constantly get compliments on the water and at the launch. It comes in either zero or sixty degree offsets (I use the zero) and with a two piece, push button ferrule design. I use the 230 cm model in both my ATAK and Ride 115X. The "crank" shaft is designed to provide a more ergonomic fit for paddlers. It did take me a few trips to adjust to, but now I love it, and mix it up between wider and narrower grips.

Before I get into the cons, keep in mind that this is a wood paddle, and they are in a different class than other material types. The first con is weight. The Day Blade option weighs in at 41.5 oz, while the Twilite blade is the lightest at 38 oz. For refernce, my Angler Pro weighs in at 30 oz. The Impression, another full wood paddle, weighs 37 oz and the Navigator, a hybrid, is 28 oz. The difference is noticable, but I wouldn't say it significantly affects performance. And again, you just cannot beat the look.


Because the shaft is made of wood, it is not offered in a Plus ferrule option. Neither are any all wood kayak paddles on the market. I really like the Bending Branches Plus ferrule, but again, it is one of the trade offs linked to paddling with wood. The paddle shaft is also quite large in diameter. Personally, I have fairly large hands and like the way it feels, but it is something to consider before purchasing.

The final con is cost. The SSC costs around $260, while the Impression is $169 and Navigator is $299-$325. However, I just went over to the Bending Branches site to confirm those numbers and noticed that the SSC is now being retired due to lack of wood availability. What a bummer! So, I advise folks to snatch them up while you can. You may likely find some discounted or end of stock prices floating around as well.

I don't necessarily think the SSC is an ideal long distance touring paddle for most folks, but it is a great paddle for high level recreational users, anglers, and shorter touring trips. It has performed extremely well for me on short (1-6 mile) paddling trips and fish excursions in various types of water. So if you too are looking for that perfect look and feel that only wood provides, check out the Sun Shadow Crank! Tight lines!

Monday, August 17, 2015

6 Bass Baits that Excel in Different Late Summer Scenarios

We are squarely into the dog days of summer. Those of us in New England are soaking them up while we can. Although hot temperatures and clear skies can often mean tough days on the water, that doesn't have to be the case. In fact, a little planning can produce epic days this time of the year. Below, I will talk about 3 different scenarios that are prime for summer fishing, as well as 6 baits that really produce during the late summer - both here in New England and around the country.

Tip #1 - Go early and late
This is a bit of a no brainer. Low light conditions and cooler temperatures equate to more active fish. And for me, there is no better way to fish early and late than with topwater. I often rig three topwater baits and a throwback bait (a finesse worm for fish that miss topwaters) in these situations, with prime fishing windows typically occurring from approximately an hour before first light to 8 AM in the morning and an hour before dusk to well after dark in the evening. Granted, this may vary from location to location. Although I rig topwaters that excel in different situations, such as in open water, through thick weeds, or around wood, my favorite morning and evening bait is a walking bait thrown in fairly open water. By fairly open, I mean that there are no major obstructions, so this may be over a submerged weed bed, along a rip-rap wall, through an eddy, or various other places. My go-to open water bait is a Lucky Craft Gunfish in a natural shad color. It can walk, spit, or both, which makes it very versatile and hard to resist, especially when worked at various speeds.


My 2 choices and runner-up for early and late fishing. The dog hair on the worm adds some extra action too.

Another bait that can really produce in low light conditions is a New England staple - a large profile black spinnerbait with a single Colorado blade. The black silhouette can mimic numerous types of forage in low light conditions and the blade puts off a vibration that virtually calls the fish to it. I prefer to fish it around submerged weeds or wood cover, and again vary the speed of the retrieve.

Honorable mention:
The black ribbon tail worm gets my honorable mention nod early and late. Fish seem to key in on the worm color and tail action, especially when fished around targets - such as docks, wood, etc. I prefer at least a 7.5" worm, sometimes going up to 12". I Texas rig the worm on a 4/0 or 5/0 Gamakatsu EWG worm hook below a 1/4 or 3/8 oz tungsten weight and fish it fairly slow. You will want to use a sensitive rod and line, because some bites can be tough to detect in the dark.

Tip #2 - Take advantage of wind and shade
Mother nature isn't out to get us entirely when the weather gets hot and sunny, she just slows us down a bit. Checking the forecast is key before you hit the lake. The three big things I look for are clouds/sun conditions, wind, and extreme weather. I actually don't mind fishing on sunny days, or even bluebird days, as long as I have some wind. On those days, I focus on the windiest parts of the lake, where bait tends to be the most active. I may use a variety of baits, but one of my best late summer producers here in western Massachusetts is a swim jig. The swim jig is very versatile and can be effectively fished nearly anywhere. The majority of the time, I am throwing a 1/4 oz to 3/8 oz swim jig in a natural color - green, brown, black, or some mix. I prefer it to look like a perch or sunfish. I then use a 3.5"-4.5" paddle tail trailer to add action. However, I will change up my colors, jig size/profile, and trailer based on conditions and forage. My favorite way to fish them is through grass, however I will also crawl them along rocky banks or around wood at times.

My 3 choices for late summer wind and shade - note the blade on this particular swim jig

There will undoubtedly be days when the wind dies down and it gets hot. In those instances, key in on shade. Docks, weed beds, boulders, and logs all form prime shady habitat. In those situations, I often like to flip and pitch a beaver or creature bait that mimics a sunfish. Sunfish are drawn to those areas as well, and bass are always lurking close behind looking for any easy meal. My bait of choice is the Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog, which I Texas rig with a 4/0 Gamakatsu EWG worm hook fished below a 1/4 oz tungsten weight. The key is soft, accurate casts that gently fall or skip into the water, because bass will be spooky when conditions are calm.

Honorable mention:
My honorable mention here is the hollow body frog. Frog fishing takes practice and confidence, but you can often get frog bites all day when fishing heavy cover. Not only are these strikes extremely fun, but frogs often produce better quality fish than other techniques. I keep my frogs simple and almost only fish black or white colors. In sunny conditions, I throw the frogs to the heaviest cover I can find. I start by working them slowly, with multiple pauses, while focusing on walking them and making them look natural/edible. I may speed them up depending on the temperment of the bass that particular day. When frog fishing, the key is to wait a few seconds before setting the hook. One common tip is to slowly spell out the word "frog" before you set the hook. This time lapse allows the fish to completely engulf the bait, increasing the chances of the hook landing in the mouth upon hook set. However, you will eventually miss some fish, so I also always have 1 or 2 throwback baits ready (1 weightless finesse and 1 that can punch heavy vegetation). I throw my frogs on a frog specific rod and use 60 lb braided line. The rod action of a frog rod, combined with heavy, small diameter line, will lead to more hook ups and landed fish. Although I have 3-4 brands of frogs in my box, my favorites are the Deps Basirisky and the Teckel line-up.

Tip #3 - Hit the river
I have always been a river rat, but these days, I have to drive more than twice as far to get to prime river fishing than I do to prime lake fishing. However, every chance I get or if conditions just aren't right to lake fish, I am headed for flowing water. Most northeastern rivers have plenty of current and shoals, which provide oxygenated water, shade, and great habitat for predation. Although numerous baits can work depending on the river you are fishing, one of my favorite techniques is to find the biggest rapid-eddy combos possible and start working a swimbait. I typically use paddle tail swimbaits to fish current seams, eddys, and even directly in fast water. I rig the baits either on wide gap, screw lock, belly weighted swimbait hooks, swing head jigs, or jighead style hooks and fish them through all levels of the water column and at various speeds. There are numerous swimbaits that can work, but my favorites are the Luck-E-Strike Bass Magic swimmers and Big Bite Baits Cane Thumpers. At times, I may switch to a hard body, jointed swimbait, such as a Spro BBZ-1 or Bull Shad. The key is figuring out the correct speed that the fish are looking for, which may include some pauses and erratic action. Another key can be bottom contact contact - deciding if they want the bait to have none, some, or grind along the bottom.

My top 2 and honorable mention for late summer river fishing

My other go-to for late summer river fish is finesse plastics. I know, I know - that is more than one bait. On any given day, this may include weightless stick worms, 3.5" tubes, 3" grubs, shakey heads, or drop shot rigs. For the sake of choosing one, I will go with the drop shot, because late summer river fishing is when I really built my confidence in the rig. I prefer to fish a nose hooked 4.5"-6" Roboworm about 12"-18" above a 1/8 oz tungsten drop shot weight. You may need to go with a heavier weight if fishing deeper or faster water. They can  be fished anywhere, but I love throwing them along current seams and letting the current do the work for you. Essentially, you are just feeling the weight tick along the bottom until you detect a strike, which will likely take some practice. However, you can fish drop shots in any type of water and around any type of cover. If new to the technique, I definitely recommend a YouTube session before heading out. I rig my drop shots on a 6'10" Carolina Custom Rods spinning rod, which is extra light and sensitive. I use an Abu Garcia Orra SX 30 spinning reel spooled with 6 lb or 8 lb P-Line fluorocarbon. With that set-up, you can feel every little pebble on the bottom and detect even the slightest of bites.

Honorable mention:
My honorable mention river bait is the crawfish imitator crankbait. Unfortunately, many of the rivers in my area get very weedy by late summer, and fishing any type of crankbait becomes more of a chore than it is often worth. However, even in small patches of non-weedy rocks it can be lights out productive. Bass, especially smallmouths, will have feeding windows where they gorge on crayfish. I have found that choosing the right crankbait color can be important - such as a natural brown vs red vs orange vs blue tint. However, I believe that action is just as if not more important, and that is why I carry three different types of crawfish cranks in my box. The first are Live Target crawfish cranks that dive around 5-6 feet deep (8-12 feet for the deeper series) and have a fairly wide, squarebill type action. With these, the key is deflections off of the bottom, which create reaction strikes. If they aren't producing, I may go to craw crank #2, an old school Bagley Balsa Craw. Balsa cranks deflect like nothing else on the market, and those deflections can often lead to more bites. I have had days where balsa out fished traditional hard cranks 10:1. These cranks also have a fairly wide action, which can be ideal in certain conditions and really hunt when fished fast. Type #3 is the Megabass X-Dad. I like this bait because it suspends, has a tight action, and is a bit of a crankbait-jerkbait hybrid (much like the Megabass Flap Slap, another favorite). At times, keeping your lure suspended close to the bottom is the key to triggering more strikes and the X-Dad does just that.

Late summer can be a tough puzzle to figure out. But, I strongly believe that these three scenarios can consistently produce fish if approached with patience and practice. You may have your own favorite baits for these situations, and if so, please share them in the comments below. Also, some of these baits may work well in more than one situation above. So, get out of the air conditioning and go suffer through the heat of summer, whether in a bass boat, kayak, wading, or any other form of fishing. After a few bites, you won't be thinking about the temperature anyway. Oh, and don't forget the sunscreen.

Until next time, tight lines!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Reason for my Blogging Drought...and Lots of Photos

It is has been way too long since I last blogged. It hasn't been because I haven't wanted to, but because I simply haven't been fishing. Early last month, I developed a pain in my shoulder and neck area. I am not sure how it happened exactly, but I managed to strain the rhomboid muscle in my right shoulder. The rhomboid connects the shoulder blade to the spine. So not only was I experiencing shoulder pain, but it was affecting the nerves around my spine - at times leading to jolting shocks of agony. The recovery period is 4-8 weeks, of which I am about 5 weeks in, although I probably haven't always taken it as easily as my doctor (or in this case, nurse practitioner wife) would recommend. Thankfully, it is feeling pretty good now, with only a dull soreness at times, so I am optimistic that it will be fully healed by the end of August. That being said, the fishing bug has hit me full bore!

Another beautiful, yet intrepid, day here in New England

I've managed to offset my fishing fanatics with gardening, canning, house building, cooking, and a bit of fly fishing - on top of the typical work load. Just before the injury, Mary May and Johanna (my mother-in-law) got me a Big Green Egg. MM and I had been eyeing one up for some time, but always seemed to put it off for one reason or another. But after using it for a month, I am regretting not spluring on one sooner. The flavor it produces is unreal, especially combined with some soaked cherry or oak from the back 40. It is also pretty easy to control the temperature once you get the hang of it, and it maintains both high and low temps very well. Our first cook was a 4.5 hour, low temp, smoked brisket. The picture says it all!

The Big Green Alien Spacecraft Egg has landed...and it is smoking!

A brisket worthy of the Texas Hill Country

We've also done a whole chicken, chicken sausage, pork sausage, pork chops, pork loin, cheese, venison loin, and probably others that I am forgetting. I honestly can't get enough! Here are a few more pics from the BGE.

A brined/injected pork loin that came out perfect

In addition to stuffing our faces, we've been doing a ton of food preservation from the garden. We even had our first batch of salsa early this year...and it was darn good!

Our first batch of salsa for 2015 - entirely from the garden

We've done some traveling too - including a weekend in Vermont, which was highlighted by a Lake Champlain boat ride and swim, as well as an Avett Brothers concert, and 5 days at the Rhode Island coast, where we ate heaps of seafood and soaked up the sun. On that note, I'll just leave you with some fun/yummy/interesting photos from the past month or so.

The Avett Brothers rocking Vermont - they never disappoint
The deep blue sea - coastal RI

And when at the coast, you feast on seafood

We have been so busy that we haven't been involved in as much haying as last year, but there is nothing like that first run in the skid-steer

Many a summer eve has been spent sitting around the campfire with friends, while watching the river flow by

And what is summer without a few fireworks!

The good news is that if you are jonesing for some fishing on MPF, I should be back at full speed by September. However, between now and then, I should have a couple fishing related blogs that share some of my experiences and knowledge with y'all. Until next time, tight lines!