When I was a kid constantly looking for new species to catch and hunt one of the alternates to ice fishing which is my least favorite way of fishing, was the warm water outflows of a power plant. The Montville Power Plant outflow was a popular and productive year round fishing spot and somewhat unique in that it provided a fishery for wintering striped bass. Personally I did catch a few here and there but never did particularly well and preferred to fish open water coves and marinas on the Connecticut River where many species of freshwater fish collected during the winter months. Yellow perch, my favorite of all freshwater "filletables" were abundant in one of those spots that also held some decent sunfish and calico bass (black crappie),
I’d fish the spot with an ultra-light spinning rod, a tiny lead head jig and some meal worms or night crawlers if they were available at the local bait and tackle shop. It was generally fast action and if the cold didn't numb fingers an hour or so would produce many decent sized yellow perch. My limit was somewhere between fifteen and twenty to fillet and was what I call a three beer job. The beer or maybe a cocktail or two also meant there was likely to be some bloodletting until I smartened up and bought one of those chain mail gloves to protect against nicks and cuts when slicing anything, especially slippery fish. I’m fussy about my fish and fillet everything, even the blue gills which creates more opportunity for some minor bloodletting, especially if there are other distractions on TV or hecklers in the kitchen complaining about the scales that are inevitably stuck all over the place.I skin my fish so the scale fall out could be much worse if I scraped scales off like many people.
Those winter and early spring perch fishing trips were and still are one of the annual events I look forward to, though my favorite spot on the Connecticut River no longer allows non boat owners on the property to fish like they once did. Too many people were leaving messes and as always some were there to steal not catch fish.
At one point, I remembered driving through downtown Norwich during the dead of winter and seeing a couple of guys from Massachusetts fishing off the town docks. While I was talking with them they each caught and released a small striper, the limit at the time was something like 32 inches.
Eric and I decided to launch one of our small boats the next day. We’d both caught wintering fish in the harbor over the years but never in spectacular numbers of impressive size. The majority of wintering stripers, I believe are smaller migratory fish that push into an estuary to feed and get trapped by a sudden drop in temperature and a winter storm or two. They ride the winter out in place and continue with their feeding and migration when water temperatures increase the following spring.
What was surprising, as Eric maneuvered his boat towards a deep area in the harbor he began tapping the screen of a brand new fish finder Santa had brought that year, saying either this machine is messed up or we have forty feet of fish under the boat. The surface was fairly clear, I stood up and peered over the side and I could see stripers stacked like cord wood four or five feet down in forty four feet of water.
It was a very cold high pressure day and despite having a portion of the harbor literally filled with sixteen to twenty some inch stripers we only caught and released eight or ten each using jigs with the barbs bent down to minimize damage. Almost every fish was hooked in the upper lip or roof of their mouth so none were harmed. I always like to speculate that being caught and released from a fish's perspective is like an “alien abduction”, and they have a pin hole in their mouth as proof.
That first trip began what became a weekly event from Thanksgiving time until ice out for us over the course of the next twenty years. The striper population was rebuilding and at the peak of that time, we would constantly mark schools of stripers that averaged from ten to twenty feet thick and often a couple of hundred feet long.
One time using n Aqua-Vue underwater camera I snapped a bunch of shots, used the numbers of fish per unit of area, let's say three foot cubes that we mapped out by driving over the fish with the boat to estimate the bottom area the fish were covering. Later that night I did some simple math using our depth of school and area measurements and came up with a possible range of ten to twenty two thousand small stripers wintering in Norwich Harbor down to the Pequot Bridge near Mohegan Sun Casino on the Thames.
Like any kind of fishing despite the numbers some days they were more cooperative than others. During an average dropping tide, which we found to be most productive with our lines in the water for four or five hours we averaged fifty stripers caught and released each. Many times we did double that and our record for one afternoon was something like 272 fish all released in great shape. Needless to say, we did occasionally catch a fish we could recognize by the hole in its face and some unique markings or scars. I even had one fish whose stripes were not straight but kind of like lightning bolts with sections maybe four inches above and below each other not end to end, that I caught later that year on the south side of Fishers Island. The fish was about 22 inches a small but uniquely marked individual so identification was easy.
Sadly as stripers gained in popularity and regulations changed, they got tighter on other species and remained at 28 inches for stripers. (This length is not quite large enough to sufficiently protect females but that’s a long complex story.)
I have not even fished the Thames for wintering stripers in a few years based on a few disappointing trips Eric made those years while I was on deer stand or stalking white tails in the areas I had permission to hunt. Never one to quit and because he did not hunt he went exploring. A few years ago he made a long trek through heavy traffic to fish the wintering stripers in the Housatonic River and did well, not as well as the Thames during its heyday, but good enough that he’s gone back a number of times since. I made one trip after heavy rain and a cold spell during which three of us caught only a fish or two and considering the traffic, which bugs me even when I’m not driving my winter striper fishing days are over unless the population expands enough to rebuild the once huge wintering population in the Thames.
Where's that dam ice auger, I have a hankering for some fresh panfish and a jig and an ultra-light rod is the only way to meet that desire.
This time of year there are sportsman’s shows in the region to visit and if there’s open water somewhere there’s no reason the lures, rods, reels guns or whatever may have fallen under the Christmas tree can’t be taken out for a trial, as long as you don’t forget to pick up your 2020 licenses and shoot any guns in a safe place such as a club or sand bank where you have permission to be.
Have a happy, safe and “fishy” 2020.