New Gear to Up Your Game

Several months back I had the good fortune to get my hands on a great, new piece of fishing equipment. It wasn’t a rod, a reel or a lure. It was, however, something I could immediately implement to enhance my fishing game. 

This new piece of equipment was a fishing shirt from WindRider. This shirt was part of their Helios line.  The Helios shirts are not lightweight, but they are noticeably breathable. I can personally attest to the comfort a Helios shirt affords in temperatures above 90 degrees. 

Fishing in comfort on a hot summer day in my Helios fishing shirt.

The comfort doesn’t stop with keeping cool. The Helios shirts provide excellent sun coverage of UPF50+. They are also among the most comfortable shirts, of any style, that I own. They are made from a slick, stretchy material that moves with you. It never binds or restricts you as you hike, paddle or cast.

The Helios shirts also shed water quickly. I’ve been caught in more than one summer shower while wearing the Helios shirts. I was able to go from scorching heat to a soaking downpour and back to fishing in summer heat without needing to change my shirt or pay the price of discomfort.

Seems perfect – right? I’ll never have to try another fishing shirt. Wrong.

A month or two later I complicated things. I tried the SOL Invictus shirts, also from WindRider. These were a little lighter weight and more heavily ventilated than the Helios. The material has a similar feel to the Helios shirts, but a little different – maybe not quite as stretchy.

The SOL Invictus shirts are highly ventilated for hot weather fishing.

So, the SOL Invictus is best – right? No, it’s not that simple.

Summer weather conditions began to fade into cooler fall temperatures. I would often end a day with just a WindRider shirt, but I had started with a light jacket over top to stay warm. That got the wheels turning.

The Windrider fishing shirts make great base layers when the weather starts to cool.

Temperatures continued to drop, and I never stopped wearing the WindRider shirts. These are not just great warm weather shirts. The softness and breathability make these great base layer shirts too. I wear them in the deep cold of winter when they stay two or three layers deep, and never see the light of day. 

You can’t see it, but my WindRider fishing shirt is two layers down in this cold December pic.

So, which is best – Helios or SOL Invictus? It might come down to personal choice or maybe even geography. I would give a slight edge to the Helios on cooler days or for base layer use, just because it’s a little bit heavier. The lighter weight SOL Invictus would get the nod from me for strictly hot weather wear.

Whichever you choose, I’m sure you will be happy with a WindRider shirt.



Multi-species Top Shot Rig

What if you took a “bass lure”, rigged it like a panfish bait, then caught both bass and panfish with it? Well, that’s what I call “Top Shotting”. 

It starts with the 2.8″ Hawg Shad from Fishbelly. This is a bait that is most often rigged as a dropshot lure for bass. In this case, rig that soft plastic on a panfish sized jighead. To finish the Top Shot, add a small float 1 to 4 feet above the bait.

A tiny jighead, a 2.8″ Hawg Shad, and a tiny float – that’s a Top Shot rig.

There are a couple reasons I choose the Hawg Shad. The 2.8″ size hits a sweet spot. All sorts of gamefish and panfish will not only hit it, they will engulf it. Fishbelly is known for using translucent and pearl colors that when combined with their supple plastic, just plain look alive in the water. Fish are going to get a good look at this slow, subtle presentation. The more natural it looks; the better.

Bass generally engulf the whole top shot bait ensuring a secure hook in the roof of the mouth.

A 1/32 ounce jighead is my choice 90% of the time. A 1/16 ounce can come in handy in windy conditions for longer casting distance or a faster sink rate in fast current. A 1/64 ounce will give you the quietest splash and the slowest fall for the fussiest fish. 

Use the smallest float that will support the lure and remain visible at a cast’s length. The less resistance felt by the fish – the longer they will hold the bait. Choose a float that can be adjusted easily. You will likely make depth adjustments throughout the day.

Start with an estimated distance between the lure and the float. If you consistently snag weeds, shorten that distance. If you aren’t getting any bites lengthen the distance until you start getting bites or start fouling on weeds. Shorten or lengthen as needed.

A bit of the habitat came in with this Top Shot crappie.

The Top Shot is a versatile rig. It catches largemouth, smallmouth, crappies, perch, large sunfish and lots more. Although it works great in open water, it is most at home in areas with submerged weeds or other “hook grabbing” cover. Submerged weedbed situations are what put the Top Shot in my arsenal. 

A big coppernose bluegill on the Top Shot rig.

This rig allows me to present a realistic bait just above the weeds where fish tend to hide. It’s like a dropshot anchored from the top rather than from the bottom – hence the name. If you are a crappie fisherman you’ve probably fished some version of this rig already.

The Top Shot was too much for this crappie to resist.

There is no wrong way to work a Top Shot, but some ways are better than others depending on the conditions. The splash down and initial fall will often produce 50% or more of your strikes. After the fall leave it alone for at least a few seconds before starting any retrieve. Experiment and let the fish tell you what they want.

Some days a gentle twitch of the float followed by a long pause is the best retrieve. If the fish are a little more aggressive, a soft pull of a foot or two followed by a pause will work better. When the fish are really amped up a “pop and pause” retrieve will draw in the predators with sound. A slow steady retrieve even works. Although I have found a steady retrieve to work for the occasional bass, it rarely fools a crappie or bluegill. The panfish seem to really like the pause.

It’s an easy rig to make. It’s an easy rig to fish. Most importantly, it’s easy to catch a lot of fish with a Top Shot.



Ice Water Esox

Several years back, I received a tip regarding an early ice season pike bite on a local lake. That was almost a dead end tip. I’m not an ice fisherman. Fortunately, I gave it some thought. If they are being caught through early ice, wouldn’t they bite just the same at if the ice hadn’t formed yet?

As luck would have it, the following year the ice came later. I was able to fish open water in late December – successfully. The bite remained steady into early January that winter. It only ended when a layer of ice covered my venue. Since then, northern pike have quite often been either the first or the last fish I pursue each year.

One of my first winter pike from an open water lake.

I do not live in prime ice fishing territory. In rare years ice forms in December. More often ice forms sometime after the New Year. Some years thin ice will come and go multiple times before spring. These variable ice conditions have allowed me to sample this fishery during all stages of the season. I’ve found that active pike are a possibility at any point of the winter.

A little guy landed with the help of my Northkill Boat Net along an icy shoreline.

Although the pike are feeding, they are not interested in high speed pursuits. The water temperature is hovering just above the freezing mark. The pike’s metabolism has slowed proportionally.  A slow “stop & go” retrieve is the key to success.

My favorite baits are soft jerkbaits, hard jerkbaits that suspend or slow sink, and spoons; in that order. Your retrieve should include numerous starts and stops. A slow fall on the pause is much more appealing than a rise toward the surface. That fall presents a moment of vulnerability that northerns can’t resist.

A Fishbelly Hawg Shad soft jerkbait interrupted this pike’s day.

Spinning gear is ideal for winter piking. It is the best option for light lures and light lines. 15-20# braid with a medium rod will handle all of my techniques. Occasionally, I will tackle up to 30# braid and a medium-heavy rod, but only if I’m fishing soft jerkbaits exclusively.

A quality reel will lead to more fish. Make certain it will handle braided line well. Twitching and reeling up slack line can be troublesome with some reels. Add a winter wind & cold fingers, and you’ll be glad you thoroughly vetted your reel.

The IRT200 is my preferred weapon for winter piking.

A smooth drag is also critical to this fishing. I have come to rely on the IRT200. In addition to great braid handling characteristics, it has a butter smooth drag through its full range. I can set a light drag to protect the fine treble hooks on a “bass sized” jerkbait or a heavy drag to drive home a large single hook on a soft jerkbait. At either end of the spectrum, the IRT200 drag system will perform flawlessly. I have no worries when a double digit pike lunges to escape.

Northern pike are not the only winter catch on the waters I fish. Chain pickerel like the same frigid conditions and matching presentations. They are always a welcome bonus fish in my boat. Although my local lakes also contain largemouth and smallmouth bass, I seldom see them before March.

I never turn up my nose at a chain pickerel – especial the full grown ones.

This is not an everywhere and every year kind of bite. It’s more of an opportunity bite to cash in on when you can. Keep it in your back pocket for the right time and place.

3 Keys to Warm Feet

Winter is here and the war with the cold is well underway. What’s the biggest battle for most fisherman? Cold feet!

1. Stay dry. Obviously, waterproof footwear is critical if you are going to be exposed to rain, snow, or the water itself. The aspect we often ignore is sweat. Your socks can get wet and cold from the inside. Choose the right socks for the situation. A heavy hunting sock is perfect for remaining stationary in a boat. Where as, if you have to hike a stream or shoreline, your feet will soon be soaked in sweat. A light hiking sock could be a better choice.

Sweaty feet can strike before you ever reach the water. A long ride in a heated vehicle in heavy winter footwear can do you in before the day even gets started. I like to slip on a pair of crocs to walk to the car. Then I drive to the water in my socks alone. I only put on my boots when I reach my destination.

2. Movement. This may not be a problem if you are wading or shoreline fishing. If you are in a boat, it’s critical. Before you ever feel the cold, flex your feet inside your shoes – kind of like making fists with your toes. Five or ten reps every few minutes will keep the circulation pumping through your feet and fight off the cold.

3. My favorite – a roomy toe box. What the hell is that? I’m talking about a boot that doesn’t squeeze your toes together. That’s not just on the boots. Choosing the right combination of shoes and socks is critical. As an example; I used to always get cold feet in my waders. In the winter I would put on my thickest socks, then squeeze my feet inside my wading boots. The thick socks were counter productive. I switched to lighter weight socks. Now my feet stay toasty warm thanks to better blood circulation.

Keep these tips in mind and you will have a more enjoyable winter fishing season.


The Best Boots You May Never Have the Chance to Own

I’ve been dumbfounded by the almost universal acceptance of wading shoes being stiff beyond stiffness. It must be desirable to some – maybe most. It’s just not for me. I like a flexible, more athletic shoe for wading.

I remember as a kid looking forward to May or June when water temps would allow for wet wading in sneakers rather than my boot-foot rubber waders. It was like taking off a cast. Freedom of movement was restored! That’s the way I have felt about every wading boot I’ve tried, until now.

In my search for a better mousetrap I stumbled upon the SoftScience Terrafin. It looked a bit like a hiking boot and a bit like an old school hightop sneaker. It boasted light-weight fast drying construction and a flexible sole. I took a chance and bought a pair online.

The “holes” shown on the side of the sole do not go through into the shoe. They are just voids in the outer sole. I don’t know what they do, but they don’t seem to cause any problems.

They only came in whole sizes, so I had to size up from my preferred 9.5 to a 10. That turned out to be a plus. I’ll elaborate on that in a bit.

I put them into use right away. The first thing I noticed was the need to wear a sock with them. The inside stitching is a little “scratchy”. Mine fit better with a sock anyway due to that extra half size.

Excellent on rocky streams, but I’ve learned to wear socks with them since this pic was taken.

They are great for wading and light hiking. The sole is thick yet flexible, comfortable, and grippy on all kinds of surfaces. I wear them for fishing, day hikes, canoeing, and most any time I don’t mind wearing a weird looking shoe.

In addition to that thick, soft sole, they have a substantial, removable innersole. I read an online review in which a buyer said something like, “they are like wearing pillows on my feet”. I tend to agree. That double layer of cushion is, well, cushy.

The Terrafin shown with the innersoles removed.

That thick, removable innersole got me thinking. I knew they would not be roomy enough for the neoprene bootie of my waders as is. A test fit confirmed that. The obvious audible – remove that thick innersole. Sure enough, without the innersole the size 10’s were a snug, but doable fit over stockingfoot waders.

I ran with that through a season. Once I was confident in the shoe’s performance, I doubled down and bought a second pair. This time I sized up one more to 11’s. The 11’s were a perfect fit with stockingfoot waders. Now I have one pair for wet wading and one for use with waders.

Sized up the Terrafin fit great over stockingfoot waders. (Disregard the dolphin carcass.)

Here’s the bad news. Buying that second pair was no easy feat. The SoftScience company appears to have gone out of business. With a little searching I found a vendor with size 11’s in the sage color I wanted. The last time I looked there were still some Terrafins to be found out there on the web. It may take some searching, but if you’re resourceful and lucky you still have a shot of finding your size.

  • Pros:
  • Comfortable fit.
  • Freedom of movement
  • Removable innersole
  • Fast drying
  • Grippy sole 
  • Cons:
  • Best worn with a sock
  • The innersole grabs your sock a little when donning
  • Whole sizes only
  • Out of production!




Lemons or Lemonade?

The Quandary of the American Snakehead

I remember a day not long after the turn of the century. Northern snakeheads had just been found in a pond in Crofton, MD. It was national news. My mail on that particular day included a newspaper (that was still a thing back then) and a brochure from a fishing/adventure travel company. Both contained stories of snakeheads. One was about trying to exterminate them in Maryland, and one about paying ten grand to fish for them in Thailand. I thought, somehow these two stories should come together.

Now, 17 or 18 years later, the stories have moved closer together. There is a burgeoning snakehead population in a pocket of the Mid-Atlantic states with a burgeoning population of snakehead devotees in pursuit. Northern snakeheads grow to over 10 pounds, fight hard, hit topwater lures; they even taste good. Sounds perfect – right? Here’s where it gets weird.

Not everyone loves the northern snakehead. Some people kill them just for the sake of killing them. Why? I’d say a fear of the unknown, a trendy bias against all things labeled non-native, and a bad PR campaign are to blame.

Almost a decade ago, I caught my first American snakehead.

They have only been here a short time in ecology terms. Really the jury is still out on what positive or negative effect they may have on the watersheds snakeheads now call home. After nearly 10 years of field observations, I’m not seeing any negatives yet.

Rainbow trout brought from the West Coast, brown trout from Europe, pike, walleye, and muskies from the Midwest are all welcomed immigrants. Apparently those species have been grandfathered into our local fish community. When will the northern snakehead gain its naturalized citizenship? They deserve at least Green Card status by now.

Not native to the eastern Mid-Atlantic either, largemouth bass are a common and welcome catch when targeting American snakeheads.

They were introduced to the public through a media circus that implied everything short of eating human babies. They were labeled as harmful and dangerous. With a name like “snakehead” and a mouth full of teeth, that reputation stuck. Sensationalist journalism and a few B horror movies have continued to prod that bad rap along.

I’m just throwing it out there that maybe the best response is to make lemonade. They are here to stay. Enjoy what we have been given. Fish for them. Even eat some, if you are so inclined.  

If snakehead lemonade isn’t your cup of tea, just ignore them and pursue a fish species that you like better. 





Stocked vs Wild: What’s the Difference?

When I was a kid a trout was a trout was a trout. I paid attention to which species of trout they were, but that’s about it. I was aware that there were stream born trout and hatchery trout. I didn’t think of differentiating wild from stocked trout in my catch though. All trout held an equal value.

Early on, each trout was a prized catch. Later, each trout was a source of incremental pride. It was part of a running tally to be compared with my peers, and forgotten by the end of June. How many do you have? I have 97. Did you hear so-and-so has 114?

A turn of century wild brown from my trout dabbling years.

Salmonids took a back seat for many years. Not that I was a hardcore trout fisherman that gave it up cold turkey. It was more that I was a serious seasonal trout hunter as a kid, who gradually became a year round trout dabbler as an adult.

A native brook trout from a small, cold stream poses for a quick pic before release.

For the past few years I’ve been more into trout than ever. I’ve been especially bitten by the small stream/wild fish bug. That’s where this question and comparison idea hatched. If you asked me today what I prefer; wild fish or stocked fish? I would answer, wild, without hesitation. Now if you asked, why? My answer would be, er uh umm, I’m not sure.

A nice ‘bow from a holdover lake with an IRT200 spinning reel.

Let’s get the asterisks out of the way first. I pursue salmonids in holdover lakes where there is little if any natural reproduction. I love catching and releasing those fish. I don’t care if they came off a truck yesterday or two years ago; they are fun.

A stocked trout in my Northkill Tackle Scout net, caught in a “put and take” pond.

To go even further; several ponds within a short drive of my home are stocked with trout on a “put & take” basis. They are stocked with trout to provide angling opportunities in the spring and in some cases the fall or winter. There is a slim chance that any of those fish survive the warm water of summer. Like the McRib, I enjoy them for a limited time (see Stock-A-Palooza 2017).

A perfect mountain stream for wild trout.

To get back on track, we are talking about trout in streams that remain cold all year that may or may not be stocked by a state hatchery. That’s where my preference or prejudice shows up. What’s the difference between wild fish and hatchery fish, and why would I prefer the wild ones?

A good sized stocked trout from a pond.

It can’t be the size. The wild ones I catch are typically in the 6-8 inch range. A 12 incher makes my day. Stocked fish in these parts start at about 10 inches and range into the pounds.

A standard issue wild rainbow with proportionally diminutive 2 weight rod and NorthKill Native net.

Way back when, I would have said wild fish are more colorful. I can’t say that any more. In recent years, my local stocked rainbows have become the most colorful fish I catch – of any species. Their wild counterparts can’t hold a candle to those made by the state.

The wild rainbows I catch are mainly silver with muted pink and blue tones.

I don’t know if it’s the strain of trout currently being raised or some sort of high quality feed the trout grow up on, but the stocked trout I now know are heavily spotted fish with deep red cheeks and matching side panels.

The full spotting and deep reds typical of the local stocked rainbows.

I’ve been intentionally alternating between stocked streams and wild trout streams for over a month now. I’ve made a number of observations and comparisons. Some results I expected. Some I didn’t.

I have found that stocked fish are no more likely to take gaudy attractor patterns or junk flies than wild fish. If anything, wild fish are more impulsive and hit them at a higher rate. Wild fish will sometimes race across a pool to eat a fly like a dog chasing a tennis ball; even if it’s the same color as a tennis ball. Meanwhile, stocked fish tend to stay in their lane and feed on what comes to them.

Aggressive wild trout sometimes come to my Northkill net two at a time.

Wild fish are more skittish. One misstep can spook a whole pool. Stocked fish will let you fish quietly along side them. Similarly, catching one fish on a wild stream can put down every other fish in the pool. Whereas, you can often pluck one stocked fish after another from the same pool.

Perhaps the most interesting observation I made in my alternating comparison was the quality of fight. I have to say that a wild fish, on average, pulls more than a stocked fish of the same size. Now, we are talking about small stream fish, so this may be splitting hairs. 

A stocked trout about to be released after a head-shaking fight.

The wild fish seem to get their nose down more and pull. Freshly stocked fish thrash more and pull less. I do most of my stream fishing with a fiberglass 2 weight flyrod. A ten inch wild brown or rainbow puts up a nice little fight on this flimsy outfit. A ten inch stocked rainbow very often just head-shakes his way to the net. 

It’s a subtle difference, but it holds up more often than not. This instance is what made me take notice. I was fishing a heavily stocked stream. I had already caught and released five or six stocked fish. The next fish felt different. It pulled harder, and ran side to side. It didn’t touch its nose to its tail in convulsions. Sure enough, it was a wild brown of slightly less mass than the stocked fish that preceded it. Before ever seeing the fish, I knew something was different.

This wild brown fought significantly harder than his stocked neighbors.

My conclusion: wild fish behave more like predators and stocked fish behave more like livestock. Stocked fish are not dumb. They are just inexperienced. They are more accustomed to human presence and “unnatural” disruptions.  They haven’t had to work hard for their food or to avoid predators. They’ve been taken care of.

That’s really the difference in my book. Wild fish don’t offer more to me than stocked fish do. I just admire the work that a wild fish has put in before we ever crossed paths. The wild fish has been dodging herons, mink, and other dangers his whole life. The stocked fish is just getting started in the real world. That’s it. Wild trout inspire an admiration that stocked trout do not.

I can’t imagine this one would have survived long if hatched in the wild.


What Can the IRT200 Do for You?

When I first laid my hands on the IRT200 I asked myself, what can this reel do for me? Since that day, it has accompanied me everywhere. I’ve used it for nearly every fishing situation I’ve come up against. New situations brought about new permutations of that same question. Practical application provided the answers.

Does it have the guts for snakehead fishing? It sure does. I used to think periodically wrecking the internals of spinning reels was par for the course in snakehead fishing. Not anymore.

The IRT200 is tailor-made for this work.  It has a remarkable 30 pounds of drag for bone jarring hook sets, and the power to winch big snakeheads out of heavy cover; all without fear of mechanical failure. Meanwhile, it has the finesse to accurately cast weightless soft plastics into the aforementioned cover without a plague of wind knots. The 200 is built like a tank, yet drives like a sports car.

Would this reel be too heavy for general bass fishing? No, not at all. The 200 has balanced nicely with all of my 7 to 7.5′ bass rods in medium and medium heavy powers. I’ve cast for hours on end with buzzbaits, spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, crankbaits, you name it. The IRT200 is a phenomenal bass reel, and certainly not too heavy.

Is it suitable for northern pike or musky fishing? The IRT200 has been an outstanding tool in multiple pike and musky presentations. The reel is sturdy and powerful enough to work big plugs and spinnerbaits. At the same time the 200 can be used for subtle presentations that would be difficult or impossible with traditional musky tackle.

That amazing IRT drag is another asset to Esox anglers. I’ve used it “locked-down” for “no budge” hook sets on a stout, pool cue rod. I’ve also used it with a lighter drag setting on a softer tipped rod when casting smaller lures. That dependable drag has assured that small treble hooks did not straighten or pull out of lunging pike. The 200 brings the best of two worlds to pike and musky fishing.

Sure it’s heavy duty, but is it capable of light line fishing? You bet it is. I use the IRT200 routinely for trout and landlocked salmon. Conditions and lures sometimes require me to fish leaders down to 6 pound test. For these situations, I pair it with a 7′ medium-light power rod. I can fish confidently knowing that the drag will pay out line smoothly to a running trout or salmon.

That’s lots of talk about freshwater fishing, but is this reel appropriate for saltwater use? Of course it is. The salt is where IRT cut their teeth. This is saltwater technology coming inland; not the other way around.

It has 6 internal seals to resist splash, spray, and even the occasional dunking. Add to that, the 200 handles braided line like a dream. Long casts from the sand are no problem for this reel. Once again, let’s not forget the 200’s drag. It’s perfect for hard fighting saltwater fish.

A versatile size, excellent casting and line handling characteristics, a butter smooth drag, a super high drag capacity, and saltwater ready construction all wrapped up in an American made package make the IRT200 clearly the finest multi-species reel I’ve ever seen. I started by asking, what can the IRT200 do? I’ll end by asking, what can’t this reel do?

For more information on the IRT200 or other IRT reels click here.




Blurred Backgrounds: Selfish or Selfless?

The sole reason to blur a background is to conceal a location. That is clear. Where ideas diverge is with the impetus for the effort to conceal.

The most obvious prong of that divergence could be described as selfish, and justifiably so. I will spell this out unapologetically.

If given a choice between splitting a particular location with no other boats or one other boat, I choose no boats. If it’s nine boats vs. ten boats, I’ll take nine. It’s just math and common sense. I tend to take pics with generic backgrounds for this reason more than any other. When necessary, I’ll blur to cover my tracks.

The crowded composition of a selfie negates the need for a blurred background.

This is the other prong. It applies to all, but to illustrate the point let’s say you are of the “I’ve got nothing to hide”, or “I don’t mind company” line of thinking. That sounds awfully nice on the surface. We will look at a couple scenarios, and see if full disclosure is really an altruistic route.

A friend brings you to his favorite yet recognizable fishing location. You catch the fish of a lifetime. This is a textbook situation for careful photo composition or a blurred background. Seems like common sense – right? He shared his spot and the sweat it took to find it with you, not everyone you know.

One level deeper is where the lines of blurring start to blur. You fish Location X regularly. You sometimes see another angler or two. Are they the same one or two? Probably not. I recall several years back running into a fisherman on a very small trout stream. It turned out we had both been fishing that same little stream for 20 years before ever crossing paths. What I am getting at is this; there are probably more fishermen on your spot than you think, but I digress.

Close up pics are a subtle alternative to blurring a background. This option is particularly suitable for colorful species like brook trout.

Back to those couple guys that fish your spot. Posting pics with a “no secrets” mindset is well within your rights to show & tell whoever you like as much you like, but here is the question. Are you comfortable making that decision for every single person who thinks of Location X as their spot too?

Location X is as much their spot as it is yours. It’s a bit of a moral dilemma. That is where a blurred background would truly be a selfless act. You would be protecting the interests of other people, even if you yourself are an open book.

Respect the work of those that came before you. Maybe those guys have been concealing your spot for years by blurring their backgrounds. Think good karma.

In this age of social media, we share images & information at an incredible rate. It’s hard to know where to draw the line. It’s easy to step on someone’s toes, or even stub your own. When in doubt; blur it out.