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CT-RI Fishing Report

I have always had a love/hate relationship with the month of April. On the one hand it means that the open-water fishing season is basically upon us here in Southern New England. Seasons are opening, fish are returning to local waters, and those who winter-over are transitioning into feeding mode as opposed to surviving mode. The entire season lays ahead filled with nothing but promise – how can you help but like that?
But then there is the other side of me, the side that knows it’s go-time and I still have a lot of prep work to get accomplished. From tying leaders to finishing winter rod building projects to knocking tasks off the honey-do list, the off-season is simply never long enough.
For me, the 2024 season is kicking off on a bit of a different foot than usual, as I’ll be starting April off some 1,400 miles to the south in Florida. My target species will be tarpon and snook as opposed to blackfish and flounder. My attire will be shorts and a T-shirt instead of rain gear and a heavy coat. I am excited to finally get a chance to visit my dad and perhaps get my son connected to his first-ever tarpon, but somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, as I type this, I know it means I’ll be that much further behind in my season back home.

So, what of that season back home? April has taken on a bit of a new feel in recent years, very much so since 2020 and the COVID/Coronavirus pandemic. What I mean by this is that when the world began shutting down and many people were forced to stay home, a lot of them turned to fishing. Where in past years the word was that the spring fishing was not worth the effort in April – blackfish were still sleeping, weakfish were not present in catchable numbers, stripers were still to the south and so-on – this mass of anglers who just wanted to get out of their houses were surprised to find willing fish at the ready. While I am not going to claim I knew just how good April could be before COVID hit, I will say that I always began fishing in the fourth month and my success has always been consistently decent if not good to even great at times.
Striped bass are the easiest, or maybe better described as most consistent fish, to target in April. You’re going to hear debates and theories as to whether those first fish are fresh or holdovers, so here’s my take – most if not all of the fish caught in April spent the winter here. Sea lice means diddly squat in determining whether a fish just arrived or simply spent a few days in the salt, but the armchair quarterback will most certainly tell you differently. There is no need to argue which came first, the chicken or the egg here, as the positive result is that there are fish to be caught!
April striper hunting is pretty simple, and the more spots I find them in over the years, the more I learn just how much the striped bass is a creature of habit and easy to read. First up, bait is important. Whether fresh or holdover fish, they’re going to be looking for a good meal. In April, this can come in many forms from worms crawling out of the mud to bunker rolling out of the rivers, but for me the best spring forage is the river herring. While river herring numbers are nowhere near historic levels, they can still be found in numbers large enough to attract hungry striped bass. Find an above-average herring run and you have the making for some good fishing. I begin poking around my local herring runs in March each year, excitedly texting a few friends when I locate the first seasonal scouts. Some years I find herring as early as late February, other months I don’t see them until the first week of April, but regardless of when they arrive, I wait for the first stretch of back-to-back-to-back warm and sunny days to start fishing. I know they’re around before I head out – social media tells me that – but I have a few traditions I like to keep and when the conditions align, I know it’s go-time!
Before I get to my favorite April fish to target – blackfish – I want to mention two species I haven’t put much time into targeting in recent years but which I plan to change in 2024. They are the weakfish and the winter flounder. Both are considered unicorns by many, but April, perhaps even more so May, provides a good shot at landing them both in Southern New England. Your best bet for the winter flounder is to run up to the Quincy, Massachusetts area, but as I now live on the Connecticut shoreline, I plan to find some locally. I have been speaking with a few locals who have been doing it quietly, poking out a few fish here and there every spring, and the challenge intrigues me, as it has been probably 30 years since I landed a Connecticut winter flounder. Think shallow, soft, muddy bottom when putting together winter flounder spots. Marinas, coves, small tidal rivers and the likes all host possibilities, but I also know of some more open water areas where they are being caught with just enough regularity to pique my interest.
The weakfish is a far easier goal to achieve as I targeted them pretty regularly up until about 4 or 5 years ago, and in the time since I have added several likely new spots to find them. Weakfish move into similar waters as the winter flounder in the spring, but they can be more large bait oriented as some of the best weakfish bites I have ever been a part of or been tipped off to were focused on adult bunker. A 10-plus-pound weakie has no problem chomping down a large bunker, and a fish like that in today’s fishery is a trophy in most anyone’s book!
Last up in the blackfish. It will come as no secret to anyone who has read my columns in the past that I love to target blackfish, and April is the annual kick-off of the season in local waters. I really dug into spring blackfishing in last April’s instalment, but in short, I hold fast to the idea that much of what is considered gospel on this fishery is nothing but unfounded conjecture. Soft mouths, sleepy fish, odd locations; it’s all phooey to me! I target blackfish much the same throughout the season, I simply find that in the spring there are fewer non-target species to contend with so the fishing can feel different. Crabs are still a great bait option, but now soft baits such as clams, sandworms, mussels and even periwinkles can be used as you don’t need to fend off countless hordes of porgies and cunner. Where these baits hold an edge over the standby crab is in their ability to set out a seductive scent trail.
One last point to make, there is no denying that spring blackfish are a bit sluggish, but this is not because they’re sleepy! The water at the bottom of the ocean is cold in the spring, and this is nowhere more evident than when you land that first tog of the year, and it is physically cold in your hand. Fish are cold blooded, so it only makes sense that when they are in chilly water that they will not have the same spunk, as one landed in early summer would demonstrate.