Wednesday, August 31, 2011

CB Cooks: Pickled Red Onions

Carnitas tacos with avocado salsa and pickled red onions

Here in the U.S. when we say pickle we almost always mean a cucumber pickle. The idea of pickling other stuff might seem weird, but it's a very popular way to preserve food throughout the world. Traditionally pickling was used to extend the life of the harvest, to enjoy summer vegetables in winter... But the side-effect of pickling is changing the flavor and texture of the pickled food, often for the better! At the very least you get something that is completely different than the fresh version.

Pickled red onions is a traditional Mexican accompaniment to dishes ranging from carnitas (roast fried pork), cochinita pibil (suckling pig slow-steamed in banana leaves underground), tacos, antojitos (snacks); and they are delicious on their own. Again, the idea of pickling anything that is not a cucumber might seem strange to us gringos, but it's really a delicious preparation. You get a nice crunch of onion, the tang of vinegar, and the flavors of whatever you added to the pickling liquid.

The first time I ever heard of pickling onions was from Rick Bayless' book "Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen" (a great read, full of awesome recipes). I made them, and was incredibly shocked- pickling the onions actually improved on fresh onions, and was the perfect addition for cutting through fatty or greasy foods. I've put these on tacos and tostadas, but they also work great on BBQ pork sandwiches, chili, even a bowl of straight up beans.

Rick calls for par-blanching the onions before they are pickled, but I don't usually do that.  Some people also simmer the pickling liquid to "wake up" the spices. You could also toast the spices in a dry pan. The recipe is so easy and quick, adding a few short minutes to the process is too much for me. Here is my simplified, super fast recipe.

Red onion (you could use other onions, but these turn a beautiful shade of pink)
Vinegar (apple cider vinegar is traditional, but probably any vinegar would do the trick)
Something to keep the onions in (like an old pickle jar)

Mmm how do you improve on this? Pickle it!
Whole black peppercorns
Dried red chiles
Fresh green chiles
Mexican oregano
Whole cumin seed
Any combination of spices you like (allspice, cloves, paprika, mustard seed, etc)


1) Slice the onions - sometimes I do rings, sometimes strips, sometimes I just roughly dice them. They will taste the same either way.

2) Put the onions in your container (like a pickle jar). Don't pack them too tight, they need to have some space to move and absorb the liquid.

3) Add a tablespoon or so of salt, and any other flavorings you desire. I usually stick with whole black peppercorns, whole cumin seeds, lightly crushed garlic cloves, and mexican oregano.

The "dry" ingredients
4) Fill up about 1/3 of the jar with vinegar, and fill the other 2/3 with water. If they turn out too sour, next time add less vinegar and more water. Too watery, next time more vinegar and less water. Not salty enough? Add more salt. I'm not big on exact recipes, because everybody likes things their own way. Experiment!

5) Stir/shake/invert so the pickle-y goodness gets in all the nooks and crannies

The onions and the pickling liquid, freshly shaken
6) Leave at room temperature for a couple hours, until the onions turn pink

8 hours later.... check out that awesome pink color!

7) Taste some, and adjust seasonings if necessary. Once they're good'n'tasty, kept covered in the fridge, they'll last a couple of weeks. Vinegar, cumin, pepper, chiles, mustard seed: these are all anti-microbial ingredients, which will keep the bad bacteria at bay. I'm no botulism expert, but I wouldn't recommend keeping these pickles (in the fridge) for more than a week or two.


This pickling process works equally well for - believe it or not - cucumbers, and a whole range of other fruits and vegetables, like green tomatoes, jalapeños, etc. I've made cucumber dill pickles by using white vinegar instead of cider, omitting the cumin and oregano, upping the amount of garlic, and adding dill. I make pickled jalapeños using pretty much the same recipe as the onions. The sky is the limit! In general, when doing a quick-pickle like this, you want the freshest ingredients possible. Don't use past-their-prime veggies, because they will just taste like past-their-prime pickles. Get the good stuff.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

CB Cooks: Beans

Bean tacos with onions, cilantro, lime, and salsa on corn tortillas
Although I haven't mentioned it here yet, beans are hands down my absolute favorite food. A strange proclamation, I know, but they have so many great things going for them! They're cheap, full of fiber, full of protein, filling, easy to prepare, keep in the fridge, extremely varied, endlessly adaptable, and amazingly tasty. Some people think beans are "fillers" or used to stretch your "real" protein, but really they are delicious in their own right. There are also so many different kinds- creamy pintos, even creamier mayacobas, assertive kidneys, pleasantly soft lentils, ubiquitous black beans; and every culture has a different way to cook them.

Every cook has an opinion about cooking beans: salt or no salt, high heat or low heat, soaking or no soaking... I'm not going to join the argument, but will simply share my observations. I cook beans a lot.

- Adding salt or acidic ingredients (like tomatoes or chiles) at the beginning of cooking can toughen beans, sometimes
- The only benefit I can see in soaking beans is a slightly shorter cooking time... but since I almost always cook them in the crock pot, I don't really care
- Cooking beans at a rolling boil will destroy their shape, so you won't have many whole beans. Depending on their destination dish (like frijoles refritos), that might not matter

This is my weekly (sometimes more often) recipe for beans- pinto, black, mayacoba, kidney, whatever. They're all good! This is more or less based on traditional Mexican frijoles de olla, or "pot beans." The base recipe can be the starting point of a delicious chili or baked beans, or an accompaniment to a main course.

FRIJOLES DE OLLA a la Beckstrom

Crock pot (or dutch oven)
Dry beans (my favorite are pinto)

Half a white onion

Epazote (fresh is best, dried will do, both smell horrible)
Mexican Oregano (dried is actually preferable)
Cilantro (never ever ever use dried cilantro!!)

pretty awesome looking beans

1) Get good beans - Even though they are dried, freshness still counts. If bulk dried beans are an option, and there seems to be good turnover, choose those. They are likely fresher than those in plastic on the shelves, and fresher dried beans will cook faster.

2) Put the beans and half an onion in the crockpot, and put water up to the top. Add salt if you're feeling lucky. Don't worry about a beans to water ratio- you're not cooking rice! The more water you add, the more room the beans have to cook, and the more delicious bean liquor (that's seriously what it's called) you'll have to slurp up later. And don't worry about cooking beans in stock- once they're done, you'll have plenty of super delicious bean stock anyway.

If you want to get fancy, you could sauté some onions and garlic in lard, grab some árbol chiles, and some kind of pork product and throw it all in the crockpot with the beans. Honestly it's not always necessary; you can always add flavors once the beans are cooked and there's no danger of all your flavor being cooked away.

Epazote- smells bad, tastes bad,
but it's good with beans
Epazote is a pungent herb native to Mexico and the American southwest. I think it's actually a common weed in Los Angeles backyards (if you live there, go check!). It pretty much smells like gasoline, and not really in a good way. You might think it would make your beans taste like &%@#, but it actually adds a nice bite and subtle herby flavor. Epazote is often added to beans in Mexico, and almost always if they are black beans. Some people think it counteracts all the farting, but I don't buy that. The best way to fart less when you eat beans is to eat more beans! Your digestive system gets used to all the extra fiber and whatnot, and after a week or so you won't be driving all your coworkers and spouses away.

3) Put the crockpot on low

If using a dutch oven, bring it to a boil, then turn the heat down to a very gentle simmer. Make sure it doesn't boil over!

4) Go fishing for 7-8 hours (You could probably do something else during this time)

5) After 8 hours, come back to your house, which now smells like delicious beans (I think beans naturally have a hint of porkiness)

6) At this point, you can eat them as is, or add more ingredients (like chiles, salt, pepper, oregano, cumin; those are all good choices) OR use it as the start of a new recipe.... Like


It seems like "refritos" translates to "refried," but it most definitely does not. In colloquial mexican spanish, "re" is used to add emphasis. So if you take the verb "freír," add "re" to the front, it becomes "refreír" - to fry well. "Refrito" is the participle (or something) so "frijoles refritos" are "well-fried beans." Why fry beans? Because they taste even better that way! There's a whole lot of frying sauces and purées in traditional mexican cooking, and this is a great example of why that can be so tasty.
Cooked beans, with all their juice from cooking (like the ones you just made above, or in a pinch, canned whole beans)
Oil (don't use olive oil, it makes the beans taste like olives. Canola oil works)
bean masher

More salt

Put the beans and spices in a blender before you fry them
Get a bean masher
or use a potato masher
or use a regular old spoon

1) Heat up a pan - I always use my beloved cast iron skillet (more on that later)

2) Put some oil in the pan - This is actually optional... I have trouble not getting oil everywhere when I add the watery beans to the hot pan... Lately I've been adding oil AFTER adding the beans. I haven't quite figured this part out. If you don't add it here, add it in step 5 or 6. Or not.

3) Add a bean, make sure it sizzles. If it doesn't sizzle, the pan should be hotter

4) Add the beans and their liquid to the pan and enjoy the delicious sizzling sound

mashin' beans
5) If you want completely smooth refried beans, you probably should have put the (cooked) beans in a blender before step 4. If you want homestyle beans, mash the beans in the pan until they're mostly blended. I like the little bits of whole beans interspersed, but that's just me.

6) Add salt, and any other seasonings you want (I usually stick with cumin)

cumin seeds in a pepper grinder-
easy way to get fresh-ground cumin
7) The goal is to get the beans to become one mass of bean-pile, so when you scoop some across the pan, you can see the bottom of the pan. If things get too dry, add more bean juice. If your beans are too liquid-y, just give it time, and let the liquid escape as steam.

8) This should take around 5-10 minutes, but what you should have is a delicious, steaming, bubbling pan of nutritious, tasty beans. Adjust seasoning to taste, and either eat as is, or use in yet another recipe... like tacos, tostadas, bean burritos, sopes, tamales, 6 layer dip or whatever it's called, the list goes on!

Whether you eat the whole beans as is, or "well fry" them, great additions/toppings include cilantro, white onion, pickled red onion, jalapeños, hard mexican cheese, soft mexican cheese, that shredded "Mexican" blend cheese you get at the gringo store... but my personal favorite is a few spoonfuls of salsa. I like to eat the beans with warm tortillas (flour or corn, both are delicious) and hot sauce, and maybe a squeeze of some lime.

nice gloppy delicious beans
But this is just the beginning- the crockpot method works for pretty much any long-cooking bean (not lentils or split peas). Instead of buying canned beans full of preservatives and who knows what else, why not spend 2 minutes filling your crockpot with dry beans and enjoy the next 8 hours when your house smells delicious. And then you get to eat them!

Other dishes that start with whole cooked beans:
- Chili (pintos, kidneys)
- Baked beans (white beans, navy beans)
- Hummus (garbanzos, favas)
- Red beans and rice (red beans)
- Pasta i fagioli (white beans, garbanzos)
.... and more

News: CB Fishes featured on! is chock full of great info, informative fishing reports, and extremely useful gear reviews

Mad props go out to Cory of, who decided to begin his new "Spotlights" series by spotlighting this very blog. Thanks for the great review Cory, so glad you dig it! It's great to know that these random posts are providing some entertainment, and hopefully some good tips to get y'all on some fish. (And many of the photos up here are in fact created using Instagram for the iPhone, a great, easy-to-use photo filter app.)

Cory has a pretty great blog as well-  is full of awesome content, including product reviews, videos, fishing reports, and of course blog spotlights. Another fan of both Mexican food and fishing, Cory keeps his blog updated with locally-relevant fishing info that can be applied to fishing anywhere. I'm a big fan of his product reviews, that not only explain the selling points, but explain the pros and cons of each piece of gear, as well as how he personally fishes them. Great info for beginner fishermen like myself!

the Outdoor Blogger Network- a veritable gold mine of everything outdoors
Also, CB Fishes is now a member of the Outdoor Bloggers Network! Thanks to Ken G for the tip, and thanks to the good folks at OBN for adding this blog to the directory. I've been checking out tons of great blogs in the directory, and it looks like some of you have found this blog through the OBN.

Thanks for reading, and I'll keep the posts coming. If you like what you read, feel free to subscribe!

Tight lines, and see you on the water!

Evening at Ogden Slip

Sunset at Ogden Slip
One of my students has been wanting to go fishing with me for a while- apparently I post about fishing a lot on Facebook and make it look real fun- so today was the day I obliged him. I figured it would be good to put him on some fish, and so far I haven't been skunked at Ogden Slip. Set a meetup time of 5:30pm, and hopefully we would catch some fish!

not bad!
Left work, grabbed some Jimmy johns, hopped on the #29 to navy pier, and in a few short minutes I was at the spot. Pick arrived a few minutes later. I warned him about the no fishing sign, the security guard, and the imminent threat of hard prison time if we were caught fishing there, but he was game! So fished we did.

We didn't slay'em, and they weren't huge, but we did catch some fish. Over on the north side of Ogden Slip, the part where the security guards have a standing order to keep people from fishing, I ended up landing the first beast. A fair sized, maybe 10" largemouth that gave a great fight. Nice! I got in on, you guessed it, my prized tube jig. A few weeks ago that tube saved the day, catching a myriad of species- including catfish- so of course I had to bust it out first.

Pick's rock bass
Soon Pick had a fish on, an awesome looking rock bass. The rock bass at this spot have the most gnarly coloring, so gnarly at first I didn't know they were rock bass. Figuring my fishing guide duties were satisfied, I proceeded to catch a bunch more bass.

Actually we had to move right after Pick's first fish. A guard came over (not the cool one who is ok with us fishing there) and told us we had to leave. I figured I had two choices: fight it, as we certainly were in the right and should be able to fish there, or just say ok and move. I didn't want to spend any precious fishing time arguing, so I just said ok and we headed over to the other side.

We saw some weird looking fish coming toward the surface, looking like they were eating the algae. Of course I had no idea what they were.

There were no fish (besides tiny bluegills) over on our side, and it was difficult to cast to the other side. I needed some more weight. I switched out my tube for a wacky rigged dark purple 6" senko- with a bullet weight. I've never seen anybody rig a wacky rig like that, but hey I needed more weight!

Sure enough I was able to easily cast all the way to the other cement overhang so the worm was actually on the ground, then lightly yank it so it fell off the edge into the water. I've read about crayfish living in the piles falling into the water and the bass are accustomed to the sound, so I thought maybe that would get their attention.

Around this time Jeff Nolan of Bridgeport Bass (and Sun Times contributor) showed up on his boat with his dog Molly.  Always cool to run into a friend! Especially since he hipped me to the spot. He told us about a big fish he fought for 20 minutes last night right at that spot, and at the last minute it snapped the line. Oh man, I would have loved to see that. I started to dream of hooking into a coho some random weekday after work, and that's when I noticed some resistance on my lure. Snagged again, I moved to get it free... And it moved! Fish on!

check out the pattern on this guy
It was another nice bass- not huge, but a good fighter. After a quick fight, I got on land.. As he flopped around I saw my senko fly into the air, plop on the surface, and do that awesome horizontal sinking thing they makes them such great lures. Although I much prefer to have my line attached to then when they do that.

I was happy to catch a bass in front of the maestro, then I noticed he was also throwing a wacky rigged worm. I told I hadn't seen him with his wacky rig, I just wanted to try it.

It's so great to catch a fish regardless, but it's even better to successfully land one using new techniques! This was my first wacky-rig catch, and it was definitely working. I caught two more nice bass, both around 10", both on wacky rigged worms. One was on a senko, the other on a random brown worm I happened to have. Is this what "dialing in" is? If so, maybe that's what I was doing.. Finding out what the fish wanted today, and using that info to catch them.

I felt bad Pick wasn't catching tons of fish, but at least we had some action. We decided to head back to the first spot - in front of the no fishing sign- and try and catch us some more fish.

I caught one more bass over there, bringing my total to 4 bass for the evening. 1 on a tube, 3 on a wacky rigged worm. See, I DO use more than just my beloved tube jigs!

On Jeff's suggestion, I wanted to try the water under Lake Shore Drive (he had just landed a nice fish over there), and Pick decided to call it a day. I headed over there, tried the wacky rig and the tube, but nobody would commit. It was getting late anyway, and I had to catch a train, so I called it a day as well. 

I packed up my stuff, walked to the #140 bus stop, and waited. A real nice evening of fishing, and always great to have a fishing buddy or two!

Maybe Pick will get obsessed with fishing like I am. What if his work in my class suffers because of fishing... Would i lower his grade, or raise it for fishing extra credit? I think it would probably depend how many bass he caught.

what a cute little guy (the fish)

Monday, August 29, 2011

CB Cooks: Grilled Rainbow Trout with Limes

As obsessed as I am with fishing, I'm not really a lover of fish as food. I didn't grow up eating a lot of fish, and the few times I've bought fish at the store, I've always been let down by past-their-prime filets and very fishy odors. However, I HAVE had some delicious fish- at the cabin in Michigan, delicious fresh-caught bluegill fried up, and in Spain I had amazing fresh-caught sardines seasoned with salt. So I know there's hope for me becoming a fish-eating-lover. It seems like a travesty to squander all of the "free" fresh fish I can catch and bring home for the table, so I'm on a mission to like to eat fish.
I'd like to tell you the story of how I backpacked through northern Oregon, learned fly-fishing, and caught this beautiful rainbow trout behind a boulder in a rushing cold-water stream, but I try to keep the exaggerations in my blog to a minimum, and mostly relating to fish length. 
The real story is I drove to Meijer. I pushed my cart up to the fish counter, which amazingly was missing the unappetizing fishy smell that plagues every other fish counter I'd ever been to. I talked to the lady at the counter, and asked about the rainbow trout. She grabbed a filet, and I said "no, actually I mean the whole fish." Its eyes looked relatively clear, the gills mostly bright red. I asked if I could smell it, and without missing a beat held it up to me from across the counter, and it smelled nice. Not like cucumbers or watermelon like the internet says it might, but a faint, lake-like smell. Not fishy at all. She weighed it, put it in a bag, and handed it to me. "This is much easier than catching'em!" I said.

Mexican oregano AKA the good stuff

A fish
Orange juice
Oregano (mexican is the best)


1) Get some good fish! From what little I know about cooking fish, it seems like 99% of it is starting with some good fish and not messing it up

Let's just pretend I caught him, cleaned him, and brought him home
2) Put the juice of 2 limes, about 1 cup of OJ, and 3 teaspoons of salsa in a cup, and mix it

3) Pour the mix in, over, and around the fish (might help to put the fish in a dish with sides)

4) Spoon some salsa in the cavity, then place sliced onions and limes in there too

5) Heat up the grill so it's real hot

6) Let the fish sit in the limey-OJ-ey goodness for a few minutes while the grill heats up; before putting it on the grill, rub oil all over its sides

Our fearless hero, ready for the grill
7) Once the grill is good and hot, oil the grates. NOTE: I did NOT do this enough, and that's why I had fish skin stuck to the grates

8) In one nice movement, put the fish on the grill, and leave it. It should sizzle!

Fish on the grill just seems right
9) After a while, carefully flip it so its other side is now on the grates

This is what happens if you don't oil everything enough
The good news is either way, you've got crispy trout cracklins!

10) Once the flesh flakes, it's done! Carefully take it off the grill, and eat immediately

Like everything, I ate it with limes, cilantro, and tortillas;
rice and hot sauce too, with a grilled jalapeño

Well, this was an experiment. The goal was to make some delicious fish, so I'd be more interested in eating more of my catch. I love cooking, it just seems like a waste to not cook more of the fish I catch, combining two of my favorite hobbies!

The flavor was outstanding- this is the first time I've ever had trout, and I have to say it was freaking delicious. It was similar to salmon, but definitely less salmon-ey than any salmon I'd ever had. Very very mild, actually I didn't think the meat itself had much flavor. Then again, I did completely overwhelm it with spicy salsa and OJ and limes, but that's pretty much what I do to all meat.

Next time I'll either be sure to oil the grates and the fish much better so the skin doesn't stick, or use a different grilling method like grilling it on banana leaves (which are available at Meijer in Elk Grove Village! Seriously! For like $1.50, you get a bunch of banana leaves. Awesome.)

As I was eating the fish, I was thinking about the texture, and how different it is from terrestrial animal meat. So little texture, so light. I wonder if that's part of the reason frying fish is so popular, because it gives the fish some nice crispy texture to contrast the extremely light and soft meat.

Overall, I'm super happy with the whole experience- I am definitely well on my way to becoming a fish lover. I'm really hoping to catch some more trout in Lake Michigan, and take them home and cook'em! There's something very awesome about eating wild animals you just caught, and I want to get on that train.

Fishin' Redemption with the wife

I *am* a fisherman!

In an effort to redeem myself as a fisherman, and to have some fun and catch some fish, Claire, Walter, and I headed out to the pond in the evening. Just a few short hours after the one that got away at Busse, and I was still a little salty about it. I figured catching some nice fish at the secret pond spot would do the trick.

When we got there, some other people were in my spot!! I'd never seen anybody fish the pond, but then again, I'd never really been there when normal people fish (evenings, weekends). We set up in a different spot, played some frisbee with Walter (it's his favorite thing ever) and did some fishing.

Soon the other family left, so we moved in. I set Claire up with a brown tube jig, which had caught tons of bass there last week, and I put on a bigger 5" black and blue tube. The idea was to get Claire catching a bunch of bass, and maybe my bigger lure would entice a big bass to come up for a visit.

Sure enough, on my first cast, fish on! The bass in this pond fight harder than any bass I've caught, ever, anywhere else. I love it! I can't figure out why, but I'm glad they do. This guy jumped out of the water 4-5 times, splashes everywhere, swam in all directions, jumped some more, but I managed to keep him on and land him successfully. 

I was pure joy! First cast, caught a fish. I don't even care if they do stock this pond- I felt redeemed. It was, as they all are from here, a nice looking fish, but the SMALLEST bass I'd ever caught there. On the biggest lure I'd ever used there! Fish are crazy.

Carefully placed him back in the water, and cast again. Every now and then I helped Claire get the weeds off her lure. At one point she switched to nightcrawlers, but then went back to tubes when I caught another one!
This one was bigger, and fought just as hard as the first! Landed him (or her?) snapped some pics, and carefully released the beautiful fish back into the murky water. I recast, and continued fishing, having a GREAT time. In between casts, I threw the frisbee for Walter, so he was also having a great time.

"Uh-oh, Chris, hey..." says Claire. I see her rod tip bent like she's trying to pull a car out of the pond. But her line is moving! Fish on! Big fish!

I drop my rod and run over to help, and she wants me to land it, so I do. I'm amazed at the fight of these fish! I could do this all night (if it weren't for the mosquitos, which were getting pretty bad).

Claire caught a bass! A nice-sized fish, not the biggest one to come out of there, but not the smallest. We snapped a picture, and again sent the feisty fish back to the deep.

Then we called it a day. The bugs were bad, we caught a bunch of awesome fish, had a great time, and I felt better as a fisherman. What a great wife I have.

Frustrating morning at Busse

Waking up, my last fishing outing a complete bust, I was determined to prove my angling ability and catch some fish. I ate some cap'n crunch (he's a captain, right? couldn't hurt) drank some coffee, packed my gear, sprayed down with bug spray, and was off.

I got to Busse at 5:52am expecting to wait in line for the park ranger to open the gate, but to my surprise the gate was open. I headed in, seemingly the only car int he place. I made a beeline for the boat launch, and quickly unloaded, moved my car to a non-trailer parking space, and was in the water in 10 short minutes. The water was COVERED with geese, I mean every square yard of lake had a goose on it! It was pretty crazy.

As I was unloading, two pickups with small boats arrived and began their own unloading process. I talked fishing with one of the guys, who was clearly after some fish- he said he was going to be fishing for bass. From our conversation I wasn't sure if he fished Busse often, so I told him where I'd been catching bass and what I had been using.

I slid into the water, and the geese complained and grumbled like old guys who hadn't had their coffee yet. Or like me before my coffee. I was already around the bend, line in the water, before the other boats had even launched. It would be great to have a bass boat, but for now, I'm pretty satisfied with my quick-unloading and quick-launching S.S. Silent But Deadly.

I started working some downed timber just east of the boat launch with nightcrawlers and tubes. The second boat, a husband and wife, slowly made their way around the bend. I knew there *should* be fish in this wood, I just hoped the fish knew that.

Sure enough, it didn't take long to get a nice-looking but small bluegill in the boat. Hooray, I beat the skunk! I am a real fisherman after all! Hey, it's just a tiny gill, but a tiny gill at Busse is better than no fish on the Fox.

Not 50 yards from me, I hear a splash, and see that the man in the boat has a fish on. A nice big fish. He pulls it toward the boat, his wife gets the camera ready, and I hear him say "walleye." Walleye!!??? What!!?? The elusive walleye, one of the many species I've never caught, and this guy gets one RIGHT where I was JUST fishing, on his first cast there!!?? At BUSSE!!???!!??

I congratulate him, and ask him what he was using- he says a jointed rapala. I don't have one like that, so I bust out a shallow-diving crankbait, and cast in the area he caught the eye. (He and his wife had moved on by this point, so I wasn't fishing right where he was!)

After many hangups and treble hooks full of weeds, I decided to move on. I paddle accross the lake to some more sunken trees. I catch a few more little bluegill. I read a DNR report the other day about the numbers of bluegill in Busse; there are TONS of them, but very few are over 8" - which is the minimum size. The DNR people theorized that most people fishing for bluegill keep any over 8" and that accounts for the lack of larger bluegill. Seems fair to speculate that many bluegill under 8" are also kept.

At this point, I don't feel redeemed as a fisherman... Sure I can catch tiny bluegill, and yes it's great to catch fish, in a kayak no less, but let's get into some bigger fish please. I work my way along the shoreline, slowly paddling toward the Higgins Road bridge. I know it's deep in the middle there, and have heard recent reports of walleye being caught there. I lusted after some walleye. I was so jealous of that guy and his wife and their walleye.

I stop behind an island where the water is still and there are lots of weeds. This is exactly the kind of place where I caught some nice bluegill and those perch last weekend. I proceeded to catch more tiny bluegill. I did find a pretty awesome new lure though- a Hedon Torpedo, which will be nice addition to my tackle box, once I figure out how to fish it.

There were lots of birds in these trees
I fish the Higgins bridge channel for a while, throwing crankbaits, tubes, senkos, nightcrawlers, and nothing. Nothing except for more hangups. At this point I'm seriously frustrated. The wind was also picking me, making it more difficult to stay in one place in the yak. I know that's part of the whole kayak-fishing deal, but it was still frustrating.

I need to catch a nice fish. Even a nice sized bluegill, just something to redeem myself after the skunk-fest I had yesterday. I paddle over to the north dam, a place I've had a lot of luck this year.

Biggest landed fish of the AM...
Catching a few bluegill in the weeds, I hear a little kid talking non-stop across the bay. Looks like his dad is on the point, fishing for carp or catfish, getting his ear talked off. I think about how annoying that must be, he's trying to concentrate and catch some fish, but his kid is going on and on... I also think how nice it is he took his son fishing, and how much the son must love it to be talking this much. Fishing isn't just about catching fish, I tell myself, it's about the experience, and nature, and relaxation, and bonding... But seriously, the kid was talking a lot. I wondered if I eventually have a little kid and take him fishing, how I would deal with the rambling. But hey, he's just a kid! It's great he's so into it. Just because I'm super frustrated doesn't mean the kid isn't having a great time fishing!

Working my way around the shore, catching a few small bluegill, I head closer to the dam. The kid sees me, and heads toward me. With a nightcrawler, hoping for a fair-sized gill, I cast toward the shore. The kid casts about 3 feet to the left of my line. It's ok, he doesn't know any better... 

and then WHAM! Fish on! Something came up and engulfed my worm, and was now going crazy! This was a bigger fish than I'd been catching. I caught a glimpse near the surface, it was a largemouth. Hooray! Fish on!!

After a short fight, I worked him over to the kayak. Using my very bad estimation skills, I guessed he was about 12-14" long, and relatively chunky. A nice bass for anywhere, but especially Busse where skunk rules supreme! Awesome. This was great, I was going to land my first bass in the kayak, take a great picture, it would be my new facebook profile pic, I could share it all on the blog, and then PLOP.

He unhooked himself and swam back into the deep.

A foot from the kayak.

@&%$*@!!! Are you KIDDING me!!? In all my fishing inexperience, I haven't lost too many fish I've hooked- I like to think I'm pretty good at landing them once I've got'em... But this was a dark hour for me. It was hard to keep the tension as he was swimming toward the kayak, and it was a powerful tail movement that set him free. If only he had known I was going to set him free anyway! Maybe he would have obliged a quick photo.

I shouted (not profanity, mind you) and looked at the kid, who watched the whole thing. "Did you see that!!??" I asked. "yeah," he said. "Where did you get him?" I told him, and he immediately cast right there, about 10 feet in front of me.

As I was dealing with my intense grief of loosing such a nice fish, playing it over in my head, thinking what a great picture that would have made, that's when he started talking.

Again, I totally understand he's just a kid, and it's cool he's so into fishing (it's actually very cool), and I appreciate completely his desire to catch a big fish like the one I just lost... But at that moment, it was difficult for me to think of those things. All I could think of was the skunk fest I was deep into, and the very nice fish that I unintentionally released.

I answered his questions as calmly as I could, and tried my best to continue fishing and avoid crossing lines with the kid. I wanted that bass back. Real bad. I was on a mission- I didn't want to move, there was a big bass under the water somewhere right around here! The kid moved closer and closer to the kayak, until he was casting 3 feet away from the boat. I wondered how I could explain to him fishing etiquette, and how fishing right where somebody was isn't the best thing to do... But I didn't want to diminish his excitement for fishing by giving him a bunch of rules, so I didn't say anything.

A duck
After about a half hour, I wasn't going to catch my lost bass. I lost a few lures and hooks on the rocks and tree branches, and was getting more and more frustrated. I felt the way I used to feel on every fishing trip last summer, inept and inexperienced, unable to keep my line untangled, unable to keep a lure on for more then 3 or 4 casts. As much as I appreciated the kid's enthusiasm, I had to get out of there. I bid him farewell, and headed up the shoreline to another spot I knew to sometimes hold bass.

Turns out, that would be my one and only bass hookup for the day. I wondered if it "counted" to just hook into a beast, but I kept thinking "if there's no picture, it doesn't count." Then I thought, "if there's no picture, I can make it as big as I want!" That made me feel a little better. But seriously, blog reader, it was definitely at least 13", I promise. Or maybe it was closer to 22", about 4 pounds, probably more like that. It might have been a muskie. Yup, that's what it was.

On my way back to the boat launch, saw what looked like a white crappie floating at the top of the water. I got closer, and it looked alive. I picked it up, and righted it in the water. I moved it through the water to get some water through its gills, and it seemed to revive. Awesome! It swam down a little, but then quickly floated back to the top on its side. I felt bad, I wanted to help, but it seemed pretty messed up.

I paddled back, and found another lure- this one looked really cool and seemed like a deep-diving crankbait, which I didn't have yet. Cool! As I made my way, I thought of the day, and really was happy I at least caught some fish. And almost caught a monster bass. It wasn't so bad- I was outside, on the lake, in a kayak, on a beautiful day, enjoying the scenery and getting exercise, and was about to head home to my lovely wife and awesome dog. Not bad! Can't really complain.

Except about the one that got away, I could certainly complain about that, and unfortunately, my wife would have to listen to it.

I caught this hog this spring, t not far from where I lost the bass today...
I'll just assume the one I lost was at least as big

Skunked on the Fox

Walter hanging out on the Fox


Wind: none
Pressure: 29.86" and steady
Clouds: few

I'd read some great things about the Fox River and the vast population of smallies that lived there, and recently seen some posts about massive numbers of close-to-shore smallies that were being easily caught. Could this be my 2011 smallmouth day!!?? According to Ken G (who has an AWESOME blog you should definitely check out by the way) THIS was the weekend to get out on the Fox and catch some smallies, specifically at sunrise or sunset.

My lovely wife decided she wanted in on the action, so we packed up the car and brought Walter with us. I'd scoped out some possible locations on Google Earth, and the most convenient one was right off of I-90, about 25 minutes from our house. There was easy access to the water, it looked promising.

Very pretty little stream
Got there around 9am, started throwing nightcrawlers under bobbers and gulp minnows on jigheads (closest thing I had to Ken G's lure recommendation). We hooked Walter up to his super long leash, and tied it to a bench. He proceeded to immedately tangle himself repeatedly, but hey, we were all fishing! It was good times.

Well, the river was extremely shallow from where we were fishing, so shallow it was hard to avoid the massive amounts of weeds that were everywhere. Looking at the water, it seemed like the deeper water started just past the distance I was able to cast. Claire got some bites up close, but nothing big. There were tons of tiny minnows everywhere, but I didn't see any bluegill or any other pan fish.

I tried a variety of spots, trying to get to deeper water - I figured by 10am any smallies in the area had retreated to deeper water, as the sun was fully out and the air (and water probably) was heating up. No luck, not a single bite. I lost a few lures in the muck, and started to get frustrated.

We decided to move up the shore to the I-90 bridge, which looked like it had seen its fair share of fishing activity. By the looks of it, I guessed catfish and carp fisherman, but I wasn't sure. I just hoped there would be some smallies around!

So many baitfish!
The only fish that were around were the most baitfish I'd ever seen, and a little dead fish that washed up on the shore. Not sure what it was, maybe a chub? A tiny tiny drum? As faithful readers of this blog know, I'm pretty horrible at fish identification.

After a series of snags, more lost lures, and pretty much no luck, we decided to pack it up and head home. By this time it was about 11am, and I figured any bass in the area would certainly not be interested by now. I vowed to return and exact my revenge on the river that skunked us!


so pretty!
Wind: very slight, from the west
Pressure: 29.87" and rising
Clouds: partly cloudy

Return I did- a few short hours later, I packed up the S.S. Silent But Deadly, my gear, and hit the toll road. I wanted to be on the water in plenty before sunset, so I could find some good spots and work them at the right time.

As I was approaching the Roselle exit on I-90, I watched in my rear-view mirror as the strap holding the back of my yak SNAPPED! Suddenly it was gone, and I could see the kayak becoming loose on my roof. Crap!

kayak strap issues, right by Medieval Times
I turned on the four-ways, and pulled off to the side. The cable had just snapped close to where I attached it to the car, but thankfully the other side of the cable was still hooked to the car. I'm not sure how it happened; I'd driven with the kayak many times recently (to the DPR, to Salt Creek, to Busse, etc) and never had any problems. Maybe the tollway was too much for it!

I unhooked the back straps and put them in the trunk. I extra-tightened the side straps and the front strap- I wasn't giving up- I was getting on the water and catching some bass, dammit!

I decided to take back roads instead of the tollway, lest more straps snap and my yak went flying. That would be detrimental to my evening kayak fishing trip for sure.

Although it took at least twice as long to get to my destination, I have to say I really enjoyed the mostly 25 mph journey. I ended driving through our old neighborhood, and passed many fishing spots from earlier in the year. There was the pond where I caught tons of tiny pumpkinseeds on a bare hook; there was Salt Creek, which was my first moving-water kayak trip (didn't make it to Bode Lake like I planned, there were some impassable rapids just west of Barrington Road, and I wasn't the "experienced porter/portager" I am today); There was Bode Lake, where I fished extensively last year, and caught my only recent good-sized smallmouth.

Herons are awesome
I took Shoe Factory Road (awesome name) which winded through a nature preserve, then changed into straight up rural-ness. It was a nice change-up- most of my fishing trips consist of driving through urban and suburban landscapes, to fish in urban or almost suburban spots. Today, I felt like I was in the country (which I kind of was), surrounded by corn, trees, and a yellow late afternoon tint, and the promise of smallies. Wearing my Cabela's camo hat, I felt less like the nerdy city-boy I am and more like the obsessed angler that I also am.

Finally, after a series of amazingly fun hills, curves, and scenery, I arrived at the river. I checked the park district sign (made sure I wouldn't get towed after sunset), parked, unloaded, and within 10 minutes I was in the water. I'm getting good at this! I'm still in love with the idea of of a small boat that I can carry myself, paddle in water less than a foot deep, and catch fish. It's just awesome. And no motor, no gas, and lots of exercise! Good for a formerly indoor-only dude like myself.

But where are the fish!?
Well, I'll cut to the chase. I got completely skunked- even though I followed herons, saw tons of baitfish, worked what I thought were promising spots, tried a variety of lures and retrieval techniques, I didn't get so much as a bite. I was out for about an hour before sunrise, and about an hour after. Close to sunrise, a small army of fishermen appeared on the banks, but they weren't catching anything either. Could it be Ken G's spot, probably much farther south on the river, was where the bass were hanging out, and they didn't make it this far north? But I didn't even catch a single bluegill. What gives!!??

The Fox at I-90, at sunset
Defeated, I returned to the shore, and packed up my yak in the almost-dark. I really enjoyed the river, it was very beautiful, and full of cool-looking spots, and island, lots of wildlife; lots of stuff that made my trip feel less like a waste. At least I saw that great stuff, got some river kayaking in, and practiced casting.

Grumbling, I drove home, vowing my revenge on the Fox. It bested me TWICE in one day; it didn't help that everyone else seemed to be catching boatfulls of fish this week, and I couldn't manage one. I decided to go fishing again in the morning- on a different body of water- to reaffirm my fishing skills. But know this, Fox River, you're on notice! I'll be back, and you won't skunk me again!

Skunked! But some very nice views

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Morning bass derby at the pond

this one was a hog!

I was going to stop by the pond on my walk home from the train last night, but when I opened my backpack to get my rod, I realized I left it at home. Undeterred, I decided to return in the morning.

Air temp: 63°F
Wind: none
Pressure: 29.85" and rising
Clouds: none 

Another chunky bluegill from the pond
I arrived at 6:55am, and started casting (nightcrawlers with bullet weight). The sun was up, but it was blocked by trees to the east, so the majority of the pond was still dark. I watched the surface of the water- I didn't see any bait fish, but I saw TONS of big wakes... everywhere. On about the third cast, I hooked into one of the chunky bluegill the inhabit the pond.

I wondered if those wakes were all fat bluegill like this one. I'm getting better at reading the water, but I've got a ways to go. I paid more attention, and occasionally saw a wake head into an area, then tons of bubbles on the surface. Big fish eating little fish? Probably!

Before each cast, I stood on the pipe and watched the surface, trying to locate my quarry. I didn't have to wait long, because every 5-10 seconds I would see the wakes and cast. The water is so cloudy I couldn't see the fish even though I think they were right at the surface. Even with my fancy polarized glasses I couldn't tell what they were.

And then I hooked into a fish- bigger than a bluegill - and it gave me a GREAT fight! Jumped out of the water a few times, spun around, went swimming like a torpedo looking for any cover- but my flimsy collapsible rod prevailed, and I landed my first bass of the day!

Nice bass!
A VERY nice looking fish, dark and vibrant coloring (due to the bad water clarity?) When it first broke the surface, I wondered if I had hooked a catfish it was so dark. Out of the water, it was obviously not. A great before-work bass, about 9" long, looked like his belly was on it's way to being full.

I snapped some pics, completely satisfied with my outing, and I was only 10 minutes into it. I carefully placed the beautiful fish back in the water, and after a second it got it's bearings and darted back to the depths.

I thought I would try some artificials- I knew there were bass around, and it would be cool if I didn't have to burn through my supply of worms. Also, in my very limited experience, it seems that bigger bait really does catch bigger fish, and nightcrawlers on a hook can only get so big. In addition, I wasn't after bluegill, which I knew were everywhere- I wanted bass.

Naturally I tied on my magical green tube jig. Maybe this shouldn't have been my first choice, but I'd caught many bass in similar water under similar conditions. Even though the bottom wasn't rocky as far as I could tell (maybe not the best habitat for crawfish) I thought I would give it a shot. These bass seemed hungry, so I'd give them something bigger!

After a few casts, I snagged. I didn't rig the tube weedless, I actually did a pretty shabby texas-rig so the hook kept popping out of the tube. I didn't have any of the weighted jigs with me, otherwise I would have used one of those. When I yanked a little on the line, the tube started to swim away in the opposite direction. Fish on!! Sneaky fish!

This one gave quite a show as well, doing a few jumps and somersaults out of the water, and I brought it in. It was another largemouth, bigger than the other! It was longer - 10-11", and fatter.

This one's been enjoying the bluegill sushi buffet
Awesome! 2 bass in 15 minutes, this was pretty great fishing. I thought back of getting skunked at Busse more times than I could count, after driving, waiting in line, parking, and walking to my spot. This pond was literally on my way to work, 5 minutes from my house and 5 minutes from my train. I would have never guessed this dirty, polluted looking pond filled with runoff and the occasionally oil slick on the surface would hold any fish, let alone healthy-looking good-sized bass.

I continued watching the surface to let me know where to cast, and this technique was working. Another fish on the line! I think anglers call this "dialing in;" finding a pattern or technique that works on a given body of water under certain conditions, and exploiting that knowledge to catch fish. I was definitely dialing in this pond. This bass was definitely the feisty-ist of the lot; he swam faster and jumped twice as much as the previous bass. I got him out the water, and he shook like CRAZY! The fight was not unlike the small steelheads I caught a few weeks back.

this one had some chompers
...And this one had TEETH! I always grab bass by their bottom lip, which tends to subdue them and allow me to snap some pictures without dropping them. Of course all bass have little teeth-type things along their mouth, but I've NEVER actually hurt myself on them. Usually they are small and dull, seemingly more for gripping than biting. Not this one! These teeth were pointy and numerous, and actually cut into my thumb the way little cactus needles would (anybody cook nopales aka cactus paddles?) It didn't hurt, it was just surprising.

I snapped some pics, and brought the fighter over and returned him to the water. I'm fairly positive that I hadn't caught the same bass more than once, and I didn't think any of these were bass I caught earlier in the week. I'd been trying to remember specific marks on each bass, and I think they were all different. That's a lot of bass in a small pond!

At one point I counted at least 10 distinct wakes right in front of me that I was pretty sure were all bass. 10! And that's only fish within casting distance of my spot- who knows how many there are in the rest of the pond.

Now that I was catching bass regularly, I thought I would try another lure. Maybe I should have stuck with what was working, but I was curious if they would hit a buzzbait harder, or not at all.

Turns out, not at all. They weren't interested. I switched back to my lucky tube, and proceeded to catch more bass! By the end of my outing, I had caught a total of 6 largemouth bass all between 9" and 14." Some of them were valiant warriors, others were just dead weight on my line. I looked at my phone, and it was time to go. I packed up my rod, put my gear in my backpack, and hopped on my bike.

While I was waiting for the train, I called the park district to find out about the pond- I wanted to know if they stock it, and what they put in there. I was pretty sure they stocked it with bluegill. Turns out, they stock it with bluegill, crappie, and catfish. Not bass. (It's interesting they stock crappie, because I haven't caught a single crappie mixed in with all that bluegill.)

How did the bass get there!!? This pond is definitely man-made, and I'm pretty sure it was recently drained... So the fish in there haven't been in there for long. I've heard theories about fish eggs getting stuck on birds, who transport them to new waters; or fish moving from water to water during flooding... I really don't know how all these bass got there, but the massive numbers of bluegill seem to be the perfect forage for these pond bass. They seem healthy, and based on what I know about bass, they are definitely more than a year old. That means that either they only recently got into the pond, or they can survive the winter.

Another awesome short and sweet outing on my commute! This is actually a record for number of bass caught; the only other time I've caught this many bass is on a cloudy day at Busse, when I caught 6 largemouths in 2 hours. I was hoping to beat my record with a 7th bass, but the bite dried up and I had to go to work.

But don't worry, pond-bass friends, I'll be back.

One of six bass from this morning

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I'm Obsessed

Geese at the spot
Didn't have time to hit up my new spot on the way to work this morning, but I did give it a once over to check water levels, weeds, etc. I have nightcrawlers in my backpack, just in case I have some time to hit up some water today. There were some geese hanging out at my spot. I saw them last evening too; I wonder if they are there because they eat the fish, or because there's water to swim in, or because the grass has lots of tasty bugs... I need to learn more about birds!

I also need to learn more about the trout and salmon that swim around lake michigan, because I DEFINITELY want to hook into some of those guys! I caught those 3 rainbow trout at burnham a few weeks ago, and they fought harder than any fish I'd ever caught. Maybe that's why those fly fishermen love trout so much. And they're tasty to boot.

amazing! this guy is my hero
check out his blog here
There are some pretty amazing posts on of fall and winter salmon/trout fishing on the lake. Check this out- caught by GEO at Northerly Island - which is 15 minutes from my work. (Click here to view the full report)

At this point I'm pretty obsessed with fishing- I'm wondering if I'll calm down about it once winter hits, when my open water fishing opportunities become much more limited. But it seems like a lot of guys can catch perch, salmon, and trout from shore throughout the winter. That's bad news for my other interests!

I'm tentatively planning on gearing up "music-making" season in the next few weeks, transitioning from all-fishing all-the-time to a nice balance of recreational creative music-making and some fishing. Maybe some smallie fishing... or maybe some salmon and trout fishing... Whups, there I go again. Maybe the cure is to fish MORE! Maybe I'll get tired of it.

If so, I might get cured soon! Planning on hitting up the Fox this weekend, hopefully for some smallie; the weekend after that my lovely wife and I are heading to Flint, Michigan to hang with my family and do some fishing. This will be our third annual "fishing trip;" we rent a pontoon boat, hit Lake Nepessing, Lappeer, MI, and catch a lot of sunfish. Maybe we'll get into some bass, or maybe even pike this year!

Beautiful Lake Nepessing, Lapeer, MI - Fall 2010