For close to thirty years a friend and I would start fishing the upper Thames River for its over wintering striped bass when things got cold in December and fished all winter until the river warmed up during the spring and its wintering fish would spread out down river looking for food and continue on their normal spring migrations. Most of the winter fisheries I knew of were centered around warm water power plant discharges. This fishery, along with other winter striper fisheries in large estuaries along the coast are different.
Kind of a reverse of normality. My theory as to why those fish would run up the Thames and winter in Norwich Harbor. Has been formulated after many years of fishing this river and a few other spots along the coast with friends over decades. The vast majority of the many hours spent with heavy clothing and numb fingers catching stripers during the dead of winter was spent in the upper Thames River between Norwich and the Mohegan Sun Casino which was years into the future when I first began chasing stripers during the dead of winter. It’s something different and the catching has improved greatly since I first caught a striper when there was snow on the ground. During the late 80’s through 2005 or so when the striper population was at its peak, though most of the wintering fish we caught ranged from 18 to 28 inches, we weren’t fishing for legal sized fish and didn’t keep any when we caught them. Top end for me was in the 38 to 40 inch range, we were doing it primarily for something to do other than watch football on TV and my primary fishing partner and don’t do much ice fishing if there are open water options and this was the best of the lot. We would launch a boat in Norwich, and fish the deep spots from there to the Pequot Bridge where the fish would concentrate. The food sources that brought them in was probably the fall run of peanut and adult menhaden, which would take off when water temps began to drop leaving the stripers behind. I suspect cold temperatures sort of stranded them in place once winter weather set in. We never kept any but none of the literally thousands of fish we caught over many years ever spit up anything during the coldest periods though in the late fall and spring before they moved out of the harbor we would mark schools of bait, most likely bunker. Over the last decade or so population is again improving but when it dropped off as that population of smaller fish matured grew old and either got caught in the ocean or died of old age we lost interest in the dead of winter fishing. Action was too slow. My buddy Eric has had some good fishing west of here on the Housatonic. Personally the long drive to get to those fish was not worth the effort for me personally.
Last fall when temperatures dropped Eric found some fish in the Barn Island area. Small ones mostly as was the usual late season fishing but we had a pretty good day, three of us landed over a hundred schoolies and some small bluefish, fishing from noon until dark. It was a mild sunny day so my aging carcass wasn’t punished too much and it provided a chance to try out some lures I’d acquired, over that spring and summer to see how they looked in the water. I’d not used some for a number of unimportant reasons a couple were purchased for muskellunge and pike so they were way too large to tempt the small schoolies during that trip --- I know they scared a couple fish that followed and closed the distance for a strike but chickened out due to their size.
Late fall is my favorite time to catch blackfish or tautog. You have to pick the days because cold water is unforgiving so staying as dry as possible when on the water this time of year is very important. We used to fish some of the piers in the lower Thames during the holidays. Eric never stops but I take a break to hunt and keep at until I’ve tagged a deer so I miss out on some action. For years I’d join Eric on Sundays because I’d be in the woods during my other free time and days off.
For years we’d fish around the State Pier in New London, but the horrors of 911 ended that, so it was bouncing on sometimes rough seas. During one of those trips targeting blackfish we were having a pretty good day. Sun was out, it was cold but calm and we had tucked into a sunny spot out of the wind. I forget what the limits were at that time but we were keeping decent sized fish because there was a bunch around when the bite slowed down. We weren’t sure if the fish had moved farther under the pier into the shade or simply stopped biting and were getting ready to call it quits. Plus our bait was running low.
Eric hooked a fish on one of his high low rig and then smacked the small blackfish he had on the line and literally bit it in half. One guess and everyone would say, “bluefish”, it was a big one some where in the mid teens pound wise. The largest blue I’d seen in years to that time and since. The photo of that fish and the chopped in half blackfish were sent in with this column. During the summer I’ve had bluefish take cookie cutter bites out of fluke, scup and other fish that were hooked and on their way up off the bottom. Those choppers were decent size often between eight and twelve or so pounds. Nothing quite like that blackfish filleting monster on that early winter day in the lower Thames.
Every time I am on the road lately there are more people towing their boats away from the ocean than towards it where the opposite was the case most of the summer and earlier fall. The Connecticut hunting seasons are opening up which draws interest away from the ocean and into the woods for many outdoors oriented people, myself included. After a mild wet summer and fall, if weather patterns remain similar there will still be some decent weather and fishing conditions until everyone packed their gear in for the Christmas Holidays.