Updated: Dec 27, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...