The Winter Schoolie Outlook

From timing to technique, a look at the present and immediate future of Rhody’s holdover striper havens

Some of us have found ways to cope with the seasonal nature of New England fishing. A major one involves approaching the May-to-December window during which most migratory visitors bunch up in our fore, as a manic episode of sorts.

We fish our brains out from the arrival of the first fresh-run striped bass through the departure of the last tautog from the rockpiles within sane reach, given water temperature and weather realities. Around Advent calendar time, we come in from the cold and set about the uncomfortable business of reintroducing ourselves to our families.

Others accept their fate as weekend warriors, fishing as time and family obligations allow. There’s another subset of the greater angling population: the truly afflicted—the contingent with terminal fin fever. For them, the fishing continues, hell or high water— and often both—12 months a year. They hit it full- time during the heart of a season and on every conceivable day they can beg, borrow or steal from Mother Nature during the dark months. With January on the doorstep, and a mighty short list of viable ways to bend a rod, it’s winter- over schoolie time once again.

In our corner of the world, the primary holdover hotbeds are the Providence River at the head of Narragansett Bay, the Narrow River/Pettasquamscut Lakes area in South Kingstown, and the headwaters of Potter’s Pond in South County. Of course, many Ocean State striper nuts also run west into Connecticut to fish the upper reaches of the Thames River—a body of water that has traditionally harbored the largest and most reliable concentrations of holdovers. In the last couple seasons, however, a generalized slow-down in the Thames has sent fanatics as far west as the Housatonic River—the northeast’s premiere over-winter striper water in recent years.

Of course, any holdover area is subject to a whole host of climatic and biological variables like salinity, water temperature, forage abundance, precipitation patterns, etc. Even with hordes of dark-months bass in your fore, getting tight to a fish can be maddening work. To get a handle on this year’s frostbite schoolie situation, we consulted a few acknowledged sharpies.

Capt. Al Anderson, of Narragansett, RI, uses his small Whaler to access various winter-over striper waters and continue his fish-tagging efforts year-round. He noted that, in keeping with the last two seasons, early word from the Thames has been a resounding “Don’t bother.” Despite early arrivals of holdovers in the Providence and Narrow Rivers, the reports filtering back from the Thames’ Norwich Basin and points well down-river—places known to hold big numbers at this point in the season—indicate a conspicuous absence of bass so far.

In mid-December, Anderson caught wind of birds working in the upper reaches of the Narrow River, from Lacey Bridge northward to the inlet where the Gilbert Stuart mill stream enters the upper pond. He and longtime mate, Paul Osimo, managed a total of 24 schoolies, roughly 14 to 19 inches. All their action was on bright- colored four-inch Fin-S Fish/ 1⁄2-ounce leadhead combos, or leadcore-trolled mini umbrella rigs sporting bright tubes. Anderson noted he marked bass and bait at various points throughout the water column—caught many near the surface— and explained that numerous studies have confirmed that there’s no oxygen—and so no bait or striped bass—below 30 feet.

Looking ahead, he explained that school bass stop feeding (energy budget no longer allows digestion) and generally begin to form large, tight-packed schools, when water temps dip below 40 degrees—a biological reality anywhere you find holdover bass. The fish continue to strike lures, however, in water as cool as 34 or 35 degrees.

The Providence River—the stretch from the Hurricane Barrier upstream into downtown—presents a different winter- over scenario. Noted author and schoolie fanatic, Dave Pickering, explained that it’s the power plant’s warm-water discharge that lets bass winter here. As for fishing technique, throw most of what you know about in-season striper feeding patterns out the window. “During the stretches of warmer weather [and thus warmer water],” he said, “I think the fish drop right out
of the river into the Bay headwaters—the fishing dies. When it’s blowing NW and it’s freezing and you don’t see another soul fishing that you get the big nights.”

It’s a streaky fishery: “You’ll get five straight nights of non-stop action,” said Pickering, “then get blanked, for no apparent reason, the next four”—a big reason, he thinks, that Providence schoolies see minimal fishing effort relative to holdovers elsewhere. You need to hit it every night for 15 minutes, rather than logging one, masochistic, six-hour marathon: The fish are either there and ready to chew, or it’s d-e-a-d. Lures are simple: small leadheads or bucktails tipped with small, Zoom Fluke-style plastics or 3- to 4-inch Storm Shad-type offerings. The bottom’s littered with hook-eating debris, so carry ample back-ups. One interesting development the last couple seasons, added Pickering, has been the presence of larger menhaden inside the Providence River.

He clarified that, contrary to some anglers’ suspicions, these holdover bunker represent one of the very rare cases where bass and bunker coexist in no-predatory harmony— mainly because the vast majority of downtown linesides are about the same size as the overgrown forage fish.

In any holdover hub, high tides tend to outshine lows. According to Anderson, easterly winds will extinguish action no matter where you fish; early mornings or nights offer best action. Forget fishing in the wake of heavy precipitation, as decreased salinity—or a thick layer of freshwater riding over salt—put fish off the feed, drive them seaward, sometimes for four or five days. He noted that the last couple hours of a flooding early-morning tide with significant cloud cover and light SW winds, preferably in the wake of several days of dry, settled weather would have him casting or trolling with high confidence.