Wednesday, March 12, 2014

First Champlain Burbot

 So I have caught the hardwater bug badly... really badly... What really, really got me was the fact
Check it out- it's a fly reel!
that the new hot reel for jigging is actually a fly reel... ok, so the gear is giving me a sign that I need to do this too... with that in mind I got a rig (it was my birthday gift to myself). My good friend Marty let me borrow some gear too. I was ready to rock and roll!

I did a bit of research and did a lot of thinking about where to go. I knew the habitat that the burbot is looking for. They love rocks. So I thought, hmmmm, where is someplace that has a lot of rocks, is fairly open and easy access?  The Burlington Waterfront. I asked around a bit, specifically my buddy Dale down at Biben's Lakeshore Hardware just up the road from me in Colchester. They are one of the best places to get your ice fishing gear. I grabbed some dead minnows and headed out.
Right on the Waterfront!

The set up is pretty simple. A jigging rod, a glow in the dark jig, a glow in the dark curly tail soft plastic, some dead minnows, and a flashlight to recharge the glow stuff. All pretty straight forward! 

I got out there pretty early. The place was crawling with folks because it was a gorgeous day. The sunset was spectacular. Nothing happened until the sun went down. Then things got interesting...

Three burbot hit within 20 minutes of full darkness. They were hammering that thing. Usually
right after I recharged the jig. BAM! they were on it.  Another one came in the next hour or so. I had a blast and learned a lot. 

I am really excited about this. It opens up so many new possibilities for me for the winter. No longer will I be pining for the spring all winter long. Instead I will be taking advantage of the winter months and hard water. And my friends will be taking advantage of the burbot bonzanza!

First time on the ice solo, first time ice fishing Lake Champlain, first time burbot fishing Champlain... and I nailed it! I feel like a cod among men! 

Not a bad haul! Average size seems larger than those at Willoughby

Monday, March 10, 2014

Master Angler 2013 Pin and Species List Update

The 2013 Vermont Master Angler Pin! I love this one! I put in the first Master Class Gar too! AWESOME choice!
I didn't put in a ton of entries into the Vermont Master Angler Program last year, but I did get in two new species: the Northern Pike and the Yellow Perch. I am pretty pumped about that! 

I also just got in my 2013 Vermont Master Angler pin in the mail! I thought I would show it off a bit. It is a great program and if you are in Vermont and fish I strongly urge you to participate. It is definitely a fun way of expanding your fishing opportunities. 

With that, since I got my Master Class Burbot just two days ago let's put together my species list so far:

The full set of Vermont Master Angler Pins

Common Carp
Rock Bass
Smallmouth Bass
Largemouth Bass
Northern Pike
Chain Pickerel
Longnose Gar
Freshwater Drum
Brown Trout
Brook Trout
Lake Trout
Landlocked Salmon
White Sucker (also the state record)
Redhorse Sucker
White Perch
Yellow Perch

That is 23 out of the 33 species! I am 2/3 of the way through the list... And all but one on a fly rod! I have a game plan for this year too. I hope to have a few new entries into the list by year's end. I don't want to jinx myself on what could be low hanging fruit so I won't comment on which species are on my "to do" list but expect to see some cool fish coming this year! I might be using some conventional tackle along the way too (the American Eel is not a fly friendly species, but we will see).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Thank Cod for Burbot! (A Hardwater Conversion Story)

A disclaimer: this post is going to be a part fishing story, part biology, and part consciousness awakening... 
Not my typical fishing experience (for now...)

Many years ago I went ice fishing with a friend on Lake Champlain. It was ok, but it really wasn't my style. It was classic Champlain ice fishing complete with ice shanties, the old wooden jigging sticks, lots of smelt and a bottle being passed around to "keep ya warm". It was ok but it really wasn't my style. Since that point I have poo-pooed ice fishing, wondering why anyone would want to subject themselves to the cold and risking life and limb out on a frozen body of water. 

Enter the burbot. I have known about burbot (Lota lota) for many years. Locals will call them ling, lingcod,  cusk or lawyers but to a fish geek like me they are the only freshwater member of the cod family. These critters are just plain weird! They are the only fish around here that spawns under the ice, they spend all their time at or near the bottom and they are most active when the water temps are below 40 and primarily at night. HUH? So weird... just up my alley! These fish are very popular with anglers in the Midwest, Alaska and Canada because they are delicious. I have been contemplating them for years and how to get them on a fly rod. 

Jump forward to 2010... A couple of state fisheries biologists, Shawn Good and Jud Kratzer,
kick off the Vermont Master Angler Program where anglers submit pictures of their catches and if they meet the minimum length set for that species then that angler gets a certificate that they caught a Master Class Fish. Five different species in a year and you earn a pin and the bragging rights of being a Vermont Master Angler for that year. Being me I was all about this and set out to get the first pin earned in the state (which I did) and I wanted to be the first to catch all 33 species in the program. Among those species is the burbot. The stage was set. 
Tip ups with Mount Hor in the background

I am friends with both Shawn and Jud and have fished with them both. I have had them both out with fly rods chasing after some of the weird critters that I am interested in. Shawn and I had one of the best bowfin days I have ever had and Jud had on what I believe was a new state record gar with me a couple of years ago. I really love to fish with these two guys because I really get to fish geek out to my heart's content! Jud is an avid burbot fisherman and a couple of years ago Vermont Outdoor Journal did a story on burbot fishing on Lake Willoughby that featured him. When I had the chance to get out with him to do it, I jumped on it. 

The standard method of fishing them in Vermont is to set tip-ups with a couple of smelt but I wanted to try something a bit different. A number of articles and videos that I had found talked about using glow in the dark curly tailed soft plastics on a glow in the dark jig head with a piece. That seemed to be a whole lot more active method of fishing and appealed to me a whole lot more than sitting around waiting for flags to pop. Jud wasn't sure if it would work but was interested in finding out because it would open up a lot more options for him. 
MASSIVE laker (hyperbole)

Yesterday the weather cooperated for us to get out there. Lake Willoughby is situated in a mostly north/south direction between two mountains which act like a wind tunnel. Hitting the weather right makes all the difference. I missed a great window a few weeks ago when Jud hit 15 burbot in a night. The ice fishing season comes to an end next weekend and I wanted to get this in before it did. 

We hit the ice, drilled holes, and set tip ups at the end of the day. I set out my glowing worms to catch the last rays of the setting sun (but I also had a couple of LED flashlights with me to recharge them when I needed to). I started jigging a hole in about 50 feet of water with the jig. I do have to admit that I did tip the jig with a smelt head. Hey, with these critters every advantage counts! 

Within 15 minutes I had something on. I could tell it wasn't very big but I laughed my head off when I pulled out a 10 inch lake trout! Lake Willoughby has some of the biggest lakers in Vermont (it is the home of the state record of 35 lbs) which can be notoriously finicky. First time fishing the lake and I have one! I thought it was a fortuitous start. 
Get a Lota that fish: my first burbot ever!

Shortly after that I felt something bump the rig. A couple of times. I totally missed it. It takes a while to get used to the feel of a jigging rod that is less than 30 inches long when you are used to an 8 to 10 foot fly rod. I checked the rig, recharged the glow and put it back down. BAM! Something was on. I reeled it up and I had a nice 17" burbot! First one ever and a new species on my life list! AWESOME!  It didn't take long and I had another one. Jud didn't have any of his tip ups flag yet either. 

Then I had a bite... I set the hook pretty hard and the rod doubled over. It is pretty funny to see a tiny rod like that double over! I could tell this was a good fish. Jud came over and mentioned that the rod was really cranked. As it came up through the hole he said "That is a nice fish! You have your Master Class there!" as he pulled it out onto the ice. Sure enough I had a 25 inch burbot! Quite a beast! 
25", 4.5lb Master Class burbot! Great colors and markings on these fish!

Jud saw how effective the jigging was and started to use that. He was really psyched because it would open up a lot of different possibilities for him at the lake. There are a few other locations that have bigger fish but don't have a smelt run. The reason the burbot are stacked up here is that it is post spawn (it happened in early February) and they are ambushing schools of smelt in fairly shallow water in this location. Burbot don't move a lot except to spawn or when there are large congregations of baitfish for them to snack on. 
Admiring the slimy devil!

We finished up the night with a total of 11 fish- Jud had 6 (released one) and I had 5 (released one). Of those all but two came on the jigging method. I can't  wait to hear how Jud does with this technique next weekend. As for the fish I kept- some friends will be trying out what is described as "poor man's lobster" and I will report on what they thought of it after they chow down.

As for me, this was an awakening... I think I am a convert... I will be amassing gear over the next 9 months to get ready for the hard water season next year. Lake Champlain has a lot of possibilities and I don't have any other hobbies or activities that I do during the winter. I have been pretty oppositional to ice fishing in the past but Jud has converted me... and Cod has spoken!

A great feed for some friends (I am allergic to fish...)
PS- This puts me at 22 of the 33 species on the Master Angler list of fishes for the state... 2/3 of the way through... post on this later...

Friday, March 7, 2014

Burbot... the "Hard" Way...

I haven't wet a line since November. We have been in the deep freeze here in Vermont. Still seem to be. I am going completely crazy because of it... so I need to do something different. With that in  mind I have been talking to a friend of mine, Jud Kratzer, who is an avid burbot fisherman and also happens to be a Vermont State Fisheries Biologist, about getting out after these fish. 

What the hang is a burbot you say? Lota lota  I say! They are the only freshwater member of the cod family and have a circumpolar distribution (throughout the northern hemisphere). The best time to get them is in the winter when they congregate to spawn (they spawn under the ice) and the best method is to ice fish. I have never been an ice fisherman but I want to get one of these puppies somehow! I will be out for them when the ice is gone too... I have some ideas!!!

So off I go tomorrow afternoon to see about getting a lota that fish! I will let you know how my hard water experience plays out!

Check out Jud on Vermont Outdoor Journal here:


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Spring Pike Fishing Techniques for Vermont Fly Guys

Me and Ken with a couple of bruisers

It has been a while since I have written or posted anything and I have to give credit where credit is due- Ken "Pikepicker" Capsey got on my case and asked me to write something up about springtime pike fishing for the Vermont Fly Guys (here is their Facebook too) crew. I have known Ken for a long time and he is definitely Mr. Water Wolf in the flesh. He lives and breathes the Esox Clan and Brian Price (no relation to me other than an affinity for fishing on the fly) is no slouch himself. 

 When Ken asked me if I could write this I have to admit that I was honored to be asked. It was definitely something that Ken could have written up himself but he wanted me to share some of my insights with his crew. How could I resist? So, check it out and then get some flies from Vermont Fly Guys and have me take you out for a trip this coming spring!

Pike are fun to catch any time but the spring pike bite might be the best fishing for the water wolf all year. They are actively prowling the shallows looking for food and found in good numbers. The fishing can be hot and heavy if you are in the right place at the right time. 

March '12 pike- note the fly!
A lot of spring pike fishing really depends on the biology of the pike. The Northern Pike (Esox lucius) is the most widely distributed freshwater fish in the world being found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. While the Eurasian pike tend to differ from North American fish both share that they spawn in the spring. Typically pike spawn in shallow, flooded wetlands when the water temps are around 40. Some years that happens earlier than others and there are times
when they will actually spawn under the ice in some locations. Weather is a very important element of when the spring pike bite will begin in earnest.

Depending on the year there can be a great opportunity for fly anglers to get into some pre-spawn pike. 2012 was a great example of this in the Champlain Valley. A very warm winter kept Lake Champlain virtually ice free and fish were caught near the wetlands that they spawn in and the spawn was over by mid to late March. This year with the arctic weather that never seems to be ending will be vastly different- it is hard to throw a fly in the lake when it is locked up tight with ice. 

Clouser Half and Half's at the ready
When the opportunity presents itself look for drop offs near wetland areas. There are two methods of fishing at this point but they share a key element: fish slow. The first technique is to use a long leader and a heavy, jigging fly like a Clouser Minnow or a Clouser Half and Half. Let the fly sink to the bottom and slowly retrieve it with a slight jigging action brought on by a strip then pause of the line. The other method is to use an unweighted fly like a Bunny Bug or a Deceiver with a sinking or sink tip line. Let the fly sink to the bottom and slowly strip it back. Strikes tend to be fairly subtle. Don’t expect fast and furious action. It tends to be pretty slow (and cold). 

Typical pike spawning habitat
When the spawn happens fishing really shuts down. There will be good numbers of fish in shallow water often right at your feet if you are wading. Some of them will be the largest fish you might see all year. The big ladies are in there to bring about the next generation of aquatic predators with their multiple smaller male suitors following closely. You can throw everything you have in your fly box at them but chances are that they won’t have anything to do with them. Their minds are on procreation not food. The spawn can last a week to a month depending on the weather and location. Here in the Champlain Valley this typically happens in the last weeks of March into the first weeks of April. 

There is a period after the spawn where the fish are sluggish and the fishing is slow. The pike are recovering from the business that they just concluded. You might pick up the occasional fish but the best is yet to come.  This period of time can be 2-4 weeks. Then comes the big game!
When the water hits around 50 degrees the feedbags come out. Pike start their serious hunting. They really start to show up in big numbers and the fishing gets pretty hot. Timing is really the key for the earliest fishing during this period. Getting out super early doesn’t do any good. It is definitely the time to let the water warm up a while. Hit a trout stream in the morning and don’t head to the pike spots until around noon. Let the sun get the fish warmed up before heading out. 

Watercraft get you to the fish!
Most serious pike anglers are fishing from watercraft; boats, canoes and kayaks are very typical but float tubes can work nicely too. Personally I am a fan of something that gets me up out of the water so I can see fish. This is the time of the year when you can sight fish to individual fish if you are in the right spots. It takes a bit of time to develop the right “target signature” to be able to spot pike in ambush mode but when you do it gets really fun! There isn’t a lot of weed growth yet and sometimes the fish will stand out like a sore thumb. 

Location is a big part of fishing pike. There are definitely places to focus on. In lakes and ponds look for shallow flats that are from 2 to 5 feet deep that are close to wetland areas but also provide access to deeper water. Pike spend their time during the night in the deeper water and come shallow to feed. Wetland areas are where they just spawned and also tend to be a lot warmer than the depths. There are also a plethora of food sources for them in those areas from a variety of baitfish, frogs, crawfish and even insects like dragonflies.

River inflow pike
 Another area to pay close attention to is any inflows. Streams and rivers will be running a bit warmer than the large body of water that they flow into. This will appeal to pike. It can be a spark to get those fish feeding more. Weedy areas in those deltas can be fantastic in the spring. 

River pike are pretty similar. Areas to look for are spots that could be a bit warmer. Look for inflows again. Streams and drainage areas from surrounding wetlands are spots to look for. Another good area to probe are side channels and oxbows. Any place that the water might be just a few degrees warmer can be a place to look. One of my favorite pike rivers has quite a few nice inflows that the pike will congregate around. I have found several dozen pike stacked up where the warmer water is coming into a bigger river. Situations like that can provide really hot fishing!  If you are ever in a spot where you can get up into a backwater wetland area that surrounds the river you might find some pretty hot fishing too. 

A couple of 9 wts rigged and ready with plenty of ammo

Gearing up for this spring fishing is pretty typical for pike fishing. A 9 weight is the gold standard. It will let you get a wide variety of flies out there and can handle a big fish very easily. Some people will use an 8 weight, which can work well but casting big bunny bugs all day with an 8 rather than a 9 will tire your arm out a lot faster. Another factor with the 8 weight is that it will not subdue the fish as fast as a 9 will. If you are getting into some large pike and you want them to swim away healthy it is best to use something that will land them quickly. Remember that they might swim off alright but an extended fight will cause a buildup of lactic acid in the fish which may lead to delayed mortality; the fish could die in the next day or two because of that. If you are practicing catch and release with these fish (the largest fish are the females and are critical to the population) then you really should consider using a heavier rod to help their survival. A 9 or 10 weight will work far better than an 8. Your arm will likely thank you too. 

A good floating pike or bass line or heavy “integrated shooting head” like like the Rio Outbound will serve you well tossing big flies. You will be casting a lot and going for distance a lot so it a good line really makes a huge difference. It will also benefit you to be a competent double haul caster. The double haul will help you get that fly out farther with less effort. A longer cast means that the fly can be presented to more fish and when the fly is in front of more fish you are likely to be catching more fish. 

Leaders can be pretty simple. A tapered leader is fine but not necessary. I typically use about
Kevin showing off why wire is critical!
an 8 foot leader: 4 feet of 25 or 30 pound mono or flouro down to 4 feet of 15 or 20 pound. These are very simple and will turn the fly over well. A bite tippet is critical! If you aren’t fishing with some sort of bite tippet then you should not be fishing for pike. They have a mouth full of teeth (over 400) and those teeth are super sharp. They have micro serrations that make very quick work of mono which you might know if you have fished for other species where pike are found. Wire and heavy fluorocarbon are both good options. Personally I prefer wire because I have had 80 lb flouro sliced on me. I make my own wire leaders using 12-18” of 20 or 30 pound wire tied on the end of the leader with an Albright knot. I tie the fly onto the bite tippet with a Non-slip Mono Loop Knot. That gives the fly a loop to provide more action.

The spring pike fly box can be pretty simple. Typical sizes in the spring are from size 2 to 4/0 and from 3 to 6 inches in length. Big flies aren’t needed. Baitfishes this time of the year tend to be fairly small so these smaller flies work better; larger flies tend to be ignored. Colors that seem to work best are yellow, white, red and white, red and yellow, chartreuse, and black. I personally use red and white and yellow the most frequently. One thing that seems to make a huge difference with pike flies is to make sure that there are large, visible eyes. Pike key in on this feature and I feel it is a critical part of any predator fly. Think about it- most baitfishes have very prominent eyes and a predator often focuses on that to strike. If you tying your own flies don’t be afraid to put in a lot of flash. If the fish seem to be spooked by too much flash, for example if the water is very clear, then you can always cut some off when you are on the water. 

"Daredevle" Bunny Bugs on the drying wheel
 My personal favorite fly to use this time of the year is the bunny bug. They are simple flies, quick to tie, tough as nails (Barry Reynolds refers to them as pike chew toys) and incredibly effective. They are unweighted and look great in the water- lots of motion. Despite being unweighted these flies can be unpleasant to cast when all soaked. It has been described as trying to cast a wet kitten before. A bunny bug will last many fish before they finally give up the ghost. Definitely a great feature when the action gets hot!

The Deceiver and tarpon style flies also work really well. The big downside to these flies is that they are a bit more delicate than bunny bugs. Bucktail and feathers have a tendency to get chewed up by those sharp teeth. Although they might be more prone to destruction these flies should be in your bag. In very clear water these style flies are more imitative and can provoke a strike when bunny bugs aren’t. 

As the water gets a bit warmer then topwater flies can be a blast to play with. Dahlberg Divers and poppers get vicious strikes from pike at times. Spring pike aren’t always in the mood to hit flies on the surface but when they are it is a treat!

My brother Pete with a shallow water water wolf
When fishing spring pike there are some good techniques to think about. Casting to structure can be very valuable, especially in rivers. Structures like wood, rocks, cattails and fresh weed growth can be very attractive to ambush predators. Don’t hesitate to toss flies at them. 

My normal procedure when fishing spring pike is to fan cast an area before moving on to the   Then keep moving on looking for active fish. I find that the fish are often on the shore side of the boat sometimes in surprisingly shallow water. I have found them with their backs literally out of the water. 
next spot. I start from one side and then fish 180 degrees . If I am solo in the boat then I will work the other side but when fishing with a partner I work one side of the boat and the other person works the opposite side.

When sight fishing for spring pike look for movement. Pike will be cruising the shallows slowly looking for prey. Look for dark shapes just sitting on or near the bottom. There might be times that you find pike lounging just under the surface of the water. The key element to fishing to visible water wolves is to cast to them properly; a fly dropped on their head will scare them. Cast in front of the fish and beyond it by a few feet. If you pull the fly toward the fish they may not see it or it could be seen as a threat which could spook the fish. The best bet is to broadside the fish with the fly if you can. Don’t get the fly too close. A pike’s vision isn’t designed to see things close to their face. A fish might not react to a fly when they first see it so just keep the fly moving. If you get a follow don’t slow the fly down; keep it moving at the same pace or even better move it faster! A good sharp hook set is important to getting into a lot of fish. Both a standard set or a strip set will work. 

Right temp, right time!
If you don’t get a reaction from the fish try again. Sometimes it can take multiple casts to get a fish to move. Try different retrieves too. Fish in the morning and on overcast colder days will like a slower retrieve than fish later in the day. The same holds true as the season progresses: warmer water means faster strips. 

Water temps are going to dictate how long you find big numbers of fish, especially larger fish, in the shallows. Once the water is regularly over 65 degrees, sometimes even 60 degrees throughout the day the best spring pike fishing is over. Pike are often described as a warm water fish but the reality is that the bigger pike are really more of a cool water fish. The big ones like the water temps below 60. Once they start heading out deeper the situation changes and so do the techniques so take advantage of finding these large, hungry fish in the shallows while you can!
Ken Capsey with proof that spring pike will leave you a very happy man!