Monday, November 9, 2015

Known By Aristocrats, Popes, and Philosophers as the "King of All Wines"

The Meerbar in Dusseldorf is known for good food, good service and a fairly extensive wine list. My plan was oysters, pumpkin crème soup and yellow fin tuna medium rare. I needed a wine. I entrusted the selection to my friend and business colleague Florian Schrey. Like me, Florian appreciates a full bodied red wine having also spent a lot of time in Cape Town. He asked me if a Montepulciano would work, to which I said “perfect”.

To be labeled as a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a wine must come from vineyards on the hills which surround Montepulciano. This area is made up of slopes between 1000 and 2000 ft. in altitude. The key variety grown here is Sangiovese, the same variety used to make another great Tuscan red, Brunello di Montalcino. Sangiovese grapes must make up no less than 60 and no more than 80 percent of the final wine. The aging period for any Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a minimum of 24 months of which at least 12 months must be spent in oak barrels, which are used not as much for flavor as for the slow, controlled maturation they provide.

Florian selected Poliziano’s Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano 2011- a wine I found to be true to its Tuscan roots and one that has had quite a bit of critical acclaim including a Rating of 90 from Wine Spectator. From the first sip I realized this was no ordinary Italian red but truly an Italian classic. The Poliziano vineyards are located in the hills surrounding Montepulciano, a picturesque town 25 miles southeast of Siena. Wine making in this region dates back to Etruscan times. By the 15th century, the local wine had become a favorite of the Tuscan aristocracy. Popes and secular leaders in the 16th and 17th centuries referred to the win of Montepulciano as "the King of all Wines". It is even called out by name by Voltaire in his book Candide. Travelers through the region sometimes referred the town’s Vino Nobile as Chianti- perhaps because it has been described as having the bouquet of Chianti Classico with the richness of Brunello di Montalcino. Both wines should be honored by the comparison.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is usually maroon-red in color and sometimes takes on a subtle brick- orange tint over time. It is characterized by its dark cherry and rich plum aromas, ripe strawberry and cherry fruit flavors, and the firm tannins, and acidity makes it an age-worthy wine, the best of which will improve gracefully anywhere from 10 to 20 years.

The Poliziano wine estate, owned by Federico Carletti, was founded in 1961 from an original nucleus of 22 hectares, and now reaching 200 hectares. The varietals have been chosen with the sole objective of producing grapes of premium quality. All the wines are made only from estate-grown grapes with a focus on fewer labels and wines which are highly representative of their category which customers can easily recognize and enjoy. Poliziano’s 2011 take on Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano has a dark-opaque ruby coloring, and elegant aromas of dark red fruit which are definitely evident in the cherry, raspberry, black pepper and spicy-earthy flavors. This wine goes well with grilled red meat and game (does tuna steak qualify?), roast chicken and an antipasto of salami, ham and aged cheese. For me the wine accompanied all courses well due in part to the earthy spice accents. It is suggested that this wine is best enjoyed from 2015 through 2020.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Going Old School- Blade Baits & Good Vibrations

You don’t have to go to ICAST to know that there is a never ending parade of new products portending to catch fish. I like to remember the old adage, “Only 20% of the lures sold catch fish, the rest just catch fishermen”.  So with all the new bling claiming to catch more fish, better fish, bigger fish what happens to the “old reliables” that have caught fish for years?  Do they just stop catching fish? Do they become antiques for display in glass top coffee tables and shadow box frames?  I believe that while some of the new tackle is truly an advancement, much of the older lures in your tackle box still have a lot of fish catching life left in them.  Take the venerable blade bait for instance.  Knowledgeable anglers have been using blades to catch smallmouth bass for years with great success while many of the younger guys have let them slip under their radar of what works and what doesn’t.  The fact is, whenever there are finned bait “pods” balling in the middle and lower levels of the water column, fishermen would be wise to have a blade bait or two at the ready.
The Beach Boys probably did not have bass fishing in mind when they recorded “Good Vibrations”, taking 17 recording sessions and over 90 hours to finally capture Brian Wilson’s vision for the song. But when it was released, fans and music critics alike thought the song had a special rhythm, a certain vibe, that attracted people to listen. Likewise, it is the vibrations created by the retrieve of the blade bait that attracts bass- vibrations akin to those created by the frenzied movements of pods of shad, emerald shiners or alewives.

It was the early 80’s and Cordell and Heddon had started marketing blade type baits but one of the first to bring notice to the blade was Kentucky legend Billy Westmoreland. Billy had been given a handful of homemade baits by Paul “Buddy” Banks Jr., a tinkerer who had brought them to a seminar being given by Westmoreland. Billy took one look at the baits and noted that they should catch fish but needed to be either bigger or smaller to work properly. Banks worked on this, testing new baits with 
Billy until the Silver Buddy was born. Westmoreland noted that the wider wobble gave the Silver Buddy a vibrating “sound and flash” that made it superior in fish catching to the Sonar and the unfortunately named Gay Blade.  Westmoreland showed that you could fish a 1/2-3/4 oz. blade when bass were  suspended as deep as 30 feet in cold water. He fished the rock ledges of  deep clear water reservoirs like Dale Hollow. My iBass360 colleague Ray Concepcion fishes the more recent blade derivative, the Damiki Vault, on similar deep ledge structure on the NY Reservoir system with good success.

Success with the blade is not limited to smallmouth. It is also effective on largemouth and spots as the blade bait is an effective lure whenever bass are feeding on shad or other bait fish in deep water. For the same reasons, the blade has proven to be an effective walleye bait.  There are a few different techniques that can be used to fish a blade.  Typically, raising the rod to make the blade lift off the bottom will cause the blade to vibrate and flash and fall back to the bottom resembling a dying bait fish. Repeat this along a rocky bottom or down a ledge until you feel the line move or get heavy and set the hook.  Another variant of this is to cast the bait and, if you are not bit on the fall,  jig the blade a few times off the bottom as you retrieve slowly.   Work the blade bait at the deep drop offs from points and the deeper pockets formed in the creek arms of your favorite
 lake or reservoir. The weight of the blade will allow it to be cast easily even in the wind so cast it out and let it fall all the way to the bottom. I lift it up 3 or 4 feet, using the rod tip as my guide, and let it fall back to the bottom again. You need to feel the vibration. If you don’t it is likely that weeds have fouled your lure.  As with a lot of other bass baits, your strikes are going to come on the fall, so you need to keep a semi-tight line otherwise you are likely to miss the slight tug or moment of resistance that indicates a strike. Vary your retrieve until you have tuned into what the fish want. Sometimes they want a slow, short hop, and sometimes quick rips and a pause that bring the bait up 5 or 6 feet up off the bottom can be just the ticket.

There are a number of blades on the market today, some even new. The Silver Buddy is still in tackle shops today along with the Vib Switch Blade, the Reef Runner Cicada, Heddon’s Sonar, the Blitz Blade, Worden’s Showdown, the Binsky Blade, Damiki Vault, TT Lure’s GhostBlade, the Vib”E”, Cotton Cordell’s Gay Blade and others. Almost all feature multiple (2-4) tie on points. I tend to select a point in the middle and vary only if I am not having success. These baits generally come with a small snap which is desireable for not only the action and vibration of the lure but also
 to minimize line abrasion.  So if you are heading out for some late fall or early winter bass fishing- or even when spring comes and the water is still cold- dig that Good Vibration and tie on a blade bait. You’ll be glad you did. Live the Passion!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

One Hero on the Front Line

Funny thing about heroes. No one sets out to be one. Most don’t think they deserve the appellation. People walking down the street rarely notice if they are in the presence of a hero. But funny thing about that- more often than they could ever imagine, they are.  As for me, I am lucky to know  one personally. I just call her sis.

My sister, Pamela Joy Evans Smyth, Pamela Joy-face to my mother, the apple of my father’s eye, just plain old Pam to me, would never consider herself a hero. Oh she does have many hats…. daughter, mother, sister, Episcopalian, cousin, aunt, dog-whisperer, food service manager, gardener, friend, bowler, and thanks to Macie-Great Aunt…… well according to my sons she was already a great aunt. But there is one hat, a beanie actually, she never would have chosen to wear, and therein lies the irony. My sister, my hero, is a breast cancer survivor, but in my eyes, that beanie she wore after her hair fell out was not a beanie at all, it was the helmet of a warrior.

Sisters are funny, fun and sometimes just a pain in the ass. We always fought for “control” over the television. There was no remote. You just had to be fast in  racing to the actual TV to turn the dial. No wonder my last memory of that TV in the den was the dial not really working very well. Sometimes it was a race home from school  to get into the den first. Fortunately we both liked Dark Shadows. On the other hand, one night when I got home she already had control.  She had this new show on that she had been watching called Dynasty. Thanks to her it became a favorite of mine for many years- along with another she introduced me to- Dallas. My sister has always been a good sport. She put up with family vacations visiting historical sites that fascinated me and often bored her to tears. She tagged along on my college visits when I am sure there were a thousand things she would have rather been doing.

Pam has loved dogs as long as I can remember. First Clyde, then Bo it was clear early on that she had a special way with animals. Now she runs a home for dogs taking a vacation from their owners. Oh most see this as a dog care business for people who do not want to take their dog on holiday or put it in a kennel. But I see it for what it really is- a place where dogs are incredibly well loved and cared for- so much so that I am sure they can’t wait until the next time their owners take a trip. You have never seen such happy tail waggin’.

Pam is a great mom. It is not surprising at all given her role model, but she has done a great job raising a son and a daughter- hey those two taught me how to be an uncle! Now, as our mom ages, my sister has shouldered the primary responsibility for care- from decorating the home, to the grocery shopping, to  the finances, doctors’ visits etc. etc. etc. and there are so many etcetera’s.

So it was, about one year ago, in the midst of all this care giving- kids, dogs, mother, home and garden- that my sister, putting awareness to work as many women do, felt a lump, had it checked out, and, after all the pre-requisite testing, was given the diagnosis that she had breast cancer. She called me in Detroit. I listened, she bravely told me the plan. Her voice broke a little, how could it not, I tried to be the wise comforting big brother- I have never told her how scared I was- but by the end of the call she was comforting me. Being sick was not in her plan. She was not going to let this break her. I saw her as a Tennyson-like character from “Charge of the Light Brigade”- Into the Valley of the Unknown rode the Cancer Warrior.  I know she was scared and had inner fear. She never showed it. I know there were days she felt awful. She never let Cancer see her sweat. I am sure there were days she just wanted to pull the covers over her head and hide. Not in her character. The dog business went forward un-phased. she  showed up for work and gave her best every day never using her illness as an excuse. Care for our mom, decorating for Christmas, all the work and hustle of the holidays. She never once complained about the treatments, about losing her hair, about hating her wig, about not wanting to go out. I am sure many people never even realized she was sick. My sister, the same person who used to faint when I got an injection and scream at hers, the consummate warrior. Like the Navy Seal of Cancer Patients. She quietly, efficiently, effectively, never showing the enemy a hint of fear, stealthily dispatched the target. More than a survivor, a warrior.

A very positive attitude, deep love of family, strong support from friends, a network of people resources to talk to and provide support such as meals and rides, talented medical professionals, compassionate care givers, and unwavering faith in God. That was my sister’s armor and armory for the battle.  My kid sista, my hero. So for this October, in recognition of my sister’s faith and bravery and in honor of her kicking cancer’s ass, I am going pink to help increase awareness and hopefully motivate others to give of themselves to help defeat this still too deadly disease. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Today's Lesson: Always Have a Plan B

Mother nature giveth, and the cruel Mother can taketh away. So there is really just one, huge lesson a
fisherman can learn from this. Always have a Plan B. I find in my life this applies to just about everything. Before you even start implementing Plan A you should have a well formulated Plan B in the bullpen.  Ryan Said and I planned to renew our pursuit of Mr. Six Pound on September 12th on Lake St. Clair. Since school was back in session, Ryan was no longer on the lake every day, instead, guiding 9th and 11th graders in Algebra I and II. So it was Friday afternoon the 11th  that I received a text message- Ryan’s colleague at Marcel’s Guide Service, Marcel Veenstra, had been out fishing on St. Clair and did not do well(very rare) and the weather was getting progressively worse (not so rare) and not supposed to be good for Saturday (predictable). Ryan and I had experienced some of the worst of what St. Clair had to dish out already so we rescheduled for the 26th.

I looked at the extended forecast at the beginning of that week and things did not look bad. But when reports started coming in from Lake Erie and the B.A.S.S Bass Pro Shop Northern Open on Thursday and Friday about tough easterly winds, I began to wonder about St. Clair. No sooner had I thought about contacting Ryan for plan A, my text beep went off , it was Ryan. “ St. Clair has been a mess. Very few fish and winds from the East making it very rough,” he said, “ but I have a new plan.”  Plan B I thought. Good, lay it on me. He had some good spots working in the northwest corner of Lake Erie, at the mouth of the Detroit River, and some spots in the River.  I had only fished walleye in Lake Erie, but the smallmouth are legendary and with my iBass360 colleague, guide and pro fisherman Rick Nitkiewicz having just scored a Big Bass check at the BASS Open with a  6 lb. 4 oz. fish, I was ready for Plan B.

We agreed to meet at 6:30 McDonalds off the I-75 Gibraltar Road Exit near Flat Rock, MI (home of the Ford Mustang Assembly Plant), but fishermen are prone to excitement and after having a good breakfast at the Ram’s Horn, I was sitting in the Micky-D parking lot at 5:45 AM.  About five minutes later- tap tap on my window, another anxious angler.  Five minutes later Ryan and I were at the Lake Erie MetroPark preparing to launch. It was a busy morning at the ramp. This is the season for all the big three- smallmouth, walleye and muskies.  The plan for the day was revealed- 1) hit some open water cuts in about 15 ft. of water plus/minus with the drop shot, 2) move up the river channels and hit some points in similar depth with similar tactics, 3) hit  some shallow outside weed edges in about 6-7 ft. of water in the river and in the Erie mouth, 4) return and hit anything that worked particularly well, 5) end with some shallower water rocks in front of one of the river mouth islands. A solid plan B compared to being bounced to hell and back on the open Lake(s).

We launched in the dark due to our early morning “enthusiasm”- running lights on. We got to the first spot and it was almost instantaneous hook up. Ryan lost a fish due to a leap close to the boat, but slowly but surely we started the catching. We were drop shotting with Strike King 3X Z Too baits in Arkansas Shiner and Smokey Shad colors. These baits are softer, stronger and more durable than a lot of other fluke style baits. Dobyns 702 SF rods with Shimano Saros, Sedona and Sahara spinning reels were the set-ups of choice.  The current was strong and the wind quite steady out of the northeast. This combination gave Ryan a challenge in boat positioning.  I found that casting parallel to the bow and allowing the bait to drift as close to the boat as possible allowed the best control to maintain a natural presentation while keeping as much slack as possible out of the line. This first spot gained in popularity as anglers either observed our success or already knew about it. As boat number six arrived on the scene, we moved out into the lake just a short distance to a  less weedy cut. It was a little easier to control the drift here and keep the bait in the zone, so it was not long before I boated the biggest fish of the day- not quite a 5 or 6 pounder but a bruiser never-the-less.  We were getting fairly consistent bites and hook-ups. We boated a few and lost a few. All nice healthy fish with nice color. When this spot played out, it was time to head into the river mouth.

The Detroit River  in this section has a lot of similar characteristics to the St. Lawrence River.  It has islands, structure, current and width that rivals many lakes. there are channels for shipping and shallower channels that offer nice options to recreational boaters and fishermen. Make no mistake about it, it is a major body of water.  We moved through the main shipping channel in one spot that was very well protected. We got the Skeeter up to 65 MPH- something I had not previously been able to experience on the rougher St. Clair. It was a rush to say the least.  Pleasure boaters and fishermen were scattered throughout the river system often anchored in concentration doing their respective things. We worked our way up to Grosse Ile (big island) and began working the outer edge drop offs of a point. with lots of current and wind working. Once again Ryan hit a nice fish on his first cast with the drop shot. We worked on fine tuning our pattern and the fish started coming. By now I am working on a best five of somewhere in the 17-18 pound range. Not bad. Once again our fish catching did not go unnoticed and, as we drifted off the structure while dealing with a nice four pounder, another boat began working our spot.  It turned out not to be a problem as they did not really know the drift that had taken us some time to perfect. We made another couple of passes, one with a fish, before moving on. The one variation at this spot was using Poor Boy Erie Darters in a smoke purple on the drop shot. This is one of those colors where you just scratch you head in wonderment as to why it works, although it could be related to the influx of gobbies in the great lake system.

As we worked our way back down river, we stopped to throw spinnerbaits, swimbaits and lipless cranks on a weed flat in about 6-7 ft. of water.  I picked up the Dobyns Champion 733 with Lew’s baitcaster and a white-bladed spinnerbait tied on. White blades- I throw a lot of spinnerbaits- especially in the Adirondacks and on the Delaware River, and my experience has been if it isn’t a gold willow leaf, it doesn’t work- except for some special murky or low light water situations where a silver Colorado blade can be effective. I should have been more positive because with no confidence I was not going to catch fish. I gave it 30 minutes or so and switched to a lipless crank. Neither of us had a strike so we moved on. 

We had decided to return to the place where I had caught the best fish of the day. Unfortunately the wind had shifted and it was even more difficult to maintain a good pattern with the wind from the southeast.  The spot fished totally different than in the morning and we did not have a strike. It was last call and we decided to throw swimbaits in shallow water near one of the islands not too far from the ramp. The swimbait was not attracting them but I think my negativity about the War Eagle spinnerbait in the coleslaw pattern had gotten Ryan’s goat a bit. It was on like donkey kong.  Imagine my surprise and his glee when he hooked up- a nice dark colored fish that he fought to the boat only to have it spit the spinnerbait almost directly into the boat as the bass bid farewell with a boatside leap. I put down the swimbait and picked up my favorite- a lipless crank- an Xcaliber XR50- now branded Booyah- in blue and silver. I decided to use a ripping retrieve- reel reel rip reel reel rip. I hooked up on the first rip also losing the fish to a boatside leap. But the next cast-wham, this one stayed hooked and came to the boat for a fond farewell to a fun day on the water.  We wrapped up with some picture taking and I got the “two fisted football foto” I was looking for, even though the personal best remains the fish I caught with Marcel in April- Imagine what that one weighs after a summer season of fattening. 

The fishing days are dwindling to a precious few as Steven and Janessa’s wedding and my travel season are right around the corner, so I am very happy Ryan and I got our trip in. The lesson for all who read this is simple- if you want to guarantee that you will have success, no matter what you are undertaking, make sure you have a Plan B. Thank you Ryan Said- the teacher- for that valuable lesson.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Annual Adirondack Fishing Trip- "Where Have All the Smallmouth Gone?"

Before regulations clamped down on fossil fuel emissions from businesses of the Northeast and before the Federal government implemented the CAFE regulations over fuel economy, quite possibly the fishery most impacted by acid rain was the Adirondack Region of New York. Trout and Bass populations were decimated. Since then, the various fisheries of this vast area have made a great comeback. I have grown to cherish my regular fishing trips to this unique region where I have logged well over 100 days on the water.  

This year’s fishing trip to the Lake Flower/Oseetah, Lower & Middle Saranac chain has come and gone. These waterways and the fish that inhabit them never cease to teach this old dog new lessons. But there was one refrain that echoed from Mt. McKenzie to Ampersand and across the Sawteeth range like a 60’s folk song.... “Where have all the Smallmouth gone?” (apologies to Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul & Mary).  

Now the particular lakes I fish the most, Flower and Oseetah, are shallow, weedy lakes and, generally, there are only four or five areas that have, up to now, given up Smallmouth of good size. Lower and Middle Saranac- the latter made famous by Shaw Grigsby when it was the site of the ESPN Outdoor Games bass tournament- and Kiwassa offer deeper, rockier, more traditional smallmouth habitat. Those lakes were not my concern. It was the noticeable lack of anything but a couple of dink smallmouth in Flower and Oseetah- from the launch to the locks- that alarmed me. There is always the chance that there were a few bad spawning years. Perhaps the last two harsh winters pushed a lot of fish into the few tight deeper areas where they had to compete heavily for resources, maybe the current warmer temperatures of these two shallow, 

weedy lakes have pushed them to inactivity, or perhaps the pike population have had their way with them. Whatever the reason, it is the first time since I started fishing these lakes 15 years ago that I did not catch a quality Smallmouth. Conversely, the Largemouth population seemed healthier than ever as we hooked more 2-4 lb. fish than we had boated in previous years. Not sure there is cause for alarm but it was certainly unusual.

I had made a plan on this trip to do two things: 1) Finally master the art of the baitcaster after 35 plus years of spinning; 2) Catch a big Pike on a chatterbait- just had never fished them on these particular lakes and I thought Flower and Oseetah tailor-made for them. I clearly achieved number one as my St. Croix Mojo Bass rod paired with my Shimano Chronarch brought a lot of fish to the boat while only sustaining one minor, fisherman induced  “meltdown”  during the week. 

The chatterbait, on the other hand, was another matter. Perhaps it was a confidence issue- my skirts did not match those perch and fire tiger skirts working with the spinnerbaits- or perhaps it was my choice of trailers- a chartreuse curly tail grub. Whatever, I disobeyed all the lessons I preach to others and would abandon it each day after only a dozen or so casts. I know, I know, I should have experimented more, should have given it more of a chance. Next time. Perhaps I will consult with my iBass360 Pro Staff colleagues Jimmy Buonanno, and Richie Moschella at the next iBass360 get together, but, yeah, I know what I did wrong- mostly a lack of patience, a lack of persistence and a lack of doing all the things I have written in so many articles and done so many times myself on other lakes with other baits.

There were a couple of baits that on certain days, under certain cloud and wind conditions, were on fire. On one morning, the Rapala Rippin’ Rap in yellow perch took three largemouth and a pike in a 45 minute period. The 

Rapala Clackin’ Rap also was a repeat favorite in the fire tiger color. Interestingly enough, spinnerbaits with trailers caught more fish than those without trailers. Although the chartreuse curly tail grub was effective, it could not out fish a 4” Bass Assassin Sea Shad paddle tail in Pumpkin w/ chartreuse tail or the Mama’s Chicken color. That was the 2015 ticket. A saltwater striped bass favorite. Go figure. Last year there was no beating the Terminator natural perch with a pulse skirt with double gold willow or gold willow w/silver Colorado blades. This year, that worked ok but a
Terminator with a fire tiger skirt- same blade combos but with non pulse skirts with the Bass Assassin trailer- boated the most fish. As always, we needed a candidate for the family fish fry and a chunky 30” Northern Pike fit that bill just fine courtesy of yours truly.  Most bass were either up in the weeds or oriented to wood- particularly stumps. So, it seems that each year brings a little variation on a theme. 

The Lake Flower public ramp in the Village of Saranac Lake or the Second Pond State Park Ramp off of Rt. 3 just a few miles outside of the Village provide excellent launch and parking facilities. The boating channels are well marked and once you venture into the structure, as long as you use your trolling motor, the lakes are fully accessible to the fisherman. Do watch for the man-eating stumps when you venture out of the marked channels. For us, the pace of fishing was far from intense. Generally we fished 6:00-11:00 AM and 3:00- 7:00 PM.  It was, after all, a vacation for relaxation. If that type of fishing appeals to you, whether from a bass boat, pontoon, Kayak or canoe, the Adirondack lakes- and I would add Tupper, Long Lake, Schroon and river systems like the St. Regis- might just be what your family needs for a fishing vacation. 
The nice thing is the mornings are quiet and you won’t see a lot of fisherman contesting for your spots. If you want the big lake experience you can easily trailer to Lake Champlain or Lake George- both quality fisheries. Whatever you do, Live the Passion! 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Como si dice "wow!" in Italiano?

I just returned from the family vacation to the Adirondack where vacations have come to mean a lot of fishing, eating and drinking. Chef Peter selected the wines for the vacation from his personal cellar. I did not know what he’d selected. At our last dinner, he brought out Mastro Janni Brunello di Montalcino 2007. All Brunello di Montalcino wines are made from Sangiovese grapes grown on the slopes around Montalcino – a Tuscan village 20 miles south of Siena. Brunello, the local name for Sangiovese, translated 'little dark one', is a large-dark grape, the most widely planted in Italy. Its quality can be variable but, since the 1980s, improved winemaking techniques have resulted in many more quality releases. As Tuscan wines go, Brunello di Montalcino has become known as one of Italy's most prestigious, sharing the spotlight with the highly-prized Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and, of course, the finest Chianti. The Azienda Agricola Mastrojanni estate was established in 1976, a vineyard of approximately 44 acres on the southeast slope of the town of Montalcino where the vines receive the beneficial influence of a volcano- Mount Amiata. The soil, southeast exposure, and the gentle slope of the Tuscan hills virtually guarantee a quality product. In 2008, after the death of the founding member of the Mastrojanni family passed away, his children decided to sell the estate to the Illy family, famous for their global brand of coffee and cafes. Today the Illy family continues the tradition started by the Mastrojanni family.

According to the Disciplinare di Produzione (the document laying out Italy’s production laws) Brunello di Montalcino must be 100% Sangiovese, aged for at least four years- two of the years spent in oak. The wine must be bottled at least four months prior to commercial release. Brunello di Montalcino is known for its brilliant garnet hue. From the first taste it was bright, alive, and I distinctly remember my first audible rating- “wow!”.

It has a rich flavor accompanied by aromas of vanilla, exotic spice, toasted nut, and an earthiness that puts it all in balance. The dark cherries, raspberry and black currant notes add to its richness. It is a wine worthy of aging in any collectors cellar for at least the next 7-8 years perhaps longer.  We drank it un-decanted but in as much as it is still has its youth, decanting 2-3 hours would only make it better. Food pairings would definitely include mature cheeses, grilled meats, game, meat stews, risotto, red meat, and charcuterie such as prosciutto and salami. It would finish well with any dark chocolate desert.

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Sometimes you just have a feeling. There is no describing it really, it’s just a feeling. Ryan Said and I had tried to fish together in late June but we were literally blown off the water by howling winds and torrential rain.( see Know When to Hold'em)  Despite the  terrible weather, I had caught a couple smallmouth, a largemouth and a small muskie, so I was eager to give it another go. We agreed to cash the rain check on  Saturday August 1.  As a former elite angler, there is no question that Ryan has fishing in his blood. Tuesday before our trip he texted me that he was going out scouting. It wasn’t long before fish pictures began appearing on my phone. He fished at least one more time before Saturday. He texted again on Thursday- get an Ontario fishing license.  Lake St. Clair  boarders both Michigan and Ontario. I had been to the Canadian side before. There were  some good grass beds in 19-21  ft of  water that held fish.  Ryan’s scouting had revealed that they were not everywhere in the weed beds, the smallmouth were orienting to isolated weed clumps. He had also scouted a few places where there were not as many fish but the fish he caught had size. 

Size. that was the key. This would be my sixth time out on St. Clair. I was looking to put a personal best smallmouth in the boat. They have become my favorite freshwater fish. Pound for pound they are the fighting-est, jumping-est and just all around trickiest fish in the lake. Some of my iBass360 colleagues refer to them as “Bad-Ass”. They are faster than largemouth, jump more than largemouth, and the chances they will find a way to get an angle on your retrieve and free themselves from your treble hooks leaving you frustrated  and muttering explitives under your breath are also higher than when fishing largemouth.  Simply said, they are a fish to respect. My personal best, 5 lbs. 4 ozs. also set on St. Clair, had been set earlier in this year and I felt that this was the trip for a personal best. As Fergie sings with the Black-Eyed Peas- “I got a feeling”.

“Meet at the Metropolitan Parkway McDonalds, 6:00 AM” was Ryan’s Friday morning text, “ bring your rain gear in case it’s rough”. St. Clair is a shallow lake so when the  wind blows consistently, the  rider typically gets wet from bouncing over the waves. I had experienced that almost every time out on St. Clair. I was ready, Ontario one-day license all laminated and tucked in my wallet. Saturday morning, I got there early, rain pants on, rain jacket ready. Drinks, snacks all ready. The wind wasn’t terrible but it was blowing steadily from the west. We launched the Skeeter with ease and were quickly up to speed bumping the waves as we headed to the first spot. I was happy I had the gear on- kept me dry.

We came to the first spot, one of those scouted for bigger fish. We were throwing big Norman DD22 deep diving crankbaits- Dobyns rod with Lews baitcasting reel. Using a casting reel helped advance one of my goals for the year- to get comfortable fishing a  baitcaster and increase casting distance without increasing bird nests.  Within the first five to ten casts it was fish on. But it was not a Smallie. It was a good eating sized walleye. Dinner. Not a bad start to the day and my first St. Clair walleye. Before long I had another walleye.  A third walleye got off at the boat. An interesting start to our bass trip. Time to move to the next spot.

On the grass beds on the Ontario side we switched to a drop shot rig, Dobyns Champion 702 SF rod and Shimano Symetre reel. The hook was tipped with a Strike King Shadalicious. We got into the smallmouth bass but there was no real size to them- 1.5- 3 lb fish and they were not exactly jumping in the boat.  Fishing was a little slow.  Ryan finally caught a sizable fish in the four pound class. He commented that it had hit on the fall. That was the key. I changed my technique. Instead of just letting the rig drift on a slow retrieve, I focused on the fall and the first few seconds after it reached the bottom. Before long I also had a big fish in the live well to be paired later with another for a two-fisted photo op before releasing.

We actually found that there were bigger fish north of the water Ryan had previously scouted.  The wind had finally settled down and the day had turned into a nice one. We were steadily landing fish now although not huge numbers. I had switched to a Poor Boy Erie Darter- a  bait that seems like Smallmouth candy. By the time I had finished a late morning snack I had  two 4 ½ pound class fish in the well. Not the personal record I had been looking for but great fish none the less. Another bite, I set the hook.  I felt a very slow heavy head shake but there was negligible upward movement from the fish. Ryan saw the bend in the rod. He immediately said “muskie”.  I thought of the possibility too.  What I knew for sure at that moment was that I had a very big fish on light drop shot smallmouth tackle. The fish started to  take line- a lot of line.  I knew I did not want to “horse it”. I loosened the drag and started pumping- a slow steady pull up and a fast reel down- as the fish would allow- being conscious of the small hook, the lighter line, and the medium fast action rod….. none of it muskie caliber.

As I slowly made headway on the fish my mind raced. Esox Masquinongy. Muskellunge. Muskie. Fish of 10,000 Casts. Freshwater barracuda. Top of the food chain for freshwater fishing. I had caught one way up north in Deep River Ontario probably ten years ago. My first. Brown fish brown bars. Perhaps a tiger muskie, a hybrid breed. My second had come only one month before in the rain with Ryan. It was no bigger than an average Adirondack Northern Pike. Fell off the hook just as I was lifting it from the water… quick release. 

My mind came to the present situation- would the leader knot hold? Would the hook bend straight? Would the razor sharp teeth just bite through the line?  As the fight continued I was certain this was not only a personal best, it was a fish of a lifetime. Perhaps even longer than any of the Dorado I had caught in Puerto Vallarta.  Then it appeared. I had it close to the boat. Ryan was leaning over the side with the net extended. I have lost many a nice fish at net time. The fish was bigger than the net. Much bigger. The thought “ would it even fit in the net” crossed my mind. One attempt. The fish took line and pulled away. I slowly turned his head for another attempt. There wouldn’t be too many of these with this equipment. The fish wasn’t really ready to be netted. But there it was.

 I had finessed it close, close enough for another attempt. It was a two part stab with the net. I worried as the fish appeared to be going right over the net- the net looked so small. A quick flip of the net angle at the same time as the fish was turning back in the direction of the net gave Ryan the angle he needed. I kept the line as taught as possible. The fish was suddenly in the net and Ryan swung it to the deck. The hook fell out of the monster’s mouth as if to say it could not have hung on to the fish one second longer.

Ryan was right about one thing. As he swung the fish to the deck he said, this fish was not done fighting. It gave the forward deck thrashing               and 

slimming. We gently extracted it from the net and unwrapped the line that had twisted around the fish in the process of getting it this far. My heart was pounding. My legs were shaking. Best fish ever, no doubt. I was muttering something like “Holy S#!T” over and over. It was a monster. Ryan weighed it in the net, subtracted the weight of the net- 32 pounds. WOW. I had only three, related thoughts: 1. Get a picture; 2. Don’t drop it; 3. Release it alive. The last thought was the most important. I did not want to hurt the fish by keeping it out of the water too long or by dropping it on the deck.  I hoisted it off the deck and into the air. Ryan snapped the pictures. I don’t know why but it never occurred to me to try to hold it horizontally. It was slippery. My grip was precarious. Its gill rakes and  teeth were amazingly sharp. My legs were still like jello. 

So, after a few snaps I lowered her over the side and began rocking it to move the water through its gills. She was breathing fine but seemed content to wait and revive.  Suddenly, we two broad swipes of her tail she propelled herself away from the boat and began her descent. Silver with green spots, Darker green fins and tail highlighted in a bright red. One healed mark on her head that indicated she had previously been in a fight with another fish or a boat. I sat down, enjoying the light breeze and the warm sun. I had no idea how much time had passed from hookset to release, I was still in a mild state of shock or perhaps amazement. Smile on my face. A real sense of satisfaction. 

As the day progressed, clouds rolled in and winds rose again from the west.  We caught a few more bass and even a few more walleye. It even rained for a brief period of time. As the waves pounded us on our  return to the dock, soaking us a few times, all I could think of was the small hook, the small Erie Darter, the light tackle and the monster fish. Fish of 10,000 casts?  How about fish of 30 years of serious fishing!  A week later I still look at the pictures, smile, and think, yep, I had a feeling.