Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming and we’ll all be getting fat, plus the dog, the cat and that basement rat. Few things I enjoy more than waking up early on both of those holidays to the smell of a turkey slow roasting overnight in the oven. The options for wetting a line are not as numerous and depending on how the weather is going, will determine how those options play out.
As a lifelong angler my claim to infamy is: “I have been skunked fishing for everything in New England’s fresh, brackish and salt waters.” The first decade or so of my adult working life as a fisheries biologist with a spanking new degree or two was interesting, often fun though occasionally nasty.
My first job post-graduation was as a biologist’s assistant working for the state marine biologist. Being low man on the totem pole had absolutely no perks. One time when a trap net on the lower Connecticut River, could not be tended for a few days due to a major storm it got balled up we had to take it out so the hundred or so menhaden that had been caught and killed had to be disposed of and the net scrubbed.
Trap nets were used for general sampling. I was elected to do the job of cleaning the rotting stinky amalgamation of dead fish and getting that net in working order with a wire brush and garden hose. Grossest thing I have ever done and that includes removing all clothing above the waist in order to remove the innards from a moose I shot a few years ago.
As a result of cleaning that net, a many hour job, to this day over four decades later, opening a can of tuna, cat food or pretty much anything even meat based dog food and soup for me gives me a twinge in my gut. I love tuna fresh, sandwiches, and soup, but if possible I get someone else to open the can. It is funny how pleasurable smells along with the awful ones stick with you forever.
Working in the marine district and spending most of my free time fishing, I met some very accomplished and knowledgeable anglers. As a writer, I have had the pleasure of meeting with and trading stories and information with many of the best writers and accomplished sportsmen and pros in this region.
During my tenure as a marine recreational fisheries biologist, the focus of the program I worked on was to determine how many anglers were out there, what they were targeting, what they were actually catching along with the sizes of the fish they were bringing in as well as numbers of the species they may have released.
An offshoot and parallel part of that endeavor was participating in the early stages of the coastal striped bass management program which included working with and talking to volunteer anglers who maintained individual logbooks of their fishing successes and failures. The point was to get an idea as to the habits of what could be considered to be average to expert anglers, to aid in the targeted species management that was being developed during that time and continues to this day.
Similar work was being done along the entire coast by every state. The data from which helped formulate the regulations, size and catch limits we follow today. Regulations that have helped species in trouble recover and to maintain our marine fisheries resources.
Based on tag return data it was determined that a good portion of the striper catch from western Connecticut were fish born in the Hudson River, New York. The catch from the eastern end of the sound had a mix of Hudson River fish and bass from the Chesapeake Bay and a couple of smaller spawning populations along the coast.
I am old enough, having turned 71 this past year, that as a young man from my teens through twenties who learned to fish for stripers from the late sixties and seventies, which, was a period of striped bass abundance that faded under heavy fishing pressure and a few poor breeding seasons. At that time every spring when herring were also plentiful, the stripers would chase schools of these fish up every major river to the base of their spawning streams.
Anglers would go to one of the herring runs and scoop what was then an unregulated population for use as hook baits while others stocked freezers with these oily fish for use as lobster trap bait or hook bait later in the summer. It didn’t take long for those runs to disappear under heavy pressure and effects of dams and pollution in their spawning brooks and streams.
As a young kid my fishing was limited to a few ponds and streams within bicycling range of home, primary target being largemouth bass and pickerel. The point being lures and techniques I learned catching largemouth bass often translated very well, with heavier gear and larger lures, to catching striped bass.
Once I got my license and could drive, angling horizons expanded tremendously. That is when I began making runs to fish the Thames. The local “sharpies” all had pickup trucks or junk mobiles they used to carry a garbage can with water and live hook baits while the pros had live tanks or large aerated coolers to transport their hook baits live. Live bait runs are a potentially dirty business, due to the slopping of fishy smelling water through what can be stop and go traffic, when a quick “stop” could make a terrible mess. I bought a fifty-dollar Junker car for transporting live bait.
It was an ugly beat up pig of a car, even kind of looked like a pig with big rounded fenders and sucked gas like the pig it was. Surprisingly, it ran well and lasted me a few years until one fateful buckeye run through traffic. I had to hit the brakes hard and my entire garbage can with ten or so live buckeyes fell over and flooded the car.
I was angrier about potentially losing my live buckeyes than the mess. I’d long since drilled holes in key places so spilled water would drain out. Heavy mats kept pebbles and rain out as long as the bricks that held them down didn’t slide around too much. Needless to say, I can't recall anyone ever riding in that pig beside me, some bait, blue crabs and fish ---the pig’s stench was so awful no one I knew would ride it.
Sadly too many hard-core excellent anglers, on top of heavy commercial pressure in breeding areas decimated the striper population. In states that had large striper commercial fisheries, rules were lax or non-existent. That factor with a couple of poor breeding years due to weather caused what I call the first major disappearance of striped bass during the 70’s.
That huge loss of income at all levels of both commercial and sport fisheries got the states to begin setting regulations that were close to if not uniform and within a decade or so, striped bass came back in large numbers under sufficient protection via size and catch limits.
Sadly during that same era of miss management or no management nearly all of the popular sport and commercial species collapsed or were severely reduced primarily due to over harvest. Ironically the fish that came out of the protection of that era are the giant stripers that grace the pages and covers of local fishing magazines.
More recently a combination of heavy angler pressure on the large breeders and some poor breeding years have dropped the striper population to the level we are currently experiencing, kind of a midpoint between the best I’ve seen during the days of buckeye slinging to their decimation during the 70’s.
During that rebuilding period for a decade or so from late November and December through spring, when the stripers left Norwich Harbor we did a great deal of catch and release fishing for them, using single hook jigs with the barbs flattened so minimal damage was done to the fish. One winter I caught a small striper with a tag in its back, that I had stuck in it a year before while tagging fish for one of the programs going on at that time. That same fish hit my lure again off Watch Hill Light later that summer. Either that fish was stupid, unlucky or a glutton for punishment.
Sadly the winter fishery in the upper Thames hasn’t been worth launching a boat for a while. A friend has been making a long drive to the Housatonic River and having some fun during the cold months fishing on what is a larger wintering population than the Thames. I despise a long drive through often-heavy traffic, even when I am not at the wheel, so only made that trip once a couple of years ago. The fish had lockjaw, we caught a couple total and as a result, I couldn't’ be bribed to do that painful journey again for three-dozen keepers.