Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Fishing for Food


Important Note: I love to eat fish but no one else in my family does and my wife cannot stand the smell of cooking fish. So while I am posting this as a means for you to obtain fresh, healthy food, I have a catch and release policy. I only take home a fish if I terminally injure one and so far that hasn't happened. 

Now that the cold weather is firmly in place, I think my 2016 fishing season is done. But who knows, last year I saw people kayaking on a warm (50 degrees) day in December. But, I thought I would review my fishing season in the downtime between hunting and spring fishing. (Note: I was successful in the 2016 deer season and harvested a 150 pound, eight point buck, which is now in my freezer)

I always enjoyed fishing when I was growing up. In the mid to late 1960s I fished the Little Lehigh River in Allentown, PA. It was a good trout stream and I fished with a Zebco 303 reel on the original rod starting when I was about six. I used that same rod and reel as I grew older and fished on ponds, other creeks, and big lakes in Canada. The biggest fish I caught on that combo was a 38 inch Pike on Parent Lake (Lac Parent in French) in northern Ontario. That was quite a fight on a kid's rod and reel. It finally wore out sometime in my late teens and was replaced with another Zebco reel, the 33 model, and a better rod.

But when I joined the Army and started traveling all around the country and various parts of the world on new assignments, I had very little time for fishing. My wife and I did some pond fishing in Alabama when I was stationed at Fort Rucker and I occasionally bought a license when we came home on leave. 

Now that I am retired I started fishing again and had quite a few great adventures this past summer. My oldest son bought me an ultra-light reel a couple years ago for Christmas or my birthday and then last fall when he was home on leave to do some hunting he bought me an ultra-light rod. I live a five minute's walk from the Lizard Creek, an excellent fishing stream. So this summer, in June, I packed a few small lures in a waist bag (also a present from my boy), a water bottle, and snacks and headed down to the creek to see what I could do. Wade fishing in a small creek is fun but as an older man, walking on under water rocks slippery with moss and algae is tough work. I luckily never fell in the water but I came close hundreds of times. Anyway, I had fished the Lizard Creek for about eight years in my youth but that was a couple miles upstream from where I now live. So everyday I went into the water it was as much of an exploration as it was a fishing trip.
It doesn't look like much water, and in truth we had a very dry summer, but there are pools behind most of the bigger rocks and small mouth bass sitting in those pools waiting for something good to eat to float by. In theory, this is a trout stream but I caught far more bass and pickerel in the Lizard Creek than trout this summer. The lower picture shows two of the many deeper pools that were loaded with fish.

I went fishing six times on the Lizard Creek and spent anywhere from two to six hours in the water. Besides the many fish I caught, probably 25-30 over the six outings, I also saw numerous ducks, herons, snakes, deer, bald eagles, and a pair of beavers gathering branches for their winter meals. I enjoyed many snack breaks sitting on a rock or log and just watched the animals and the water. Truly an awesome experience out in nature.

I have an old kayak, a large tandem (two seat) kayak that is more suited for lakes than rivers. I found this kayak in the woods behind a housing area on Fort Meade, MD. It had been abandoned. It was covered with branches, leaves, and sticker bushes but I drug it out, loaded it onto my utility trailer, and took it to my house. Unfortunately, someone had hacked it up with a small axe or hatchet and there was a lot of damage, to include several holes through the hull. Not to be deterred from getting myself a free kayak, I went Online to see if it could be repaired. As it turns out, there are plastic "welders" made to repair things like this. So I bought one, $10.99, and repaired all the damage. Then it sat in my basement for three years, unused. I did a tour of duty in The Netherlands and then the Pentagon and only used it once with my youngest son and twice with my wife out on a lake (all of which were a lot of fun). I call this my "Frankenkayak" because I have replaced almost all of the original parts with new (mostly homemade) replacement parts and patched several holes.

This summer I decided to try fishing from the kayak and I took it out on the Lehigh River, which is a ten minute drive from my house. The kayak is over 14 feet long and quite heavy but I had no trouble getting it onto the water and then had a steep learning curve figuring out how to paddle it on moving water and how to effectively fish from it. I had a paddle and Personal Flotation Device (PFD) and that was it. On my first time out I quickly figured out that I need an anchor and I made one out of a rock and some extra rope that I brought. My fishing lures were in my standard tackle box, which was not a great solution. But the first time out on the Lehigh I caught twelve large fish and dozens of smaller ones.

I had a great time on the river all by myself that first time out and clearly fishing from a kayak was more productive than fishing from shore. Most of the area I was fishing couldn't be reached very easily from the shore anyway. So I went Online and started researching kayak angling to see what I could do to improve my kayak and to learn some tips. With that information I made an anchor using and eye-bolt and a five pound weight, an anchor trolley system so I can move the anchor from the front to the rear of my boat, and I made a paddle holder.
This cost me nothing since I had the parts laying around my shop. A store-bought kayak anchor will cost $20-$45

The other big improvement was to move my lures into flat trays, which tuck in along side my seat. The tackle box took up a lot of leg room and I had to open the whole thing up each time I wanted to change a lure, which was often. With the trays, I can stash them out of the way and see exactly what I want. 

Over the summer I have found certain lures work best in the Lehigh River and other lures work best on Mauch Chunk Lake and on the Susquehanna River, both of which I also fish. So I have extra trays that I can mix and match lures for the water I will be fishing on. Amazingly, I found that the same company (Plano) makes these trays for fishing and also for small parts in a shop. The exact same trays at Walmart but the ones sold in their hardware department were a little over two dollars cheaper than the exact same trays (the labels were different, one showing fishing tackle and the other showing nuts and bolts) sold in the fishing aisle. So look around before you buy.

In June, July, and August I was averaging 15-30 fish a day on the Lehigh River. As the water got cooler in September, October, and November, fishing got a little tougher. I was catching bigger fish, on average, but fewer of them. My measure for success was did I catch enough fish, by total weight, that I could feed myself and my family for that day (if they ate fish, which they would in a SHTF situation)? I only had one day on the Lehigh when I failed to meet that measure of success. 

So my large kayak was a success but it was not ideal. For one thing, it is so long that I cannot just put it in the back of my truck, I only have a six foot bed and the boat is over 14 feet long. So I need to put it on my ten foot utility trailer. That is fine for me but if my wife drops me off and picks me up down stream she has to deal with towing and backing a trailer, which isn't one of her favorite things to do. The other big issue is the weight. The kayak, empty, weighs eighty pounds. I can carry that, I'm a big guy, but hauling that out of the river and up the bank at the end of the day was rough. And then I had to make multiple trips back and forth to bring all my gear to the truck. So I started researching and looking for a smaller, angling kayak. 

There are many, many companies out there making kayaks and you can expect to pay anywhere from $250 to the thousands. Most "real", or purpose built angling kayaks are "sit on top" kayaks. Those are great for flat water and maybe some mild rapids, but I often shoot through Class 2+ rapids and next year will fish in some areas with Class 3 rapids. I would not attempt to take a sit on top kayak through that. I also fish in cool-cold weather and a sit in kayak is dryer and warmer. I also don't have excess money laying around so I knew I would be settling on a severe compromise.

After looking at the options I settled on a Future Beach Trophy 126 Kayak on sale at Dick's, mainly because it was on sale. The normal list price was $449 and I paid $269 because of the sale and the Dick's points that I had. Read this Review  

There are others out there just as good, probably some that are better, for the money. But that's what I got. There are many things I like about this kayak. It is light; I can carry it easily even with all my gear on board. It has a small dry box up front and a larger (but not dry) compartment in the rear. It has two rear rod holders and the seat is surprisingly comfortable. I store a bailing container with a large sponge shoved in it in the water bottle holder molded into the seat. I use them to keep the boat dry inside. It turns and paddles nicely and will go in 4-5 inches of water with me (210 pounds) and about 20 pounds of gear. I use the three molded-in trays on the dash board quite a bit. Things I don't like; the seat is molded in and cannot be adjusted in anyway. That means you can only access the rear storage area, which is pretty big, through the hatch. That limits the size of things you carry. I find the cockpit to be too short, my knees hit the front and I have to slide into the seat. I'm 6'1" and medium build so this kayak was definitely built for a smaller person. 

I made a number of modifications to suit me since really the only thing that makes this an "Angling" kayak is the inclusion of two rod holders. I added an anchor trolley, which works very well. I added a paddle holder made from a piece of plastic water pipe I found. I added a tie-down loop to attach my forceps (used to get hooks out of fish). I also added a tow rope because I often have to drag the boat back up rapids that I went down or to traverse shallow water. I can stow four fishing lure trays, two on each side of the seat. All in all it is a great little fishing platform.

This kayak fits in my truck, with the tailgate down, and I can carry it up and down river banks with no problems. My oldest son and I took both kayaks out on a couple fishing trips on local rivers. With his help, getting the bigger kayak on and off the river was not an issue. Since I was more experienced, I took the bigger boat. Having two of us fishing allowed us to each try different lures and different manners of fishing until we found what worked that day. The first day out we only caught a couple, it was disappointing. But the next couple days we were hauling them in.

My oldest son is the best angler in the family, he could catch fish in a bathtub. Once he got used to larger river fishing from a kayak, he was back to his normal speed. Normally he catches about half again as many as I do but on my rivers we were pretty much even. On any given day we caught 10-20 fish between us; that's a lot of food.

That's a 17 inch small mouth bass I caught in the Lehigh River

That's a 14 inch small mouth bass I caught on the Susquehanna, near Pittston.

That's a 19-20 inch Fallfish

One of many 10-12 inch bass I caught on the Lehigh River.

This was a nice 15 inch small mouth bass caught near Hamburg.

This was the whopper of his trip home, also caught near Hamburg.
With fishing, you always have to balance and weigh the time vs product ratio. If I was in a crunch and really needed to secure food for my family, spending several hours fishing might not be the most productive use of my time. But, the more you get out there, the more you learn the river, lake or pond, the more productive you will be. If I had to take an educated guess on the total weight of the fish I caught this summer, it would easily be over two hundred pounds. That was from perhaps 20 times out fishing. I fished mostly in the late afternoons to nightfall after my normal property chores were done. So in may case, it would have been an efficient use of my time. 

In addition, you just cannot measure the enjoyment of being out on the water. This summer I saw two animals for the first time in my life; a River Otter and a Fisher Cat. I sat and watched Beavers and Bald Eagles. I saw two 24+ inch orange Koi swimming in the Lehigh River. I enjoyed a couple swims, ate some good meals, and relaxed in the solitude. Surprisingly few people ever intruded on my field of view when I was out during the week.

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