Schoolie stripers provide fast fun all winter long in Connecticut’s tidal rivers.
Rods? Check. Tackle bags? Check. Lunch? Check. Six layers of clothing? Check. Three massive Thermoses of scalding coffee? Check.
We had everything we needed to venture out onto the river. However, as we slid the 16-foot Sea Nymph into the icy waters, I had doubts that the trip would be worth it—standing on a boat, floating down a river at 5:30 a.m. seemed like the last thing I should be doing on a mid-December morning. And, for the better part of three hours, I was correct.
We scoured the upper half of the river without marking so much as a dot on the fishfinder. It also didn’t raise our spirits that we hadn’t seen another boat in those first few hours. After a fruitless hunt on the upper half of the river, we decided to head downriver along with the tide. We took our time going down, hoping the sonar would pick up some sign of life.
Then, as we came around a sharp bend, things took a drastic turn for the better. About two-dozen boats were spread out over a half-mile stretch of the river, fishing rods bent on almost every one of them. And the fishfinder—my goodness, the fishfinder—it was lit up from top to bottom with that red glow of life. We had finally found what we were looking for.
We spent the next four hours hooking up with holdover striped bass up to 35 inches. We were taking fish on nearly every cast and loving every minute of it. Between the three of us on the boat that day, we landed 200 fish in that four-hour period. The cold air and stiff wind no longer mattered—it was just flat-out fun.
The winter months often provide a “hibernation” period for many Northeast anglers, a time to perform maintenance on your gear, catch up on lost sleep, and fatten up for the spring run. Winter months can be brutally cold up here, and, for those who choose not to brave the ice, the fishing opportunities can be limited.
There is one option, however, that is often overlooked by avid anglers. For those who can get past a little chill down the spine and some iced-up rod guides, there is always the tidal river. And the Housatonic River in Milford, Connecticut offers some incredible fishing for school-sized striped bass fishing from November through May.
As the fall run dwindles and the air and water temperatures drop, juvenile striped bass begin to make their way into the Housatonic. This tends to happen anytime between October and December, depending on the water temperatures. These fish become what are called holdover fish, as they take residence in the river and hold there until spring. Usually by the time December hits, you can find hordes of them from the mouth of the river all the way up to the Derby Dam in Derby, Connecticut. It’s not uncommon to find schools up to a quarter-mile long. The sheer number of fish that hold in the river can be impressive.
The average size of the striped bass taking winter residence in the Housatonic would certainly be classified in the “schoolies” category, as they most commonly fall in the 10- to 20-inch range. However, anglers who learn the popular spots and techniques of the river will be rewarded with their fair share of keeper bass over 28 inches. Although not the common catch, the river has yielded stripers well into the 30-pound range.
Consider The Elements
These winter stripers that make their way into the river are every bit the same breed of fish you will find scouring Long Island Sound during the summer months. With that said, you must take into consideration the change in environment the fish are experiencing and apply it to your techniques. Water temperature is one element that is often overlooked when considering its effect on the behavior of a striped bass. We’ve experienced water temperatures into the low 30s on the river. When a generally sluggish fish like a striped bass is sitting around in icy water, it can get even more lethargic. This is not to say that these fish will not bite, or even put up a good fight, but slowing down the retrieve speed on your lure is a must.
Structure is another element that must be taken into consideration. The Housatonic River does contain its fair share of rock piles, bridge pilings and docks, but they don’t always hold river stripers as you’d expect. Some of the schools in the Housatonic are simply too large to rely on standard structure. Those who are familiar with river fishing know that structure in a river isn’t always obvious. River fish will often orient to bends in the river, coves, eddies, channels and tidal creeks—basically, any change in the river’s hydrography that allows the fish to escape the full force of the river’s flow. Being a tidal river, the Housatonic has an ebb-and-flood flow with the change of tides. Different areas of the river seem to yield success with the change of tides.
Speaking of flow, tide changes can play a very important role in fishing success on the river. Certain areas can be absolutely dynamite during the ebb tide. When the fishing is hot, schools of holdover stripers stack up from the river floor to the surface as they wait for food to be carried down in the river’s flow. It’s common to hook up on every cast during these times, as these sluggish winter stripers tend to get a little more active. In my experience, the flood tide has been a trickier time to find fish. The schools tend to relocate in the river and, at times, be much pickier. However, regardless of tide, there are areas of the river that seem to consistently produce. Learning the river and adapting to the change in the behavior of the holdover stripers is vital to putting together a successful season.
Weapons of Choice
Perhaps one of the nicest aspects of venturing onto the Housy is that you need minimal gear and tackle for a successful day on the water.
Although there is the occasional river “cow” that gets pulled up from the depths of the river, most of the fish can be handled with freshwater-sized setups. We use medium to medium-heavy 6 ½-foot and 7-foot rods, both spinning and casting. Fast-action blanks are best for jigging, which is usually the most effective technique for scoring a river striper. These rods allow us to handle the larger schoolies on the river while still having plenty of fun with the smaller fish.
Jigging the bottom with soft plastics has been the most successful technique for us. The Fin-S Fish is a favorite, but Zoom Super Flukes, Slug-Gos and Hogys have all produced fish. The size of the jigheads we pair these baits up with varies depending on conditions, but weights from 3/8-ounce to 1-ounce usually do the trick. The technique we use is quite simple: cast upcurrent, let the lure hit the bottom, and slowly jig it back to the boat. The degree of jigging action will depend on how aggressive the fish are. There have been times when only a slight twitch will conjure up bites, and other times where the fish are looking for a drastic pop off the bottom. Vary your retrieve speed and degree of jig to see what the fish are looking for.
Umbrella rigs, swimbaits, and crankbaits have also proven to be effective weapons on the river, especially when the bite is hot. Umbrella rigs can be absolutely deadly when retrieved through a hungry school. Jerkbaits, such as SP Minnows and big swimbaits, have done very well when retrieved around points, eddies, and drop-offs. Many of the river’s larger fish seem to hold in these areas as ambush points and are more than willing to reveal themselves when presented with a larger offering.
As you will see on your first venture onto the Housy, there is no standard vessel of choice. We’ve seen everything from 32-foot center consoles to 11-foot rowboats out there. Our 16-foot aluminum boat paired with a 25 horsepower hand tiller has proven its worth time and again on the river. Regardless of vessel, there is one piece of equipment that has been vital on multiple occasions, and that is the trolling motor. There are times when the schools of fish can be extremely skittish, and cruising into their mass with your gas motor will get you no fish and a few dirty looks. Trolling motors allow for a silent breach into the schools, which sometimes can be crucial. Wind can also be a major factor on the river, and at times it’s almost impossible to sit on top of the schools without anchoring. However, with technology like Humminbird’s i-Pilot (which links your trolling motor up to your GPS), you will have a great advantage when it comes to staying on top of the schools.
As you might have assumed, it can get cold on the river. Layers are essential to helping you stay comfortable. When the wind is whipping, sunglasses and even face masks can really come in handy. Hand-warmers and hot coffee also can’t hurt. We have learned in the past that it’s better to be over-dressed than under-dressed.
Winter fishing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who are looking to keep busy during the winter months and avoid a serious case of Northeast cabin fever, the Housatonic River is a great option. The typical holdover striped bass may not be a trophy, but it will put up a fight—and who knows, you might land one of those elusive Housatonic River cows.
IF YOU GO…
Sunnyside Boat Ramp
418 River Road in Shelton
Trailer permit required, contact city of Shelton for information.
Caroline Street in Derby
Unimproved ramp for kayak and cartop launching.
TC Marine Bait & Tackle
445 River Rd, Shelton, CT
Captain Ian Devlin