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Winter doesn't mean the end of fishing

At least one spot in eastern Connecticut sees the ‘hot’ fishing November through January

At least one spot in eastern Connecticut sees the ‘hot’ fishing November through January

When most people are trading their fishing tackle for snow shovels, anglers in the know head to the upper Thames River in eastern Connecticut, to a spot that can be fished through the winter.

The bulk of these fish are schoolies, but many keepers are mixed in. The “hot” fishing starts in November, peaks in December and early January, and continues sporadically until spring, depending on the weather.

This rare winter fishery is near the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.

I’m not usually a gambling man, but I was betting pods of stripers were foraging along the channel edges fronting the casino’s 34-story hotel site one morning last November. Reason being, river tidal waters were on the ebb and schools of immature “peanut” bunker, or pogies, were being swept from Trading Cove out into the river channel.

We arrived on scene just after dawn to find numerous gulls airborne and cormorants were clustered and diving, all of which signaled potential action. As we idled up to the stone dike by buoy No. 41, one cormorant broke the surface close alongside my Boston Whaler. Startled, it regurgitated a stomach load of small pogies that floated away. Almost immediately, surfacing stripers appeared, and in a flash every silvery morsel was gone.

Before our leaders disappeared into the water on the troll, we hooked up, my angler complaining about the speed with which his light line was leaving the reel. Minutes later several chunky school stripers were carrying away American Littoral Society tags. It was Thanksgiving week, river temps were in the low 50s, and both striped bass and bluefish were gorging on small bunker.

Striper fishing on the Cape and along southern Rhode Island and Connecticut beaches slows in November, but striper activity in the river is just beginning.

Developing a strategy

I’m amazed at the number of anglers on the river who fail to actively look for fish with their depth/fish finders. Instead, they troll or cast their offerings blind, hoping to strike it rich. When they finish the day skunked back at the launch ramp, they complain about their poor success.

When asked about ours, response is either double- or triple-digit numbers, which, of course, is disbelieved. Since I tag the majority of fish boated, I wave a handful of tag cards in their face, but that usually doesn’t make believers out of them either. But they would if they just followed a little good advice.

First, make sure your sounder is working well. Forget about the middle of the river and channel depths. Work along the channel edges for a stretch, first one side, then the other. Stripers love channel edges, patrolling them in pursuit of bait or searching along its slope as they move with the tide. Experience indicates these fish cover considerable distance with the daily tides.

At mid or low tide north of the Mohegan-Pequot Bridge (Route 2A), numerous dikes flanking either side of the river typically show their granite tops. They can serve to guide you along channel edges when searching for fish. However, covered at high water, I’ve witnessed their effectiveness in curling over propeller blades or removing lower units.

Temperatures and tides

Be aware this time of year water temperatures in the river fluctuate considerably. In the upper basin, after a cold snap, surface waters under the influence of the Shetucket River may range 3 to 5 degrees colder than just south of the Mohegan-Pequot Bridge. Water temps can also vary considerably due to the tidal stage and time of day. These temperatures south of the bridge appear to be more influenced by that of the lower river and Sound waters. Although bluefish can be found ranging into the Norwich basin, reduced salinity and lower water temps tend to keep them south of the bridge.

It’s this author’s opinion that water temperatures have a greater influence on bait (bunker) movements than on striper movements. Some years, early cold snaps chase bait from upper reaches of the river, but prolonged mild weather can find surface action occurring long after Turkey Day.

Countless times when finding a school of bass, action ceases after boating awhile. Try searching up or down the channel edge, depending on the tide.

Once you mark again, action should resume. It’s not too hard to follow a moving school along the channel edge for some distance, catching all the while. Keep in mind these fish move with the tide, and can do so farther and faster than you might imagine, upwards of a quarter-mile in 20 minutes.

Should you encounter massive schools feeding on peanut bunker, action can be fast and furious, whether casting or trolling. Once we find the fish trolling, we pick up the spin or fly rod with confidence of further action.

But don’t assume once you’ve found them, they’re going to remain there. It’s not easy to stay on top of the fish, as the window of opportunity can be slammed shut should the bait disperse, or you drift off them, or the tide quits.

On the fly

Not too long ago an old friend, Bill Krueger, was aboard with his fly rod and I was apprehensive about his success with it. Boy, was I ever wrong. We ended the day with 75 stripers, including 25 taken casting the fly in about 90 minutes of effort. Bill uses barbless hooks, but very few fish managed to shake off. If you enjoy catching stripers this way, here’s your chance to extend the season up to Christmas or beyond — in fact several days well into January he tallied high double-digit numbers

His tackle included a stiff 8W Diamondback rod, a 10W AirFlo S7 fast-sink line, and Lamson Lightspeed reel. He tied his Clouser on a 3/0 Mustad No. 34007 hook, barb mashed down, with an all-pearl Polarflash wing and 1/4-inch nickel-plated dumbbell eyes. The leader, just under 5 feet, with 20-pound test fluorocarbon tippet, was tied to the fly with a Trilene knot. Longer leaders tend to defeat the purpose of fast sink lines.

Effects of the moon

Our best fishing typically occurs on either full- or new-moon tides. If you’re a striper addict, that shouldn’t surprise you. For whatever reasons, my records indicate an ebbing tide produced slightly better action. Keep in mind the surface fresh water in the upper river runs seaward 24 hours a day, while a deep saltwater wedge rises and falls nearly3 feet beneath it.

If mild weather persists into the late fall, and waters temps stay in the 50-degree F range, fish continue to invade the shallows searching for prey. On the dropping tide, spots like Trading Cove or Poquetanuck Cove will have bass congregating on their front along channel edges.

I prefer to time my efforts during early-morning ebb tides on either moon. Make a note: High tide in the Norwich basin occurs about 1 hour, 20 minutes prior to the start of the ebb in The Race, or about 1 hour, 40 minutes before high tide in Boston or Bridgeport. If you like to plan ahead, high water at dawn in the basin occurs three to four days ahead of either moon, regardless of the month.

Potential hot spots

• Check out the center of the basin opposite the west-bank loading dock. The channel here curves eastward toward the park/flagpole area. Once the ebb starts, river currents strengthen, and fish fall downriver toward the old brick (former) Thermos plant.

• Channel marker 43, again on the west side, overlooks a steep-sided channel that runs south of it toward the dike in front of Trading Cove. Be on the lookout for gulls, cormorants or breaking fish in this spot. For whatever reasons there seem to be fish in this area regardless of the tide, with the dropping tide seemingly best.

• Marker 39, again on the west side, is one of my favorite spots. With deep water right up to the stones of the dike that run northward, casting either a deep running plug or a fly on a fast sink line usually brings action. Fish seemingly hold here regardless of the tidal stage.

• Try casting or trolling immediately along the wooden barriers of the Mohegan/Pequot Bridge, as the adjacent depths frequently hold fish on either tide. Experience indicates better action is had around low tide.

Try these lures

We’ve had good luck casting the (alewife color) 4-inch Lunker City Fin-S-Fish, on 1/8th-ounce jig heads, particularly when fish are harassing peanut bunker. Along deepwater channel edges, a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce jig head with a Zoom White Super Salty Fluke tail knocks them silly.

Plugs like the deep-diving Rapala Magnum CD-9 SM in silver blue, Bomber Long A, 3/8th-ounce in blue- silver (B24AXSIL), and Rapala Husky Jerk HJ-12S 4.75-inch in silver-black have offered great action. Keep in mind we’re fishing these on 10-pound test Berkley Fireline, smoke color, using Shimano 2000 spin reels, coupled to 5-foot light action spin rods.

With light line at moderate retrieve speed, these plugs will dig deep into channel edge depths. Be aware at times wind and current will bring both subsurface and floating leaves along that can hamper presentation, so it’s best to temporarily avoid areas where they are in high numbers. Simply come back prospecting at a later time,

Important details

State law requires you be in possession of a current Connecticut freshwater fishing license when fishing the Thames north of the Interstate 95 bridge. Current regulations allow anglers to possess two stripers over 28-inch TL.

If you want an update on action or would like a detailed chart of the upper river and Norwich basin area, check with the Fish Connection shop on Route 12 in Preston, or call them at (860) 885-1739.

If launching and retrieving your boat at the ramp at the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park, on Route 2, check to see where others are parking to avoid a possible ticket.

Take it from me, you’ve got much better odds of scoring with numbers of bass than at the gaming tables of the casino.

Try the river — I’ll bet you come away a winner. n

Capt. Al Anderson owns and operates Prowler Charters out of Narragansett, R.I., and fishes for tuna, stripers, sharks, cod and more from his 42-foot NC Custom Express sportfisher. Phone: (401) 783-8487.; www.NetSense. Net/~prowler