This time of year fishing opportunities are limited, especially for marine anglers, due to weather conditions, closed seasons and the upcoming holidays. The result is narrow windows of time during which anglers can safely fish from a boat or shore. The straw that breaks this camel’s back is the fact that as winter sets in and water temperatures cool, its influence on fish behavior becomes amplified by physically slowing their metabolic rates. In response, southern warm loving species migrate to warmer waters and local more cold tolerant fish slow their activity levels and often simply move a few miles off shore to deeper more stable conditions along the continental shelf.
Water naturally resists temperature change. Due to density differences between warm and cooler waters it stratifies, with the cooler water becoming denser and sinking. There is a point where the water can not not become any colder or it freezes. One of its odd characteristics, is the fact that it is less dense as a solid, so ice floats to the surface. Because of its natural insulative properties and layering, the water from a few feet to a few hundred feet down (depending on the overall depth of a given place) is very stable with temperatures changing slowly and ultimately very little. Even in the deepest ocean trenches temperatures can’t get much below 39 degrees F, the maximum density of freshwater (cooler for salt) with the exception being around thermal vents in the deepest areas of our oceans. The point is there is a lower limit that can not be physiologically crossed.
Fish seek water temperature regimes that are within their upper and lower tolerance limits, if possible they locate and remain at depths or migrate to places that are around their preferred range. Temperature has the greatest physical affect of all on fish and is obviously linked to day light periodicity and time of year which determine water temperature.
Having experienced the effects of maximum cold water many years ago while doing a snorkel survey of potential searun trout and salmon streams along the coast I know how debilitating winter cold water is. One day we had a report from a reliable source of a salmon jumping in the first falls at aptly named, Salmon River, a tributary to the lower Connecticut River in the town of East Haddam.
That day the water was a numbing, potentially deadly, quickly debilitating, 39 degrees F. I was wearing a full wet suit, including gloves and a hoodie. The only exposed skin was my lips and chin below the mask. Slipping into that frigid water felt more like sticking my face into a boiling pot ready for lobsters or crabs to cook than a freshwater stream.
I was chilled so quickly and severely that what was normally a five minute short snorkel swim down from the plunge pool below the falls, was shortened to the first gravel bar maybe 40 yards from the lower end of that pool.
Realizing I was rapidly loosing muscle control, despite all the insulation it was necessary to get out immediately. My body simply did not have enough time to heat up the layer of water that becomes trapped between skin and the foam of the suit, which normally takes a few minutes. The freezing process was instantaneous and severe.
Sadly like many places with easy access to water and rocks, the bar and area was littered with shards of broken bottles left by thoughtless morons who think its fun to break glass in the water, so I could not stand up, kick off the fins and walk the last fifty feet to dry “rocks” or risk a nasty cut.
Instead, I chose to reach out with my hands and pull myself towards shore and smaller gravel that would be less risky than a slip of a foot between larger rocks that possibly held a jagged bottom of a broken beer or soda bottle.
That last few feet of the swim was like playing a video game. I was unable to reach out, grab a larger rock and feel what was taking place. I literally had to watch my hand and think it to close on the rock to perform this normally automatic task. The experience though it could have been life threatening, had I been dumped out of a small boat or fallen in unexpectedly into the drink wearing clothing or waders, was a learning experience. It gave me a deep respect for winter cold water. After thinking about the initial young man stupidity and ignorance of such a situation, I realized why late season hunters and fishermen sometimes died in winter cold waters that were not over their heads.
It is instantaneously debilitating and can quickly become lethal, besides the legality issues involved a life jacket is exactly that, a life saver under late fall, winter and early spring water temperature regimes.
In addition to fishing which covers most of the calendar year, I don’t do much ice fishing, to me a perfect day is hunting in the morning and fishing during the heat of the afternoon, especially if game is tagged and fish are bagged.
I experienced one such “perfect day” a decade or so ago.
The alarm went off at 4:30 a.m., so there was enough time to dress and drive like a maniac, find a tree stand in the still dark woods, climb up and be still for fifteen minutes at least before the deer would reach my spot on their way to bed down for the day. The tree was a mile from my sporting club that has a pheasant hunt every Saturday from opening day through Thanksgiving.
This was November Thanksgiving break, so deer of both sexes were moving and feeding heavily in preparation for winter. My friend Eric Covino and myself were both teaching at the time so we traditionally spent a day or two, “togging” as my buddies from Massachusetts call it.
At first light a young buck walked under my stand and was killed with a single arrow. The older experienced males get a masters degree in human hunter aversion if they survive their first two seasons in Connecticut’s woodlands, generally by going nocturnal while all the “stinky” loud humans are crashing around in the woods.
With the deer stuffed into the back of my Jeep I stopped by the club to meet with friends and have breakfast and do some pheasant hunting. At the time I had a pretty good dog that my son or a friend would pick up at the house for the bird hunting, during which three of us took our limit of pheasant, within a half hour. My dog Jake at the time had an excellent nose and loved retrieving pheasant. Any one who missed a shot at a bird he flushed would get a side ways glance of total doggie disdain and disgust.
I was home by ten, hosed the deer with clean water hung it in the garage, filleted the pheasant and placed them In Myron’s 20/20 to marinade for supper.
Eric called as I finished those tasks to see if I wanted to go fishing for blackfish that afternoon, noting the tide was perfect.
An offer I couldn’t refuse despite being bone tired.
We went to the lower Thames River, launched and ran to the State Pier, a place that since 9/11 has been off limits. In those days we would simply tie off to one of the pilings at the pier, drop our green crabs on high low blackfish rigs to the bottom beside the kelp covered pilings and stay in that spot until the fish stopped hitting.
Then we would untie, move a couple pilings one way or the other and repeat the procedure until we had a few fish each and make it home in time to fillet the catch and bake or broil a couple of delicious fillets for supper and maybe catch a football game or two before “crapping out for the night”.
If some how sex could have been included that night it would have been “The perfect day”, but my wife who loved pheasant in Myron’s, was working a second shift at that time, so it was a dam near perfect day none the less.
After the waters chill to the point that the tautog (blackfish) fishery died out for the winter, we would begin fishing for the then enormous population of over wintering, mostly small, school stripers in the upper Thames River to keep us going until spring when they dispersed into the ocean and both fresh and saltwater fish came readily available.
Sadly the winter striper fishing in the upper Thames has all but died in recent years, so my fishing buddy Eric has been traveling to the Housatonic for his “winter striper fix” for a few seasons now. I am often hunting during the peak of the tautog action and am not interested in a one way two hour drive to catch a few small stripers. When it was a twenty minute poke in the car we did it nearly every Sunday but to me, not worth the effort when the driving along eats up half a day.
Hopefully and maybe some day in the future those huge dense schools of small stripers will return to the large coastal estuaries from New York Harbor to Boston and beyond. Right now there are only remnants of this once incredible winter fishing option.
The way things are at the present time, November will bring some blackfish action, there are some stripers around to play with but with numbers down I can find other things to do rather than spend a day to catch a few schoolie bass. The fact that we have had a long hot summer and fall, providing warm water temperatures and no major rain storms to cool the waters suddenly and drastically, there will be some bluefish chasing the menhaden that were abundant along the Connecticut coast this year. As of this writing anglers were catching some large bluefish up inside Connecticut’s rivers and estuaries and this will hold up until waters drop to winter levels. If waters are still warm scup will be around to catch until their season ends New Years Eve Day.
Happy Holidays from “Turkey Day” through the first day of 2017. It always takes a few days or more to get the date correct on checks during a New Year. Tight lines until then and may Santa bring you all the lures and new tackle you put on your wish list.