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7.16.2014

New Illinois State Record Smallmouth Bass - Sorta

I've heard about this rumor for a couple of days, but it wasn't until today that the story finally came out. It's a story that has me torn and apparently a story that has the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) torn as well.

The whole story can be read on my friend, Dale Bowman's, column in the Chicago Suntimes. I'll give you the summarized version....

Guy catches giant smallmouth bass, throws it on a stringer, brings it home to show his friends, and when he realizes that it's taking too much room in his freezer, he goes to put it in his friends freezer.  Before it was put in the freezer, his neighbor realizes that it could be a new state record so he breaks out his digital scale and it comes in at 8lbs 9oz (old record is 6lbs 7oz). At some point, the fish thaws out and turns to complete mush so they throw the fish away.

So here's the problem that the IDNR is having - Do we count this as a record when there was no IDNR witness?

Here's my thoughts on this - Seeing as how I am a pretty strict catch and release angler who absolutely hates seeing a sport fish go on a stringer and ultimately into the garbage, I am pissed off that this fish no longer swims in Lake Michigan for me, or others, to catch and enjoy. Not only isn't it swimming in Lake Michigan, it was completely wasted and not even eaten. It's like killing a deer and then throwing it in the dumpster on the way home. It served nothing and nobody despite being killed. Was it in his legal rights to keep the fish? Damn right it was but legal isn't always the "right" thing to do. So that part of me basically says kiss my butt on your record.

However, another part of me realizes that there is an opportunity here to change the way IDNR verifies record catches by following in the footsteps of the IGFA. Currently, you have to submit a specimen for examination to the IDNR. If I were to catch a state record fish under current rules, I wouldn't even bother because I wouldn't want to kill the fish for the sole sake of having a record. This is the IDNR's opportunity to adopt the IGFA's catch and release record guidelines and start implementing them. No longer will a fish have to be killed for the sole sake of a record.

In this case, the scale that was used to weigh this fish was indeed found to be accurate by the IDNR. There is a witness to the guy catching the fish and a witness to the readout of scale. More importantly, there is a photo of that fish. When I compare that photo to the 20" 4.5lb smallmouth that I caught from the same lake, I have no doubt that the potential record fish in the photo is bigger. The measurements that were taken definitely would add up using a known general weight to length/girth scale for bass.

So, in conclusion, despite my anger for the fish being destroyed and ultimately ending up in the trash, I vote to give the guy the record. I also implore the folks at the IDNR to truly take this opportunity to allow for catch and release fish to be considered for record status. Adopt the IGFA standards and adapt whatever you want to make sure it works for Illinois as a state. I can almost guarantee you that more records will be broken as result because I guarantee you that there a ton of catch and release anglers like myself that wouldn't enter a potential record fish under current guidelines because they prefer to see it swim away.

Update: As of July 17th, 2014, IDNR has denied the record. It still stands at 6lbs, 7oz

7.14.2014

Personal Best Smallmouth

So fishing lately has been sort of odd lately. While decent enough, finding the target species on any given day has been frustrating. I go for gar, can't find them in the their normal spots, and wind up with largemouth. I go for pike, they are shut down. Go for smallies and the river is blown out. King salmon - end up with a laker. I wanted to shake that streak so I decided to forget all the spots I know and do something different.

Target species - Smallmouth bass
Venue - Lake Michigan, Chicago

I have heard and seen so many pictures of Lake Michigan smallmouth. The approach seemed so easy that it just didn't make sense. From what I have heard and read, you simply need to find rock walls and imitate the invasive gobies that the smallmouth love to eat.  I hit the closest harbor I could find and called that the spot. With me, like many times before, was Teddy Wozny from Lucid Fishing. He has been in the same general funk as me so we both had high hopes for the day.

For tackle, I had really planned on hitting it with the fly rod but the lake was pretty rough from all the boat traffic. The water we were fishing was about 15' deep, too, so trying to get that line down to the bottom took forever. Even worse, by the time it did get down, the current had pushed my fly so off target. It didn't take me long to realize that fly fishing just wasn't feasible this day. Really wanting to get into fish, we broke out the regular bass gear and armed them with some jigs called Tight Rope FireWork Jigs. They are a new and small company based right here in Chicago.  I've heard some damn good things about them so I figured they'd be the ticket. We enhanced the jigs with a Poorboy Darter trailer and started the search for hard fighting Lake Michigan smallies.

It took all of 20 minutes for Woz to start it off when a monster took his jig on the fall. Watching this thing jump and roll around the surface had me so green with envy I could barely stand it. The girth on it was nearly inconceivable. Once he got it in the kayak, I could only wonder how close it was to the state record. Truthfully, before this day, the biggest smallie that I had seen was somewhere around 18" long and pretty skinny. This fish made that smallie look like bait. He hoisted the fish on his grips and it ended up at just a hair over 4lbs and 19.5" long. The current state record in Illinois is 6 pounds, 7 ounces; 22.6 inches. Obviously a bit off but still pretty damn impressive!!

After that got our blood pumping, it got pretty quiet. I finally figured out that our slow bottom bouncing drag approach just wasn't the ticket so I went back to how I've always fished jigs - on the bottom, with a tight line, and small drag'n'drops all the way back to the boat. It only took me a few of minutes of that before it paid off.

The bites were subtle and your reaction time had to be pretty quick to avoid them spitting the jig before you had a chance. I connected with my first about 40' away and fought it to within 10' of the kayak. It jumped on a tightline and I just couldn't change angles fast enough to keep the jig in its mouth. It was a big fish - though not as big as Teddy's earlier one. Ultimately, I hooked up with four more fish today and lost two more of them. Final tally was 2 for 5. One of them came right at me and I just couldn't reel fast enough to keep up. The other one was my fault for not checking the leader and it snapped the line right at the boat.

 So who cares about the ones that got away - let's talk about the two that didn't!!

First landed fish for me came on the first twitch after the jig hit the bottom. I felt just a couple small taps and set the hook. It was fish on and it felt good! Luckily this fish stayed in the water and didn't try to go aerial on me. I got it into the Hobie and was thrilled. It was no giant 19.5 incher but chances of landing another one of those was kind of unlikely - everything else that we had seen that day was in the 16" to 18" range. This fish ended up at 16.75" and weighed right around 3lbs.



The second fish hit about halfway through my retrieve. It grabbed the jig while I had it tightlined but it was still a very subtle take. I set the hook and raced to keep up as it was coming right at me. NOT THIS AGAIN!! Luckily it turned as soon as it saw my kayak so I was able to really get some pressure on it.

And then it jumped.

Holy crap this thing was huge!!! By now, I had a small audience of people walking along the lakefront so I felt even more pressure to get it in the boat. Now that I had it close, it decided to really make me work for it. Just when I thought I'd be able to get a thumb in it mouth, it decided to go under the back of the boat which really made me wonder if I'd be able to hold on to the rod for a second. With some awkward twisting and bending, I got the rod on the other side of the kayak and was able to start reeling again. Then it came up again and right back down the other way. You son of a mother!! The good news is that it was now on the right side of the kayak which is my preferred side to land fish on. I grabbed my Lucid Grips, opened up the jaws, and clamped on. YES!!!! I yelled as loud as I could!!

At this point, I can not explain the excitement. It's girth was huge, it was long, and just full of awesomeness. I wasn't exactly sure of its size but I knew it was a new personal best.  I gave it a quick weigh and it came in right at 4.5lbs. I then pulled out the measuring board and it was 20" on the money. If I pinched the tail, I probably could have squeezed another 1/2" or so but I didn't care. This fish was incredible.


I think the look on my face says it all! I admired it for as long as I could before slipping her back in the water. She regrouped for half a minute before confidently heading back to the bottom.


Amazingly, there are bigger ones here and I completely intend on finding them!

7.09.2014

Throwing Away A Top 3 Finish

For the 4th time, the Northeastern Wisconsin Great Lakes Sport Fishermen (NEWGLSF) held their annual three day salmon tournament over the 4th of July weekend. I learned about this tourney last year and with the new kayak this year, I decided to enter in the kayak division.

The tournament started at 12:01am on July 4th. Since I have a wife and little guy that I really wanted to share the holiday and see fireworks with, I decided not to fish the 4th. Instead, I spent the day with them, watched the fireworks, and then hit the road around 11 on the night of the 4th. I arrived in Manitowoc, WI at about 2:30 in the morning on the 5th. I slept in the truck for about forty five minutes before I was woken up by a knock on my window. I was fishing with one of the Hobie Kayak Regional Prostaffer's, Colin Belle, who had been fishing since the 4th. I quickly gave him the finger for waking me up after I just drove all night and only had a tiny bit of sleep. Then I got out of the truck, stretched, shot the shit, and game planned it with him before we hit the water.


We arrived to the launch around 3:45am. While being bombarded by mosquitoes, we loaded our gear in the kayaks, and pushed off from the beach just as the sun began to peek over the horizon. The lake was amazingly calm and peaceful. There was an extremely invigorating crispness that radiated from its waters. I took a few deep breaths of cool morning freshness and felt ready to go. Who needs coffee when you have this to get your blood flowing? (I still wouldn't have minded an extra large cup)


As we peddled off shore, the depth quickly began to increase and the fish finders were showing lots of bait and some nice looking arches so we started dropping lines somewhere around 30'. I was running three baits on two rods - two spoons on one line and one flasher/fly combo on the other. Since the sun was still low on the horizon, I focused on the top half of the water column. Once all lines were set, we just started trolling.



And trolling

And trolling

and trolling some more

We certainly weren't alone in the area we were targeting. There were big boats with a ton of lines coming off the back of each one. Some were trolling as shallow as 30' deep and some were way out there over a 100' of water - maybe more. The one stark difference, that I noticed, between them and us was the fact that they were all on a north troll. We were on a south troll. The reason that we decided to troll south at first was because the winds were forecasted to pick up out of the south - blowing north - so we figured that once they did, we could turn around and have the stronger wind at our back when we returned to the launch.

"Well, what if the fish are hitting on a north troll?" I wondered. So, I did what I do every time I am out fishing; I observed. Since I didn't see any nets in the water from all the big boat north trollers, I felt OK with our theory.

For the most part, we stuck to the plan. We would take some east turns here and there to get us out into deeper water, but overall, we headed south. Between 30' and 90' of water, I was marking bait and fish. I made my way out to a 130' of water for a bit, but I just wasn't seeing any life on my sonar so I went back to 90' or less.

I continuously played around with depths, speeds, colors, lure types, and everything else I could think of. It was now around 10:15 in the morning and I had covered miles upon miles of water without a thing to show for it. I had a theory that all of my lines were simply too close to the kayak and the fish were boat shy today. Now, I'm not sure if that was actually the case but I decided to start trolling a third rod. Since WI regulations say that a single person can only have three baits in the water, I pulled one spoon from my two-spoon line. On my third rod, I tied on a two ounce keel weight, a seven foot leader, and a caramel dolphin magnum spoon. I then let out about forty yards of line and kept trolling. About five minutes later, I finally heard the sound I have been waiting to hear for the past six hours.

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Wouldn't you know it? It was my third rod that I had just dropped in the water! I grabbed the rod and made sure the hooks were set in the fish. While doing that, I also reeled up the other two lines so I could minimize tangles. The fish on the end of the line felt OK but it definitely wasn't the twenty plus pound king salmon I was hoping for. A few minutes later, I pulled in a 22" lake trout. It wasn't huge but it counted. It also gave me some hope and a bit of confirmation that the fish were somewhat boat shy.



I changed out the other two lines so that I could run them a bit further back and started trolling again with renewed vigor. Around this time, the winds did just what they were predicted to do - turned south. It didn't take long for the waves to start building. Within minutes, the waves were pushing about 3' to 4' with white caps. I was sitting in about 60' of water and had just gotten a voicemail from Colin saying he was headed out to a 170' of water to flat line for some rainbow. I think he had heard some chatter over the radio that people were taking rainbows out there so he started to make the move. I was on fish and bait so I decided to stay put.

Very shortly after that, over 120' of water, Colin met up with another kayak angler named Chad (who is on the Native Kayaks Prostaff team). Chad had just left where Colin was headed and said the waves were horrendous out there so they started to head back in.

I trolled back to about the 40' depth line and stayed pretty close - in terms of north/south - to the launch site while I waited for Colin to get back in. By this time, the waves - even over 40' of water - were brutal. We had been out there for eight hours at this point in time and the marine forecast was calling for seven footers in the next hour. The same forecast was given for Sunday morning (plus thunderstorms) so we pretty much realized that fishing was done for us in the tournament.

It was a holiday weekend and I ditched my family to fish it. Since, I only had one measly laker and heard that a couple of other kayak anglers had some good fish, I decided to call it and head home instead of camping out until Sunday afternoon. I figured there was no point in weighing in my one small fish - let alone spending the next twenty four hours in a tent and not being able to fish - just to find out what I already knew.

My wife and little guy were very happy that I came home. We spent the day doing stuff around the house, relaxing, and playing. Around 1:30 on Sunday afternoon, I get a strange string of text messages from Colin.

"So if you're doing or a write up for this tournament I got to lesson learned for you!"

"Got a"

"Give me a call when you get a chance man"

After spending a minute trying to decipher that string of messages, I called him.

Chad had stuck around and called Colin to tell him that only two kayakers had weighed in any fish. Therefore, if I had weighed in my one measly laker - and stuck around for the results - I would have taken third place in the kayak division.

I am still processing my feelings on this so I'll save that for the next post. To conclude this post?

I had fun, learned a lot, and gained even more confidence in my kayak and my ability to catch fish. I also have to give a ton of thanks for Ed at FSA Custom Rods for hooking me up with a ton of lures (pretty much every trolling lure I have to be honest), knowledge, and sweet custom built trolling rod. It definitely contributed to my almost third place finish.

P.S. I just noticed that this is the 300th published post on the site!!!!!!

6.30.2014

Fishing Mazonia For Longnose Gar With A Side Of Bass

Mazonia consists of roughly two hundred different "water impoundments" that are as small as 3/4 of an acre and as large two hundred acres according to the IDNR website. The land that these various bodies of water sits on is actually owned by Commonwealth Edison. Thanks to a long term lease agreement between COMED and the IDNR that dates back to 1981, it is open to the public for fishing, waterfowl hunting, and a variety of other activities.

Until Saturday, I had never fished the area despite a lot of reports from friends and on various local fishing forums. It had always been too far of a drive to really dedicate any time to a place I knew nothing about. Since the move, it's only a forty five minute drive which puts into range!

I was in search of some active longnose gar and heard that one of lakes in Mazonia holds a ton of them - some really big ones too. There is actually a site dedicated to catching gar so I checked out some reports from years past at Mazonia. Several mid to upper forty inch fish definitely confirmed what I had been hearing so I was excited to go after some monsters. 

I have successfully targeted and caught plenty of gar in the past. It has been a couple of years but after a bit of digging, I was able to find some lures and flies that I specifically made for catching them. They were all variations of rope lures and flies. The problem with those is that untangling the rope from a gars teeth after the catch is a very tedious task. Instead of using them right away, I started off with more conventional lures and flies. The first fly I used was an electric blue over white clouser minnow. I've accidentally hooked gar on clousers before so I figured it was a good fly to start off with and it didn't take long to start getting some action on it. The first hit came within minutes but I could tell right away it wasn't a gar. Instead, it was a bass that was just shy of fifteen inches. 

Fun fish and all but it wasn't the target I was after and not long enough for any Kayak Wars points. A while later, still casting the same fly, hit number two was a gar! I had full control over it for about thirty seconds as it worked hard to swim in a giant circle around the kayak. It wasn't really pulling away from the kayak and not really coming towards me...just going around the kayak. It had completed almost a full lap until it got smart and headed right towards me. I couldn't keep up and lost tension on the line which meant I lost the fish. 

That's the problem with gar, their giant beaks full of needle like teeth is nothing but bone. Trying to get a hook to penetrate is the biggest challenge. When they run directly away from you, it gives you a chance to hook it in the corner of the mouth instead of just the bony beak. When they stay parallel to you or come right at you, that chance is gone. 

Back to casting, I get another good hit and once again, it's a bass. This one looks a bit bigger so I'm hoping it will be sixteen inches or better so I could get some points.


Naturally, it fell short by a 1/4". Still a fun fish but, once again, not a gar and not worth points at only 15.75" long. 

Over the next twenty minutes, I had two more shots at gar but just couldn't keep them on the line. I had the second one pretty good but the line had raked across those teeth too many times and broke. This marked a good time to start plan B. 

Plan B was conventional bass gear. My 7'6" medium heavy rod gave me a ton of backbone and a tip just soft enough to deal with some headshakes. The reel is also a 7:1 gear ratio so I am able to reel fast enough to keep up with a fish coming right at me. I only know this to be true because this is the combo I have used to catch gar on regular lures in the past. 

For my lure, I decided to go with a white chatter bait from a lure maker in Rockford, IL called Bass-ett Baits. I have had gar hit plenty of hard pounding spinner baits before so I felt that the chatter bait would be pretty effective as well. Plus, in all honesty, I was really enjoying the constant bass action that was so close to that magic 16" that I needed so I was hoping a big loud lure would pull the slightly bigger fish out. 

It didn't take long for the first strike to come. Yet again, it was indeed a bass and not long enough for any points. It missed the mark by an inch and half. Ugh


For the next hour or so, I decided to do nothing but sight fish to visible gar. This definitely increased hook ups but I absolutely couldn't get any of them to the boat. I did manage to hook up with another bass however that bolted past a gar in pursuit, and snatched the chatter bait right from it's mouth. It was an awesome hit to see take place. Yet again, however, not 16"  - only 15.25"


By this time, I was getting a little frustrated with not landing a gar so I broke out the old rope lures. I gave it some time just blind casting without any fish so I went back to sight casting. Despite some perfectly placed casts, there seemed to be no interest in my rope lures. 

"Perhaps they would like a slightly smaller rope fly" I thought. My theory was that the action of the fly from stripping instead of reeling would be enough to entice them into snapping. I tied one on and got back to picking my targets. The rope fly did indeed get more attention but not enough to actually get any strikes. I changed my retrieve speed and pattern at least 20 times hoping to get something going but they just wouldn't bite. 

It was right around 1:30 at this point and I told my wife that I would be home around 4 so I put the fly rod down and grabbed the chatter bait again. I slowly pounded the shoreline on the way back to the ramp. There was almost no action the entire way. Earlier in the day, I was in the back cove of the lake and that seemed to be the spot with all the active fish. 

Just before I made it back to the dock, I saw a nice canopy of algae that sat in about 4 feet of water with instant access to clear deep water. I knew there had to be a fish under there so I made one more cast. The chatter hit just inches in front of the muck and dove right under it. The line made a slight jump so I set the hook into something big. I could have sworn it was a gar when I caught my first glimpse but wasn't sure. It was coming straight at me from the moment I hooked it so I was never able to put any downward pressure on the fish - only straight at me and up. (Side note: This is exactly why I prefer to stand in my kayak. It's just easier to change angles on a fish when I'm standing.) 

Unfortunately, I was sitting down and as I was stuck reeling in as fast as I could with only upward pressure on the fish, it launched out of the water. It's entire body cleared the surface by a good foot before the lure came right at me without a fish attached. I can only estimate by what I saw as the fish was out of the water, but this fish looked to be pushing low 20 inches. Its mouth looked like I could have used it as a cup holder for a coffee mug. As always, the one that got away will haunt me!


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