And he said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Turning Thoughts to Spring Fishing, During the Coldest Time of Year

Brrr.  It is frigid outside.  It's the dead of winter now -- the end of January, and it's the coldest part of the season.  The days aren't noticeably longer yet; it's still dark when I get home from work.  Sitting by the warm fireplace with my laptop or a good book is very satisfying right now....  And going out in my kayak is about as appealing to me as skinny dipping in the 33 degree lake.

Having said that, as I look outside at the cold, gray and brown landscape of my yard, the only semblance of color right now comes from the upside-down hulls of my kayaks stacked on top of each other.  There they will wait for me until Springtime.  Late March, I suspect, but no later than early April.  Then, I will hit the river again.  I'm already looking forward to it....

I have often said there is no place more beautiful than my neighborhood in the Spring.  As early as February, the first harbinger of Spring pops up, the beautiful purple crocus.  So small, it would probably go unnoticed any other time of year, but because it is the first sign, the Herald of Springtime, you happily give it your attention -- and deservedly so.  Then the millions of daffodils, followed by thousands of tulips arise and announce that winter is finally over.  The numerous dogwoods and countless azaleas are the fireworks display that declares Spring is officially in full bloom -- literally.  The colors around our neighborhood are as bright and limitless as God's imagination.
Which is more beautiful in early April... the Riverview section of Suffolk, or the Augusta National  Golf Course in Augusta, GA, where the Master's Tournament is played.  To me, it's no contest, Riverview wins.
And you don't have to worry about sandtraps in Riverview....
The fragrant smell of jasmine fills the air, as do the blossoms from our Japanese cherry and pear trees.  And don't forget our gardenias, which smell better than any ladies perfume!  Lawns turn green, and other flowering trees, including tulip trees and magnolias demand your notice, too.  Windows can get cracked open again, allowing your house to breathe fresh air, since the mosquitoes and humidity have not yet started suffocating us.  The male goldfinches turn bright yellow again, and the bluebirds and hummingbirds return.  Cardinals, which never left, proudly fight for their territories again, and their voices, as well as those of every other songbird, fill the air.  Spring is magical.
The symbols of Virginia (and North Carolina, too), the cardinal and the dogwood tree, thrive in Riverview and all over this region.
 And the fishing picks back up again, too, as nature awakens from its long slumber.  So I hose off my kayak, clean it out, and hit the river again....

But not the lower, wider part of the river that I hit from the Summertime on.  No, Spring is the time of year I hit the upper Nansemond, closer to downtown Suffolk, and do some freshwater fishing.  Late winter and spring bring a fair amount of rain to our region, so the lakes are high, and the concrete dams that hold them overflow, bringing lots of cool, fresh water to the upper river, giving new life to its waters.

We have a small marina by the nice, new hotel on the river, and I launch my kayak there.  Then it's about a 3/4 mile paddle to where I have most of my success by the waterfall of the overflowing dam.  But it took a while for me to figure out how to fish there.

Years ago, when I first started  kayak fishing the upper Nansemond, I had heard stories of how striped bass were there, and was anxious to catch one there.  As I paddled around the river, occasionally large fish with light coloring would surface near me, and I assumed they were stripers.  So it was doubly frustrating when no matter what type of lure or jig I threw at them, I never got the first hit.  I even called an old acquaintance who knows these waters intimately because he grew up here, and asked what he had used to catch the stripers back in his day.  Black spinner baits in the black water, he suggested.  I bought a few different kinds, and had no luck with any of them.

Finally one late afternoon, one of the large pale fish rose and surfaced right next to my kayak.  I was able to see its spotted and striped back and large tail.  I saw its head.  It was a longnose gar, not a rockfish.  I do know that there are still a few stripers in the river -- as there are in the lake that feeds it behind my house -- but the fish I had been targeting were not them.  I had to completely change tactics.  If stripers weren't plentiful, then I had to find out what was.

This was early on in my kayaking days, and I was learning a lot every time I went out.  Finally one day, I decided to use some of the same scented soft-plastic jigs I had had success with in the ocean.  I got a hit, and at last succeeded in bringing in my first fish from the Nansemond -- a nice small blue catfish.  I kept that one, took it home and fried it up that night!  Success, at last, tasted so good!
The only time I kept a catfish for myself from the river, was the first one i caught there several years ago.  Since then, while I keep them all (especially the blue cats, which are an invasive species) I always give them away.
The scented plastics seemed to be the trick.  I caught blue cats and bullheads fairly regularly from that point forward, and (since I'm not a big fan of skinning catfish) always found somebody fishing the riverbank somewhere along my trek, who was grateful for the free meal.

Then there was the time I thought I was snagged, and then my line took off.  For the next 10 minutes I was being dragged around the cove I was fishing by a large fish.  Was it a big striper?  No, it wasn't moving fast enough.  It could only be one thing - one of the longnose gar.  Indeed when it surfaced, I could see it was.  Of course landing a fish almost half the length of my kayak presented a problem.  Especially one with teeth.  I knew there was no way to net a fish well over three feet long, so when it finally tired of towing me around the cove, I pulled it next to me in the kayak.  It truly was almost half the length of my 8 1/2 foot kayak.  I broke the line, and thanked the fish for a unique experience.  It swam back down into the dark brown water with a flick of its foot wide tail.
While they don't swim as fast as other gamefish, the sheer size of a longnose gar makes catching one a fun experience -- especially in a kayak only twice as big as the fish....

I was thrilled when another day, I finally caught a nice little large mouth bass.  It wasn't huge, but it was "legal" (meaning over 12 inches.)  But I never keep large mouth -- don't like the flavor of their meat, and they're too valuable as a game species.   So after a quick photo, I threw it back to grow bigger.
 A nice little 1 1/2 pound largemouth was the first bass I caught
I got Parke out there one day, and as we both were fishing in our kayaks, suddenly I had a huge strike unlike any I had encountered out there so far.  I could tell by its strength and quickness it was neither a catfish nor a bass.  And it moved too quick to be a gar.  The next thing I knew I was going on a nice, fast Nantucket sleigh ride.  Whatever it was, it was fun!  Parke started watching me, and I felt like I had lassoed a wild bull from a skateboard.  My line zigged and then zagged, as the fish below the surface tried everything it could to dislodge the hook -- or me.

It screamed some line away from me, and then it turned and started running right at me.  I reeled quickly so that it wouldn't have the slack to spit the hook.  Then, it started swimming from side to side under my kayak, as if it was trying to tip me.  Parke was laughing at everything going on, and yelled some encouragement.

"Whatever it is, you better not lose it.  I want to see what it is!"

"So do I," I replied, holding the rod high and turning it to follow the beast, "So do I."

After several minutes of the river rodeo, the fish finally started to tire and came to the surface.  It had a head like a trout, but its mouth was full of extremely sharp teeth.  Its body was brown, and it had a spot on its tail.  Also, its tail was lobed, like a lungfish.  It still wasn't ready to give up the fight, however, and went on one more run.

"Don't lose it now," Parke yelled.  "You've worked too hard to not have it count as a catch."

Aren't sons great for their encouragement sometimes....

Well, fortunately, the line didn't break, and the hook didn't pop loose, and finally I was able to fit most of the exhausted fish in my net.  I still had no idea what it was, but I would at least be able to identify it, once I got home and looked it up on the computer.

Parke had parked his kayak on a small dock in the middle of where we were fishing, and so I after I unhooked the fish, he asked to see it.  I handed it to him and took a picture.  We measured it.  Whatever it was, it was 28 inches long, and then we released it.  It was none the worse for wear, even after having spent a few minutes out of water.  (It took a while to get it out of my net, unhook it -- without getting bitten -- and then measuring and admiring it between the two of us.)
When I took this picture of Parke, neither one of us knew what it was.  It was definitely unusual, as I had never seen -- let alone caught -- one before.  We went online and found out it was a bowfin.  An aggressive, prehistoric looking fish that (like a gar) has the ability to breathe air, when the water around it is stagnant and lacks oxygen.  That explains how it was so alive and didn't need any resuscitating or reviving when we released it back in the water.
Later, when we got home, we went online and realized it was a male bowfin.  (The males have the spot on the tail -- kind of like a puppy drum.  In fact, I have since caught a few more, and seen the spot flash on its tail as I fight the fish, and for a moment wondered if I might have a puppy drum.  No such luck in the upper Nansemond.)
With a head like a trout, teeth like a bluefish, a spot like a puppy drum, a lobed tail like a lungfish, and the attitude of an angry piranha, the bowfin is a very unusual looking fish.  Unlike any other fish in the area.  No, it is not a dreaded, invasive snakehead fish.  The bowfin is a native of Virginia.  It fights like the devil and doesn't tire easily.

After the adventure of having caught my first bowfin, I wasn't surprised to learn there are anglers who target these fish, and they even have their own website --  While they are no good for eating, the thrill of catching one of these beasts made it always fun to think the next fish I catch may be another one of these unique fish.

Another unusual (at least for me) fish I caught was what I thought at first was another largemouth bass.  Only later, when looking at it again, did I realize that its mouth was smaller, and it was a little paler.  It was a spotted bass.  They are a little rarer in this area than the more popular largemouth.  And they don't get as big, but once again, had I chosen to keep it, it was over 12 inches.  I'm happy to say that it is still swimming around in the little cove I caught it.  I just stringered it until I could get a photo of it.
This was the first spotted bass I ever caught... not just in a kayak, but ever.  It was fun, and I look forward to the next one of them, too.
That day was a good spring day of fishing.  In addition to the spotted bass, I caught another bowfin (though not as big as the first), and another nice 2 -3 pound blue cat.  (He went to an elderly black man fishing for carp along the river bank.)

Two years ago, I went out in early April, and one of my first casts my line took off again.  I could tell it wasn't a bowfin, but if it wasn't, then it had to be a nice fish, whatever it was.  Sure enough, a few minutes later, I had a fat, 25 inch blue cat on my stringer.  Someone on the shore would be very happy.  I took a photo, and kept fishing.
My first fish of 2009 was a nice fat 25" blue catfish.  It was the biggest one I had caught there.  But it wouldn't be the biggest one caught there for long....  Randy would have a very unique experience, himself, the next time....
I caught another blue cat that wasn't as big, maybe 18 inches, and then started paddling back to the dock, looking for someone who may be fishing along the bank.  I saw a couple of young boys fishing with cane poles, and paddled towards them.

"Have you guys had any luck?" I inquired, staying away from where their lines were.

"No sir," one of them responded.  "And we told our Mama we were going to bring home dinner."  The other boy was admiring my kayak.

"You catch fish in that thing?" The younger one asked, obviously intrigued with the idea of not being restricted to the shore.

"I do."

"Dja have any luck?"

"I did."  I picked up my stringer from the water behind me.  Their eyes lit up as they admired the two catfish.

"I've got these two fish, but I don't have time to clean them as I already have dinner plans."  I looked at them, as their eyes lit up.  "Would you guys like them?"

"Are you serious, mister?

I nodded.

"Yessir!"  They both replied. 

I unhooked my stringer from the kayak, and handed it over to the older boy who had walked over to the edge of the shore.  He then carried it over to his bucket and very deftly unhooked the two cats, letting them fall into his big yellow 5-gallon bucket.  He handed me back the stringer and they thanked me again.

The pressure was now off them.  Whether or not they caught anything else the rest of the day, they had dinner for their mother, just as they had promised.  I wished them luck and I paddled away with a smile on my face.  My good deed for the day was done....

That week I told Randy about the big blue cat, and told him I was going that Saturday.  He decided to join me.  We checked the tides (upriver is still affected by the tides, too), and figured out when was best.  Late morning was the time that day.

Randy and I launched, and during our paddle to the spot, I told him about the fish in that area.  Bowfin, bass, blue cats, bullheads, and gar, and how they each fought.  When we finally reached the cove, it didn't take long before Randy hooked up with a large fish.  It fought hard and was dragging him around to where he thought it was a bowfin as I had described it; but it turned out to be even better.  What we finally netted was a nice 28 inch blue catfish.  It was quite impressive.

As I had the stringer, I told Randy I'd take the fish, and I double hooked it to my stringer.  It started dragging me around and doing what I call the "alligator roll" -- spinning around quickly in an effort to break off the chain.  It finally tired, though, and let me get back to kayaking and fishing on my own.  But every now and then, I felt a jerk as it did it again.  Or so I thought....

Then I felt one more tug stronger than I had felt before.  I looked back at the stringer and my worst fear was confirmed -- the fish was gone.  I called over to Randy who was 50 yards away, and I apologized for losing his fish -- especially because we hadn't even gotten a picture of it yet.  I was devastated.  So was he.  We kept on fishing, but we were both bumming out bigtime! 

Then we saw something moving in the waterfall ahead of us.  We paddled closer to look, and saw something I still find hard to believe....  A large pair of pincers was coming out of the water with a large fish in its mouth.  It was a monster gar, and it had a large catfish in its mouth.

"THAT'S MY CATFISH!"  Randy screamed.  We both looked and started laughing.

"He took that fish right off your stringer!"  He exclaimed.  "You didn't know you were trolling with my fish, and that gar just came up and stripped you of it!"

And now the large gar was having a heck of a time trying to get such a large fish down its gullet.

"Well, that would explain why I felt such a strong tug that last time before the cat disappeared.  After all, I did have it double hooked."  I felt a little better knowing that I hadn't necessarily done anything wrong.  It was just one of those fluky things....

"Look at it this way," I said, trying to make the best of an unfortunate situation, "If you had kept that fish, you would have had a nice photo and a good meal.  But this way, we have one HECK of a story!"

He liked that angle.

Where we fish on the upper Nansemond, I will often see a couple of ospreys that nest nearby and occasionally a bald eagle will cruise high above (their nest is several miles away), and this day was no exception.  But then, to complete the weirdness of the day, we looked up and saw a large red tail hawk flying over us -- with what Randy to this day swears was a kitten in its talons.  I couldn't confirm what it was, but I've certainly heard enough stories of hawks stealing small pets that were left outside alone.  (That's why one of our little Yorkie's nicknames is "Hawkbait").  So why not....
While I don't profess to be a big cat lover... apparently this guy was.  Just in a different way than most would qualify....

"This is definitely a weird day of us seeing bizarre animals killing and eating others in unusual ways!"  Randy declared.  And he was right.

We caught a couple of smaller cats and gave them away before we departed.  We didn't need to take home any fish....  We had enough stories to entertain for a while.  Then when summer began, we switched to the lower Nansemond and enjoyed the best puppy drum season ever.

Last spring I was contacted by the local newspaper and they asked to do a story on me that I mentioned in my first and third blog post.  The article was to be in their new "Suffolk Living" magazine, but it didn't run until the Autumn issue.  The photos and story, however, were written in the spring.  Parke went with me that morning, and while the weather was cold and windy (the photos don't show it never got out of the 40's that day, thanks to a cold front that came the night before) we were still able to catch a couple of bullheads for the article.  (At least I was....  Take that, Parke!  Ha!)

SIDENOTE:  Never fish right after a cold front, if you can help it.  The fishing turns off for a few days.  Because the photographer had already been arranged, however, we went anyway, because the sun was right.

It was funny that the professional photographer who accompanied us had never been in a kayak before.  I was able to borrow a couple kayaks from a good friend, so he could get some good shots for the article.  He was a little bit nervous about tipping over with all his equipment in the kayak -- especially getting into the plastic boat, but I taught him the easy way to enter and exit, and he was fine.  He actually enjoyed the adventure, and said he would do it again.  He also took some excellent shots - most of which didn't make the article.  But he gave me a DVD of them all, so we were thrilled with him and his photos.

The header at the top of my blog is one he took of me fishing by the dam, as is the smaller one on the upper right above the "blog archive".  Here are a few more of my favorites.
Parke and I were fishing the river behind my father-in-law's house.  That's his gazebo up the hill above my rod.  It was early morning -- too early for Parke, as he was barely awake, and didn't catch anything that day.
I like this shot of Parke getting ready to cast right by the dock where a few years earlier, he held our first bowfin.
 A nice shot of Parke putting a new jig on his line
Catching one of the two small bullhead catfish
Heading back to the marina's dock after a cool morning of fishing.
Some of the basic equipment of kayak fishing.... artfully photographed.
There have certainly been enough times when Parke has outfished me, but this morning I outfished him... even if all I caught was a couple of bullhead catfish.  Having said that, the times I get to fish with him, Sheldon or Clayton, are all times that I cherish -- regardless of whether any of us catch any fish....  Hey, when did Parke get taller than me???
I loved the DVD, and got a kick out of the article when it was published, even if they got a few minor details wrong.  (I guess it had been too long from when they interviewed me to when the dude actually wrote the article.)  But the highlight of my Christmas was when several friends all got together, and had a copy of the article matted and framed.  It was a complete surprise, and made my day when they presented it to me.  It now hangs above the fireplace in our Rec Room. 
A wonderful Christmas present from many good friends was a highlight of the Season for me.
So now, whenever I sit by the fire with my pipe and my laptop or a book, (it's the one place I can smoke in my house -- but only pipes, no cigars) I can glance up above the fireplace and be reminded of the activity I love doing outside on the water ... when it's warmer.

Thankfully I have plenty of firewood.

Only about two more months to go....

Until next time,

Fish On!


No comments:

Post a Comment