I have been chasing state-introduced Atlantic salmon on Connecticut’s Shetucket River for the past nine years with my fly rod, spending the first five dealing with an extreme rate of failure, finally catching only a few fish in the tail end of the fifth year. As I progressed as a saltwater flats guide things started to change for me on the river as well. I was seeing fish in high water, noticing things about the salmon that had eluded me in the past – things like their feeding habits, what enticed them to strike on instinct rather then aggravation, how they moved around the river and how to fish different water levels. I am the only guide who offers drift trips down the Shetuket and over the past three years our clientele has grown as does our knowledge of the fishery. Spending most of my winters guiding for steelhead in up state New York I only did a few trips each year on the Shetucket, but now I prefer my local waters just 20 minutes from my home in Woodstock, Connecticut to the over five-hour drive to Upstate New York. I love the way we fish for our salmon, stripping flies, cranking top water plugs, swinging baits in the current – you name it, it’s just a more active way to fish than drifting stone flies along the bottom for steelhead. Don’t get me wrong, I love to fish for those New York steelhead, but to watch a 17-pound broodstock Atlantic smash a top water fly or bait, then catapult three feet out of the water and charge into a 100-yard run will rock your light tackle world.
Being a full time fishing guide, I’ve tried many soft baits and Hogy’s are the most productive light tackle bait in my repertoire. Everything eats them, tarpon, tuna, stripers, roosters, you name it: gamefish across the board love them. So as I developed my Atlantic salmon skills I asked myself – what about these fish, known traditionally as the King of Gamefish? The answer is yes! They go crazy for them.
I’ll relate one experience from last season. The day began with a client of mine who’s a saltwater addict; she loves bluewater big game fishing and last year we introduced her to flats fishing for stripers with Hogys and she loved it. She had the winter blues and wanted to fish. We talked about New York but it became apparent that it was just too cold for my fishing diva to endure. So I asked her if she was interested on local Atlantic salmon.
“Are they big?” was question number one. Yes I replied. Question two was, “When can we go?”
Three days later we met at the Scotland dam and put my raft in the water, ran the shuttle car to the take out and hit the river on a beautiful 28-degree day. The river was running high as we headed down stream; she started to throw an X-Rap hard bait at the banks hoping to hook up with her first Atlantic salmon in some of my hot spots. Two hours passed with not even a sign of a fish. Things looked dim but I kept the vibe on the raft positive. We came up on our next hot spot. I dropped anchor and gave instructions on where to cast. As my client worked the more productive side of the run, it was time for me to give the old faithful Hogy a try. Third cast and a massive wake appeared 10 feet or so behind my 6-inch white Hogy as a big salmon raced up to it and stopped, turning back into the run.
The next few casts I took confirmed that I was on to something that was going to make my job easier. The second cast I tried an aggressive retrieve with no luck, so the next cast I slowly reeled in the bait. When the Hogy hit mid run three fish came out and lined up behind it but wouldn’t hit; this time they stayed on the edge of the run. My next cast I dropped 20 feet behind the fish and worked it over them and let it sit right in front of the lead fish. That fish went after the Hogy twice but didn’t hit before it went back to deeper water, the other two fish right behind him. On the next cast I hit what I knew to be the productive part of the run and got one fish to hit the bait five times and on some of those strikes the fish threw itself out of the water like a striper attacks a popper. Just to let you know: that had never happened before in all my trips on that river and it was a great event to watch.
Now you ask – why can’t a guide hook a fish that grabbed a bait seven times? Because I was not rigged properly. State law says you must use a single, free swinging hook on all baits except flies, to prevent snagging of a fish that is very hard to catch. I rigged my Hogy so I could not hook fish but still use it to prospect. Its ability to catch fish and find them was proven yet again. On that day the Hogy produced 11 hits from fish, and that’s a big number for one day of fishing for Atlantics. My client got one fish that day, on an X-Rap but the Hogy out performed every kind of tackle I have ever used on the river, a very exciting discovery.
So it was time to come up with a way to use a free swinging hook with a Hogy. I experimented and finally came up with a system. It only takes a few minutes and is well worth the effort if you want to use the best soft bait on the market for these finicky fish. It involves a bit of soft plastic glue, leader material and a short shank 1/0 hook.
Start with a 6-inch Hogy and cut a slot in the bottom of the bait about three inches long. Run some 12-pound test leader material through the front of the bait and out the slot on the bottom of the bait. Tie a loop knot in the end of the leader to the 1/0 hook. I use a Homer Rhoads loop knot. Pull the leader so the hook and loop is at the back of the slit in the bottom of the bait. Glue the Hogy shut and put a dab of glue on the head so the bait won’t spin and the hook stays in place. Join your leader to your fishing line (I recommend using 6 to 10-pound test) with a surgeons knot, leaving 3 inches of the 12-pound leader out of the Hogy. Even though these fish can be big they are also very leader shy don’t use anything heavier!
Our 2008-2009 Atlantic season was great in terms of numbers of fish we caught compared to the previous two years. This season we averaged one to three fish a day with novice anglers and three to five with more accomplished anglers and let me remind you this is an average and these fish can be really tough to catch, which is part of the great challenge. The 6-inch Hogy in white, pink, amber and chartreuse worked well with white being number one on the list, bringing the most action for our clients. Hogys can be fished on a swing, retrieved up stream slowly and any other way you choose. The fish may want it a different way every time you fish so be sure to experiment. I’m sure the methods we use on the Shetucket would work anywhere broodstock Atlantics are found in New England.
There are three variations of types of Atlantics in the Shetucket River: hold-over fish that have survived a year or more, first year fish and what I call “duds.” Hold-overs are the best, they feed with a savvy aggression, fight the hardest but are only present in small numbers and can be huge. You can identify a hold-over by their bright chrome and pearl white bodies and they can be up to 50 inches in length. First year stocked fish are a mix ranging from 3 pounds to the mid 20’s. It can take a few weeks for them to build good muscle mass but most are ready to rock right out of the box. Duds are big fat, lazy, ugly hold over fish that don’t want to eat or fight and the river has a few of them kicking around (a dud’s fight is still better than most freshwater fish you could find, so they still count!).
The salmon in the Shetucket River feed on dace, baby smallmouth bass, trout, nymphs and other food sources. They are on the top of the food chain next to a few Northern pike and the Bald Eagles that hunt the river. The fish are stocked from the Scotland dam to the Baltic bridge and this five-mile section of river is some of most pristine water in the state, boasting a few 12-foot plus holes where the hold-over fish chill out for the summer. Most of the fish take a hike and head out to sea when the water temp rises and face the wrath of the great Atlantic, never to return. The season runs from October 1 through March 31, then reopens with Connecticut’s opening day of fresh water season on the third Saturday of April.
Next time you have the winter blues, come fish the Shetucket River and you just might just get seduced into a relationship with a unique fishery. See ya on the water!