Unless weather conditions have completely turned around in a couple of weeks, the holiday season could bring balmy beach weather. Regardless, it takes some time and heavy cooling rains or winter storms to change ocean temperatures very much, so odds are for a while there could be some fairly comfy conditions under which to fish for the popular fall species.
Fall is the best time of year for everything I enjoy doing, plus for the last 23 or so years of my working life there was a class room of students waiting, impatiently, not very bright eyed and bushy tailed for the bell. All pretty good kids, that were not highly interested in school or getting their high school science credit, unless threatened with beheading (obviously a joke) by parents, or motivated by a desire to work or get into the armed services. Most didn’t think they could get into college or simply didn’t have the desire, though a few went to a couple of the excellent technical colleges in this area. New England Technical College was particularly helpful in hosting tours of our students. We would survey the entire school and as a reward for good behavior and grades would bring any students who were interested in seeing the place, even if in some cases it was simply a ploy to get out of the building for a day. They all got something out of that experience and a few went applied and were accepted into their top notch program.
Because I was else where during the fall period when blackfish (tautog) fishing peaks, it is the species I am personally weakest at targeting and catching. Though I did know many obscure spots from twenty some years of snorkel diving, spear gun in hand hunting this challenging to catch (consistently) hard fighting, great eating species. Unless the water was too turbid, spearing them was pretty much a sure fire meal back at a time when I had many access points through friends private property to some of the best inshore, shallow mussel beds, all of which were full of blackfish, before they jumped up a number of levels in the fishing popularity ratings ---- and deservedly so.
With a face like a halloween mask, blubbery lips to absorb and withstand bites from the green crabs they feed on, along with cuts from sharp mussel shells and ever present barnacles and skin like shoe leather, like a coat of chain mail these fish are perfectly adapted for the rocky, current swept environments where they thrive. Living in among rocks, wrecks and kelp that provides shade and places to escape having to constantly swim against strong currents and ever changing tides.
I had a photo or two, old polaroid and kodak shots of the biggest blackfish I’ve ever seen in person a 30 inch class 18 pound shell crusher I speared back during the early 1970’s that was destroyed with a couple of other albums that were ruined by a leaky roof caused when a branch blew down on the roof, from I think my name sake storm “Hurricane Bob”. I’ve neither seen nor caught a true trophy class “tog” in many years primarily due to lack of trying due to conflicts with fall fishing and hunting activities.
Scup is another favorite among marine anglers that provides nearly year round action. The ocean counterpart to the freshwater sunfish species that are like them, small, scrappy, aggressive and excellent excellent table fare.
Spiny little scrappers that twice over the years landed me in the hospital with severe cases of “fish poisoning” from tiny pin hole pokes that are inevitable when handling these small, powerful fish. One reason it is important to put some sort of antiseptic on even small pokes and cuts that are an integral part of any outdoor oriented persons world. I’m either enough of a wimp or smart enough to keep a tube of triple bacterial ointment with me either in a tackle box or the car at all times. It works because the only hospital trips in a few decades for blood letting were slips with a sharp knife.
More than one time after a failed fluking expedition “ scup have saved the day by providing some excellent frying material to bring home as an excellent alternative.
Last, but not least, though declining in availability are over wintering stripers. When the striper population was peaking during the 1980’s, particularly during warm, leisurely falls like this one, large numbers of these fish would feed into larger coastal rivers. Get caught when weather suddenly turned too cold to continue, so they would move up stream into protected coves and deep channels, including the lower Housatonic below Derby dam and the Thames River as far as Norwich where the Shetucket and Yantic Rivers merge in the city’s deep harbor.
Being our local wintering spot we’d heard about since child hood and fished since high school, my now long time fishing buddy, Eric Covino and I began catch and release fishing on top of these many thousands of mostly short stripers as an alternative to ice fishing and watching the football games on TV on weekends other winter. Fishing was incredible and word eventually got out so after a few years we often had to get there early to get a decent drift in that small harbor that might then have twenty or more boats fishing, where for a decade we were pretty much the only ones there.
Fishing was often fast and furious on small schoolies. We never even kept the occasional twenty pounder or better we caught the fishing was strictly catch and release for fun. On a good tide we expected to land fifty fish each, a couple thousand over the course of a normal winter. Great fun to sate our urge for fishing without cutting a hole in a local pond and pulling fish out of it, tiny fish at that.
It was great fun and fishing action at a time of year when there should not be much to do with saltwater fish without a long cold dangerous boat ride to the cod fishing grounds off shore and to the north.
As the striper population waned from as always a heavy degree of targeted sport and commercial fishing throughout their range, the winter fishery in the Thames dried up to a point it wasn’t worth launching a boat to do, our home court advantage lost I pretty much quit doing it and Eric who is more of a fanatic than me would drive to the Housatonic to get his winter fix. I did mine with a shotgun or a bow in the woods for small game and or deer.
Striper numbers have improved slightly in recent years. This past summer and early fall, before the rains began to wash the rivers out for the season, the lower Thames was full of peanut bunker with schools of bluefish and stripers feeding heavily on them for weeks.
As spent hurricanes blew northward bringing winds and rain, kids returned to school and boats began to disappear from mooring to dry dock at coastal marinas, the fish began to scatter. Frankly I didn’t receive any late reports from my normal sources just prior to writing this column due to other obligations and a bout of some stomach flu, that invaded my body while shopping in a store crowded with early Halloween shoppers and their kids, fresh back from collecting germs from across the country and world during their summer vacations Now that I’m not in the classroom any more my immunities are weakening so going grocery shopping when its busy is like going into a flea infested village during the height of the “Black Plague” in Europe.
Almost guaranteed infection from something.
However, despite the goofy weather and becoming a wimp, the consistently warm weather (which writing this column that mentions such things could bring an instant change to arctic conditions the way things have gone this year) there may still be some surprisingly good coastal fishing left. I’m hoping that the striper numbers are high enough that they once again fill Norwich Harbor for the winter, I’ve not had any fun with those “wintering stripers” in over a decade and after a long hot, often injured or sick summer I need to put a few more bends in my fishing rods before packing them in until spring reverses the weather trends and all the migrant species return and locals come out of their winter resting places.