Trial, Error, and Success

There’s something to be said for the merits of “comfortable” fishing. Bluegill fishing takes you back to summertime childhood memories; stocked trout fishing marks the start of spring; and blue lining takes you on wild adventures. I’ll always love the simplicity of fishing freshwater rivers and lakes for familiar species – but there comes a time when it is necessary to expand one’s experience.

So, I’ve decided to step outside my comfort zone. For me, that means chasing new species in new and, at times, daunting water. I began on the Merrimack River, which, given its proximity to me, should be far more familiar than it is. In addition to the year-round pike, carp, and bass fishery, the ‘Mack is well known for its spring run of American shad and striped bass. When most people outside of the East Coast picture shad, it is a diminutive baitfish that rarely exceeds eight inches. However, anadromous American shad commonly exceed twenty inches and five pounds. Their heart-pounding fight draws many comparisons to that of a tarpon, granting them the moniker “Jersey tarpon”.

Shad fishing is a pursuit I’ve been wanting to try for years now. I did give it a half-hearted attempt last June, but the shad run was about as stale as a month-old bread loaf by then. I also managed to catch my first ever shad last summer, and on the fly no less. However, that fish was little more than bycatch in my search for stripers at the mouth of the Ipswich River.

This year I came into the shad season with an air of confidence I lacked previously, as well as an intense curiosity to learn the secrets of the Merrimack. Equipped with recent river reports and a janky assortment of trout and bass gear, I was excited to step out of my comfort zone. As it turns out, the curiosity has been a major asset, while the confidence may have been a little unwarranted.

On my first day out, a raw, drizzly morning in late April, the river was high and stained from the previous night’s rain. Undeterred by the unfavorable conditions and general lack of anglers for a Sunday morning, I anxiously cast my (jury) rig into the murky waters. When it felt as though my trout spoon was ticking along a gravel bottom, I grew confused; the spoon didn’t appear to be anywhere near the bottom, and the substrate was mud, not gravel. The spoon returned sporting a few blingy attachments punctured on the hook: herring scales. At least I knew there were fish around.

An hour later, after dragging my spoon through massive schools of herring (and even accidentally snagging a couple) on nearly every cast, I determined the problem may not have been a lack of fish, but quite the opposite. I know little about where the shad hang out in the river in relation to the herring, but I can only assume they struggle to eat a lure when it’s lost in a blur of frenzied fish.

Discarded shad carcasses proved the fish were here.

The second outing’s conditions appeared far more favorable: lower water, fewer herring, and even a couple of discarded shad carcasses dotting the bank. When I first arrived, there was just one other fisherman working the water about 50 yards upstream of me. However, within less than a half-hour, I was elbow-to-elbow with about five other anglers who were obviously far more experienced than I. Apparently I had picked the hot spot from the day before, and all the other anglers wanted their shot at the prime water.

In between casts from my neighbors, I fruitlessly swung my spoon downstream through the swirling eddy. When the gentleman to my left, who had arrived about 20 minutes after I had, hooked up, I began to feel discouraged. Two fish later, and I knew I was doing something wrong.

I appealed to his superior shadliness, and, likely seeing the sorry excuse for tackle I was using, the man decided to take pity on me. He handed me a hand-crafted flutter spoon, a far more conventional shad lure than the trout spoon I was using. I was beyond appreciative for his gift and willingness to share his knowledge, but unfortunately it didn’t help my luck that day. After the initial three fish, the bite seemed to cease. Merrimack: 3, Spencer: 0.

I may have struck out on shad, but I wasn’t completely discouraged from expanding my comfort zone. Fly fishing for striped bass is an endeavor that has long excited me, yet it took me until last summer to try it for the first time. Thankfully I found some beginner’s luck, quickly landing a schoolie during the late-summer silverside blitzes.

Recent reports of the return of the stripers had me craving more of the success I found last year, and I certainly didn’t feel like waiting so long this time. Fellow Blog Fly Fish author Joel and I made the trip out to the coast one warm, breezy evening to a beach where he’d been having some impressive success recently. He took one look at my discount nine-weight with floating line and graciously handed me his nine-weight Helios 3D rigged with a Bank Shot sink tip line.

We worked our way to a rock pile as the sun set, me casting a deer hair head Gamechanger, and Joel fishing his newly-imagined 10 inch Dragon Tail with a foam baitfish head. Joel drew the first strike, but the fish went silent after that.

First striper of the season!

It wasn’t until we were engulfed by absolute darkness nearly two hours later that the fishing finally (kinda-sorta) picked up. Fishing a flat at the mouth of a river, I hooked into a striper on the Gamechanger that uncharacteristically jumped before I pulled hooks. Thankfully I got another shot maybe 15 minutes later, and I was sure to land this one.

The fish wasn’t large, but I was thankful to already have a striped bass in the books this season, and on a fly none-the-less.

After so much experimenting with the unknown, I did finally miss the comfortable familiarity of basic freshwater fishing. To get my fill, I returned to one of my favorite spring-fed blue lines and fooled my fair share of brook and brown trout on Parachute Purple Hazes and Deadly Empie Shiners. The stripers I chased earlier in the week could have easily devoured a dozen of these precious wild trout as a light snack, but catching them was a satisfying victory after a tough week of trial-and-error.

One thought on “Trial, Error, and Success

  1. I flew out to Arizona last week to chase Apache trout while vacationing and relaxing and it was brutal. First thing I did upon return was go to a pond in RI that I knew I could catch some Brook trout in. After striking out (caught everything but the target species) in AZ I needed some comfort. Looking forward to new endeavors this year still and this year stripers are also going to be a target. Also hoping to go back for an Apache later this year but we will see. All this to say I relate and appreciate this post.


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