Monday, March 10, 2014

2014 ice fishing so far

It's been a great ice season so far, with the main target being the invasive white perch (Morone Americana)  This invasive species has been thought to gain access to Champlain through the Hudson River via the Champlain Canal.  Ever since, their numbers have grown exponentially.  They seem to thrive regardless of condition, and are very prolific spawners.  They love to eat walleye eggs during the Spring spawn, which is a big reason they are so hated.  Another big reason is they are yet another predator to our declining population of baitfish - the rainbow smelt.  Pretty much everything about white perch are hated - besides the meat.  Personally, I do not care for most fish besides perch and panfish.  So to find out these fish are not bad tasting at all (similar to yellow perch) I've been more than happy targeting them, and usually finding them in HUGE schools.

Though these fish have the name, "perch"  They are not a member of the perch family, but rather the bass.  They share the same habitat and resources as our native yellow perch however.  Due to them being on average, bigger and MUCH more aggressive than yellow perch, they seem to be thriving in our Lake.  Having caught so many, it is astounding to see how many of these invasive species can come out of just ONE hole through the ice, in 15-40 feet of water.  I have personally had many days where I've filled more than 2 5-gal buckets only fishing 3-4 holes.  The fact that these fish can be caught on a plethora of different baits, even at different depths, just goes to show how voracious they are.  Unlike yellows that seem to like to hug the bottom, I've caught these fish anywhere in the water column, even 10 feet below the ice in over 40 feet of water.  Bibets, spikes, spoons, minnows....they will eat almost anything through the ice, and for the most part hit very aggressively. Couple that with the fact they they seem to fight harder than yellow perch of equal size, they are actually very fun to target through the ice.  Almost every time I have been out targeting them, I've gotten over a 5-gal bucket of them, with 75% of the trips yielding 2-3 buckets!

It is scary to think how many of these invasive fish are actually in our Lake if I've caught this many through the ice in just one general area of the Lake.  4-5 years back, before knowing much about these fish, I was fishing the Winooski river in early June, hoping for anything really.  After catching the usual bass and suckers, I started to catch white perch.  A few hours later, I had probably caught 150 lbs of them.  My mind was just blown at how many of them were in one spot in this 9-mile stretch of river.  I know now that they were probably gorging themselves on walleye eggs.  In any case, I have shown a few fishing buddies of mine where to catch them, and they've had their fair share of white perch as well.  I'd like to think we're doing the Lake a favor by taking out hundreds of pounds of these fish every weekend.  After fishing with a friend who used a vexilar (a type of fish finder)  I noticed how much easier it made finding these fish...I know what my first purchase for next years ice season will be!

Here are just a few pictures of some of the action that's been had this year through the ice.

Next to an 11' filet knife, a fat 13" white.

The big fish of the day, a white that was almost 14"!

Made the mistake of only bringing one bucket.

Two of the bigger fish of the day, both 13"

After a fun day of catching a combined 5 buckets of fish between a friend and I, I thought this pose would be good.  Swimming in white perch!  You can't tell by the picture, but the perch in my right hand was massive.  I forgot to get a weight, but it was 14" and probably close to, if not 2 lbs. 

My latest adventure.  This was the just the beginning of our piles of white perch. Notice the third hole to the left - my friends fish finder was in it.  We were fishing 25 feet of water, and there were so many fish from bottom up to about 10 feet that we thought bottom was just 10 feet below the ice.  It wasn't until we looked at the "depth" on the fish finder until we realized that the fish were in there so heavy, it wasn't bottom we were seeing, it was the TOP of the school of fish.  Amazing!

If at first you don't succeed...

Try, try again!

That pretty much sums up my Winter steelhead fishing here on the Winooski.  Only issue is, I've yet to succeed.  This Winter has been brutally cold, covering the deep, slow moving water I usually target in the Winter with thick ice.  The amount of open water to fish is miniscule, and is faster than I'd like to fish.  Still, I won't give up until it closes next weekend.

The Salmon Hole, a 2 minute walk from where I live right now.

The opposite side of the river,  this time testing out a new toy - a Lamon Speedster reel.

I look forward to Spring more than anything right now, even though I have been having a great time ice fishing this year, catching probably over half a ton of invasive white perch from Champlain, Spring and the great fishing it brings could not come any sooner  With the amount of times I've been out looking for steel, I sure can't wait for the Spring run of steelies to come in.  I have more than a few spots to target them this Spring on the Winooski.  On top of that, this years trout season will be yet another blast, with a few trips to the NEK already being planned.  Plus, carp, sheepshead, bowfin, gar, and even catfish are on my target list this Summer with the help of a friend from work.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

An end to 2013

Well, 2013 was a spectacular year for me on the water!  I fished many new rivers, met many new friends, and caught my fair share of BIG fish, especially salmon!

Spectacular as it may be, it was a bit of a weird year numbers wise.  Our Champlain steelhead runs were incredibly low, almost unheard of in some rivers.  As for the Winooski - I only landed a few cookie cutters and lost quite possibly the biggest steelhead I'd ever hooked in VT....but that will be a story for later. 

2013 will be insanely hard to top in terms of salmon, I landed dozens of BIG salmon, all but one on flies as well.  I somehow managed a 10 lb hen on the swing during a sunny September day when the water levels were quite low.

As the season progressed, fish started to get more territorial, and started to just whack everything out of aggression.  I'd never seen such aggressive behavior from salmon before, it was just incredible!

I took out a few friends who had minimal salmon experience, and they both got into some very nice salmon as well.  One was even his FIRST salmon on a fly, which took less than 20 minutes of fishing for him.

Mike with his first atlantic on a fly!  A colorful hen with a few lamprey scars

He went on later that day to lose a monster!  It broke his 8 lb tippet like nothing after it somersaulted across the water like it had been dragged behind a speed boat on a tube, and then fell off!

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.  I did very well on a couple of solo trips too, yelding 2-4 fish almost every time!
I found this smaller guy cruising upstream in shallows, managed to get a long cast out in front of him with a big white 4" bunny leech.  As soon as it hit the water and I started to strip it, he went bolting after it.  I increased the speed of the retrieve, and it only made him more angry.  He chased the fly about 70' before inhaling it 5' in front of me, it was something I'll never forget!

A hen that took a swung fly right before the male below this picture.  Two fish in 10 minutes!

Big kype on this guy!  Took a swung leech right before dark!

We called this guy dolphin nose

One of my favorite pics....such beautiful color on this guy, and next to my new Helios 2!

Not nearly all the fish caught, but just a few for examples...My buddy Jerry also got out for some salmon action too!

This picture at the bottom was of yet another 10 lb salmon!  A good match for the 10 lb hen 2 months prior.  He was all colored up and kyped out, and absolutely destroyed this yellow and brown streamer after only a few swings.  I couldn't believe it!  Good thing I brought a little digital scale with me, because there was no way I was keeping this guy just to find out his weight.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out it was into the double digits after subtracting my net weight, it was 10 lbs 1 oz, and was 28.75" long.

One of those fights where your hearts beating out of your chest....I saw how big he was right when I set the hook!

In late November, and my buddy Kenny from NH came up in hopes of some salmo salar action as well.  I had been on the fish for a few weeks already when he came, so when he arrived we headed straight for the river, and got him into fish!
His first fish was a big male, which had some shoulders on him for sure.  He wanted nothing to do with me, and when I stepped in the water and waded toward him, he peeled off line from Kennys spool and went straight downstream, past a set of rapids that just screamed out lost fish.

I did what I could to slide the net under this guy, but the fast current and a fish doing barrel rolls sideways made it quite hard.  Kenny was pushing his 10' 5 wt to the max!  I started to get a bad feeling in my stomach, and sure enough he popped off - along with Kennys fly in his beak before I could get a good chance at a net.  I won't lie, that fish deserved to win that battle... it was intense!

After composing ourselves after that great loss, Kenny lost no time hooking up again, into a respectable hen.
 Shortly after, we spotted a spunky fish coming upstream quite fast before settling into an area.  Kenny was in the perfect spot to drift a nymph over it and it quickly turned its head and sucked it on again!

We scratched our heads at this hen, she looked like she didn't get the September run memo and had just entered the river not too long ago.  A huge color difference between the two, yet they were caught on the same day.  Very cool contrast!

At the end of the day, Kenny went 2/3(losing his biggest of course!), which was a great day for any atlantic salmon fishermen.  He went home only to return that following weekend for more action.  Our first spot didn't seem like it was holding any fish, they must have moved.  So we tried a different section of river and sure enough we saw signs of life.  It was quite a small, shallow section of river that I've spotted cruising fish in before. Kenny had first drifts, and he picked a great spot.  Right next to the bank was a downed log with very deep water along it. It was a bright and sunny day, so we suspected fish to be hiding underneath it.  He casted upstream and we both watched his fly sink and then start to drift by the log.  Out of nowhere comes this HUGE salmon, darting towards his fly, opening his mouth, clamping down on the fly and then shaking his head as to finish off his prey, WOW!  We both turned into little excited kids......until he set the hook and the fly popped out!!!!

We just could not believe what had  The fish looked like a solid 8+ lb fish too.  We still can't believe the fly just popped out of his closed mouth like that.  We both saw the fly go into his mouth before he closed it, so it was even more upsetting to know there was pretty much nothing Kenny did wrong there.

After that, we fished our way downstream without much.  A few hours had passed, and we made our way back to the same section of river with the log.  This time it was my turn, and I'd been having luck with white bunnys and buggers, so I threw on a white bugger and did the same drift as Kenny.

Yet again, this massive salmon came out from under the log and inhaled my fly...I was almost paralyzed with excitement after seeing him take the fly with such aggression.  A quick hookset was followed by deep disappointment.  My fly had popped out of his mouth just like Kennys.  It was obvious what was going on here - the fish had a hole in it's mouth.  We tried to get him to come back out to play for about an hour after the second take but he was too smart to budge.

Kenny and I decided to go fish off a big rock I always love to fish off of, so we made our way to it and started fishing before it got dark.  Since it was November, I was hoping the steel were in and cruising for a meal.  I rigged up to drift deep water, and threw a simple egg above a black stonefly.

There is a certain run that I've seen before in very low water that fish just love to hang out in.  It's a depression in the gravel with big boulders at the head of it, making it easy for fish to sit behind and wait for food to come by from all directions.  I focused on fishing that run while Kenny fished in closer, through another promising run.  Less than 30 minutes into fishing, my indicator disappeared.  Yes, disappeared.  It was like a magician came along and made the thing disappear instantly.  I was taken by surprise, but knew right away this couldn't have been bottom.  I had probably 80' of line out, so I stripped as much line in as I could and set the hook as hard as I could sideways.  It felt like a solid hookset, and then all hell broke loose.  After the hookset, this behemoth of a steelhead went skidding across the surface of the water.  I looked at Kenny and my mind was just blown.  The only thing I kept saying was, "OH MY GOD!"  This was a truly massive steelhead, and easily on par with the 10 lb salmon I'd landed right in the same area earlier in the year.  I quickly got the fish to the reel, and was running 8 lb fluoro so I was fairly confident with a decently high drag setting.  The fish had other plans though, it took off like a rocket upstream, almost faster than I could strip line in with my hand.  It then turned away from me and started to run across the river.  It peeled off all of my running line, and then about 30 yards of backing before stopping the first run.  I was honestly worried it would just keep running and I'd run out of backing.  I kept the side pressure to it and it was just whooping me around like nothing.  Even with a 7 wt and 8 lb tippet, I felt seriously outgunned and was at the mercy of this fish.

Then, disaster happens.  My line all of a sudden went slack.  Oh the things I hollered....I was broken, a state of confusion.   I thought for sure it broke me off, until I reeled up my rig and found out that I still had both flies, and they were both still sharp.  I wish I had a reason for losing that big of a steelhead besides the hook just, "came out" somehow.  I was hoping for a 10 lb salmon and a 10 lb steelhead year, but it managed to slip away.

After that, we had no other takes, and Kenny was on his way back home.  The salmon run was just about over, and they were all starting to head back to the Lake. Things were tapering down, and I was hoping the steelies would be plentiful like the last few years.  I was wrong though.  Other steelhead tribs on Champlain had terrible runs, and I couldn't even hook up on the Winooski after the last trip with Kenny besides a few small landlocks.  My best year for salmon and my worst year for steelhead, go figure!  I won't be detoured by the Fall and Winter numbers though, I'll still be back at it this Spring.