As May rolls into June, fishermen across Connecticut will flood the beaches and offshore reefs for an opportunity to hook up with the striped bass that grace our waters every summer. Growing up in Boston, I treated my trips to the Connecticut coast as sacred, as I was able to throw off the tired routine of freshwater fishing and target a species that was known to grow up to 60 pounds and larger. To a kid, that feeling was otherworldly. And I had visited friends on Cape Cod and the Jersey Shore, but the pure abundance that I was used to from my summers in Connecticut left me spoiled, so I chased that feeling into college.
I was lucky enough to attend Connecticut College in New London, and it was during this time where I truly got acquainted with the Connecticut shoreline. I would get out of class in the late afternoon, load up my car with gear, and just drive. Yet, out of all the bodies of water that I fished, time and again, I found myself returning to the Thames River. For whatever reason, I was always able to find large numbers of healthy striped bass and bluefish that seemed to swim in every pocket of the river during the spring and fall. At first, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. For most of my life, I was regaled with stories about how the river was too dirty to fish, but clearly I was listening to the wrong people. Turns out, one of the major reasons that Connecticut has such a robust population of stripers between the spring and fall is due to the numerous tidal rivers, estuaries, creeks, bays, and streams that provide habitat for gamefish and bait. This includes the Thames River, which is one of the better fisheries in all of eastern Connecticut. To find out more about our local river, I reached out to David Molnar, a DEEP fisheries biologist, and Ian Morrison, who works with Project Oceanology, and asked a few questions about what makes the Thames so productive. But before we get into it, let’s take quickly review striped bass migration patterns.
“The striped bass population is made up primarily of two groups; a Chesapeake Bay population and a Hudson River population.” says Ian Morrison, “Spawning occurs in tidal creeks in those areas in early spring. The fish, primarily the females, migrate north after spawning. The migration is driven by two things: food and increasing water temperatures. Stripers prefer water temps in the mid-50s Fahrenheit. So as the water warms up in the spring the fish move north, sometimes as far as southern Maine.”
Understanding how striped bass migrate is essential to understanding why the Thames is so productive. Given the large number of striped bass that move up the coast in the spring, the coastline that is able to hold the most bait and offer the most cover for juvenile stripers will generally hold larger populations for longer periods of time. Take for example the Connecticut and Housatonic River. These two spots, which share a similar structural make up to the Thames River, are renowned fisheries due to their depth, length, and ability to trap bait. All three rivers also keep “holdover” striped bass, which are bass that winter in large tidal rivers rather than migrate back to the Hudson or Chesapeake. Morrison sheds a bit more light.
“Many holdover stripers are juveniles who haven't matured yet. Norwich harbor had a great winter striper fishery several years ago, and some very large fish were caught. Some people believe that there is a breeding population in the Thames, but I don't know if that is conclusive.”
Typically, holdover striper populations are an incredibly good indicator of the health of a body of water, or at least its structural ability to hold enough water for both gamefish and bait. In this case, The Thames, along with the Connecticut and Housatonic, is able to host robust populations of both migratory and holdover fish due to how water mixes throughout the entirety of the river.
“Along with its size, the mixing of freshwater and saltwater create a unique and productive system,” says Molnar. “The Thames River due, its large size and great depth acts more like a fjord than a river per say. This allows for greater species diversity.
This process of water mixing is vital in keeping the Thames a viable habitat for gamefish. By having a constant exchange of fresh and saltwater, the river itself becomes oxygenated while flushing out other unwanted pollutants. This also prevents hypoxia, which is when a body of water becomes severely deprived of oxygen, thus inevitably driving out large fish populations, and simply killing slower moving organisms such as mollusks, crustaceans, and other bottom dwellers. Hypoxia is no joke, and examples of it are occurring as we speak in other parts of Long Island Sound, especially in the East River in New York City.
Another important component of structure that helps keep the river clean is the marshland that line its banks. According to Molnar, it acts like a giant sponge.
“The marshes and wetlands that line its shores act as buffers for filtering out ‘bad stuff’ and purifying the area so to speak.”
Beyond removing pollutants and toxins, the marshland is also an invaluable source because of the habitat it provides for baitfish and juvenile striped bass, and like I mentioned before, having habitat that holds food is key. As Molnar said, “for fish who do not have the opportunity to dine at McDonald’s, bait is everything.”
So now that you know the truth about the Thames River and the fish that call it home, take a day this summer to explore its shoreline. There are plenty of great local hiking trails to visit and many breathtaking views to admire. While you’re at it, cast out a line, I promise something will bite.