January, what the heck is there to catch during January? —- not much. Some of my freshwater fishing buddies who don’t own small boats relish being able to walk out on safe ice to drop their offerings to the places they watched anglers work from boats all season long. For others its something to do other than watch sports on TV or to simply enjoy a break from holiday craziness and a couple days off from work.
Pulling a fish through a six or eight inch hole in the frozen surface of a lake is not my favorite form of fishing. For one thing schlepping the gear on slick frozen water especially if there is snow cover can be more work than “work” at the office. Part of the compensation is the fact that fish taken from ice cold waters are firm, as tasty as they can be and due to the fact its winter, cold spoilage is not ever a problem.
Due to the fact I shun all the schlepping and the requisite drilling or chopping of small holes through which to drop a hook, call me an “ice inspector”. After those who did all the schlepping, chopping and potentially catching have gone home I will occasionally take an inspection carrying a single “micro ultra light” spinning rod, with a few tiny painted lead head jigs in an old pill bottle along with some meal worms, grubs or earth worms in a zip lock bag. All can be stored comfortably in a single coat pocket.
The holes are inspected and those with scales, fish blood (hopefully) and sign of activity are “tested” around them are tested using a baited jig that is dropped to the bottom, and moved slowly with the rod tip, occasionally lifting it an inch or two and setting it back to depth. If a desirable fish strikes, its tossed on the ice and the same routine repeated until the action stops. If there are no takers and the next nearest hole is ‘tested” in the same way until the available places have been probed.
With some luck and very little work enough perch or bluegills for supper are placed in the plastic bag that was folded in another coat pocket and its back home to cook a delicious dinner of fried or baked “panfish”. Yellow perch are my favorite species, though calico bass, sunfish even rock bass, if they are big enough will do.
Predators, the big stuff most ice fishermen target are seldom caught using such tiny baits plus I wouldn’t take a predatory species such as a bass, chain pickerel or pike out of my favorite local lakes and ponds. Though once a ten pound northern pike didn’t get the memo and was landed with a tiny little jig stuck in the very tip of its snout. That was by far the largest fish I ever pulled through a six inch hole in frozen water and as such things often are, it was a complete accident. It was released to hopefully breed and maybe caught in the future when its twenty pounds or more.
My primary fishing buddy Eric, like myself is not a big fan of ice fishing so we have done very little of it over the thirty some years we’ve been fishing together.
For years this time of year, from the Christmas Holidays through Easter, we would be found playing around with the over wintering striped bass in the upper Thames River, prior to the most recent striper population decline.
I’ve fished this river for over half a century and have noticed a direct correlation between the abundance of wintering (mostly small) schoolies in the Thames and their abundance elsewhere in the region throughout the season. We fish hard for striped bass, bluefish, fluke, occasionally scup and at least a few times during the late fall, tautog or “togs” as my buddies in Massachusetts and Maine refer to what I grew up calling blackfish. By far the homeliest fish in our waters besides a goose fish, but one of my favorites to dine on.
Often delicate bites are followed by a hard pulling bull dog fight, blackfish are my favorite late fall species that for Eric and myself provided a sort of cary over to play with until the winter striper fishery developed. A few blackfish fillets to broil is a cold weather treat I’ve not enjoyed in a season or two due to poorly timed, painful but minor injuries to ankles and knees over the past few “blackfish” seasons.
Where restaurants offer “surf and turf”, when we’ve been successful my kitchen cooks “rock piles and woodlands”, served with mashed potato’s a mainstay side dish that goes well with most of our winter meals.
One good sign for the future has been the reappearance of large numbers of juvenile to young adult age stripers over the past couple of years. I missed some of the spring action and most of the fall fishing due to a bum knees that hobbled me for most of the summer and fall of 2018.
Back in early November as water temperatures cooled and hordes of stripers began migrating back to their wintering grounds along the coast, Eric, Jimmy, his son and I fished a large concentration of small stripers that hung around a spot in the eastern end of Long Island Sound for a few weekends in a row. I joined them during their last trip for the fall and we caught and released something like 98 schoolie stripers and 23 twelve inch or so bluefish.
The bass were mostly in the high teens to low twenty inch range, none maybe one was close to legal, but we weren’t looking for baking material only some action on the water. When the bluefish showed up they began wrecking the soft plastics I was using and one of them while spinning in circles, nipped my finger either with the hook or a tooth. My jeans and the boat in the area I was standing looked “Lizzy Borden” had been busy with her axe.
The sudden invasion of small, hard to handle aggressive yearling “choppers” along with a rapidly setting sun and increasing wind from the northwest put an end to the trip, the best and most action packed of the season for me, one of many for them.
The abundance of small stripers bodes well for the future. Earlier in the year when the bass were moving into the region Eric and Jimmy came across an even larger concentration of stripers, out near Fishers Island where these migrating fish were breaking the surface as far as they could see in all directions. As is typical during the spring run when the bass are often following schools of squid, they caught fish of all sizes including a number of legal sized fish they released.
Sadly winter schoolie fishing in the Thames has not been very productive for the past few seasons. Last winter Eric had been doing pretty well on over wintering stripers, in the Housatonic, another wintering area for these fish he samples frequently over the past few winters.
It will be interesting to see how the stripers stack up in the Thames River, if they do at all this winter. During the 80’s and 90’s Eric and I who live less than a half hour ride, towing a boat from the upper Thames River would meet at the launch in Norwich to play with the hordes of fish the river harbored at that point in time.
One year Eric received a brand new depth finder for Christmas. Rigged up and ready to locate our first school of fish, he turned it on, got a confused look on his face and began tapping the screen and checking connections muttering: “Either this machine is messed up or there’s forty feet of stripers under the boat.”
We were in something like 42 or 45 feet of water, with the noon day sun over head and the tide at its peak and the river surprisingly clear, I stood up and peered into the water. It was like looking down on a school of menhaden, nothing but the backs of thousands of stripers hundreds of them close enough to poke with my rod tip. And the machine indicated they were stacked like that to the bottom, we called the mark on the screen “buildings” or the “skyline”.
That trip took place on a freezing cold, high pressure “bluebird” day, the absolutely worst conditions for catching pretty much any species I’ve chased in both fresh and salt water.
We began drifting jigs into the forty feet of bass. For hours we could feel them bouncing off heads and backs as they sunk followed by a tail slap on the line as fish took off or simply swam into the line.
Surprisingly it took over an hour for one of us, me, to catch a sixteen incher.
As the tide dropped that huge mountain of fish began to spread out on down the river with the dropping tide, which was about half way out as the suns rays got long and low in the distance. With an hour or less of day light Eric said lets take one more drift and head home. I was going to simply pack up, and hope he caught a fish so there wouldn’t be a “skunk” in the record book, something that rarely happened during these usually highly productive late winter strictly fun, catch and release trips.
What a mistake!
Tap, tap and the line tightened as a fish took my jig.
I didn’t even set the hook but rather gave it slack line, knowing if I caught another fish that “one last drift” would turn into twenty last drifts and we wouldn’t get home until well after dark if we survived the bone chilling cold that was rapidly setting in with the onset of night.
I gave the striper slack line, hoping it would shake the hook —- no such luck.
As predicted when Eric saw I was hooked into a striper, naturally we had to take three more drifts, then three after that and a series of “one more’s” after those didn’t produce either. Lights were on all over the city by the time the boat was hauled out and our “numb skulls” made their way home an hour after the black of night had settled in.
This guy and I have spent more time in boats together than many modern marriages last, because we are both fishing “fin-adicts” with a scientific approach to figuring out and usually hooking our target species we have done pretty well over the years. The detective work and testing different methods, lures and changing colors until something works is our methodology that usually but not always pays off in some degree of success.
That day was a classic example as I’ve written in the past how “going fishing with Eric Covino is like being kidnapped without a ransom note.”
To all of our readers, have a happy and “fishy” 2019.