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A Wet Start to 2024

Kayak fishing guide Josh Rayner with a solid March largemouth bass weighing 5 lbs. 2 oz. caught on a kayak in Connecticut
It wouldn't be a normal March without at least one 5 lb CT. River bass under my belt...

Blown out rivers and cold water have been issues this late winter/early spring for many anglers in the northeast, with the record setting rainfall we've endured over the last few months. On a normal year, these are some of my favorite months of the year to fish, with less people on the water and fish starting to become more active with warming water that likely haven't seen a lure since last October . Most of my efforts this time of year are put into rivers, namely the Connecticut River and Housatonic River. No, I don't do the holdover striper thing like I used to. The tidal Housatonic from where I live is just annoying enough of a drive for me to stay away. 95 South through New Haven and beyond is probably my least favorite stretch of road to drive in the state, and hauling a trailer through there makes it ten times worse. Access in the tidal Housy has become a real obstacle as well for out-of-towners. Sure, there are other places to find holdovers closer to home, but it can be needle in a haystack fishing. I get enough striped bass fishing done once the migratory fish start showing up, so it's nice to put time into other species. I would honestly rather go north on the Housy to pick away at smallmouth in the winter months if the river allows, or the coves and creeks of the Connecticut River for some mixed bag action. Sadly, I haven't had much of a chance to do either so far this year. Windows of opportunity have been very small and few and far between for a worthwhile trip on the rivers in a self propelled vessel. It seems that every time the rivers begin to settle down, we get hammered with an inch or more of rain and the flows are right back up. Is this the new normal for New England winters? We had nearly record lows for snow, and record breaking highs for rainfall. I suppose the precipitation has to find it's way into the systems somehow, but these "all at once" rainstorms we've had lately are tough to work around. I think I can count on one hand how many days this winter my basement hasn't had water in it to some degree... Anyway...

Early Season Pond Hopping

Even some of the lakes were goofed up after heavy rain with stagnant water temps and turbid water. Because most of my riverine spots were inaccessible and/or unfishable through March, I guided a handful of trips on some of the local CT. lakes I am familiar with and confident bringing clients. None of which were "lights-out" trips, but some nice bass, pickerel, and crappie were caught on each. I don't fish lakes and ponds all that often these days, but its good to have spots like these in the back pocket if conditions don't allow to go where you wish, or if clients are apprehensive about a trip on a river or saltwater environment. Most of the bass and pickerel were caught on chatterbaits, spinnerbaits, and skirted jigs. Most crappie were caught on small paddletail swimbaits and crappie jigs.

Crappie Populations in CT. River

A black crappie caught in the Connecticut River from a Hobie Kayak
An average sized Connecticut River crappie is 11"-13", with some specimens measuring 15" or more.

It has become apparent that certain isolated populations of black crappie in the Connecticut River system have declined over the last few years in several areas, which I believe is mostly due to overfishing. Yes, the argument can be made that panfish like crappie are cyclical, and bad spawn year or years can put a huge dent in one of these sub-population, but each time I visit certain areas, there are at least a few boats with stringers slung over the side holding far too many crappie. Rowan Lytle put it best in a message to me on the topic by saying, "if it is cyclical, this is the cycle: spot gets fished out, people stop fishing it, fish rebound, spot gets fished out again".

Crappie are not strong swimmers and are not well traveled fish that move all over the river. They settle into slackwater areas of creeks, in coves, and marina basins, and each backwater has its own little population of maybe a few hundred fish. They aren't making big moves from cove to cove chasing schools of bait or anything like that. They find a suitable, comfortable location to for most of the year and call it home. When one of these sub-populations is overharvested, it has a very difficult time bouncing back, and may never be what it once was.

The winter/early spring of 2023 was when I started to notice a thinning of the herd, having a hard time locating big schools of fish with my electronics, and I thought it was a "me problem". Sadly, as I have recently voiced this issue on social media, others have reached out and stated that things aren't what they used to be in terms of both size and numbers, and the fact that Connecticut has no size or daily creel limits on panfish, doesn't help. I've been known to take a few crappie here and there, but there are ways to do it, and ways not to do it. Simply put, keep only mid-sized fish and what you intend to eat. Selective harvest isn't a hard concept to grasp. I will never understand these guys who are stocking their freezers for the apocalypse. When the apocalypse happens, you likely won't have electricity and everything in your freezer will perish, duh... Larger fish that are 15" and over should ALWAYS go back, but it seems like many of the guys who are bringing home piles of crappie, bring the big ones home too. I don't know the exact growth rate of crappie, but I would have to guess it's quite slow, and a 15 or 16" fish might be close to a decade old. We used to see them as big as 19" in some areas of the river, but I haven't seen one like that in quite a while now. As a guide and as someone who is conservation minded and understands how things work, its difficult to watch a fishery, as small and as inconsequential as it may seem (they're just crappie, right?), become so depleted that the term"good school" went from maybe 60-100 fish to 20% of that. On my last trip, the biggest schools I could find using side imaging were at most, a dozen fish, and I could individually count each fish.

2024 Connecticut Fishing & Outdoor Show

CT Fish Nerd booth at 2024 Connecticut Fishing & Outdoor Show
My "booth babe" and fiancé, Magda

On a brighter note, the Connecticut Fishing & Outdoor Show was a success! This was my first time showcasing my guide service and jigs at an event like this, and I was overwhelmed by the positive response. It was nice to see familiar faces of return guide service clients and jig customers, and to make some new connections too. I went into the show not knowing what to expect. My hand-tied jigs are not a huge money maker for me throughout the season, but they keep the lights on through the winter. I was a little light on inventory (175 jigs) going into the show, and, unfortunately for some attendees, I sold through most of my popular jigs on the second day.

CT Fish Nerd hand tied hair jigs for smallmouth and largemouth bass. Crawfish style football jigs.
Wide Load Craws were sold out by 11 am Saturday Morning.

Now I know to bring about quadruple that number for next year. I was happy to make my money back on the cost of the exhibitor space purely on jig sales over the course of the weekend, which I didn't expect, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate the business and support! All in all, a great (but exhausting) weekend. I look forward to seeing what everyone is catching with my jigs and I look forward to getting those of you who showed interest out on the water this season. If we spoke at the show, please reach out to book soon while there is still availability going into the busy part of the season!

CT Fish Nerd booth at 2024 Connecticut Fishing & Outdoor Show, Al Gag and Josh Rayner
Congrats to Al Gag, who was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame during the show. What a guy!

Some New Stuff in the Shop!

Doing a big show was a kick in the pants to get some exciting products ready for both the show and the upcoming season. Hands down, my best seller at the show was the Wide Load Craw, which I released at the show. I only made 22 of them in 2 weights and 4 different color patterns, but they were gone by 11:00 am on day 2 of the 3-day show. For those of you who wanted to purchase Wide Load Craws, but missed out at the show, they are available for Pre-Order in my online shop! There have been some new styles and colors added to my jig line recently as well, and I've condensed some listings (for instance, Girl Scout Cookie Basic Hair Jigs are now batched together with the original colors of Basic Hair Jigs). I've also started to add some CT Fish Nerd branded apparel items, in the form of some high-quality 5 Panel Hats. More to come soon, as I am shopping around for quality t-shirts, hoodies, and more. If you haven't checked out the shop in a while, now is a good time! Once my guiding season really kicks off (which is now), I will have less jig inventory readily available.

Hangin' with Oliver

Getting kids involved in fishing is something everyone who considers themselves a steward of the outdoors and a mentor to upcoming anglers should be doing. This winter, I was given the opportunity to give private fishing lessons to 9-year-old Oliver on a once-a-week basis. Oliver is a smart kid who has so much passion for fishing, with a bold imagination and eagerness to learn. He reminds me of myself at his age. We spent quite a bit of time doing indoor lessons on colder days, teaching him some basics. The book learning portion of fishing can be a bit boring at times, so we also spent time checking water levels and clarity of a certain CT. River tributary, as well as flipping rocks on low tide, to see what aquatic insects are available to fish in said tributary. We just recently were able to start fishing, with nicer weather falling on our meet-up days, and we tied into a good bunch of crappie on a local pond last week. I recently rigged up his kayak with a pile of YakAttack accessories to make it a bit fishier for him too.

Looking Ahead...

Some of the best fishing of the year is coming up in the next few weeks! In freshwater, smallmouth bass are fired up and feeding hard through April, right up until the spawn in mid/late May. I will be checking USGS water data on the rivers religiously, and hoping they come down enough to get myself and clients where we need to be to have those 50+ fish days with some fish over 4 lbs. Post-spawn pike will start waking up and showing more face as well, and can be a nice addition to a dedicated smallmouth trip on the Housatonic. The crappie bite is still "good" in the CT. River and worth a trip just to target them, but its not what I remember it being. Into May, a freshwater mixed bag trip is the way to go on the upper CT. River, targeting a variety of species in possible several very different habitats, with species ranging from crappie, perch, largemouth bass, pike, bowfin, smallmouth, and even stripers.

In saltwater, things are just getting underway out east. Schoolie bass are starting to show, and as more bait makes its way into warming backwaters, rivers, and inshore areas, more and bigger bass will find their way in too. This is one of the best times of year to get on some light tackle or fly rod stripers in backwaters and salt ponds! Weakfish will also be filtering into certain areas over the coming weeks, and that is a bite I really look forward to getting clients on. Last year, in the first two weeks of May, inshore slams were just about a daily occurrence, consisting of striped bass to slot size, bluefish over 30", and weakfish pushing 30", and I expect the same this year. Sounds like fun to me. As May progresses, the Connecticut River striped bass bite will also strengthen.

If you haven't reached out to book your guided kayak fishing trips, please do so very soon! As the weather gets better and word of good local fishing begins to spread, dates will fill in fast. Please call or text (860)-575-8962 OR leave a message on the Contact page of the website.


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