Anyone who spends time on the water, in any habitat, ranging from the open Atlantic, to a small pond knows that “Murphy’s Law” is usually part of the equation, especially the part of that often quoted saying: “Nothing is as easy as it looks, everything takes longer than you think and If anything can go wrong —- it will.”
The “if anything can go wrong — it will” being the operative part of this humorous but often true observation that sticks in my craw like one of those ancient fish hooks, that isn’t hooked at all, but three sharp off set points that go down easily when a fish takes the bait, but turns sideway and wedges itself into the throat when tension is put on the line.
Even using modern equipment it is impossible to list contributing factors and things that can go wrong while fishing. We’ve all lost a fish that we wanted to catch or at least get a look at. Very often there is a degree of boat side or shore shrinkage.
Rarely when the moon, sun, clouds, gods of weather and luck are in alignment everything goes completely right. To rhyme with that old song “Werewolves of London” rather than his hair was perfect I’d add “the air was perfect”, weather conditions being such a huge factor in success with a rod and reel.
When that happens immediately buy a lottery ticket because Murphy’s Law has for some reason been suspended, though always for a very short period of time.
About a decade ago I experienced such a day, actually what amounted to about an hour. It is an improbable but true story about perhaps my luckiest trip to date, after a life time of angling. Sport fishing has always been my favorite activity, luckily I didn’t have to rely on my catches to survive or I’d have been feeding daisy’s for over half a century.
Most anglers are or become specialists, focusing their equipment, efforts and resources towards a species or two that they have learned to catch with some degree of certainty. I’m a very different “species of angler”, a generalist who simply enjoys catching any species, any time and any where. As a result my claim to fame is I’ve been skunked fishing for everything —- literally. As a result of this wide range of angling interest, over the years have put rod, reel, lure and technique combo’s together that maximize the odds of hooking all of those fish, each with its unique life history, hunting methods and preferred habitat. Its like solving a puzzle, the satisfaction is derived when that bait is taken or lure blasted.
They tend to be on the light side, but for many larger predators they are also powerful and fast. Always practical and able to do the job they are designed to accomplish. The emphasis is on sensitivity over power, which on occasion has cost a respectable catch. Being able to identify bottom type, even species of weeds, and the lightest strike in the long run creates more potential catch opportunities. Many of these rigs are like divining rods, when a fish strikes and especially after it is hooked, from years of practice I can often determine the species and approximate size of the fish on the end of the line.
Over the years when I was in the position to do some exploring, I would dona mask and snorkel to verify what the signals and vibrations being relayed through the line and sensitive rods I prefer to use. This constant thinking, feeling if the lure is working properly keeps ones brain from going into neutral and possibly missing a strike.
Bottom line is being I have the gear to target literally everything in the northeast region ranging from bluegills in that farm pond, to at least the smaller species of tuna and shark that follow the Gulf Stream northwards every summer. In essence, angling is an art form that is a combination of science, experience and wishful thinking. It is helpful to be an optimist.
Back to that perfect day. As a result of developing a passion for “hunting muskellunge” in the “north country”, from Maine to the southern Canadian Provinces where they are most abundant I added a bunch of new lures and light but fast and powerful rods able to cast and work the often large lures and set the hook into these very difficult to hook and land predators, that one old “down east” trout and salmon fisherman referred to as: “Alligatah’s with out legs.”
One thing I discovered is the fact that the light but powerful rods that are very effective in catching muskellunge and large pike we’ve hunted for three decades, is also perfect for the style of striped bass fishing we prefer to do.
Over the course of one winter, after I’d caught a serious case of “musky fever” I’d bought a new reel and had a bait casting musky rod remade into a spinning rod to match the reel. While flipping through the pages of “Helen And Rollie’s Musky Shop Catalog” there was an add for a lure by a Polish Company named Salmo, called the “Salmo Skinner”, a shallow running plastic lipped lure, designed to catch the potentially very large northern pike found in various places throughout Europe. In European lakes and rivers there is evidently a bait fish call a “Roche”, which is a dead ringer for the alewives and blueback herring we used as live striper hook baits before their populations crashed and both species were prohibited from being possessed in Connecticut waters. Buckeys as we called these small members of the herring family are essentially “striper candy” a preferred spring prey item.
Itching to my new rod and reel, that had been spooled with some fresh fifty pound test super line, and a box of proven lures, with the also brand new Salmo Skinner being the newest addition, I headed to the upper Thames River for a test run.
Heavy rains had fallen a day or two earlier, so I knew the area below the Greenville Dam where I was headed would be running high and fast, All I wanted to do was take a cast or two, fully not expecting to encounter any stripers due to the raging currents, flowing over this ten or fifteen foot high, very old dam. I liked the high water because it would reduce the odds of snagging and loosing my brand new, expensive lure in the rocks that line the bottom of the shallow plunge pool below the dam.
As I walked from the parking area a few hundred yards to the base of the dam another angler was walking out, wearing hip boots. I asked him how he’d done, he responded: “There were fish here before the rain, but I couldn’t get out far enough to cast today, its really ripping down there —- be careful.” —- noting I was carrying chest waders.
Not in the best section of town I made it a point never to leave anything of value in the car, which had been broken into at that place a few years prior to that day and the bitter lesson stuck in my craw like one of those ancient triple pointed fish gaggers.
Happy to hear there had at least “been” some stripers around the area the plan was take a look, wing a few long casts to see how the rig felt and leave before getting wet or loosing my new “musky” lure.
I left my sneakers on the bank as a diversion, stashed my wallet in my camera bag and hid them in some poison ivy back in the woods and out of sight.
Couldn’t cast from shore where I was planning, so decided to take a chance and wade out to a brush covered gravel bar that was under a couple feet of turbid, raging water full of white foamy bubbles from the heavy flow over the ancient dam.
I carefully picked my way out onto that bar, which was a hundred feet long and fifteen feet wide, mostly cobble and large stone, with the center being a tangle of roots and whips that were seven or eight feet tall. So the whole thing had to be skirted.
I settled into a spot that was in an eddy, a short distance down stream, but in the main outflow so I could cast into the center of the pool so the lure would not get snagged. There was a branch that I could lean against for support and still swing the eight foot rod well enough to make a long cast.
The rig worked perfectly and lobbed a very long cast to the base of the raging water below a sting of large boulders about twenty feet off the lip of the dam, reeled a couple of times and wham a tremendous strike from what appeared to be a mid sized striper that immediately headed out across the pool, heading down stream with the current. Not a very good prognosis for me or the lure.
To keep the striper from going around another growth of brush on the far side of the pool, I pulled into the fish with as much force as was possible on the slippery rocks in that fast current. It complied, more by good fortune than anything else, I’m not sure it knew it was hooked.
Taking a big chance I began to carefully pick my way down stream towards while applying maximum power to slow or get it on my half of the river, and I immediately slipped, almost falling into the raging torrent but was saved by another sturdy limb.
It was much shallower water and slightly in lee of the island. In doing so I went down on my knee inadvertently pointed the rod tip towards the fish and gave it a completely slack line for a few seconds as I got back on my feet.
With the tension gone, that bass immediately spun around and started swimming my way.
Realizing the fish was still on after picking up the slack and seeing the belly of the line steadily heading towards my feet I lifted the rod high and reeled gently to keep the line mostly out of the water to reduce any tension the water would add.
I’ve had dogs that didn’t come as directly to “heel” as promptly that striper. At this point, thinking it might have been about ten or fifteen pounds and in the mid to low thirty inch range I wanted to catch it because it had been that” first cast striped bass” on all brand new gear.
I’d still not so much seen a splash from the fish, that within a minute maybe less was down on the bottom in three or four feet of turbid water, a rod’s length away and slightly up stream —- a perfect situation for me.
I reeled down towards the fish, pointed the rod at the point where the line entered the current and suddenly hauled up, reeling as fast as possible.
A large head, mouth open with the lure strung sideways presented its lower jaw like a cooperative largemouth bass. Taking a chance I latched on as hard as I could grip its lower jaw and headed directly to shore at the shallower, more protected lower end of the island.
I was confronted by a four or five foot stone wall to climbed, wanting to be get to my camera, snap a couple of photos and take a length measurement before releasing the fish.
I opened the bale and gently tossed the rod into a bush, placed the fish up on top above my head and scampered up the flat stone like a ladder, hoping the striper wouldn’t flop and stick that large lure into my own mouth or face.
It cooperated, like that obedient dog waiting for its leash. From there it was a fast scramble through the brush to the camera bag, few steps to a place where the fish could be safely laid down and de hooked before releasing this totally unexpected, uninjured 42 inch long, thirty pound class striper. To this day it was one of the top four or five largest stripers I’ve ever caught in the Thames even during the era of “live herring fishing” twenty years or so earlier, while still in high school and a live “buckey” was a guaranteed ten to twenty pound striper.
Because of the flooding none of the locals were there to snap a hero shot or break into my car. Best I could do was lay it down next to a Plano 3700 box which is sixteen inches long, one third of the size of this striper, which was verified by a small tape measure that is stored in the camera bag.
The photos accompanying this story taken on that day of the “first cast striped bass”.
After photographing the fish and releasing it in great shape a fleeting thought came into my still shocked peanut sized brain: “Maybe I can go two for two with this new rig.”
Naaw, a totally stupid idea.
Common sense and self preservation over rode the desire to catch another fish. Aside from what I call a major case of “striper thumb” those abrasions the longer sharp bottom teeth of striped bass can cause especially if they are large fish and flop or wiggle while being held. In addition I was bone dry, did something I’d never done before or since, christen a new rig on a quality fish, with the first cast,something that I will probably never top, plus I hadn’t been washed away and drown.
I really was a perfect day and a good omen for that rig, which has done well over the years catching many stripers, quality northern pike and some muskellunge up to 45 inches and thirty pounds since being put into service when Murpy’s Law disengaged for about an hour on that late April afternoon during the spring of 2007.
The sad difference between now and then is the fact that river herring, alewives and blueback herring have diminished in Connecticut waters, and striped bass appear to be on another downward spiral. Good thing is menhaden were abundant in the lower Thames River last year with some quality stripers and early run blues feeding on them so not all is bad news on the fishing front for 2017.
The menhaden story is like every important species of fish, especially those at the bottom of the food chain that top predators prefer to feed on. We will touch on the “most important fish in the sea” , the or bunker menhaden in a future article.
Anyone interested in the fisheries history regarding menhaden or bunker as they are called in this area can read a book by H. Bruce Franklin titled; “The Most Important Fish In The Sea” published by Island Press about ten years ago in 2007.
Consider it your spring and early summer reading assignment from a retired teacher and life long angler.