Sea run brown trout, white perch and tomcod used to be the dead of winter species a few hearty or possibly masochistic anglers targeted in protected coastal estuaries during the late 60’s into the 1970’s.
The 1980’s brought with it a decade of mild winters which caused some changes in the “species-scape” of this region, many of which remain to the present time.
Connecticut’s experiment with sea run brown trout during the late 1960’s had some early, though minor successes. Sadly for a small number of enthusiasts and biologists who tried to make this program work, it failed to create the coastal trophy class trout fishery that it was designed to produce.
As a seasonal fisheries biologist while in college, I worked on the sea run trout program during the early and mid 1970’s and had fished for them prior to that interesting job, so going to work every day was both interesting and enjoyable.
The year my fishing buddies and I turned 16 and had to buy licenses, one of the crew conned his mother out of her car and drove for Opening Day of the Connecticut Trout Season on the third Saturday of April 1967. A little ways up stream from the main pool above the dam where most people fished I was wading and casting a tiny double jointed swimming plug called a Mr. Champ, black back yellow sides with black spots and caught a big weird looking brown trout that was seventeen or eighteen inches long and about two pounds. When I began handling these fish a decade later I realized that fish was probably a sea run brown, one of the early ones that was stocked during the inception of this program. A decade after that I caught a six pounder in the upper Mystic River on a live mummichog fished on an ultra-light rod.
By then I’d sort of figured them out and liked the off season opportunity they afforded. The strategy was to fish the area initially with live mumichogs or lures for the trout, then switch over to sand worms or night crawlers to catch some tomcod for a meal. They are small but delicious fish. A “monster” tomcod is a foot long.
The popular sea run spots in Eastern Connecticut were Latimer Brook, which flows into the upper Niantic Bay, Mystic River from the I-95 bridge north to the mouth of the brook that flows out of Long Pond and the old Stanton Weir pit on the Pawcatuck River.
The pit, as it was called proved to be better for tomcod and white perch but occasionally gave up a sea run brown. In western Connecticut the Housatonic River produced some big trout and still does.
Any coastal stream that is stocked with trout has the potential to grow sea run trout. This is due to the natural instinct of salmon and trout to “go with the flow” and travel down stream where they end up in the food rich environment of a coastal estuary. To this day anglers occasionally catch “salters” stocked trout that simply head down stream from where ever they were released.
I accidentally caught a foot long “salter brook trout” while fishing for shad below the Greenville Dam on the Shetucket River, in the upper Thames River basin. The fish was long and skinny, but it had a silver “quinine coat” which is indicative of the fact the fish had recently been swimming in salt water.
That warm decade during the 1980’s changed the fish fauna since that time, at least temporarily until cooler temperature regimes return, pushing the warm loving species south with replacement from the from the north with species that prefer cool to cold water temperatures.
Call it “climate change”. There is and has always been changes in the earth’s climate ever since the oceans formed, changes that have been constantly influenced by continental drift, the slight perturbation in the earth’s rotation and to some degree hydrocarbons and other compounds produced by man and our use of fossil fuels along with decomposition of organic material when ice melts off the land in the extreme north.
Prior to the decade of non-winters, anglers could target winter flounder and tomcod with a reasonable expectation of success. During the late 60’s through the mid -70’s sea run brown trout took some effort but could be caught where they were stocked during the best years of the sea run brown trout program.
I began writing an outdoor column for the Norwich Bulletin, a south eastern Connecticut daily paper for the 1972 Connecticut trout season opener April of 1972.
During that period of angling history, every spring there were well documented accidental local catches of large cod ranging in size from 20 to nearly 50 pounds from spots from Black Point, Niantic to the east. There were also regular catches of quality cod being brought in by head boats such as the Sunbeam, Mijoy, Black Hawk and a couple others whose names I’ve forgotten. Running out of New London and Niantic these boats made regular runs and caught loads of cod off of Block Island and beyond.
The largest “accidental cod” I heard of caught from the Connecticut coast was 43 pounds, by an angler drifting sand worms for flatfish off the mouth of the Mystic River.
During that same period when winters were longer and colder, there was a spring run of pollock in The Race during May. I never heard or knew when they arrived in that area, probably late fall or winter. Our waters were cold enough that during the dead of winter there was a small hard core, hard fishing group of surf casters that would catch cod from the southern Rhode Island beaches at night.
Tried it once and all night I kept wondering, “Why am I putting my self through this torture.” I’m not one who is bothered much by the cold it was the total lack of action that night that bothered me, a single fish caught by someone I didn’t know would have made that miserable, failed trip worth while.
Most recreational anglers did not have their boats in the water much earlier in the season than May, though I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that the pollock were likely present throughout much of the winter. Occasionally cod were mixed in but could not be targeted in the riled waters of The Race very effectively. The fishery has always been out around Block Island and to the north.
Since that time these cold water fisheries have shifted to the north. Recreational head boats in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut do make long range cod fishing trips but due to the decline in numbers, they do so when conditions are best and target other more abundant species closer to port during the summer and fall. Boats fishing out of Massachusetts and Maine do make long range trips to Georges Bank.
As waters warmed, winter flounder dropped in abundance due to over harvest and rising water temperatures, which compromised spawning areas which became too warm to attract the adults during their late winter spawning season. Juvenile winter flounder are more warm tolerant because they would grow and feed in the shallower, warmer waters where they were born before moving out into Block Island Sound to join with the adult population after a season or so inshore.
This fishery has for the most part been displaced to the north, though there are a few anglers who have their secret spots along the Connecticut coast where they catch a few flatfish every spring. Decent winter flounder fishing is still available from Massachusetts to the north. I’ve personally had some fun catching them with Captain Jason Colby of Little Sister Charters in the Boston area. To reach Captain Colby try (Fishfirstname.lastname@example.org).
As summers became progressively longer and warmer, species such as black sea bass have created viable fisheries as they have moved northward along the coast from their mid-Atlantic home grounds.
Sadly, these days there is not much to fish for this time of year in this area. With the east coast striper population on the decline, we haven’t even bothered fishing the upper Thames (home territory for me) for these fish in a few seasons. Sadly for twenty some years my buddy and I would fish the huge schools of school stripers in the upper Thames from November until spring with tremendous success. The fish were small but we didn’t keep any ever and used single hook lures so the fish were almost always hooked in the upper lip or roof of the mouth. There is still a viable winter striped bass fishery on the Housatonic River and probably in some areas to the west of there, towards the Hudson River.
For this reason, now is a good time to inspect and maintain gear, and inventory lures.
After that task is completed why not read a magazine like Boating World or a good book.
Being a retired teacher of 23 years I have a reading assignment for those of you who would enjoy learning about the history of one of the favorite prey species in the ocean, menhaden, bunker, moss bunker, pogies, what ever name you use for these fish. This book is an interesting history of the menhaden fisheries in this country titled, “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” by H. Bruce Franklin, a professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University. I think you will find it interesting and well worth reading.
Ending on a positive note is the fact that last year, schools of adult menhaden invaded the lower Thames River, which as always attracted the interest of large stripers and blue fish throughout the season. Hopefully they bred successfully and established a large year class of young that will continue to support the predators we chase. This species really is the most important fish in the sea because being filter feeders menhaden link the boundless energy locked up in the zoo plankton and phytoplankton they feed on and pass it on to the predators that prey upon them in the cycle of life.