Since the 1970’s, after the Christmas holidays until water temperatures warmed, for me, ice out meant it was winter flounder, tomcod and smelt fishing time.
Though I know one person who worked on smelt for a thesis, this cold loving species was rapidly disappearing from the coastal streams, bays and tributary streams. I saw a few old timers with a smattering in their pails but never targeted nor caught one myself.
Winter flounder were fairly abundant. It was possible to go to some of the spots along the coast and cast into estuaries or rivers near the bays where they spawned. Unfortunately constant fishing pressure from both sport and commercial fishing concerns plus warming coastal waters pushed the reliable, winter flounder northward on the Atlantic coast. Even in Massachusetts where a friend and I would take an annual road trip while in college and if we hit winds and tides right could load up on quality fish before any sort of catch limits were in place. I’ve always had personal size limits for any of the fish I targeted for consumption, I refer to as my minimal filleting size, below which it’s not worth the effort to clean and cook.
As a young fisherman and into the first few years after I wrote my first column for the local paper, the Norwich Bulletin I spent most of my fishing time in freshwater. Though after gaining a drivers license, making high school friends with boats, more time was spent fishing the nearby Thames River and Long Island Sound.
Every spring when the herring were abundant in coastal estuaries we would go to local tributary streams to the Thames that would fill up with spawning alewives, and net a few for live striper bait.
My routine was, in a “junker car” relegated to fishing, hunting, toting garbage along with other similar and potentially dirty smelly jobs to first catch some “buckeys” as locals called the alewives. The bait was kept fresh and transported live in a large plastic garbage can about half full of water that would be held with my right hand on the front seat during turns and the few stops between the bait catching spot and my favorite fishing places.
I drove it for my dirty tasks for two or three fishing seasons, the last of which, while heading to the river on a Saturday morning trip to catch a fish or two before, loading up and going to visit friends in the “decent” car my wife drove to work on a daily basis. I had strict orders to be home before noon.
It was later in the spring so catching the buckeys took longer than usual, traffic to my fishing spot was heavier, everything was delay upon delay so I was rushing a tad over the speed limit when someone pulled out in front of me. At forty miles per hour, I couldn’t hold that big garbage pail in place so it fell forward dumping most of the water and baitfish onto the floor of my dirt boxcar. No big deal, I was more concerned about the bait dying than the mess.
I was only a zig and a zag from the fishing spot so I simply got there as quickly as possible, put the six or eight alewives that were on the floor and rushed down to the river where they were transferred into a weighted laundry basket with a tie down top also homemade so they could revive.
Grabbed my rod and gear, left the car doors and windows open to air out and dry and fished my eight or nine live baits without a single runoff. It was a marginal time of the season and the stripers large enough to eat a ten or twelve inch long bait had already moved out of the upper river. When the time came to head for home, three or four were released alive and in good shape.
At home, I parked my junker, left the windows cracked so it would air out over the weekend while we drove out of state to visit our friends.
When we got home Sunday afternoon with the sun still in the sky, it had been a hot couple of days away. As we got out of the car to stretch my wife said “what’s that awful smell”
I had a pretty good idea, went to the junker and almost gagged as I approached, opened the door and a rush of flies came out, in the middle of the floor in the back seat were a couple of dead rotting alewives full of maggots.
The car actually ran pretty well, but it was only a recreational vehicle before they had a market, but later that summer when I sold it for junk, the guy only gave me $75.00 because he said he’d have given me twice that much because it was running pretty good but didn’t because it smelled so bad.
During one of my early Thames River fishing trips, the fall of 1972 I used to refer to as the “year of the blue”, as in bluefish. In my memory and that of many of the middle aged to my aged anglers on the river had never caught or seen anything other than a few “snapper blues” and stripers in the upper river.
On the town docks before they were improved a very nice, well spoken, white haired gentleman walked up and began talking. He had seen me catch and release a bluefish and he asked me if I caught another could he take it home because he loved eating them but hadn’t seen one in the river since he was a kid. He befriended me and told me many stories, his stories of fishing the Thames River back in simpler, more rugged times. I knew him on a first name basis, which has sadly faded from my memory banks. He recognized my name as the “fishing writer for the local paper” which was flattering because I was never sure if anyone other than my mother read my columns.
The entire region was much different then and that was fifty years ago. Pushing 70 now myself I have seen many changes in the region. During his youth, dams were everywhere to run turbines or grist mills. Over the years I’ve found many in my fishing and hunting travels throughout this region primarily in eastern Connecticut. The little ones nearly all have evidence of small impoundments. The large rivers such as the Thames, Connecticut, and Pawcatuck had factories lining their banks long before the days of any sort of pollution abatement that literally killed off many of these areas smaller streams and large sections of the big rivers.
I lived through those very dirty times and have literally witnessed the positive effects of the clean air and water legislation passed throughout the nation over the years, decades since I first became aware of such things.
Fast forward to the early ’70s after college, married and able to pretty much do what I wanted during my free time, and that was fishing and trying to learn as much as I could not only for my personal edification but as a source of information and stories to write about.
I lived near the coast so had the best of both worlds within a short drive. This time of year, I’d monitor various spots to first see if the ice was melted, and sometimes to see if anyone was there and even more important if they were catching anything.
I often fished the upper Mystic River and a man made channel off the Pawcatuck River that would liven up early every season and often produced excellent catches of tomcod, and for me, anyhow occasional white perch and even a winter flounder from time to time.
Their name “Microgadus tomcod” literally at least the genus name means “small or tiny (micro) cod (gadus), the species name may have been made up by a guy named “Tom”. (stupid joke, sorry) A small piece of sandworm or night crawler on the bottom with an appropriate sized hook in many local places was enough to catch a mess of these small but aggressive and tasty little fish.
Tomcod are by nature a small member of the cod family (Gadidae in textbooks) that according to Bigelow and Schroeder, who literally wrote the book called “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine” that is probably available for a tidy sum from a government printing source or possibly the selloff of a library somewhere. My first copy, which is outdated, was a mandatory text for a marine fisheries class I took in grad school. I heard about the updated edition ten or twelve years ago and coughed up the money, after taking out a small loan to have it shipped and use it constantly as a reference. .
Once in a while, especially after long cold winters, I hear reports of people catching tomcod locally. Even had people send photos because they didn’t know what they had. They do look a good deal like a small cod with three dorsal fins but one distinguishing characteristic is the face its second of three dorsal fins is twice as wide as the first and has a kind of square straight tail, where the tom cods three dorsal fins are rounded and its tail is slightly convex.
Due to warming of our waters, land use and the resulting changes in habitat, the species living in coastal areas they have changed accordingly depending on prevailing water temperature ranges. In recent years, tomcod have been fairly scarce, though, after long cooler winters, reports of catches still come in from the classic areas where they once thrived.
As those fisheries waned, moved or changed, we began replacing it during the late winter and early spring with trips to places such as Poquetanuck Cove, on the Thames, and many of the inlets along the Connecticut River targeting white and yellow perch. White perch are a relative of striped bass, and a not in the same genus as yellow perch. The latter is my personal favorite freshwater fish to take home to dinner or rather for dinner
Years ago (can’t do it now) two of us would drive to a pull over near the old Reynolds Store that is now an automobile dealership, pull over in an out of the way spot, carry an eight foot john boat across the road lower it to the water, with some worms and a couple of light rods and fish around the channel and docks which were empty during the winter and load up on yellow perch, the whites tended to be more in the open areas of the cove below and near solid structure pilings and channel markers sunfish and an occasional bass, even small pike would grab our offerings.
These days the best way to fish that area is to launch at a state launch area up or down river from the cove and run there by boat. And be sure you have a current fishing license on you.
In all our coastal rivers, side channels where tributary streams enter and protected coves fill up with fish of all species during the winter where they can wait out the cold weather with a minimal expenditure of energy and if they are predators maybe even pick up an easy meal when they desire.
I’ve had the opportunity to fish for and catch white perch numerous times throughout the region. Great that many people focus on like I do the yellows, which is often simply a matter of location literally within an area that may be quite small.
The largest one I’ve caught was by accident while casting for bass in Candlewood Lake, here in western Connecticut. The fish was sixteen inches long and probably weighed around a pound and a half, maybe two. The species was not in any record books nor considered for state trophy pins at the time so it was released. Like many catches made in the past by me and many others, before the IGFA began keeping world records not only for the largest but largest of most species according to the breaking strength or line class it was caught on.
For a long while after becoming aware of the line class records I tried but never managed to catch a fish that made the record book. But have caught a few respectable fish of all the species I’ve had the enjoyment of figuring out and targeting throughout the northeast region.
I used to claim that I’ve caught every species of game fish in the northeast but realized that was not true. There is one other besides those dam smelt. The other is a bowfin, which is a unique and somewhat primitive local species that I did have a couple of opportunities during a trip to Lake Champlain in northern Vermont.
They are hard hitting, hard fighting and hard to hook. I had a bunch of hits even got jumps out of a couple but everyone managed to spit the hook before I could get a net under them. I hope to give them another shot sometime before I am too old to care.
Now that I think about it never caught a great white shark or hammerhead either but did hook and lose a tiny baby hammerhead that was not even two feet long and saw but couldn’t hook a giant hammerhead that I estimate to have been in the mid teen’s feet long, possibly even fifteen or sixteen feet from nose to tail, because I got a really good too close for comfort look at that one.
We spotted a pointed fin rolling in some large ocean swells. I grabbed the harpoon, thinking it was a swordfish and we had the proper permits to catch one on board. We’d seen a swordfish during an earlier trip but couldn’t get it to take any of our hook baits.
The ocean was rough that day so visibility into the water for the other guys in the boat was impossible due to the glare of the sun. Because the thing literally passed right under my feet, I had too good a look and couldn’t believe its size. When it was straight down, I had to turn my head to see the entire fish!
Feeling like a hook bait, I scampered off that spot like a squirrel down an oak tree. My buddies had a good laugh at my expense and like all good friends never let me forget it. Somehow even a close friend who has the bejesus scared out of them or fail but does not get hurt doing something stupid, to begin with, is part of being human and growing up. Odds are monkeys have a good laugh when one of their troop falls out of a tree ---- my guess is most people would do the same as long as there are no broken bones or gushing blood created during that failed whatever it might be.