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.

06/07/12 1:00am
06/07/2012 1:00 AM

Nothing beats an outdoor dinner when the weather turns “summery” as it did over the Memorial Day weekend. We were sitting down for “happy hour” after a day of running our dogs down East near Freyburg, Maine, last Saturday and having a wonderful time — until the local deer ticks showed up at the party. First, someone picked a couple off his neck; then another tick showed up on a sleeve. Next, a crawler got peeled from a bare arm. Now the inspection of pant legs began in earnest. Suddenly the scene resembled an assemblage of monkeys and apes picking parasites off one another in an African documentary!

Thanks to a mild winter with very few days of freezing temperatures along the seaboard, Ixodes ticks are out in force this spring in fields and woods. They are, as always, particularly abundant wherever one finds deer, rodents, sandy soils and pine barrens, places like coastal Connecticut, Cape Cod and, of course, our very own Long Island. But we’ve found them plentiful inland, too, in the Catskills or the Black Forest area of central Pennsylvania.

Fortunately, you do not have to be an expert in the diagnosis of the half dozen or so tick-related diseases to know that preventive measures are quite helpful. As we’ve pointed out many times in previous pieces, you begin with insect spray or liquid on the skin (legs, forearms, neck) and clothing and wear the kind of clothing that makes ticks (the adults, at least) easy to spot in the first place. Rolling pants legs into your socks probably keeps the downstairs ticks from accessing your lower body, but we’ve never figured out where the upstairs ticks come from. How the heck can they get into the sweatband of a ball cap?

Our rule for outdoor clothing worn in marshes, forests and fields is simple — one and done. Once worn, the day’s attire goes into the washer, making for lots of laundry but lots of drowned ticks, too. As for pets, they are better protected than we are, thanks to annual vaccines and regular applications of systemic tick killers; we spray dogs lightly with repellents after days in the field and comb them out, minimizing the ticks that drop off in the house.

If you’re fortunate, you feel a tick moving on your skin during the day or two before it settles in for a bite, or you see it, looking like a tiny, dark, out-of-place scab. Then you kill and discard it. Three weeks ago, a day after we returned from a trip to Falmouth on Cape Cod where we had judged a trial in a wildlife area, I plucked a tick off my forearm. It wasn’t embedded, but it had been working with its enzymes, dissolving tissue before biting, and leaving a quarter-inch red spot surrounded by a pink area. So potent are the chemicals, I can still see the faint mark of the “burn” 13 days later.

When you’ve been bitten, the signs are sometimes unmistakable, sometimes not. The characteristic “spreading bull’s-eye” doesn’t occur in every case, and you may not see a tick embedded in your scalp or a hidden body part, especially if the insect is a sub-adult nymph or larva. And the onset of generic “Lyme disease” (e.g. true Lyme, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, etc.) weeks or months after the bite, shows up as aches, fatigue, weakness, or “summer flu-like” symptoms, mimicking many common ailments.

Forty years ago when tick-related diseases were first diagnosed in large numbers on Long Island and elsewhere, physicians would search diligently for medical proof of a tick bite. A few still do, insisting on thorough blood work and a “positive test.” Because the spirochete remains hidden in the system, one can contract “Lyme” without a timely positive test. You occasionally hear of folks who suffer for a year or more with consistently negative tests; this creates a dangerous situation, because “Lyme” never goes away, and can result in permanent nerve or heart damage as symptoms return in a cyclical fashion. Most wise physicians opt for symptom-based treatment with antibiotics like amoxicillin or doxycyclene and take the curative effects of the treatment as proof that patients were infected.

With thousands of these cases every year, bites from infected ticks are part and parcel of the outdoors on the North Fork and just about everywhere else in the mid-Atlantic region. If you tend a garden, hike, bicycle, go afield with your pets, or even “fire up the barbecue” in the back yard on weekends, watch for ticks and go at once for treatment if you see any sign of a bite from an embedded Ixodes tick. With outdoors persons, it’s not a question of “if” we’ll be bitten. It’s only “when.”

You cannot let these arachnids keep you from enjoying the North Fork outdoors, however. Fortunately, vigilance is simple, and treatment is simple, too!

05/13/12 3:00am
05/13/2012 3:00 AM

With the demise of the winter flounder fishery now in its second decade, anglers have pretty much come to terms with the loss of our once reliable treat for the springtime table. Fortunately for those who grew up fishing freshwater, substitutes are readily available — the ubiquitous “pan fish” found in ponds and lakes all over Long Island.

Just like flounder, freshwater pan fish exhibit schooling behavior; catch one and there are probably a dozen lurking nearby. Also, these little fellows are best taken on light tackle, and, finally, they are great table fish.

I grew up on a lake some 60 miles from Manhattan that once had a population of bluegill sunfish so robust it would have brought tears of joy to any of the Good Ol’ Boys who loved their “brim” so much in Dixie. Almost any time of year, you could locate these sunfish hanging around the shallows where they would eagerly take anything resembling an insect or tiny minnow. The groups of big bluegills from eight to 10 inches in size were so easy to find in the spring that we would invite guests over and wait until they arrived to start fishing the great big fish tank off our dock. In very short order, we had enough fish for a “fry.”

Early this month, a cousin who had lived through those days with me and was now an expert on rainbows and browns, came through on a visit and wanted to revisit that lake. We called my brother, who still lives in the old family house, and got together on a miserable, showery afternoon with an east wind and more rain in the forecast. To make more space in the aluminum skiff, we jettisoned battery and trolling motor, opting for oars and a small mushroom anchor instead. As expected, fishing was picky. When we couldn’t locate any chain pickerel to fool with (we try to avoid the spawning bass), we dropped back to light fly rods for the pan fish — first a nice rock bass (“redeye”), then a couple of seven-inch bluegills. When the wind sent us drifting into a big sheltered cove, we considered moving out to a couple of brush piles in front of the cove that were home base to schools of black crappie later in the season.

Suddenly, cousin Steve hooked a large but sluggish fish, not a bass, not a spunky bluegill, and I dropped another at the same time. When he coaxed his fish to the boat, I grabbed the net — and we had our first crappie. With large but soft mouths, crappie are the one pan fish you don’t swing aboard, especially when you’re fishing streamers in sizes 10 and 12. The next half-hour was classic, just like a flounder run, and we caught dinner in short order. These crappie, 12 to 14 inches in size (we’ve caught them to nearly 18, in fact), were apparently well off the brush piles and probably spawning or feeding on fry in a few feet of water.

To best enjoy the art of pan fishing, you fish light with tippets less than six pounds and two- to four-weight fly rods. Nothing fancy here; sink-tip or floating lines work just fine. Besides midget streamers, wet flies will work, and so will dry flies or tiny popping bugs later in the summer. For non-fly rodders, spinning tackle — ultralight with lines testing two to four pounds — works equally well. Just remember to keep the lures tiny. Spinners, jigs and the smallest wobblers you can find will catch all pan fish species. Usually freshwater pan fish are so abundant (in fact, they can outcompete a bass population unless there are top predators like pikes around) they can be enjoyed on the table without concern for “overfishing.”

Besides the pan fish species mentioned above, there are myriad species in all eastern waters. In the course of a fishing career, we’ve caught both white and yellow perch on the North Fork when they were abundant in Marratooka, and one of the largest white perch I ever saw, a two-and-a-half pounder, took a full-sized Rapala on Laurel Lake. Remember that pan fish species are cyclical, and a lake may change over the years with one species replacing another. The niche once occupied by bluegill in the lake I described above appears now to be occupied by black crappie and bass.

As table fare, pan fish are (again, like flounder) superb. For best results, you can fillet the larger fish, the ones well over 10 inches, but you might want to simply remove head and tail and eviscerate the smaller ones. Unless you like the stronger taste of the skin (scaled, of course), you’ll want to skin your catch before frying, baking or broiling. When you put some fresh pan fish on your table with a good Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, you might just for the moment forget those winter flounder.

04/28/12 2:00am
04/28/2012 2:00 AM

Lots of outdoors persons, here and elsewhere, enjoy horses and horseback activities. And so do we. But, as in any exercise involving the outdoors, accidents are part of the game, and working with half-ton animals presents risks that are pretty specific to that activity.

A couple of weeks ago at a field trial held on the historic English Setter Club grounds in Medford, N.J., about a half-hour from Philadelphia, a surprising number of accidents took place over the course of only a few days. Having so many mishaps in such a short time was unusual.

At mid-week, during a fast-paced stake, one experienced handler tried to turn his horse rather sharply; when the animal stumbled, he went over the top and landed on his collarbone, breaking it in the process. Over the weekend, two more riders went down when their horses fell; one bailed off just in time, the other suffered a fractured finger and a few bruises. To round things out, another experienced rider with a newly purchased horse failed to notice how much air the animal had blown out while riding and didn’t cinch up in time. During dismounting, the saddle assembly slipped off, depositing the rider, butt-first, on hard, dry soil. Badly bruised, that rider was also through riding for the weekend.

A couple of wags commented that this had something to do with bad karma, running a big field trial during Holy Week (with Passover in the mix as well), but a very well-known dog trainer, who also spent her youth breaking in quarter horses, confided that she had long ago stopped counting cracked and broken bones accumulated while riding horses!

As we’ve explained in previous essays, most of us get into horseback activities from the periphery. If you go into the Rockies with guides to set up a hunting or fishing trip, you ride in a pack train, horses and burros, or you just don’t go. If you compete seriously with pointing dogs in any trials other than walking trials on grouse and woodcock, sooner or later, you’ll be in the saddle, handling, judging, or simply observing those dogs.

After only a few rides, you get the feeling that there’s more to this game than simply plopping your butt into a comfortable saddle and using reins or legs, especially if you’re called upon to ride off by yourself on a steed from the wrangler’s string. Horses have a terrific sense of who’s a “tenderfoot” or “greenhorn” and who’s not, and “rental” horses are notorious for taking advantage of such situations. Now maybe you’ll want to get serious about riding lessons, and buy proper riding apparel, designed specifically for the riding you’ll do. Riding jeans, proper riding boots, chaps, and certainly a good helmet are starters, and you may quickly find that your very own saddle will serve you well over several seasons.

If you get serious about any horseback-related games, you eventually come to the conclusion that you’ll do a lot better with your own horse. Here the story takes a new turn, similar to the anglers who commit to offshore fishing and progress from skiff to cruiser. Horses (we use the plural form because they need companions) require pasture, barn or boarding, plus trailers and haul vehicles. Now you’re really hooked, and so are your life savings!

But back to the “safety” theme. Even when beginning to ride, you should know about tying lines, adjusting stirrups, saddling and bridling the animals properly in case the wrangler misses something while setting up your rental ride. You’re the person most affected. A loose saddle for a rider is like a poorly tied knot for an angler. Stirrups too long? No control? Too short? Cramps or balance issues? If you begin to work around horses, you realize how much lifting has to be done — everything from dragging heavy bales of hay and six-gallon Jerry cans of water to supporting horses’ feet and cleaning hooves. I’ve never used a lumbar support so often in any other outdoor activity!

But, again, like all outdoor endeavors, when things come together, it’s something else. Late on the Sunday of the Medford, N.J., trial, I was called upon to run a dog in place of one of the injured handlers. While I judge quite a bit and help out handlers as a “scout” when dogs go AWOL, I seldom carry responsibility for steering a wide-ranging field dog around a big course. But the dog knew its mission and, within a few minutes, I found myself watching her two fields ahead, swinging along a long edge, searching for game birds. Then the veteran judge cantered up alongside and asked me to turn at the end of the cast. As I called and swung the horse, the dog spotted me and swung 90 degrees at the far end of the field, just the maneuver we wanted.

And this is why we ride!

04/05/12 3:00am
04/05/2012 3:00 AM

Turning a page on the calendar and opening a fishing magazine last weekend brought back memories of seasons past. April was our prime flounder month. Until some 20 years ago, the winter flounder, the “left-handed” “fig leaf” with the rubbery lips and small mouth, was our Peconic staple, our harbinger of spring, and a sure bet for fish on the table until predators arrived in May.

Those days seem a long time ago. With flounder stocks pathetically low and the failure of regulators to put a moratorium on catching what has now become mostly a commercial fish, the recreational angler is lucky to scratch out his or her daily two-fish limit of keepers, 12 inches or better, during a two-month season in April and May. We can argue forever about the cause of the demise (e.g., overfishing, at first by recreational anglers, then by commercials who switched from decreasing yellowtails to “blackbacks,” increased water temperatures, habitat disturbance like scraping clam beds, or increased predation on juveniles by stripers (or seals!), but the fact remains: Finding flounders these days is harder than catching stripers.

The idea of gearing up a small boat — with chum pots, anchors, a couple of outfits per person, cutting boards, and net, then going somewhere to buy worms, mussels, and or clams — just to catch TWO flounder per person sounds like sheer lunacy. But is it any crazier to haul those outfits and ancillary gear aboard a party boat and lay out more than $50 for those same TWO flounder? And we haven’t even added the cost of travel at 50 cents per mile! Would you do the same for TWO scup?

On the other hand, if the water is calm and the sun shines and you’re in good company, what the heck! It’s cheaper than traveling to the Big Apple to take in some Broadway rerun! Besides, for some gourmets, a meal of truly fresh flounder, fish that were properly filleted on a boat’s cutting board, then iced, is worth every bit of the money you’ve paid. (At those prices, though, you’ll want to process the fish heads and fins for stock, and maybe even serve some lightly steamed roe with mayonnaise and crackers, too!). Another tip for the table: the later in the season you go flounder fishing, the more sea robins you’ll catch. Be sure to fillet them, too. Not delicate fare like flounder, they nevertheless stand up for use in chowders and curries. The wings from large skates are also excellent. Steam lightly, remove the skin, then continue to steam until you can remove the delicate meat from the cartilage.

What are the odds of catching in the first place? Spring trips are so weather dependant you have to choose your date with care if you take small craft out. On the other hand, on an open boat on Long Island Sound or the bays (probably Moriches), your skipper has been tracking the action for a while and can zero in on the right spot and the right tide better than the amateur who only sails occasionally. If you have an idea of how many flatties are caught on a typical trip, say 20 to 50, and divide by the number of anglers at the rail when you sail, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect. If the result is much less than one, you had better have a lot of confidence in yourself!

Flounder tackle is almost always light. Even on a party boat, mainlines can be six-pound test with sinkers less than three ounces, provided you tie good knots on your tandem rigs, provided currents are light, and provided waters are shallow. If you’re a sharpie using beads and rubber grubs, bless you, but on most days, the bait’s the thing — small, fresh, and fluttery, mounted on small hooks, 6s to 10s. A swallowed hook? Disgorgers are O.K., but why not cut the leader and re-rig? Most flatties will probably be keepers. Don’t be an idiot; unless you’re certain the fish is undersized, call for the net rather than use the old “swing her aboard” technique.

Any prospects for a return of the beloved flounder? Unfortunately, when the light dims on any slow-growing species like cod or flounder, it’s hard to fill a niche taken by other fish. Still, hope springs eternal for a small miracle, like a couple of good spawning years back to back.

Whether to fish a depleted resource is an individual choice. A couple of fish means nothing while commercial activity continues, I know, but it’s a matter of principle. One flounder fishing “buddy” from years ago still loves the fish, but hasn’t used his skiff at Captain Marty’s for that purpose in years. Currently, he has a home in Howard Beach with small boat access to Jamaica Bay, so I keep hoping for a call from him. So far it hasn’t come.

03/27/12 3:00am
03/27/2012 3:00 AM

The calendar cautions us, but, looking outside at current daytime temperatures in the 60s, we can’t help but turn a couple of pages. And with spring/summer on the mind (until the wind starts blowing in from the Atlantic), one has to think about travel. In fact, Janet and I just finished a 2,000-mile round trip during my school break to pick up a new horse, but more on that later.

When you travel with a horse trailer, there’s no way to avoid mileage costs, and you’re very much aware of gas prices ($3.60 to $4.03) across the eastern third of the country. You realize that, despite all the claims of opportunistic politicians, some 28 percent of per barrel costs (translating to about 56 cents at the pump) are due to speculation, which simply reflects the world we live in. (In fact, increased United States production — up from 8.1 to 10.3 millions of barrels per day — and lessened United States consumption of foreign oil — down from 59 percent of United States consumption to 45 percent — since 2005 have actually driven per barrel costs downwards!) Nevertheless, when gas is four dollars per gallon, the 10-miles-per-gallon haul vehicle costs 40 cents per mile for fuel alone, in stark contrast to the average 30-miles-per-gallon vehicle at 13.3 cents. And $400 per 1,000 miles (compared to $133) runs up quite a credit card bill.

Driving long distances has been part of our lives since childhood, and the basics are always the same. If you have lots of miles to cover, you either travel with multiple drivers and switch often or you limit yourself to what is safe. One acquaintance who drives a lot for a living rolled in at our dog training area recently after driving 17 hours non-stop. Not only had he gone down to Tennessee to run dogs in a national championship once, he had actually done it twice in two weeks, returning home in between to take care of unavoidable business. He insisted there was nothing to it; his wife did some of the daytime driving, and he drove through the night. Then they dropped off a few pieces of gear, cleaned up and came to the training area to show us some videos of the competition.

No way could I ever have done that! Even Trailways and Greyhound drivers are limited by law to single-day drives. They will take one 500-mile trip, but get a long sleep break before turning around for the return.

Maintaining a state of alertness is critical. The monotony of interstate highways can be problematic at the very least, deadly at worst. This is especially true on long, flat stretches, like the ones we encountered recently driving through Ohio and Indiana and western New York. Interestingly, we’ve encountered similar problems driving the Long Island Expressway in the wee hours while returning from a long ocean trip out of Montauk or Captree. If wheels touch the “rumble strips” or you note your eyes starting to close, stop and switch drivers or take a nap before moving on!

For all the help one gets from a GPS unit, nothing beats a co-pilot or navigator when it comes to reading road signs amidst clutter or deciding well in advance where to get off the road for food or lodging. One common fault in long-distance driving is the tendency to “keep going one or two more hours” in order to “make some miles.” The road mesmerizes, so you keep driving, and then, just about the time you really have to get off the road, motels fill up or the desk clerks disappear. Even worse, you drive past the confluence of highways out into the boondocks where there are no more motels at all, not even motels of the “Bates Motel” variety (see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”) off the exits! This is particularly critical when you’re groggy from pulling a trailer all day and need plenty of help to make those final turns into parking areas. Another advantage of pulling off the road early instead of late is getting a fresh, early start to make up the miles.

If long miles are absolutely critical, nothing beats trimming time off rest stops by packing some sandwiches, particularly for the midday meal. Toasted bagels with spreads and coffee ready-to-go slice time off the front end of the trip. Go easy on the fluids, though, unless you’re absolutely certain of rest areas along the way. With states finding excuses to cut essentials, rest area closures are, unfortunately, not uncommon, especially in our fair Empire State! And not everyone carries port-a-pottys in the tack rooms of their trailers.

The most important thing is to arrive at trip’s end safely in a coherent state. You certainly want to be rested enough to roll out of the car (or bed) and handle the first trail, the first bird, or the first fish of the day.

03/03/12 3:00am
03/03/2012 3:00 AM

Early March is a restless time for anglers in the northeast. On sunny days when temperatures rise and winds drop, it almost feels like spring. The expression that an old German mentor used to use: “Mir juckt es in den Fingern!” (My fingers start to itch!) captures the mood perfectly.

Memories of March trips from years back provide cautionary tales, however. I remember the long haul to Montauk to grab a rail spot on a cod trip out to Block Island, and the winds that came roaring out of the west around mid-morning, putting a damper on an early bite. I recall trying to bait tiny hooks for white perch while fishing the Connetquot below the park and feeling my fingers curl before getting the gloves back on. And my very first March lesson on brown trout with the mentor I mentioned above started well with a couple of fish but concluded with a nasty walk back to the car in a snow squall.

Nowadays one is tempted to fish all winter thanks to better apparel and lots of angler information about winter fishing. Still, the opportunities for an outstanding trip are not the very best. March is a windy month with changeable conditions, as pointed out above, and, for all the wisdom proclaimed by local forecasters today, wind speeds are seldom accurately predicted. This is precisely why many old-timers line up trips in relatively sheltered waters like small lakes or ponds with productive shorelines offering windscreens. But what exactly are you going to fish for in March? Some folks seem to like the catch-and-release seasons for fresh water bass (stripers, too), but we’re sort of old school in this regard. Although largemouth and smallmouth aren’t spawning for another month, the pre-spawn females are heavy with eggs so you always wonder about the effects on any given fish you release.

Many years ago, as a juvenile fisher feeling my way, I found I could fish pre-spawn bass by going “low and slow” with small spoons dressed with pork rind strips and “stinger” hooks wired into the tip of the strips. I caught a number of nice fish without difficulty, but there was a troubling afternoon when I brought a big 23-inch hen fish (she probably weighed over seven pounds!) to the net and noted the stinger well back in her mouth. Fortunately, the hook wasn’t in her throat and it came out really easily, but it certainly made me think hard about accidently killing a fish that had to be released.

When I go freshwater fishing now before the June seasons open (or before the pickerel season opens in May) I try to focus on panfish or trout with small lures or flies that should have more of an appeal to perch or bluegills or cruising trout. You never know, of course, (I had a three-pound largemouth take a size 8 streamer a couple of years back) but at least the odds are in favor of legal game.

The only early season fishing I can’t appreciate anymore is the season-opener on crowded waters. Why would someone go to a crowded river for the trout opener in preference to an off-the beaten-path pond? Obviously it’s the tradition and perhaps the chance to share stories after a long winter off.

Probably the safest bet for the restless angler is a visit to a boat show or sports show, or an afternoon spent with an online or mail-order catalog. For the first five years of my fishing life, I would get together with a couple of older anglers every winter and go through the current catalogs from the American companies that dominated the field: Pfleuger, South Bend, Shakespeare, Creek Chub and, of course, Heddon from Dowagiac, Mich. We always made a point of ordering a few items, mostly lures, and went through the sizes and color patterns with extreme care. Perch finish or pike finish? Black with silver-scale, or pearl finish? How about a natural silver shiner or golden shiner pattern? Interestingly, the old tried and true lures in finishes we hadn’t used before often turned out to be the most effective. Still, we always threw in a couple of dollars for some new concept, e.g., lures that were supposed to behave like frogs, lures that oscillated vertically instead of horizontally. The hope was always that one of those lures would have magical results during the upcoming season. Of course they never did, but they were still less disappointing than my Brooklyn Dodgers.

Last weekend upstate we found ourselves shoveling wind-driven snow in plummeting temperatures. The ground was covered to about a foot after a virtually snow-less February. In fact the roar of snowmobiles was heard for the first time all winter! But the buds don’t lie, and neither does the angle of the noonday sun. I’m going to work on some tackle tonight!

02/19/12 3:00am
02/19/2012 3:00 AM

It’s always interesting for dog owners to visit the Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden. For all the pomp and circumstance, for all the brushes and powder, there are some real dogs in the rings, dogs that perform tasks other than striding on lead and posing with perfect posture. Indeed, for some breeds the Bauhaus creed “form follows function” is still important.

An article in The New York [the other] Times on Feb. 13 by Stephanie Clifford highlighted the dual nature of the Siberian husky, describing one current Siberian, Winnie, Grand Champion Huskavarna’s Destined to Win, and her appearance as a lead dog in a recent race. On Feb. 14 Winnie was awarded a Judges Award of Merit at the Garden in a breed entry of 20. Although the Times story centered on the Nome serum delivery marathon of 1925, the back story of Siberians and their development seemed just as interesting.

The Siberian husky has evolved in conformation over the decades just as most breeds do. If you look at the Times photos of sled dogs from the late 1920s, you see leaner, rangier dogs with different faces than the Sibes of today. Nevertheless, some owners of huskies still passionately compete in sled-dog competition with the same dogs that go into the show rings.

Innisfree Kennels in Ellenburg, N.Y., run by the Kanzler family, has bred and trained generations of Siberians for this dual role; we’ve mixed our Brittanys with their teams and had some terrific times, too. Success has come, not only in sled-dog competition, but also, and impressively so, in shows all over the United States and Canada. Back in 1980 their Siberian Husky actually “won it all” at the Garden and was awarded Best In Show. Moreover, Champion (Ch.) Innisfree’s Sierra Cinnar, owned by Kathleen Kanzler, was handled by Patricia Kanzler, not by a typical professional handler. Suffice it to say, “Cinnar” was no stranger to a dog sled!

Sporting breeds have undergone a substantial transformation, so much so that competitors sometimes despair of bringing form and function back together for dual (show and field) competition. The first sporting dogs to have won Best In Show at the Garden, the Cocker Spaniel, Ch. Midkiff Seductive, in 1921 and the Pointer, Ch. Governor Moscow, in 1925, probably looked like the field dogs of the era, according to photos we’ve seen at the English Setter Club in Medford, N.J., and stories we’ve heard from one of the last cocker field trial competitors.

Today, show cockers, now short-muzzled and long-eared, are all but gone from spaniel field trials, and show pointers (and English setters) tend to be so gawky and narrow-chested, they can hardly compete with the snappy, muscular field dogs which run on the trial circuit. The tendency to accentuate certain characteristics has led to wide splits between “show” dogs and “field” dogs, even if not as extreme as in other, more popular, breeds. For example, compare the slant-backed German shepherd winners of the big shows today with working shepherds used for security duties or with movie star Rin Tin Tin.

To its credit, however, the American Kennel Club has been promoting hunt tests for the sporting breeds in recent years, and these tests give folks who might not otherwise stray from the show rings opportunities for their dogs to perform essential functions in the field. The tests differ from highly competitive field trials where first-place dogs (sometimes in big trials some other highly placed dogs get points, too) in the many braces of the stake get points toward their championships. In hunt tests, scores are awarded to individual competitors, which must “pass” several tests to get certified as Junior, Senior or Master Hunter.

A few AKC breeds still continue to have the gold standard of the Dual Championship, for which the dog has to be both a show and trial winner. We’re lucky enough to compete in one such breed with our Brittanys, but we’ve seen other owners who have braved the odds (in Brittanys there are less than a dozen “duals” a year in a breed with many thousands of annual registrations) to finish dual-champion German shorthaired pointers, Vizslas and Gordon setters.

Two years ago we wanted to breed our Annie, Field Champion Kildee’s Anticipation, and have the possibility of a dual pup. We chose as stud a dual champion, Nitro, Amateur National Gun Dog Champion Triumphant’s To Hot To Handle, who had also been among the top five show Brits in the country at one time. Now our little bitch, Missy, Ch. Windswept’s Ain’t Misbehaving, who finished her show title at 10 months, is getting ready for adult field trials after placing second in a prestigious National Futurity for juvenile dogs, run on horseback.

Responsible breeders try to produce ideal, healthy pups that show well and do the job for which the breed was intended.