04/13/14 8:05am
04/13/2014 8:05 AM

WaterBottles

In our throwaway world, early spring can be depressing.

When we travel the highways of the Northeast, the snow-covered winter trash emerges in ugly profusion as the snow recedes. Where trash containers are ample, where pickups are frequent, as is the case in many interstate rest areas, you hardly notice the stuff. Where some officials closed rest areas and pulled collection bins out of parking areas along Route 81, by contrast, the scene resembles a Mumbai dumping area from Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.”  (more…)

08/12/12 4:00am
08/12/2012 4:00 AM

We were going to a restaurant the other night with old friends who trialed field dogs with us over the years and asked for directions. One of them pulled out pen and paper and said, “Here, I’ll draw you a map!” It was a fine document and got us there without difficulty.

Here was an “aha” moment; this sequence is now quite unusual because mapmaking is a lost art for many outdoors persons. In a world of Google Earth, GPS, On Star and computerized voices like Siri, it’s no wonder that the need to sketch or read a detailed map appears old-fashioned, even irrelevant. This observation applies, I suppose, as long as technology works for you. However, if you have no laptop, if you are in an area where wireless signals are poor or non-existent, e.g., some wilderness areas in the Adirondack Park or roads through the mountains of Pennsylvania, then what?

Also, because computer technology from the very beginning was only as good as the early programmers, (i.e., “garbage in equals garbage out”) and because much of today’s software is written by wonks who haven’t a clue about local details, some really crazy situations arise when technology goes awry or androids make decisions for you. Several seasons back, a couple of friends from northern New England with no knowledge of Long Island wanted to get to a trial in Calverton with their horses and set out confidently, using their GPS. Somehow they tracked all the way west to the New York Thruway and the Major Deegan Expressway, then wound up on the Cross Bronx Expressway just in time for Friday evening rush hour — a nightmare!

Our north country home up against the Canadian border lies on a road, Jones Road, which ends next to our house, but there is a track through the woods going north, an old military trail once intended for border protection and later used by bootleggers and locals to get to Canada. It emerges a couple of miles north onto an east-west country road, but the track is really for ATVs or hikers. Still, every so often, we’ll see someone come crashing out of the woods in a 4×4 pickup, looking somewhat dazed. Inevitably, this is a pilgrim following a GPS or a Google Map that clearly shows “Jones Road Extension.”

Live and learn.

The best maps give an overall picture, showing not only roads and landmarks, but accurate distances, too. Looking for a field trial, a hunting camp, or a restaurant — it’s all the same; you’ve got to be precise about how far you’ve come and where you turn. The same holds true for sailors and anglers reading nautical charts. It’s well and good for a skipper to punch in numbers and get precisely onto some patch of bottom or some little wreck where the fish were yesterday. But, we’re spoiled to the point where we have a hard time figuring out new waters for which there is only scant information.

If you rented a livery skiff from the Lorias 40 years back, Captain Marty’s would supply you with a simple map showing shorelines, islands, reefs and buoys. Given the layout and some numbers (like distances from points or time of travel at cruising speed) you could pretty well get to the desirable areas, even if there were no other boats fishing there. If you had a depth recorder, great; otherwise, you dropped a sinker overboard on a fixed line and checked both depth and, by bumping the sinker, the type of bottom. Often you could pick out features on shorelines directly fore and aft as well as off both stern and bow. The intersection of the two lines gave you a triangulated position that you could note. If you needed to drift a bit, you carried a couple of marker buoys — empty plastic milk jugs and heavy sinkers on lines wrapped around the jugs. Toss one overboard and you had the spot marked perfectly (at least until the tide ran so fast that the jug submerged). This also served nicely to mark where a body of bottom hugging flounder might be feeding so you could drift over the hot spot repeatedly. No GPS or Loran numbers required.

This “lost art” itself, like mapmaking, can still come in handy when you find yourself in some little embayment in a borrowed skiff a thousand miles away from home and you want to catch your supper as we did on Cape Breton Island some 20 years back. The winter flounder there were extraordinary, too! Similarly, locating a deep spring in a mountain pond you’ve never fished before usually requires a tip or two, a homemade map, and the skills of triangulation.

If you can make and read simple maps and find your way around new areas, you shouldn’t need to ask yourself, “Where am I?” Or answer, “I dunno!”

08/02/12 1:00am
08/02/2012 1:00 AM

There’s nothing much to say about traffic jams except they’re unavoidable. Anyone who heads from an urban zone for a holiday in “the country”, i.e. the wilderness of Suffolk, Putnam, Fairfield counties or points beyond, is familiar with jams and absolutely hates them. Even worse, of course, is the misery of the daily long-distance auto commuter who lacks transit alternatives.

The agony and the ecstasy of the LIE, Southern State, Northern State or the Bronx River, Sprain and the Hutch are familiar to pretty much all our readers, but the situation always seems most dire in the summer. In truth, when it comes to highways, summer is the third of three distinct seasons, especially farther north: “winter”, “mud”, and “road work!” And, although one can argue about appropriate levels of stimulus for the recovering U.S. economy, there’s lots of evidence for much of the stimulus going to infrastructure — particularly highways — in the summer of 2012.

It’s one thing to wax philosophical about roadwork, sitting at one’s desk, sipping an iced drink, and contemplating travel routes and schedules. It’s quite another to be out on the road, miles from anticipated bottlenecks (and when it comes to bottlenecks, anyone trying to exit Long Island knows full well what the term “island” really means) and have traffic suddenly come to a complete standstill. You haven’t seen any signs of roadwork, the traffic report “on the eights” hasn’t been updated on your road, and even the “twitterati” are not informed about this one.

And if those long haul truckers still carry CBs, you don’t, and you don’t remember the AM setting for highway information. How far ahead is the blockage? Are you temporarily stopped for a minor accident, a gaper’s block, or is it something more serious? Is it going to be three lanes into two, two lanes into one, or all lanes closed for blasting or for road crews to do a complete paving job over 15 miles? In the immortal words of those Apollo astronauts, “Houston, we have a problem!”

If you are aware of road work from previous trips or from weekday traffic reports, you can sometimes plan accordingly, altering schedule or route, but, most often, you are simply stuck, gazing at the dashboard, checking fuel and engine temperature. Better check blood pressure, too. There are really only three approaches at this point. Either you wait it out, force your way to an exit, or check possible alternate routes when you reach the very next exit ramp. Many will tell you that you simply have to tough it out and that you’ll never save any time by trying to escape, but this is a percentage thing. If traffic has come to a complete standstill and shows no sign of moving for 10 minutes or so, percentages in favor of hanging on begin to drop.

Some five years back, we were headed out to Cape Cod for a spring weekend and road work was just getting started on I-90 and I-495 when traffic stopped about 40 minutes from the Bourne Bridge out to Cape Cod. We turned off the AC when the engine temperature began to rise, then we turned off the engine and opened windows enough to breathe; there was enough of a breeze to blow off most of the exhaust fumes. After 15 minutes, we checked a roadside mileage marker and realized that we were about a mile from an exit, so we took the chance and followed some other vehicles onto the shoulder and eventually out the exit onto an old state highway. After more than an hour, we got to the bridge and sailed through to our destination near Falmouth. Later than night we learned from TV news reports that the jam wasn’t due to road work at all, but to a tanker fire that tied up traffic for more than three hours!

If you want to get away from bad jams and gamble on side routes, better have some good road maps. This summer for instance, the major north-south interstate in western New York, Route I-81, has lots of projects going, everything from dynamite and asphalt, to shoulder reconstruction. Thanks to heavy truck traffic, it’s all needed. But after braving successive 10-mile single-lane closures and attendant half-hour stalls, I’ve looked at New York and Pennsylvania maps to check alternatives. Sure, if we could hit that nasty 100 miles from Syracuse past Wilkes-Barre in the wee small hours or long after dark, we’d be fine, but we can’t. So at this moment, I’m looking at the ancient route, US 11, as a nice direct way—except that it takes us right through Binghamton and Wilkes Barre-Scranton.

Before I lose my temper, stalled in traffic, and start on that kind of adventure to get around road work, I’ll consult our navigator, Janet. Then we’ll probably change drivers—and flip a coin!


07/19/12 4:00am
07/19/2012 4:00 AM

We had just finished a good morning workout, a training session, really, with three bird dogs when another club member arrived on the grounds. We were the only ones that morning. By the time we packed up to go, the temperature was 85 degrees. It was 8:30 a.m., and the heat wave would push the mercury into triple digits in nearby Philadelphia that afternoon.

Outdoors persons who deal with summer activities during the frequent hot spells learn to be smart. More important than 4 p.m. high temperatures are the 6 a.m. lows, for these dictate what you can do and when. Unless you’re forced to defy Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen [Go Out in the Noonday Sun]” rule because of some scheduled event, you key on the period between first light and breakfast, say 4 a.m. to 8. Unless the morning lows come in above 80 degrees, you can usually accomplish what you want in relative comfort. Why only mornings? Throughout most of our mid-Atlantic region, high humidity levels simply don’t allow temperatures to plunge much at nightfall, and “the cool of the evening” is pretty much a myth.

Where I grew up, fishing the summer nights in Westchester and Putnam counties, my favorite fishing time was “the witching hour” right around dark, until mid-July. Then older mentors showed me how to fish long after dark, and, indeed, the bass often “came alive” around midnight, much to the annoyance of my parents. (I had to learn to refrigerate my catch until at least after breakfast the next day.) A couple of young friends who constantly outfished me wouldn’t get on the lakes until 3 a.m. or so, and they had the advantage of the coolest water temperatures of all. Even a half-degree or so makes a difference in freshwater predator activity.

Many years later when I worked a half-year in New Zealand, I learned that the rainbow/steelhead of the North Island were also best fished in the middle of the night by anglers casting tiny luminous flies from sandbars, fly rodders lined up just like so many northeastern surf fishers. Of course tides are just as important as the cover of darkness for nighttime stripers during the summer doldrums; East End skippers always cherish the new and full-moon periods from now through September for that very reason.

Unfortunately, biorhythms present a problem for most of us landlubbers. Although you’re just as likely to come across “night owls” as you are to encounter “early birds,” very few can go both ways. That’s why charter skippers are not fond of 12-hour sunset-to-sunrise grinds. Those still standing at the rail can be made to look really foolish when the biggest striped bass of the trip opts for a live eel at night’s end.

The only option for the outdoors person who simply hates the graveyard shift and cannot function without a full night’s rest is to fight the heat of the day and do what you need to do to be active: wear protective clothing, slather on sunscreen, drink plenty of fluids, etc. The other afternoon, with temperatures in the 90s, I had to muck out a barn and couldn’t bear long pants. The flies ate me alive while sunscreen dissolved in my sweat and got into my eyes. Humidity and lack of a breeze did me in. But offshore pros often find their targets perfectly well if they can handle some discomfort. That’s why some of the best offshore fishing comes in summertime, for tunas, mahi, or sharks out in the blue water. If you’ve got a shaded cabin to rest in, or even a canopy for shade, and if there’s a whiff of a breeze (not too much of a rolling sea, though!) it’s tolerable.

I used to consider summertime freshwater fishing to be a crazy proposition if I had to go in the daytime until I started fishing streams or rivers with fairly constant temperatures. Although, you had the best trout fishing in low light or at night, it was different with the river smallmouth and especially with the pikes. Given some local shade, some trees or weeds, you could often do pretty well all day. Because the pikes (chain pickerel, northern pike and muskellunge) are binge feeders, you often tease them or anger them to provoke a strike. High water temperatures increase metabolic rates and seem to make pike about as ornery as an overheated angler. We’ve seen some big river muskies come roaring out of weed patches to attack surface lures with open water river temperatures in the 80s!

Just because it’s hot, that’s no excuse not to get out. Whether you rise before the sun or emerge from the house after sundown, the summer outdoors still has a lot to offer. Besides, if the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are right, it won’t be any easier in the future!

06/28/12 2:00am
06/28/2012 2:00 AM

When I felt the bump of the horse trailer on the curb as I drove through the turnpike toll, I had a bad feeling. Minutes later on the Massachusetts Pike, a glance in the rear-view mirror of the haul vehicle confirmed my fears; the tire on the trailer just didn’t seem to be running right. When a car passed alongside and its driver frantically gestured towards the trailer, I knew it was time to pull over and change the tire. Fortunately, we had all the tools necessary; even more fortunately, we had a spare tire bolted to the front of the trailer.

No motorist in his or her right mind would think of taking a long trip without such a “spare” tire assembly. Yet, it’s amusing how many outdoors persons travel without preparing for such contingencies. It’s so easy to stumble over gear and fall on a fishing rod, crushing it, or catch a long wand in a closing door as you step across the doorstep into camp. Fly rodders are notorious for leaving tackle assembled while proceeding through tricky entrances or into rear compartments of autos. Anglers set up a reel with shock leader or tippets ever so carefully, but often fail to check reel screws, bails or nuts that hold reel handles in place.

Sometimes we’re able to make emergency repairs. An older generation of bamboo rods always came with spare tips, for example. I’ve made repairs on guides when wraps came undone by finding a handy roll of duct tape and taking a turn or two around the foot of a loose guide. On one Canadian trip I got really lucky and snapped a fallen guide ring back into place, then used a drop of instant glue to make it more secure. If I catch a loose screw or two on a reel plate or notice a loose nut on a bail or handle, a small screwdriver from my kit or a pair of pliers comes to my rescue.

The worst “uh-oh” moments come when repairs in the field are impossible. Where’s the technician who can replace a bail spring on the spot? Who can load up a spool of line while standing hip deep in the surf? Who can take apart a delicate reel after it has fallen into the bilge and filled with fine sand? That’s where your replacement comes in.

Just as you wouldn’t think of fishing with one lure and one leader, you shouldn’t think of proceeding without a spare outfit, or at least a spare reel. If storage is no problem on a big boat, we usually stash a spare outfit in a safe corner of the cabin or tie it to the rail where a spot is empty. We also put a spare reel into our daypack, just in case one of our winches malfunctions.

On a bottom fishing trip, the spare outfit is handy when we lose a rig and want to jump right back into the action during a “bite.” Re-rigging can take place during a lull in the action. On a drift fishing trip years ago in the Florida Keys, I had an outsized mahi burn up a bail roller and render a spinning outfit unfit for casting. I spent the rest of the afternoon with a 12-pound class drift rig, set up with a tandem-hooked ballyhoo, and saved the trip with my very first sailfish.

It’s a tough call when you have to go with only one rod, as one does so often working a stream of wading from the beach. Unless you want to carry the spare rod all day, you probably leave it back in the truck or back in the tent, but you at least should stash a second reel in a pocket or wading vest. Fly fishers sometimes carry spare spools to change lines, which is so much easier. I’ve seen a few anglers manage to carry spare two- or three-piece rods by taping them together or using a Velcro strap fastened to their person. Still this can get pretty clumsy as you plod miles along the gravel or walk a forest path. It’s tempting to put them down above the high tide line or off the trail as you proceed, but hours later you had better remember exactly where you stashed the spares!

One trout specialist I fished with in the wilds of Quebec got around this problem by building a short fly rod with somewhat larger guides and a reel seat just above the butt. He could, in a pinch, slip a small spinning reel onto the back of the rod and toss tiny lures when he wasn’t fly-fishing. Such spinning-fly combinations were offered by specialty catalogs at one time long ago, and they were deadly on tiny streams where backcasts were out of the question.

Being prepared is like being flexible. It certainly doesn’t hurt.

06/12/12 3:00am
06/12/2012 3:00 AM

An East End charter skipper once told me he couldn’t wait to get back to Florida for winter action on snook and tarpon. This confession came on a late November day when we were pursuing tautog and the tides were rather strong, causing one-pound sinkers to bounce merrily away in 70-foot depths. The thought of catching fish averaging four times the weight of the sinkers doesn’t appeal to anyone who regularly fishes tropical seas where currents are often non-existent.

But, if you are a pilgrim in our area, you have to learn how to fish northeast waters where “5-to-1” or “10-to-1” ratios of fish weight to line strength are impractical, and techniques are different from those used in other coastal areas. There are three good ways to learn these techniques first hand, once you’ve been properly outfitted. You can share a charter, sail aboard a party boat, or, in a few places, rent a skiff and motor. I’ve deliberately left out the surf game here; although beach techniques are relatively easy to learn, the game is daunting because of its feast-or-famine aspects and because of the difficulty getting access to the beaches when you want to fish them. I’ll have more on this in a later article.

A “newbie” should spend a few days scouting the docks and tackle shops, observing and asking questions. What boats are recommended? What do the catches look like? What does the tackle look like? No matter how well you think you’re set up, there are always new rigs to learn, new baits to bring, and new techniques to apply, good reasons for our first preference, a shared charter.

A good charter boat has a patient skipper plus an attentive crew, and provides a running tutorial during at least four hours of fishing, maybe twice that. Almost always, there are well-rigged, well-maintained outfits on hand; even if you’ve brought your own, it’s not a bad idea to try fishing with the boat’s tackle. Just make sure you check reel drags, hooks, and, above all, knots. If drags have no “give” (generally, they are set at one-third line or knot strength for strong running predators like bass and blues, a bit higher for powerful bottom-hugging bulldogs like tautog or fluke; for delicate-mouthed scup and small hooks, drags should be on the light side), if hooks seem dull, if lines look frayed — ask the mate courteously about the outfit or get another.

Pay strict attention to instructions about hooking fish, avoiding hangups, and manipulating baits. Dropping a live eel into the maw of a striper or discerning the difference between the bounce of a sinker and a strike in a strong current won’t be easy for you. You’ll lose rigs and drop fish while you learn. Again, the best skippers are either very patient or they have diplomatic crews to smooth hurt feelings!

Party boats serve beautifully once you’ve got the essentials or if you’re able to handle your own errors in public. Again, there should be a patient skipper and an attentive crew, but now you’re at a buffet, not a private table, so you’re serving yourself! You should learn the rigs and baits of the day ahead of the trip or at least during the boat ride to the grounds, but then, once the action gets going, you had better be able to tie and rig after any breakoffs. If you can find a kind, honest “regular,” ask questions, lots of questions, and pay attention to the railbirds who have figured out what techniques and rigs are paying off on that particular trip. If you stumble into something that works, share it and be modest about success. Many a pool-winning fluke has been decked by a grade-school kid who paid no attention to his or her rod or by an old gaffer who had too much beer with lunch and went to sleep with a rod fastened to the rail.

Sadly, liveries or boat rental stations, our final choices for the pilgrim, are disappearing rapidly. Still, places like Captain Marty’s in New Suffolk, the Caraftis Fishing Station in Port Jefferson, or Silly Lily in East Moriches can provide an inshore experience like no other. They will help you set up rigs and baits for the day and give you instructions on where to find the fish out in that incredible expanse of water; however, once you leave the dock behind, you and your companions are on your own. Nevertheless, if you want to really learn the secrets of anchoring on a good spot or drifting a productive area at the right speed, nothing beats fishing in “your own” rental craft. And if you have a few fish to show for your efforts at the end of the day, you know you did it yourself.

Learning how to fish a new way never grows old.