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Year In Review - 2020

Updated: Dec 26, 2020


This year has certainly been a wild ride to say the least, one I doubt any of us will forget for a very long time. To be very clear, this will not be a blog post that will focus on the absolute dumpster fire that was 2020 (I think we all know what it would say if it were), but to chronologically summarize the fishing I experienced this year, along with highlights from guided trips with some great clients. I am really looking forward to what 2021 has to offer for all of us, and I am beyond excited to be starting out the season with all the pieces of my Guide Service put into place, my Online Shop up and running, and other exciting things that I have in the hopper. Aside from what I'm working on with my own business, I am happy to be joining forces with New England Dive, a Hobie Kayak dealer and dive shop in Wallingford, CT, along with several of my closest kayak fishing buddies. We have some great things in store, so stay tuned as those plans develop! Anyways, on to the fishing recap. I will attempt to keep the summaries short, all while providing some useful information.



Late Winter/Early Spring

As you may know, I am a huge fan of fishing the cold water period. There is something magical about catching fish in the winter months on ultra finesse presentations. 2020 started with some great open water fishing for bass and panfish. The river coves were waivering back and forth between open water and just enough ice to make fishing impossible, but when conditions allowed, the fishing was steady for assorted panfish species, pike, pickerel, and bass. Female yellow perch are engorged with eggs, and some of the bigger ones almost look comical. The quality of the black crappie in the Connecticut River backwaters continued to amaze, with some fish pushing 17" caught this spring. The pre-spawn pike bite is something I always look forward to. There is a very short window before they spawn to get a large female on artificial lures, but timing it can be tricky. Many of the spawning areas warm into the optimal temps for them to "do the dance" quickly. I've always found better action in migration areas of the main river as opposed to the creeks and coves where they do the deed. Sure, there are always some angry males willing to take a spinnerbait or swimbait in the creeks and coves, but getting a big pre-spawn female to take a swing at a lure isn't always easy once they have moved into the spawing area. I didn't spend a ton of time looking for pike in the early season (we were quarantined for most of it), but during this year's pre-spawn I had one solid chance at a big one that followed my swimjig all the way to shore, but I couldn't get her to commit. She looked healthy, broad shouldered with her shovel nose right on the paddletail trailer of my swimjig. All she had to do was open her mouth!! Oh well, pike fishing can be frustrating, and it does seem the pike population in the CT. River south of Middletown is hurting a bit. All I had to show for my efforts locally were a few male pike with the biggest being maybe 30", and a ton of large pickerel hanging in the same areas pre-spawn pike usually stage. Some of these pickerel were giants, and I got fooled into thinking I was fighting a pike by a couple of them. As water temps started to warm into the mid 40's, I switched into jig mode for largemouth bass.


The Pre-Spawn Jig Bite

I will typically start putting more time into bass toward the end of February and early March, when water temps are inching into the low to mid 40's. I have a very hard time fishing anything other than a jig with a big floppy trailer, as it has been my go-to largemouth lure in the transitional month of March for many years. Bass will start feeding more frequently as waters warm, and you can bet they move shallow to soak up some rays on a sunny day. Crawfish are beginning to move around a bit in the mud and submerged brush, and the bass will take notice. I had some nice trips to a few local ponds that warm quickly in the spring, as well as a few different river creeks and coves, throwing nothing but the jig and having lights out action for hours. I'm not too particular about the brand of jigs I'm using, but any grass jig or Arkie Jig will work for the way I fish them in the spring. I like a little bit lighter jig for this application, so typically a 3/8 oz jig is what I will throw, and I'll bump up to a 1/2oz if it's windy. I focus on water ranging from 1-12' deep, but typically 4-8' is where most of my fish are sitting. I look for a mix of wood and rock, or wood and weeds, or weeds and rock, or all three combined. Rip rap river shorelines that are in the sun for most of the day will warm quickly and hold a good amount of fish.


Spring Run Stripers

Every year, by the middle of April, my focus is usually 95% shifted to targeting striped bass, as holdover stripers in the rivers become more active and willing to hit topwater presentations, and fresh fish are starting to filter into the sound on the heels of the river herring making their way to their spawning grounds. It wasn't the best spring run on record, that is for certain, but it wasn't the worst. According to the data, this year's herring run was one of the best in 30 years. There were reports of herring showing up in creeks as early as the last week in February. The larger migrating stripers were a couple weeks behind the biggest push of herring in mid April, and the two didn't collide head on the way they usually do. The bunker also showed up a couple weeks earlier than any bass big enough to eat them. We had an explosion of schoolie stripers in the 20-26" range, and most of the "keeper" sized fish that were around early on were averaging 30". I suppose using the term "keeper" is outdated, now fish 28-35" are referred to as "slots". I strongly believe that the slot limit is a great start to managing our striper stocks a bit more carefully. The slot size however will have to be changed intermittently to allow fish from 6-10 years old grow above slot size, otherwise entire year classes will virtually be wiped out before they can reproduce. Yadda yadda yadda, striper conservation... Do your part, safely handle and release. Hopefully we will see more positive changes to benefit the striped bass in coming years.

It's always fun finding them in backwaters.
My first topwater fish of the year was this 30" bass.

With the run being slow to start, finding consistently bigger fish was tricky. I had a few solid trips to the mouth of the river with fish around 38", but no record breakers or banner days. Honestly, I had more fun with the holdovers that were keyed in on herring up river. The action was consistent at least, and fish 26-30" were willing to hit topwater at almost any time of day, so long as the water was moving and some bait was present. Of course, that bite fizzled as water temps started to warm and herring began exiting their spawning grounds.

One of my better spring run topwater stripers this year. I love how they try to kill the Doc.
Nice sporty fish on a 24/7 Lures Mully near a large school of bunker.


The Return of the Inshore Gator Bluefish, or So We Thought...

There was a week or so during the spring run where bigger bass were tough to find, schoolies were everywhere you tried, but there was a slug of solid bluefish that were lurking around the mouth of the CT. River chopping up plastics and exploding on topwater plugs. If you fish local inshore waters, I'm sure you've taken notice to the absence of large bluefish over the past few years. I'm not talking about your Millstone outflow rats (s#!%heads as I like to call them), I'm talking about bluefish greater than 30" and pushing 40". These fish used to be reliable fun almost all season long in inshore waters, and I was beyond excited to see them inshore. If I had known how short lived their stay was going to be, I would have been out there every day throwing single hook plugs at them. The biggest I landed was 34" and I lost a few that looked to be 36-38". I hoped they would return to shallow nearshore water in the fall, and it was really amazing that they didn't with the amount of bait we had all over Long Island Sound. Hopefully the new regulations put into effect this year on bluefish (3 fish per day) will help bring them back. Many of the guys who were running offshore said there are big bluefish schools out there, and some have seen tuna blitzing on schools of bluefish over 30". That is true Nat Geo stuff.



Summer

With a less than memorable spring run behind us, I felt a lack of momentum going into the summer months as my focus normally shifts to targeting bass at night. It only took a handful of lackluster or skunk trips after dark to feel completely demoralized and catch up on sleep instead. After all, most of my summer was spent painting my house. It was in desperate need of scraping and priming too, so it was a pretty time consuming job, and I felt wiped out after spending a few solid weeks in a row, hanging off of a ladder in 90° weather. I still have to finish the trim and re-hang the shutters in the spring... yay. I also devoted a good portion of my time this summer to planning and launching my kayak fishing guide service, which is something I have wanted to revisit for a very long time. This year, as odd and as trying as it was, gave me an opportunity to take a step back and build this website, the guide service, and online shop from the ground up. I couldn't be more thankful for that opportunity and for all the support from my clients, friends, family, and followers. I will expand a bit on the guide service below.


Champlain Trip

I won't go into too much detail on this trip, because I already wrote a very detailed report about it in a previous blog post. All in all, it was a fun trip with some of great friends and kayak anglers. Can't wait to do it again next year.


Summer Stripers

So, to reiterate, this season I did not spend as much time targeting striped bass as usual. Between spending my days painting my house and assembling all the pieces for my guide service, I didn't have much energy to head out during the non-human hours. Some of the spots I frequent every summer weren't consistently holding fish either. I had a few outings without a single bump, a few with one or two fish, and a few with around a dozen fish per night. Also, the average size fish was maybe 36", but I did get a few bass over 40", and lost a few big ones I couldn't extract from the boulders. Certainly not the best summer, and it left a lot to be desired going into the fall.


I recall one specific evening while cleaning up after painting, out of habit I checked the marine forecast, wind, tide, and moon phase on my phone. I hadn't been out at night in a couple weeks at this point. It looked like the perfect combination for some great last light action. Quick incoming tide, a light North wind, and a new moon. I packed up a small selection of topwater plugs and GT Eels and strapped the kayak to the roof rack. It was a good move, because this night would be my best of the summer in terms of quality and quantity of fish. The bite started about a half hour before dark, and lasted 3 hours into darkness. With the last bit of daylight left, the fish were all over pencil poppers cast up into the whitewater. I lost a really big one that hit my popper in no more than 2 feet of water, and at the end of my cast. I had no chance in landing that fish, as I never gained an inch on it before it was buried in the rocks. I tried to come in tight and get over top of the fish to get an advantageous angle on it, but it was fruitless. By the time I re-rigged, I had lost daylight, but I ended up with a few more topwater fish after dark, which is ALWAYS a treat.


Once the topwater bite died, I switched to Gravity Tackle GT Eels and continued to catch. Most fish caught after dark this evening were smaller than the ones hitting topwater around last light, which I found odd, because usually the opposite is the norm. No need to overanalyze it, I was pumped on this outing and it felt like the beginning of a great fall run...

After losing a bigger fish that ran me into the shallow boulder field, this 40" bass pounced on a Tsunami Talkin' Popper XD.
The GT Eel has basically replaced live eels in my arsenal.
A fat mid 40" bass that hit a Gravity Tackle GT Eel on a slow night.


Fall

My albie season was punctuated by an allergic reaction to a yellowjacket sting, keeping me off the water for about a week. I was happy to get at least a few this year.

Fall always brings a level of excitement to saltwater fishing that is unmatched by almost any other part of the season. Some years, it is like the grand finale in a fireworks show, a fall run you will never forget and you will hold as the standard of what to expect or strive to achieve. Other years, it's a total dud, questioning fish stocks and even your ability to find and catch fish. The action is sub par, inconsistent, or interrupted by terrible conditions, limiting the amount of time that can be spent on the water. This fall, I experienced more of a dud than a grand finale. Don't get me wrong, I caught lots of fish, but there was an undeniable void of bigger striped bass in many high percentage, inshore fall run spots. Sure, there were lots of schoolies, but large stripers seemed to skirt around Eastern Long Island Sound despite the huge biomass of bait held up throughout the sound and the tidal rivers. It does seem that the migration pattern is changing, and fewer fish are coming into the warmer sound waters.


Striped bass fishing aside, the sea bass and blackfish bites were excellent through the fall, as I spent more time than ever targeting those two bottom dwelling species. We had a fairly decent showing of albies in select areas, and some of the blitzes I witnessed were magical. The most interesting blitz I saw was a mix of schoolie bass and albies that had trapped bait against a rocky shoreline, and the baitfish had nowhere to go and started fleeing out of the water onto the shoreline. During this frenzy, the albies were so charged up they were chasing our epoxy jigs the entire way back to the kayak on almost every cast, and in fact, the only one I had the pleasure of landing that day hit my epoxy jig yakside!



Late Fall/Winter

The cooling period that occurs in the fall into early winter is a bittersweet time of year for anglers in the northeast. Saltwater fishing begins to taper off as the migrating population of fish has all but left, tautog fishing remains steady, but obvious spots are fished out. Fish activity starts to taper, and bite windows shrink. My focus quickly becomes shifted to freshwater bass, pike, and panfish.


My most memorable late season trips were for smallmouth bass. They weren't the best numbers days I've ever had, but the quality of fish was excellent for the bodies of water I was fishing. Hands down, my most productive bait for bass throughout the late fall was one of my black hand tied Basic Hair Jigs. Depending on depth and wind, I was either using a 3/16 or 1/4 oz. jig. The best presentation with these jigs is to do almost nothing at all with them. I'll take a long cast updrift, let it hit the bottom, and depending on fish mood I'll either drag and gently hop it with pauses, or let the drift do all the work and deadstick close to bottom with subtle lifts and twitches. I'm in the process of writing a downloadable "How-To" on fishing hair jigs from fall to ice-out, so look for that to show up in my online shop within the next couple weeks.

Aside from a couple fun smallmouth outings, I spent most of the late fall targeting panfish such as crappie, white perch, and yellow perch. These species, though not as desirable as bass, pike, or stripers, can provide some very fast action resulting in 100+ fish days. This year's late season panfish bite did not disappoint. A good chunk of my time this fall was also spent at my tying bench making jigs, which is nothing new to me, as winter sets in.



A Handful of Firsts

As a multispecies angler, any new species on the end of the line is at times just as exciting, if not more so than catching a trophy sized fish of a species I've caught hundreds, possibly thousands of. A couple of these are less than impressive, in both size and desirability of species, but this year I managed four new ones I can scratch off the life list. I wish I could say I was specifically targeting any of these new to me species (not sure why you'd specifically target sea ravens, but I digress), as all four were caught while targeting other fish.


1. Walleye: This one was certainly a surprise while smallmouth fishing Lake Champlain just south of the Canadian border. The water level was extremely low, and fish mood was on the negative side. A spot that would have likely been on fire a month before our visit, was all but dead with the low water situation and warmer temps. While fishing around the mouth of a river that feeds into the main lake, we were getting bites from rock bass and tiny smallmouth on small swimbaits, Ned Rigs, finesse jigs, and other small presentations hopping along the bottom. Finally, I set into a fish that felt a bit better, but I couldn't tell what it was by the way it was fighting. I knew it wasn't a big fish, and almost wrote it off as if to not lose sleep had I lost it mid fight. I didn't realize what it was until I got it next to the yak, and at that point I swung it into the cockpit and let out a scream! Not an impressive size, but certainly one I've been hoping to catch for a long time. In fact, I've fought and lost a couple pretty close to home while bass fishing the CT. River, but I've never spent enough time targeting them to be upset about my "poor results".


2. Weakfish: Another total shocker, this one while jigging a small clear epoxy jig on rock structure meant for sea bass. I was guiding a couple guys that drove up from PA and NJ, and the few days before this trip were pretty nasty. SW winds and murky, 5 ft seas. I was nervous about the conditions we would be faced with the morning of, and they certainly weren't perfect. Consistent 3 footers with a slow enough period to fish, but the wind was whipping out of the northwest hitting gusts of 20 mph. We were able to hold position if we stayed tucked behind this particular point of land, but if we left the sheltered area it became difficult. We picked away at the rock piles we had access to and even had a few clean chances at blitzing albies. Not a real action packed morning of jigging the bottom, but we caught some of the straggler sea bass that hadn't been washed out of the area. Among the sea bass and blackfish that had stuck it out in that area, this completely random beauty of a weakfish. I didn't measure it, but I'd estimate it at 26". It gave a pretty decent fight on the light rod I was using, and I couldn't have wished harder that it was one of my clients that caught it rather than myself.


3. Sea Raven: Not much to say about this one, other than when I exclaimed, "what the f@#% is that thing?" while bringing it yakside. Honestly I've never heard much about these being caught in inshore Connecticut waters, but please correct me if they are more common than I know of here. This one hit a half of a green crab on a chartreuse jig meant for blackfish on a nearshore rockpile. My best description of this fish would be a cross between an oyster toadfish and a sea robin, and it fought like a wet diaper. They are in the sculpin family, definitely a cool looking species, but not much in the way of a fight, and I can't imagine trying to filet it. (Future catch and cook?)


4. White Crappie: A humdrum first, but I was happy to get one. I've always heard rumors that a small population of these exist in the CT. River mostly around the Hartford area, but I had never lucked into one. This one hit a hair jig meant for bass, and can be told apart from a black crappie by the distinct black spot on the gill plate and the vertical bars on their flanks.



Guided Kayak Fishing Trips

This year end wrap-up wouldn't be complete without thanking all of my clients who joined me on the water this season. As some of you may know, I used to guide a bit as a side hustle years ago, and it was always something I missed and wanted to get back into. For me, if anything positive came out of 2020, it was the opportunity to re-open my Kayak Fishing Guide Service full time, jumping in with both feet. With how topsy turvy this year was, it was hard to know whether to commit to starting this endeavor, and when exactly to start it. Better late than never I suppose, and was lucky enough to schedule a good amount of trips between August and early December for a wide variety of species, both fresh and saltwater. I did everything in my power to keep clients COVID-19 safe, keeping a 6 foot distance from one another (easy to do in kayaks) and disinfecting all equipment before and after each individual trip. I did not require masks to be worn, being that we were outside and an appropriate distance from each other.


For fear of excluding anyone, I won't get into guided trip "highlights". Every trip is memorable for me in one way or another, and I feel there is a unique bond between a fishing guide and a client. Most trips were pretty action packed, and target species for the most part, were acquired. Not every trip was fantastic, usually due to conditions, but that's fishing. One of my personal goals was to get a client hooked up with an albie, and believe me, we had some clean shots at them, but the albies just wouldn't cooperate when the time came, as they are known to sometimes do when pressured inshore. Stripers, blackfish, and pike were the top 3 requested target species, and it was very rewarding for me to be able to put a few clients on their first pike, some great bass blitzes, and some keeper blackfish and sea bass to take home for the table. I can't wait to get the 2021 season underway, making memories and having a blast on the water with new and returning clients! For more information on guided kayak fishing trips, click here.



Gratitude

I would like to thank all medical staff, first responders, volunteers, and essential workers for doing all that you have done throughout this pandemic. You are true heroes. I would also like to send my condolences to anyone who has lost a loved one due to COVID-19. This has been a horrible year for so many people, and I am beyond thankful for my health (both mental and physical) and the health and wellbeing of my friends, family, and supporters. Please check in on your people, even if you think they might not need it. Sometimes the ones that seem the strongest are the ones that need it the most. I hope you all have a pleasant and safe holiday and I wish you a Happy New Year! I look forward to what 2021 has in store. I don't think we have anywhere to go but up.


-JR






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