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2023 Year In Review

Updated: Apr 4


striped bass, cow striped bass, kayak fishing, striped bass kayak fishing, guided kayak fishing in Connecticut, striped bass charter Connecticut, CT Fish Nerd, Hobie, Hobie Kayak, Hobie Outback

2023 is coming to an inevitable close, yet I am in disbelief. It seemed like such a short period of time, but so much has taken place over the past year and it seems like a blur. I kept busy with many guided fishing trips, jig tying, kayak rigging, writing for On The Water Magazine, holding my first annual "Smallmouth Camp" event, and promoting Hobie and Black Hall Outfitters, but things were busy in my personal life as well. I haven't had the chance to look back on the past 365 days until now, with plenty of down time while our family dog is recovering from ACL surgery and is in need of round the clock care and supervision. I spent countless hours on the water this year with clients, friends, and on solo trips. Solo trips are where I learn, explore, try different things, and sometimes completely fail. Overall, it was a solid year on the water with many memorable trips! The local striped bass fishing was some of the best I've ever seen through the heart of the season, and some of the slowest I've seen in the early and latter portions of the season. The big schools of bunker were not present this fall due to poor conditions caused by the flooding in July. From June to October, the fish that we had locally were big and old, with no later year classes mixed in. Maybe a low to mid 30" class fish here and there. This is cause for concern, but more about that later. On a lighter note, fishing for bluefish and weakfish improved yet again this year, with strong showings in estuaries and bays in May. The albies were plentiful this fall, but maddening at times. I had more chances at albies this fall than I can ever remember, but fooling them on spinning gear wasn't always easy... Blackfish, overall was very good as well. Most guided trips took place in saltwater environments, but I guided a handful of freshwater trips as well for smallmouth bass, pike and crappie/panfish. Some really great pike and smallies were caught on guided trips this year and at Smallmouth Camp, which I'm looking forward to holding again in 2024! My season typically always starts with some panfish and bass fishing, so we'll start there.



"Ice-Out" Largemouth Bass and Panfish

The first trip of the year was on the Connecticut River in early March, scouring backwaters for largemouth bass, pike, and assorted panfish species, specifically crappie. We didn't exactly have ice this past winter through most of Connecticut, instead, just enough skim ice that prevented kayak fishing on mild winter days. Regardless, nothing too spectacular is happening in the backwaters until water temps start to creep in a postive direction. March is a very overlooked month to get out and fish. Obviously, the weather in March can go either way, but the fishing can be very productive when conditions allow. Some of my best largemouth of the year are caught in March and early April on jigs, when they're looking for a big, slow moving meal. The crappie and perch bites can be lights out as well. For largemouth, jigs are my go-to, but spinnerbaits, finesse swimbaits, and chatterbaits are also utilized. For crappie, small, brightly colored panfish jigs and float 'n' fly tactics do best. I always explain to clients looking to get out for late winter/early spring trip that the weather will be the deciding factor if we can get out on a set date, but typically I'm not swamped with trips at this time, so there are many open dates on my calendar, given the client has some flexibility on their end. It probably sounds funny, but this is some of my favorite fishing of the entire year.




I don't have much to say about the early season crappie fishing this year, aside from the fact it was consistently a slower bite than usual in most of the areas they hold up in the Connecticut River. The average size of fish seemed to go down a bit as well. I don't know if we are on the downswing of the current population of adult crappie's life cycle, or if overfishing has become an issue, or perhaps both, but I tend to favor the theory that CT. River crappies are overfished. The river's backwaters can only support and hold a limited number of all species of fish, and consistent removal of fish will eventually lead to an entire localized population of a species to decline pretty rapidly. Crappie are not strong swimmers and don't travel far throughout the year, so the ones you catch in a given area in the spring and summer are the same ones you catch in the fall and winter. Personally, I don't keep fish for food from the CT. River for obvious reasons, and I recommend to clients not to keep them either, although they are welcome to. There are enough anglers out there taking way too many fish on every trip out. The white perch and yellow perch fishing in February was better, but with the wishy-washy temperatures, the ice was coming and going, making it hard to know whether it was worth a trip just to find ice the kayak cannot barge through.



Pre-Spawn Smallies

It's not every year that I get the time to target pre-spawn smallies (where I like to target them), but when I do, I make it count. My drive to these fish is about 1.5 hours, and the kayak trip to where they congregate in numbers is about 8 miles from the closest put-in. If I ignore all the spots on the way to where I expect to find the biggest pile of smallies, I can make it to the spot in a little over two hours using the Hobie pedal drive. If I pick apart all the wood, rock, eddies, current breaks, and seams along the way, it can more than double that trip time upriver. For the most part, the writing is on the wall, and I know targeting smallies in most areas won't be worthwhile, but pike on the other hand can be here, there, and everywhere, with some surprisingly large specimens in the mix. Usually, smallies are why I'm there, so I might take a haywire cast or two in the best pike haunts and keep moving up. I could realistically bring only two rods for a trip like this, just to have one as back-up nearly 8 miles from the put-in, and they would likely both have a CT Fish Nerd Hand Tied Hair Jig of some style tied on. It's a really fun bite, and one I recommend to my clients often. This trip should absolutely be booked as a full day and is worth every minute of being on the water. Not only for the phenomenal fishing, but for the scenery, the exploration of new water, and just the overall quiet atmosphere. These trips are available April through the first two weeks of May.



Spring In the Estuaries

Some of the absolute best light tackle inshore fishing of the entire season takes place in very early May. This is when my guiding season REALLY starts, even though there is no start or end. By late April, fresh stripers inundated many of the salt creeks, bays, and rivers, and in some areas were mixed with holdover stripers that were waking up with the rising water temps and bait starting to move in as well. This year, small sand eels were the big menu item early on, as well as "peanut" bunker that wintered over in some areas. River herring were sparse this spring in the Connecticut River watershed, causing concern for early season striped bass anglers and fisheries biologists alike. River herring were more abundant in some of the smaller runs, but still sparser than not. In daytime situations where river herring are present, a 7" Lunker City Fin-S Fish in the Sexy Shiner color rigged a variety of ways is one of my favorites. I will use a black Sharpie marker to color the tail and add a spot behind the gill plate. Rigged on an Eye Strike 1/4 or 3/8 oz Swimbait Head with the gold eye and it looks like the real thing. Make long casts into tailwaters and twitch it like a crazy person, just under the surface, and hold on. Adult bunker were all but absent to the best of my knowledge throughout eastern sound in May, giving us a later than expected first push of "good" bass. Action was isolated to certain areas, and in some instances, very short lived, but some really great days were had with clients and on solo trips in the early part of the run, and some days were even good for an inshore slam! This is one of the best times of year aside from fall to catch stripers, blues, and even weakfish on a fly rod. Keep in mind, I am NOT a fly angler or fly guide whatsoever. Clients who wish to fly fish on guided trips with me MUST BRING THEIR OWN FLY GEAR, but by spring 2024, I may be acquiring a fly rod of my own to get in on this spring estuary bite and albies on the fly later in the season. It just looks like too much fun. I used to fly fish occasionally for trout and smallmouth, but it has been at least a decade since I've even held a fly rod. Blooper reel soon to follow...



The Cows Come Home
Striped bass, kayak fishing for striped bass, guided kayak fishing, striped bass charter, Connecticut striped bass fishing, kayak fishing in Connecticut, Hobie Outback, Hobie Fishing, Gravity Tackle GT Eel, cow striper, striper, striped bass fishing
My first bass over 40" on the year in Eastern Long Island Sound in early June.

Eastern Sound anglers, including myself, sat on our hands through most of May, waiting for a big push of bass and bunker to make it out east. There were other options that kept us busy, as well as waves of smaller bass moving through the area, but not the biomass we hoped for and are somewhat accustomed to showing up in May in the Connecticut River area. In early June, when big schools of bunker finally moved in, it was something truly phenomenal, with the average size striped bass in that push of fish being around 40", with many being 50" or greater. Along with them, GATOR sized bluefish, which locally have become somewhat of a novelty in recent years, but it seemed this year the blues are on the upswing, or at least are utilizing local inshore waters to feed more frequently again. Concerning was the fact that nearly all the bass were 40" or far bigger, so where were all the mid-sized bass? I've always been accustomed to the Connecticut River mouth holding mostly 26"-40" fish from May to July. So while it was definitely exciting to have the size of fish around we had seemingly in abundance, it didn't give me a warm and fuzzy feeling for the next 5 or so years. Until July, there were certainly waves of smaller fish filtering in, on some trips our biggest fish was 36" or 38". It was nice to see some younger fish, but the numbers are clearly down.


Cow striper, 50 inch striped bass, kayak fishing for striped bass, guided kayak fishing, kayak fishing charters, CT Fish Nerd Guided Kayak Fishing
The bite around the CT. River mouth in June was something special this year. Here's my client Jim with a 50" bass in his lap.

My clients and I caught quite a few bass through June on artificials around the river mouth, but it was hard to beat live bunker most days. Livelining up shallow was a fan favorite presentation, giving clients a visual of their offering being toyed with and pursued by big hungry bass and blues, but 3 way rigging caught them better when they were sitting low in the channels. Some of my favorite artificials to catch them on this year were of course The Doc, a weightless Z-man HeroZ (especially with blues around), and after dark, a black 12" Lunker City Slug-Go. This bite continued into July, even though water temps were becoming unsafe for stripers, and ultimately came to a grinding halt with the heavy rain and flooding. Some smaller fish were still around the river mouth after the river flooding subsided, but bigger fish had moved on.



Many prospective clients have expressed apprehensions about fishing around the mouth of the Connecticut River in a kayak, but I can assure you that if you know where to be/not be on certain tides, and you are staying clear of shipping lanes, there is absolutely nothing to worry about. I've been fishing the Connecticut River from a kayak for over 15 years, and I know how that water behaves. I've made all the mistakes and learned from them, so you don't have to. Plus, the Mirage Drive can battle current better than most people give it credit for, you won't ever feel like you're on a treadmill. Even though it is busy water with a lot of fishing effort put in by other anglers, it is one of the best inshore bites we are fortunate to have every year.



Resident Summer Stripers
My guest Frank redeeming a Gift Certificate from his wife with some amazing light tackle striped bass action.

Summer gets a bad rap as far as striper fishing goes, and I'm not sure why. Here in Connecticut, summer is what a select handful of us kayak fisherman look forward to all year. From June through September, many large fish take up residency in eastern sound, and you typically don't have to go far to find them. Keep in mind, striped bass fishing in summer is best done in low or no light conditions, so I'm heading out in the Hobie at night or very early in the morning to target these fish, which sometimes isn't popular amongst clients. I understand that there are apprehensions involved with kayaking on Long Island Sound at night or waking up early enough to fish pre-dawn. Most night time and early morning striped bass trips are carried out on nearshore structure, and almost never more than 2 miles from the launch site. My kayaks are equipped with some lighting, and I'm happy to supply a nice bright headlamp if clients don't have their own. My number one goal while guiding is keeping clients safe, the fishing is secondary.


Striped bass activity generally isn't great in the middle of a hot summer day, but at times the action can be extended later into the morning utilizing the correct presentations under the right conditions. As you can probably imagine, I can't livewell gallons of adult bunker all over the sound via kayak, so generally I'm targeting stripers with artificials and live eels. Boat charters that rely on livelining or 3 waying bunker almost exclusively will absolutely put their clients on fish, but there are finer points to striped bass fishing, and much more exciting ways to catch them. Fine tuning presentation of artificial lures, boat control, and stealth are all key elements in targeting fish this way from a kayak. These are all things a client can learn on a guided trip with me, and catching large stripers from a kayak is an experience all its own!


Over the past few seasons, I've grown very fond of Gravity Tackle's 13.5" GT Eel. I've had success on large summer bass with many other soft plastics fished a variety of ways at different depths, but the GT Eel outshines all of them. There are times when these plastics outperform even the real thing, and I really believe it comes down to feel. I've said it before and I'm saying it again. Most clients have trouble feeling where their live eel rigged on a weightless circle hook is in the water, especially at night. The soft plastic can be fine-tuned to perform in the situation at hand, while still looking natural, giving the angler more feel, and in turn, more confidence.


July was a complete washout. Heavy rain flooded our rivers, sending a cocktail of silty, off colored water out into the sound, along with some large debris. Sections of docks with coolers and umbrellas still attached, huge trees, boats, the list goes on. Some devastating flooding took place along the Connecticut River in Vermont, and my heart goes out to those who were affected. I injured my knee at some point in July (not sure how) and had to take a couple weeks off before I could pedal the Outback again (I need a motor). Though July stunk, August was an incredible month. Water temps were lower than average due to the July rain, and the fish were active and abundant, seemingly more keyed in on eel like presentations than anything else. Very few topwater/plug fish for me and my clients throughout the summer, and that entirely had to do with the lack of big baitfish such as bunker and hickory shad. On the subject of topwater, I did witness 3 or 4 near 50 lb. bass blowing up on an injured sea robin that floated through the rip. I fired a plug into the area, a Lloyd's Lures custom spook, which got blasted immediately, and soon after, broken off in the rocks. Sigh. Good action for large stripers continued through September on both daytime and nighttime trips.





The First Annual Smallmouth Camp!
Mike with a picture perfect river smallmouth bass.

The first annual CT Fish Nerd Smallmouth Camp took place this past summer, and it was a total hoot! The idea for this annual weekend trip came about quite a few years back, but for a variety of reasons, never came to fruition. After some research, careful planning, and a great roster of participants showing interest and signing up, it finally became a reality this past August. I couldn't have asked for a better group of guys to join me for the first one, and I hope this coming year's event is better yet. I don't plan on making it much bigger, maybe opening it up to two or three more people (8 participants in total), but by building off of what worked best, making the experience more enjoyable all around.



August tends to be a safe (dry) month to fish the Housatonic River. July has been a crapshoot in recent years with record setting precipitation, and even though it's a good month to fish smallies, it is too risky to plan for an event where river conditions are everything. We did get a bit of heavy rain Saturday night while we were at camp, sending one participant with a leaky tent packing (sorry Bob), but storms are to be expected in the afternoon or evening in the Northwest corner during the summer. Aside from the rain, the weekend was filled with laughs, food, fishing, campfires, and comradery. Everybody got along well, helping each other out on AND off the water, and everyone brought something different to the table. We fished all day Saturday and Sunday, each day we picked a different stretch of river, and overall, the fishing was really good! For the most part, we spread out but buddied up over a few miles of river, never really losing sight of the other guys, but never fishing on top of one another either. The biggest measured smallie was 18", caught by Antonio, and the biggest pike was 36" caught by Chris. Both were awarded with a prize for the biggest of each species, in addition to the gift bags everyone received upon arrival. Thank you again to those that came to camp, and I would love to see you all back for the next one! Dates for 2024 Smallmouth Camp will be announced on social media and ctfishnerd.com by the end of January, and I'm already working on planning, so stay tuned...


Chris with the biggest pike of the weekend at 36".


Albies & The Striped Bass Fall Run

Albies showed up locally in strong numbers about a week earlier than normal. There were a few special days where you couldn't miss if you tried, then POOF, they were nowhere to be found. As storms and tides redirected bait, the albies ultimately came back (or more showed up), and were consistently seen around eastern sound throughout the fall into November. Most days, the hard part was fooling them with anything but a bay anchovy fly. Contrary to what makes sense, Albie Snax and Fin-S Fish would more often than not get more looks than an epoxy jig for much of the albie season. They were keyed in on incredibly small bait some days, sipping and filter feeding on the surface, and not willing to chase anything that went zipping by. A slower, carefully presented plastic, even though much larger than the bait they were glued to, would fool the occasional fish when they were negative. Undoubtedly, the fly guys in boats outfished everyone, with a better ability to match the hatch when they're on the small stuff. It was still a great albie year though. They can be a tough target from the kayak, many times frustrating, but when it's good there is nothing better. Albies from the kayak is a unique experience. All you can ask for is consistency with these fish. Of course they will get picky, but just having them in front of you can get your heart racing, and sometimes that's enough.



Striped bass fishing this fall left something to be desired. It seemed like things really shifted in a negative way in the first week of October, leaving many "should-be" fall run spots nearly void of life. There were plenty of schoolie bass running beach shorelines and blitzing on bay anchovies, but it seemed that most of the big fish were tired of piecing a meal together of fast-moving bait and whatever they can find in the rocks. There was definitely still some great action, but it wasn't the best fall locally. The fishing inside the mouth of the CT. River was so-so, with mostly schoolie and slot sized fish, but some really fun blitzes nonetheless. Nice to see some younger fish for sure. Bluefish were around as well, making things interesting on light gear.




Tog Until You're Blue in the Face

I did a lot of dedicated blackfish trips this fall. So many that I don't even want to talk about it. It was good overall. Sorry, I'm getting nauseous just thinking about the green crab smell. Ok, moving on.


Gratitude

I would like to thank each and every one of you that joined me on the water this year for a guided kayak trip. The relationship between a guide and a guest is a special one and is more of a friendship than a business relationship. I appreciate all of you, whether you've joined me once or join me several times a year. I'm now going into my fourth consecutive year of guiding full time. The good moments spent with clients on the water are what I do this for. Thank you to all who have purchased and enjoy fishing my hand tied Hair Jigs also. This "off-season" has been busy with jig orders so far, and every order, big or small, goes a long way when I'm not able to get on the water or don't have trips lined up. Thank you to those who have called on me for kayak rigging and repair as well. I'm always happy to help someone improve their rig. Thank you to Black Hall Outfitters for bringing me aboard their Fishing Team this year to represent Hobie! Black Hall has two locations, one in Westbrook, which is their main tackle shop, and one in Old Lyme, which is their kayak and kayak accessories shop. Please check them out and tell them I sent you! Thank you to Hobie sales rep John Van Ness for all that you do. Thank you to On The Water Magazine for giving me the opportunity to write the Monthly Planner for Eastern Connecticut for the second year running. It's an honor to be able to write for such a great publication that is conservation minded, all while allowing me to extend my reach to a wider audience. I would like to thank my girlfriend, Magda, for putting up with all my antics throughout the season, and helping me, supporting me the way you do, and believing in me enough to allow me to pursue my passion. I'm also really happy you enjoy fishing as well.


Lastly, I would like to thank my grandfather, who we lost this November, and this blog post is dedicated to him. Without him and his stories of striped bass fishing Jamaica Bay as a kid with his father, the fire deep inside me to pursue striped bass and other saltwater species may not be there. He was a true waterman, who not only fished, but knew how to sail, and could build and repair wood and fiberglass boats better than anyone. He always enjoyed hearing my fishing stories and was proud of what I do, sharing my photos and stories with his buddies at breakfast every Tuesday. On his death bed, he told me he wished he was younger and well enough to go kayak fishing with me. Me too, Gramp. Me too.


I hope you all have a happy and safe New Year, and I'm looking forward to all the adventures 2024 has to offer. This was such a great year to be a guide, and none of it would be possible without the support of all who were mentioned above. Thank you all again for making this year a good one, hope to see you out there soon! Cheers!


-JR


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