Happy New Year! January is a weird month fishing-wise for me as well as most of the boating population in southern New England. It’s close enough to the end of the fishing season to still be fresh in our minds, but it’s also just removed long enough that we begin to yearn for bent rods and salty spray. I take advantage of any opportunity this month presented by Mother Nature to take a stroll on my local beach, looking for treasures in the form of beach glass, the odd fishing lure or whatever else happens to wash ashore. Most days I return with little of anything of value, but the medicine for my soul is immeasurable. Aside from the usual array of sea ducks and lone seagulls, with most private boats now long put away for the season, there appears to be little in the way of life to be seen above the water on Long Island Sound.
When it comes to fishing there are three options I see this month in the form of cod, striped bass, and traveling south. Beginning with cod, I have a love/hate relationship with this fishery. I came into my own as an angler around the time that the southern New England cod fishery started to go downhill, and I really got into it when the outlook was bleak at best. Due to this, I’ve never had an exceptional outing, but I always put a few fish in the cooler. The easiest and most reliable way to target this fishery is by going on one of the few remaining headboats that still sail for cod in the winter, and your options in Connecticut and Rhode Island are pretty much limited to Point Judith in Rhode Island and Niantic/Stonington in Connecticut. The fishing is straightforward with multi-hook rigs baited with clams doing the lion’s share of the annual damage. At times there can be ok to decent action had on jigs and teasers—especially if there are schools of mackerel or herring on the fishing grounds—so it is always a good idea to pack some jigging gear. I find that jigs in the 8-to-16-ounce range are sufficient in the waters off Block Island where the boats fish, but I always pack a couple of 20-ounce jigs “just in case.”
There is plenty of bycatch to be had along with cod with ling and bergals (also referred to as ocean perch, cunner or choggies), and both make fine table fare. I’ve been told that ling doesn’t freeze well and therefore I eat them fresh. As to the bergals, I was turned onto them a few years ago on a trip with the Black Hawk. We settled in on some hard bottom southeast of Block Island, and in short order, I was reeling in the biggest bergals I had ever seen. When the first one came over the rail, one of the mates told me they tasted like small blackfish, and by day’s end, I had nearly two dozen specimens in my cooler to go along with a few cod and ling. I can assure you that they were as good to eat as they were sold to me, and from that day forward I have kept every single one landed that looked large enough to fillet regardless of the time of the year.
The next option is something of which I mentally toil over the promotion of each year, and it’s targeting over-wintering striped bass in the many tidal rivers of southern New England. My conflict comes from not wanting to put additional pressure on some of the more popular spots as well as the irresponsible nature I see in some anglers who feel the need to run up catch numbers for little more than a bunch of likes on social media. I assume you’re on the responsible team here, but if you partake in this fishery you’ll likely run into members of the other team.
Pretty much every river that doesn’t freeze solid and runs into the salt from well into Canada on down to Connecticut and beyond will hold some striped bass in the winter. While the larger rivers such as the Providence, Thames, Connecticut, and Housatonic get all the press, I find hitting the smaller rivers—many small enough to cast a ½-ounce jig clear across with little effort—provides the most fun and personal reward. There is something special about figuring it out on a small scale that appeals to me, but it often involves a lot of trial and error to get into some action.
For those looking to go the easier route, it takes little more than launching at a state boat ramp on one of the aforementioned rivers and then simply finding the crowd of boats. Wintering striped bass are not difficult to locate in the winter as they seek out the deeper stretches of the rivers, and once there they pack up into large, dense schools of fish. Jigs are the easiest way to catch them; pack a selection of sizes from ¼ up to 2 ounces to cover most situations, and tip them with any manner of curly tail shad body or fluke-type rubber you have. Be prepared to get frustrated at times when you see what appears to be a massive school of fish on your electronics that all but refuse to feed as this is also the way of the winter striped bass. They often go somewhat dormant, usually when the water goes cold in short order, and resist the urge to resort to snagging your catch. While the occasional accidentally snagged fish is unavoidable, doing so with purpose is the coward’s way out. Improved action is often seen following a period of above-average temps, especially if combined with a little rain.
Another option location-wise for wintering striped bass is to fish in one of the many marinas that dot the coast. Assuming you store your boat at a marina over the winter, you can perform double duty by stopping by to check on the boat while also making a few casts around the marina while you’re in town. So long as the water doesn’t freeze over solid, you might be surprised to find out just how many schoolies take up residence around the dock pilings and mud flats of these coastal havens. If you’re really lucky, you might also find white perch willing to strike a small jig fished slowly near the bottom. Tip the jig with a grass shrimp or nightcrawler and your odds of success increase.
Last up this month to find fishing success—all winter long really—involves some travel. I am not talking about hopping on a plane and heading to Florida to fish (although that sounds like a really good idea right about now), I refer instead to a somewhat short ride south to New Jersey for blackfish. Every year I talk with my friends about taking a ride to the Garden State in the early winter, but I have yet to actually act on the idea. With this in mind, I’m not the best one to seek advice on exactly where to go so do as I will do when I finally give in to the urge and check with Nick Honachefsky who writes the New Jersey report for Long Island Boating World for some true local intel.