What the heck is there to fish for with an open season, in Connecticut that is active during February? The answer is not very much., without taking a drive north where boats are making trips for cod, pollock and haddock, with winter flounder and mackerel coming up as inshore options within a month or so as captains get their boats back into the water for the season.
Decades ago, I’d be waiting for some open water in the upper areas of major coastal estuaries to fish for tomcod, a great eating little cousin of cod differentiated by its small size and feeler like pelvic or ventral fins and a rounded, rather than squared off tail fin. Both despite differences in size are two of the North Atlantic’s premiere, delicately flavored, lily white meat species with cold loving populations that have been are pulling northward as the waters here in southern New England have warmed. Only a few degrees on average but enough to dissuade these cold water species from even feeding anywhere near my home in Connecticut for a number of decades.
Many of the changes in the regions “fish scape” have been and still are due to changing weather patterns and waters that have warmed significantly in many parts of the northeast over the past few decades. One thing that galls me is people who are upset about “climate change” and global warming.
News alert! The climate has been changing as long as the earth has had oceans of liquid water and continents that move around about as fast as our finger nails grow on planet earth. These are two natural forces that won’t ever stop as long as Mother Earth exists and has oceans of water. Granted man’s pollution of the air which is contributing to the melting of polar caps is perhaps the largest cause of these changes, I remember that the earth wobbles a tiny bit on its axis as it rotates and these foibles may have an effect on the earth’s weather, from a lecture in geology class while in grad school during the early 1970’s. A tiny point I’ve never heard a weatherman bring out in any of the shows or comments about our odd weather patterns during the past few years.
There are not many sport fishing options open this time of year, providing the larger rivers are not frozen tight there may be some ability to play with over wintering stripers in the larger ones. The Thames is nothing like it once was a decade or so ago.
Record high numbers are not the case these days so the opportunity for winter striper fishing has decreased with the number of stripers in the Atlantic coast population, which has been rebuilding to some degree over the past couple of years. The reasons for their presence would take up too much room in this article to begin to explain. I have not seen scientific papers that even take a look at this highly localized but widely prevalent (based on discreet places where these fish spend their winters) presence of concentrations of young striped bass in places that are similar to the Thames throughout New England. Wintering in power plant warm water discharges, deep slow moving rivers, deeper slow moving channels and coves off rivers such as the Thames, Housatonic, Quinnipiac, and places such as Providence and Boston Harbors to the north. This phenomenon is not as prevalent now as it was a decade or so ago when there were more young stripers in the region.
Because there are fewer stripers in the overall population, those places that in some areas were popular winter striped bass fishing spots no one even fishes or looks for fish in them anymore. It’s a dead of winter fishery my buddies and I personally miss. There are still some fish in the Thames but barely enough to bother launching a boat and freezing fingers and toes to catch and release for some mid winter fishing action.
Back to what there is to fish for and maybe even catch this time of year, if the coves of Connecticut are open we may do some fishing for panfish in protected freshwater coves with a possibility of running into some school stripers in a couple of the region’s largest estuaries and deep coastal coves.
There was a time when the ice began to melt I’d go to some of these places to catch tomcod and white perch. The perch are still available, though not as abundant as they once were. The old timers I met decades ago targeted smelt and tomcod in these same areas, with expected success, or they would not have been there.
But those “old timers” have disappeared with the tomcod and smelt.
With limited options, these days my favorite February and March cold weather fishing trips are to those large deep primarily freshwater, but tidally affected coves (with smaller feeder streams) entering the lower Thames and Connecticut Rivers, providing they are not iced over. The Thames main river up to Norwich in the upper third always held schools of striped bass, mostly small ones, while places such as Trading and Poquetonuck Coves were primarily late winter white perch places, with some small schoolie bass around the edges. On the Connecticut River Wethersfield Cove, Hamburg Cove, Chester Marina Cove, Seldon’s Creek, Chapman Pond and other similarly protected relatively quiet areas concentrate white perch, panfish such as yellow perch, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, black crappie (calico bass a local name), minnows of all species, along with the pickerel, pike and bass that feed on them during the winter months.
Right at this moment and for a number of days prior and into the immediate future, temperatures have and will be closer to zero F than the freezing point of water (32 F). Though this arctic blast that began a while back continues to mix with tropical storms everything will be frozen tight until much later in the winter or early spring and have a potentially dangerous covering of snow, so weak spots even open water may be covered over like a trap door leading to a cold bath and possibly a freezing cold grave. However, one forecast called for some warming and even rain, which could totally change the conditions by what would now be the middle of January, last month. If so, forget what I said above providing things don’t refreeze and explore your normal winter fishing options.
Regardless of melt of or not, winter cold waters can be lethal, so don’t take chances.
I have printed various versions of the following words of wisdom from my personal first hand and frozen toe experiences many times because to the inexperienced, freezing cold water is potentially deadly, it quickly numbs, cripples and kills quickly in many, many sad cases every year.
I have always been a higher than average person on the cold tolerance scale, a trait attributed like all physical traits primarily to genetics, though there are no Eskimos or polar bears in my lineage, despite my buddies considering that possibility over the years. Secondarily, not minding being cold and chilled, bothers some people much more than others.
As a kid my dad was the opposite, always had the heat turned way up in our house, so much so I would walk around the house in shorts and a T shirt most of the winter, only donning shoe over my socks and long sleeves and jackets to walk the dog or to go outside. He’d say “Robert put on some warmer clothes you’re making me cold just looking at you —- a family joke forever.
There’s a stupidity factor involved when confronting severe cold. Boots and toes can become water soaked early in the day from stepping into water or simply from sweating. If those toes are not given a chance to warm after hours in the elements bad things can happen, starting with frost bite and if more of one’s body is chilled deeply death.
I’m not dead yet but have lost skin on both little toes on both feet and one pinky by being stubborn and not quitting whatever I was doing and warming up in the car or by going home. I have never fallen into freezing cold water though decades ago did some voluntary snorkel survey work in the state’s coastal streams to identify potential spawning areas and look for salmon and searun brown trout, as part of my graduate thesis work.
Once in water that was measured at 39 F I took a swim for a short distance below the Leesville Dam on the Salmon River a large tributary to the lower Connecticut in the Moodus/Haddam area, to check out a report by a conservation officer of observing an adult salmon jumping in the riffles just below that dam, which now has a fish ladder. Then it was broken down and leaky.
Despite having a 3/8 inch wet suit, gloves, hood, boots etc. that water was so cold, it felt hot on my face. I had trouble breathing and was unable to take in and hold a large enough breath of air through the snorkel to dive six or eight feet down into the one deep hole below the dam where that the salmon had been reported to be broaching water.
I aborted the mission almost immediately. There was a safety man on shore with a safety rope that I probably could not have grabbed and held on to if I had to, but that was the plan.
I recall when I was swimming towards the place a hundred feet or so below the dam where I normally crawled out of the water, a sandy spot with a few feet of rocks under a foot or so of water leading to it from the main river flow with lots of broken glass shards from bottle breaking morons during the summer, so I couldn’t simply stand up and walk out of the water, despite it being only knee deep. For this reason, I would swim and pull myself to the sand bar using my hands. I wore sneakers, not flippers to do this swim for that reason, it was short, shallow, lots of glass and it never took very long to complete during what was monthly sometimes weekly snorkel surveys of this area of potential salmon activity—-years before the salmon returned to Connecticut waters.
The water was so instantaneously numbing it was like I was playing a video game using my body parts. Instantly I realized I had to abort the mission and get out and get out of the water fast. My muscles were beginning to fail, I could not “feel” the rocks in the shallows to grab them to pull myself towards the shoal, rather I had to watch my hand, think the fingers closed and wish my arm to pull me closer to the rocks. A distance of ten maybe fifteen feet, not far but that normally quick exit was protracted, at least in my quickly failing mind and body and turned into a difficult chore.
Once I got out of the water, my partner could see I was not doing well, he already had the car warmed, running with the heat on and rather than changing into my clothes as I’d normally do while standing beside the car, I stayed in the wet suit, and remember as I walked from the river to the car seeing tiny snowflakes form as beads of water were squeezed out of the elbows and knees of the wet suit as I moved. Amusing but not very comfortable or comforting.
We stopped at a small now defunct diner not far from Salmon River, we knew the owner and knew he wouldn’t mind some water on the floor because we would often stop in for a coffee after doing the survey swim.
The owner came over with a mop, asking why I was in a wet, wet suit, kind of laughing as he did. We told him sorry and to please bring a couple of hot coffees, as a joke I asked him to bring me a tuna fish sandwich in a waterproof sandwich bag. We all had a good chuckle including a couple of the customers who overheard our conversation and were curious as to why there was a “frog man” getting a coffee. (The face mask had been removed by then.)
If there is any open water to fish around here at this printing, it may be worth an exploratory trip to look for schoolie striped bass in the upper Thames or Housatonic River, where my long time winter striper fishing buddy has gone the past few seasons.
Due to the paucity of school stripers in the Thames River I’m most likely going to fish the coves on the Connecticut River for yellow perch and panfish, providing the water is open and fishable, despite their small size aptly named “panfish” primarily perch and sunfish are among my favorites to bring home for a couple of meals of white, sweet, flaky and tender fish that can’t buy in a restaurant or fish market unless one travels to Canada.
Otherwise it’s a matter of waiting for the spring thaw and return to a life of our local species and the eventual return of the migratory species that we target in this part of the world when they are in season. Otherwise we are relinquished to organizing lures, inspecting tackle and spooling line on the new reels that Santa Claus may have left under the tree this year.