Thursday, April 26, 2012

Some revelations at the local pond

The pond

After my short but awesome Chicago river trip on Friday, for whatever reason I didn't make it out on the weekend. Often my longest and most involved trips happen on the weekend (me and most fisherman I think) but this time it didn't happen. I was going to hit up the Fox at Algonquin with a fishing friend on sunday, but ended up feeling messed up on sunday. To make up for the lack of fishing, I've been busy this week.

Tuesday after work I hit up the pond for a half hour, trying to find a balance between enough fishing time and not too much the wife gets angry. Especially now that she knows my commute is longer when the pond isn't covered in ice… The water was unusually clear, even though we've had a lot of rain the past few days. The water level was about 6" up from where it usually is; I wondered if the recent addition of new water helped clear the water.

Lately I've been changing lures more quickly than I ever have- last year I'd stick with one lure for a half hour or even an hour at a time. My thinking was "this fish should be here, I must not be working it right." The past few weeks I've grown more confident in finding fish. When I get to a place that I believe has fish, I try a variety of lures and retrieves, trying to let the fish tell me what they want.

(So to speak- I'm pretty sure the fish DO NOT want to be hooked in the lip and dragged to the shore. Especially since  it's spawning time, if you know what I mean. They have other things on their mind.)

Although I always wonder if I should switch lures after one unsuccessful cast, I've been giving each lure about 10 minutes to prove itself. This technique might not be the best, but hey, I'm learning. Tuesday I cycled through almost every lure in my tackle-box-backpack without so much as a tiny bump. Then I tied on a skinny green and white crankbait, and first cast, connected with a nice fish!

This was one of the first moments I was aware that the fishing itself was more important than landing the fish. I played the fish a little, watching it, trying to learn. I got it 10 feet in front of me, we might have made eye contact. I calmly watched as the largemouth shook his (her?) head and my lure gently floated away. The fish returned to the depths.

I wasn't angry or frustrated- I hooked a fish! I figured out what they wanted! At least that one. I worked that lure for 10 more minutes, but nobody else wanted to play.


The next evening after work, I did the same thing. I started with the crank since it was already tied to my line, and made my way through all the lures. Crankbaits, jigs, tubes, plastics, and then I snapped a homemade spinner to my swivel. After catching baby brown trout in Michigan on a little silver and chartreuse spinner, I made a bunch more in a similar style. This one had a red treble hook instead of a red circle hook.

Very first cast with the spinner, I let it fall a little, then with a jerk I got the blade moving. As soon as that happened, there was suddenly a bass attached to my lure. I reeled in my line, this bass stayed on the lure until it was picture time.

Another lure I made caught a fish! Awesome.
I thought about the lure that both little tiny trout and big largemouth bass want to eat. I tried to think of how many times I'd read of people catching bass on inline spinners, and there weren't too many I could remember. At least on local message boards.

It made me think that just like music, and maybe everything else, you really just have to find your own way.

Just because an inline spinner might not be the go-to spring bass lure doesn't mean I can't catch bass on it in spring! This was a minor revelation to me. In my music, I do everything my own way, often disregarding the "rules" and "conventions" because I like the way it sounds.

Well I like fishing with inline spinners, and hate fishing with lipless crankbaits.

Perhaps it's no coincidence I've never caught a fish on a lipless crankbait, but have caught many fish of many species on spinners! Although lipless crankbaits seem to work for everyone and their mom this spring, maybe they're just not for me,


Early this morning I returned to the pond, of course with my spinner tied on. It wasn't until I cycled all the way through my lures, again, that a bass hit a wacky-rigged (and bullet weighted!) stick bait motionless on the bottom. I like fishing wacky-rigged worms.

When I went to set the hook, my line snapped. The line simply fell apart at the point where I tied two lines together.

Looks like I need to practice my knots!

The lure of the day (Wednesday)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Catfishing on the Chicago River

Ping Tom Park, Chinatown, Chicago
Friday morning I headed downtown early to get in some fishing in before work. I had a recording session to get to at 9am, and found a nice spot on the Chicago river just a few minutes from the studio. Ping Tom Park is in Chinatown, and features a cool looking pagoda and a lot of open grassy space. It also has a whole lot of riverbank to fish.

Leo left me with some nightcrawlers last week, so I figured I'd put them to good use. Ever since I caught that nice bass while leaving a crawler on the bottom, basically unattended, I've been intrigued by that whole style of fishing. Let the fish find the bait, and you just reel them in! Almost all of my fishing has been casting and retrieving lures, so this is new to me. I figured I'd soak some worm on the bottom of the river while I cast some lures, hopefully maximizing my chances of hooking up with some fish.

I rigged it up with some weights on the bottom, and a circle hook about a foot up the line; I tossed it out in the middle of the river, then leaned it on my rod holder while I went to rig my second line.

I started tying on a lure (don't remember what it was... spinner? twister? who knows..) when I noticed my other rod was bouncing and wiggling wildly. I had a fish on!

I dropped my rod, ran over to the first rod, set the hook for good measure (Jeremy Wade style) and began reeling it in. What was on the end of my line might have been the cutest little thing I've ever caught. But please don't tell any hardcore outdoorsmen I used the word "cute" to describe a little baby catfish.

A little kitty
I didn't know what kind of catfish it was (bullhead? channel? I was thinking bullhead...) but I was so happy to catch something on the first cast! [Edit: thanks to the internet and other fishermen, this fish has been identified as a bullhead catfish] And really, you have to admit... this is a cute little fish. Thankfully he was hooked cleanly in the jaw, and was released completely unscathed.

What a great start to a Friday morning. At this point, I was totally satisfied- I'd been dealing with a skunk, and it was nice to get rid of it. A fish is a fish is a fish- normally I don't go for the biggest fish, I just want to catch something. Today I won at catching the smallest fish.

I re-baited the hook, cast it out to the same spot in the middle of the river, and continued preparing my other line. Then it started to rain a little, but not too much. I put up my hood and continued fishing.

This time I watched the rod carefully, trying to figure out if it was getting hits or it was just wind or current. It was difficult, because the rod tip on this particular rod broke off during a previous fishing outing. Difficult, but not impossible- a few minutes later, I had another fish on. This one felt much bigger than the first one, but I had an idea what it was... And I was right!

Another cat
I was starting to really like these catfish. I knew I should learn how to tell them apart... I was pretty sure it wasn't a blue catfish, maybe a bullhead. A yellow bullhead? I'd have to look it up later.

This one was quite feisty, and did it's best to chomp down on my fingers while I got the hook out. I respect that- way to go fish; if somebody hooked my in the lip with a hook, I would also try and bite them. It would serve me right anyway.

After some pictures, I returned catfish #2 to the water, where it swam away gleefully. Maybe not gleefully; catfish seem more grumpy than gleeful, but that's just me.

Soon after that, one of my students showed up. He'd stayed up all night preparing his music for the recording session, and for some reason decided to come fish with me before the session. You may remember Pick from a previous outing at Ogden Slip, where he caught a bunch of fish!

I look angry, but that's my concentrating face
This time we weren't so lucky, as we didn't get any more hits. I worked a twister tail, spinner, crankbaits, and some other stuff while Pick manned the nightcrawler. It started to rain again, harder, and we decided to go get some food before our session.

And just in case you're wondering, I made sure to wash my hands very well so the recording studio didn't smell like river or catfish. I was wearing flannel and hiking boots however, but I think it was assumed I was being a hipster, not coming from a fishing trip.

A nice friday morning Chicago river cat

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fishing in the wind and the rain

Wading in the rain

Sunday afternoon I found myself standing in the water on the Fox River, watching storm clouds fly far over my head. Occasionally they decided to open up and sprinkle me with water. Thankfully there was no thunder or lightening, so I stayed in the water fishing.

Counting up my trips now, I count this as my 45th fishing trip since January 1. That's a lot of fishing! But just like saxophone or anything else, practice makes perfect.

I worked a slightly different stretch than I usually do (thanks for the tips Ken) and it was great to do some exploring. This was my first time wading where I started in short sleeves (got my waders in October) but I quickly put on a sweatshirt on account of the hurricane-like winds.

Storms coming...
Lately I've been torn between working one lure in many different ways or many different lures more quickly... This trip I gave each lure about 20 minutes each to prove itself, trying to find out what the fish wanted. I mostly stuck with white jig and twister and olive tube jig, but I also threw a white spinnerbait, crankbaits, and a swimjig. I actually got hits on the spinnerbait, but they were surprisingly light. I mostly fished a particular seam, as well as an area right next to a rock wall.

They were hanging right up against the wall
I had it on good authority that there might be fish in this spot... I stood here for quite some time, throwing lures into the wall and watching them plop down into the water. My first cast here I got a hit right on the drop, but couldn't connect. Second cast with my olive tube jig, and a smallie smashes it like a semi running over a watermelon!

Chunky Fox River smallie
This one put up quite a fight too- I was surprised it didn't jump out of the water though... So far none of the smallies I've caught this year have done that. I guess the water is still a little cold- I bet in a few weeks they'll be back throwing my hook like in October.

What are these bones from?
Taking a break from fishing, I did a little exploring and found a bunch of interesting bones. They seemed like fish bones, but I couldn't figure out where on the fish they would come from... I wondered if they were the work of a lazy fisherman or a hungry animal.

Then I noticed a lure sitting on the rocks a few inches from the bones, which made me think it was the work of a fisherman. Looked like a lure a smallie would go for. I don't have anything against people keeping legal-sized fish for the table- but I always think of the smallmouth bass as a game fish, a fighting fish, not really for eating. I hope this one was of a legal size, if that's what the bones were from.

And I hope it was tasty, whatever it was. That's actually one of my greatest worries about harvesting fish- catching a nice fish and not giving it the honor of a delicious preparation.

If it's a nice fish with a nice fight, the least you could do is cook it up real nice out of respect.

Another new lure
Turns out this was my first found lure on the Fox! The lip was gone, but I have lure making supplies at home... I could fix it. It occurred to me that only one of the crankbaits I've been using was actually purchased by me- all the rest were found while fishing or kayaking. I think it evens out when I think about how many expensive lures I've lost on the first cast.

After about four hours of fishing with only a few light bites and one fish, I decided to throw in the towel and head home.

Fishing with a six year old

Trip 1: Night at the pond

Leo with his nice bass
Last weekend we had some family in town- the Smerglia's were visiting. You may remember Leo from such fishing adventures as the big catfish caught on topwater last October, or the big smallie caught earlier that day, or the white perch caught in Lake Erie... We've done a lot of fishing together! We had a handful of short trips the past weekend. It's been a few days, so my memory's a little foggy, but I figured I should document our adventures.. You know, for posterity.

Thursday Leo and I made the "hike" (a short walk on sidewalk) to the neighborhood pond for some night fishing. It was relatively cold, but not to cold to fish. After the short walk, we stood on the bank of the pond and started casting out our lures in the dark.
Leo was the first to connect with a fish- throwing a skinny crank, he beat the skunk for our fishing duo with a nice bass.

Naturally I switched to the closest thing I had to his lure, which turned out to be a $2 medium-diving crank from Meijer. Pretty soon I also landed a nice fish!

Should have used the flash...
All we caught after that were weeds.

Trip 2: Daytime at the pond

Charlie and a monster
Fishing with a six-year-old can be difficult at times... Charlie has an uncanny knack for knotting his fishing line in the most unusual and difficult-to-untangle ways! As frustrating as it can be to fix his line after every cast (let's be honest, Leo did most of that...) the shrieks of joy when he landed a fish make it all worth it!

Leo and I didn't do to bad either, each ending up with some fish. Well, I ended up with just one... but it was pretty nice. Hey a fish is a fish, I'd rather catch a fish than no fish! We visited Busse earlier in the day with nothing to show for it, so it was nice to feel like fishermen again.

Trip 3: The next day at the pond

Leo, Charlie and I headed back to the pond for another short trip- and hey, we managed to catch some fish! Charlie caught a ton of fish, some of them completely by himself. Some of them he needed a little "assistance" shall we say... A common phrase heard on the water was "Charlie, watch your bobber- it's moving!"

One of them was especially chunky and had some spiky chompers to boot.

Fat and toothy!
Trying something new, I put a nightcrawler on a circle hook, added a pair of heavy weights, and cast it out to the middle of the pond with my ultralight. I immediately realized how hard it is to cast with a short rod! It took a few tries to launch by bait out there, but eventually I got it out far enough. I loosened the drag, set down my rod, and headed back to the other side of the pond where Leo and Charlie were slaying'em.

Nice work (one of MANY fish)
And then, watching Charlie fish, Leo said "hey did you see that fish jump? isn't that over by your rod?" I looked over, just missing the sight of a bass jumping clear out of the water. That's when I started running! I'd positioned my rod far away from us so we wouldn't hook into it, but now there was a fish on and it seemed very far away.

And then... I reeled it in, and there was a bass on the hook!

Charlie helped me hold the giant bass I caught
Trip 4: Sunday morning

Leo and I headed out early, 6-year-old-less, on a mission to catch some more fish. The problem was it stormed the night before, and we didn't know how the fish would react. I was going to take us to Songbird Slough, but at the last minute we headed to Wooddale Grove. Pretty sure they stocked it last weekend with rainbow trout, maybe there were still some left.

Turns out, for whatever reason, the fish were completely uncooperative. The weeds were insane. The wind was torrential. We found a school of little bluegill, you know, those fish who ALWAYS bite. We could see down in the water, and put nightcrawlers right in front of their faces- and they just looked at it. They clearly saw it, and a few took tiny nibbles, but getting any bites was like pulling teeth. Somehow managed to hook two monsters (6" or less). We cut our losses and headed to the pond.

Almost immediately Leo had a fish interested! He was throwing a firetiger spoon, and almost landed a bass- maybe it fell short of the lure. We couldn't get it to react again. We worked our way around the pond, trying to avoid the massive quantities of weeds, but it was no use. After a while nature was calling and we headed home.

A great bunch of trips, some real nice fish, and good times. Next time we'll have to catch one of those monster pond cats...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Rock and Mississippi Rivers

The Rock River at Dixon, Illinois
This post is extremely overdue. I've been doing a lot of stuff besides writing blog posts... Things like fishing, working, playing with little kids, fishing some more; generally not blogging.

Easter weekend Claire and I had a mini-vacation trip to Lincoln, Nebraska. A good friend of mine invited me to come play some Easter services, and I thought it sounded like a fun time! I figured maybe I could get in some fishing too...

I spent a long time in Google Earth figuring out where to fish- I mapped out all the rivers we'd be crossing on I-80, consulted, and generally obsessed about it. Ended up stopping in Dixon, Illinois, which was apparently the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan. There was an ad for a Reagan bike race which read "You don't have to be a republican to ride"

We stopped for lunch in the quaint town, parked our rental SUV, and I suited up and headed into the Rock River. I'd heard there were smallies in here, as well as tremendous catfish. Turns out the spot we found was just mud and muck, and no fish obliged my repeated efforts to inconvenience them for a short photo shoot.

Once in Nebraska, I had some down time hoping to do some Nebraska fishing. Headed to Walmart to get a NE fishing license, but after waiting 15 minutes to talk to the fishing department guy, he told me the computers were down and he couldn't sell me a license. Discouraged, we headed to a dog park instead, where Walter had a great time exploring what must have been very very smelly grass.

On our way home, Claire suggested we stop at the Mississippi, on the Illinois side of course (since I couldn't legally fish from the Iowa side). It was almost sunset, and couldn't have been more beautiful. The river seemed more like a lake; it was so wide! It didn't make any sense to me, I couldn't see the currents and seams, and had no idea how to approach shore fishing it. I fished for a while, throwing most everything in my tackle box, but if they were there they weren't interested.

We got a real nice family photo though, so it was still a great stop.

Sunset on the Mississippi

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fun with maps

If I wasn't a fishing nerd before,
I certainly am now
I go fishing quite often, and really like to explore new bodies of water. Sometimes I'll get tips on windycityfishing, or hear of a good place from a blog, but often I'll discover some new water by traveling around virtually with google earth. I think I've posted about this before, but I've been obsessed and busy lately working in Google Earth. It's the free standalone application version of what you get on google maps, very similar to bing maps.

The cool thing is you can import all sorts of stuff into google earth, basically create your own custom maps. Since last year, I've been making all sorts of marks and overlays on my google earth map, which I suppose is the digital version of marking up an old gazetteer map book. This just happens to be a rare instance when my love and interest in computers overlaps with my love and interest in fishing. I've always had a strange obsession with looking at maps, this just takes it to a new level.

Last year I added overlays to my map; I searched the internet for depth maps of local fishing spots, and superimposed them on the google earth map. Then I could add my own little "buttons" or "pins" to mark spots as something significant, or record catches. For instance, here's my map of Busse Lake:

Recently I've been obsessed with moving water (i.e. creeks, rivers, streams, etc.) but the maps of rivers and streams aren't so good in google earth. To that end, I've been drawing my own river outlines, so I can easily see them on the big map when I zoom out.

All those blue lines I "drew" in by hand, following the curves of the water visually. A lot of the smaller tributaries don't even show up on big maps, but now I've got a nice map of some of them! I also found a big map of major Illinois rivers, which I have superimposed over the whole state. That helps me get an idea where things are when I read reports.

This has been really helpful for discovering new spots,  keeping records of trips, and just generally occupying myself when I can't be fishing.

And just yesterday, I discovered something extremely cool on the USGS site: you can download a .kml file (a google earth map file) that has updated-regularly flow and level information for the entire country. This means I can easily see the conditions of all the local rivers before I head out in my waders. All those colored dots on my maps are USGS stations, and if you click them you can get the current conditions.

... And once you throw in all the other stuff you can do, like seeing live weather radar, topography, and water temperatures, it's easy to fall down the rabbit hole and play with google earth all day.

Elevation exaggeration set to "3"
That's a lot of info
And of course, I still have a dub album 90% complete that needs to be finished. This fishing stuff sometimes interferes with my other interests... But I'll probably wait until the weather is nasty to make some more music. The rest of the time I'll continue making my CB Fishes digital regional fishing atlas.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Mild case of bass thumb

Just after sunset
To avenge the staggering skunk I got on the Fox yesterday, I fished the local pond for an hour tonight after work. When I got there, surprisingly there was somebody else fishing it! At first I was mad, that was my spot! Then I thought about it, and lakes and rivers and ponds are there for everybody; there was plenty of pond for both of us to fish.

99% of the time at the pond I fish in one single spot, right over a pipe, for a variety of reasons. In the summer, massive tall grasses make access to the water difficult, and I'd never had any luck anywhere but near the pipe. Today there was only mud and muck between the grass and the water- but I was determined to fish and didn't let my wet sneakers dissuade me.

Second cast with the 4" olive tube jig I already had tied on, and I landed an average bass for the pond, maybe 10":

pond bass #1
He simply gobbled up the tube and just sat there. I only realized I had a fish on the line when I went to jig it!

A few casts later, I connected with a much bigger fish. I had trouble bringing it in, and it threw the hook about two feet from my feet. I shouted in protest, but really I was giddy- after so many trips out without any fish or even bites, this was a welcome change. Even if I was loosing fish.

Maybe this meant the pond was back on!

I got some more nibbles on my tube, but nobody would commit. I tied on a crankbait, and this guy casually hit it as it wobbled by:

pond bass #2
I felt a combination of bad and good, as the guy on the pipe didn't seem to be having much luck with the fish. I was happy to be connecting with fish, but wished he could have as well.

Then I remembered the huge amounts of fishing-related trash I picked up near the pipe the other day, and wondered if this guy had anything to do with that. Either way, I was catching fish, but had to go.

I looked down at my thumb, and noticed that after the two pond bass I had a mild case of bass thumb.

I bid the pond farewell, knowing I'd probably be back in less than twelve hours...

It was a cold and muddy sunday

I fished all these spots, and concluded
there are no more fish in the river
Sunday there was no question as to my destination... I was headed to the Fox. I think I'd rather tangle with a single feisty river smallie than catch three pond bass.

Actually, just kidding, I'd rather catch lots of fish!

But I'd rather catch river fish. At least that's the way I felt on Sunday. So I packed up the mini cooper, and hit the road. I wanted to try some new spots, so instead of heading to Batavia I headed almost due west to St. Charles.

After driving around downtown St. Charles aimlessly for about twenty minutes looking for a parking spot, I finally found one. Then I had to figure out how to get to the water- there were these pesky fences in the way. I found a ledge, hoisted myself up, and jumped down to the other side. The river here, as Ken G had warned me, was different. Looking down at the water, I couldn't really figure it out. It all looked the same to me. I tried to find pools, seams, and eventually found a few. The water seemed very low, but I don't know- I'd never been there before.

In quick succession, I lost about four lures on rocks, timber, or something else. Couldn't see into the water, and it was hard to work the lures out when they got stuck. That's part of why I like wading so much. Some other people were fishing, they didn't have any luck either.

I hopped another fence, and while looking for a new spot I saw a pretty hilarious sign. I should clarify, a few weeks ago I would have thought it very funny, but after my recent goose encounter, I know it's for real.

I did not go that way

I lost more lures, and was frustrated. I couldn't figure out the water, couldn't get my lures back, and wasn't getting any bites. The wind was picking up, and it was getting colder.

I hopped back in the mini, and headed down stream. I passed lots of nice houses, and I daydreamed about living on a river like the Fox. I imagined myself going wading every morning, catching fish after fish while drinking my morning coffee, feet from my kitchen. That would be sweet.

Finally I arrived at Les Arends, which turns out to be on the west bank of the river, right across from where I've had so many adventures on the Fox. I wanted to see what this side was like.

Long and muddy story short, it was freaking muddy. Muddy as hell. I entered the water, and immediately sunk down up to my waist in mud. I crossed a small channel, got to an island, and looked for a suitable wading staff. Found a nice solid stick, and used that to navigate out into the water.

Saw some nice purple trees on my way to the river
And this wasn't normal mud, mind you. This was mud that, as you walked through it, released exploding bubbles of extremely foul-smelling gas into the air. Every step I took in the water, the mud sucked me down and released fart bubbles from the bottom of the river. There was a trail of rank river fart bubbles behind me. There was an angry storm cloud of river farts following me around the river.

At long last I made it out of the fart mud and onto some nice rock and gravel. That's when the caddisflies attacked. They'd been around the past couple of weeks, but somehow they hadn't bothered me. Today, I was in the perfect spot for the wind to blow them right into my face. They they crawled around everywhere, all over my fishing vest, jacket, sweatshirt, fishing rod, reel, waders. Then I felt one on my neck, I went to scratch it off, and there it went down my back. Some of its friends went down there with it.

I worked all the spots that I could, with a variety of lures, and didn't get even a hit. After about 45 minutes there, my makeshift wading staff standing straight up in the fart mud, caddisflies inexplicably finding their way into all my parts, I had enough.

There were some very pretty flowers
covering a lot of the forest
Not pictured: the fart mud
Made my way back through the mud, over an island, crossed a small channel, and was finally back on some nice rocks. When I got to my car, I basically stripped down to rid myself of smushed caddisflies. I wasn't done yet, though.

I drove south, crossed the bridge, drove north, parked, and was soon in a much nicer location. No fart mud. For the next two hours, I slowly worked my way downstream along the east shore. I literally threw everything in my various tiny fishing vest tackleboxes. Nothing. I saw lots of geese, ducks, some herons, but no fish. As I fished the clouds came in, covering up the sun, and the wind picked up. It was cold!

Eventually, I was ready to throw in the towel. I was originally going to fish until sunset, then fish after dark a little to see what I could catch... But I was freezing cold, covered in fart mud, and tired.

Of course the river had one more thing to throw at me, another shore made of fart mud. Maybe this was the river's way of keeping my humble. Just when I think I'm figuring out the river, it throws fart mud at me.

Fox River mud