Late-Winter Holdovers - The Fisherman

Late-Winter Holdovers

2018 3 Late Winter Holdovers Catch
The author landed this “average sized” striped bass on an early March trip last year following several days of spring rains.

The forecast on the TV called for unusually high overnight temperatures for mid-March, as it was predicted to only dip into the mid-40s. The elevated river flows, brought on by the previous week’s monsoon-like rain, had finally subsided to fishable levels once again. Cursing myself for being so addicted to striped bass fishing that I’d leave a warm house in the middle of a winter evening, I made the short drive to the river for the first outing of the young season. As I stepped into the water, I noticed the dimply swirls of a few early-run alewives along the banks. I fired a 9-inch soft plastic stick bait into the current and immediately hooked up to a bass of about 15 pounds; a very welcome reward after a three-month striper hiatus. I went on to land about a dozen fish ranging in size from 20 inches to 20 pounds on that particular outing, making it very easy to see why late-winter striped bass fishing has become so popular in recent years. As with any form of fishing, doing a little of your own homework will greatly increase your odds of success with holdover striped bass.

Scout a Spot

Two factors come into play when looking for a productive winter striper spot and they hold true throughout most striped bass fishing scenarios. The first factor that must be considered is the proximity of a spot to deeper water. Deep water is essential to winter striped bass survival, as they congregate in these areas due to the more consistent temperatures found there. In large tidal rivers, deep water is often found in the form of river channels or dredged coves, and a quick scan of any river chart will provide this information. Forming dense schools, holdover bass roam these areas for most of the winter. Look for areas where the main river channel comes closest to the river’s banks. These locations are best suited to shore-bound anglers as they can put you within easy casting distance of the drop-off. These areas also serve as excellent locations to try during the evening when stripers venture up and out of the channels to look for food in the shallower water that has warmed in the afternoon sun.

Equally important to proximity to deep water is finding areas with defined current. While some river coves may offer nice deep water, what they sometimes lack is current, especially if you are trying to fish the back portion of the cove. In large tidal rivers, areas of localized current often holds significant numbers of fish. Large schools of bass orient themselves in the current, sometimes staying for an entire tide before departing to roam another section of the river. Look for cove mouths, points or defined bars that create localized current, and focus your efforts in those spots. These locations are sure to hold fish at some point during the winter. These basic principles of depth and current can be applied to any major tidal river system in New England and beyond.

March Madness

While the entire winter can provide good fishing for holdover stripers, I have found March to be my favorite time of the winter to get out on the river. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that spring is just around the corner, and anticipation is running high. More likely is the fact that March often equals better fishing for relatively large fish in tidal river systems. While you may not encounter the numbers of little schoolies that you would in the early winter, late-winter night bites are often dominated by fish ranging from just under 28 inches right on up to 20 pounds or so. Of course, this all depends on the type of weather in the region, as March can be very finicky in New England. I usually look for a stretch of several days with daytime highs of at least 50 degrees. This is usually enough to warm up the rivers by a couple of degrees and get bass looking for food.

As March wears on, some tidal river systems receive a small influx of early-run alewives, again, given the temperatures are sufficient. It is during this period that I turn my attention to targeting confluences of rivers, both large and small. Even if you can only manage to find a small stream entering the main river, this will often be enough to do the trick. Even small streams cut channels out into the main river, providing deeper water and some enhanced current. These areas also attract any early-run alewives and subsequently some decent-sized bass.

2018 3 Late Winter Holdovers Fish
Usually all it takes is a couple days of warmer weather to get the local holdover striped bass population in a feeding mood.

River Etiquette and Conservation

As previously mentioned, it seems that within the past decade, winter fishing for holdover striped bass has exploded in popularity. Perhaps it is an increase in striper fishermen, or maybe social media has driven otherwise small, local fisheries to become better-known throughout the region. Unfortunately, this increase in popularity has not come without controversy as local fishermen often compete with out-of-towners for access in an increasingly competitive environment. I cannot stress enough just how important it is to respect locals and their spots when fishing a winter bite. In holdover striped bass fishing, there are very few secret spots, and it seems the same handful of locations receive most of the pressure. Try to avoid posting pictures on social media that feature easily recognizable features. I can say with great certainty that you will regret doing this if you plan on returning to that spot the following night; suffice to say you’d better get there early.

Another critical detail to be aware of is private property. In New England, the majority of riverfront property is privately owned. If an area is posted as private, do the fishing community a favor and stay off of it. If a landowner has been gracious enough to allow anglers to park and access the river, be respectful, clean and quiet when entering and exiting the area. Being good stewards of the sport goes a very long way, especially if you’d like to continue to utilize a spot year after year. In a fishery with more and more “No Trespassing” signs and increasingly difficult access, it is important to do all we can to preserve what access remains. Also consider using some of the principles outlined above to find winter striper spots of your own, rather than flocking to the same old publicized locations.

Another consideration that you should have when targeting winter striped bass is conservation. Remember, the small fish that dominate the river fishery are the future of the striped bass stock. Handle them with care and minimize their time out of the water if at all possible. Crushing barbs increases the odds of successful releases, especially with treble hooks or small jigs that are easily engulfed. Densely-packed schools and freshwater influx can facilitate the transfer of dermal infection within the population. The chances of this can be reduced by taking steps to preserve the protective slime coat of the fish you catch. Try not to grab small bass around the body or drag them up the bank, as these practices can seriously damage this defensive layer.

Go Bend a Rod

Dusting off the gear a few weeks early can be well worth the effort when conditions allow. I have always found catching a few late-winter bass to be a great primer as I ramp back up into fishing mode for the season. This is a great time to test any newly-acquired gear before the start of the spring run, as well as a good time to get the body used to the lack of sleep that lies ahead in the coming months.

There are several rivers in Southern New England that are always referenced by winter striper fishermen, and therefore they see the lion’s share of the angling pressure. Sure there are populations of over-wintering striped bass in the Providence, Thames and Housatonic Rivers, but they are not the only places where you can find bass year-round. In fact, if you live anywhere near another river that flows into the ocean, then you have a likely striper spot available to you. Just about every tidal river or creek in Southern New England that remains free-flowing throughout all but the coldest of winters most likely has striped bass in it right now. All that it takes to find your own private wintering honey hole is to do some experimenting and a little bit of leg work. While you might not find schools comprised of several thousand fish in that 100-foot wide river, catching even a few fish from a spot you earned all on your own is about as rewarding as it gets!


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