Casting about the Connecticut
September 1, 2017
Anglers with access to the lower Connecticut River and nearby Long Island Sound can enjoy solid action with striped bass, bluefish and more all season. Here are some major hot spots to hit.By Captain Tom Migdalski | Photos by Tom Migdalski unless otherwise specified
The Native Algonquins called it “Quinnehtukqut,” or “Long Tidal River,” and were the first to appreciate the estuary’s incredible diversity of life. Flowing 410 miles from its origin at the Canadian border, the Connecticut River dumps 10 billion gallons of fresh water into Long Island Sound every day. That’s 70 percent of all fresh water flowing into the Sound, and it helps make the lower portion of the river such a fertile spot.
Today, boaters and anglers enjoy the lower river’s cozy anchorages, tidal marshes, pristine forests, small towns, abundant birdlife and myriad fishing opportunities. Fluke, weakfish, American shad, hickory shad, bluefish and striped bass are among the many species that live among the marshes, islands, creeks, mud flats, bars, reefs, rocks and pilings. It’s an angler’s playground that fishes well all season—and beyond.
The I-95 bridge—officially called the Baldwin Bridge—lies 2.9 miles north of the river mouth at Lynde Point, and neatly and precisely divides the Inland Zone from the Marine Zone. That means if you drop your hook north of the bridge, despite its tidal fluctuations and salt content, you must possess a freshwater fishing license. South of that marker you will need a saltwater license. Both can be easily purchased online.
While the waters north of the Baldwin Bridge can produce excellent early-spring action with small stripers, especially in protected spots such as Hamburg Cove, the action with larger migratory bass doesn’t begin until late April or May. These fish have a taste for herring and alewives, and often stack up off day marker “25” at the southern entrance to South Cove, on the west side of the river below Essex.
Fish this spot on a running tide, starting 50 yards north of the marker and drifting south along the reef edge. Use large metal lures, swim shads or big soft-plastics (e.g., Slug-Gos, Ron Zs, Hogys) fished near the bottom. During slack water, the fish will sometimes attack surface plugs. By late May, bluefish will also hold on this reef, providing hard-hitting action when the bass fishing is slow.
Work the Edges
Continuing downriver and south of the I-95 bridge and the railroad bridge, excellent late-spring/early-summer fishing can be enjoyed at the confluence of the Back and Connecticut Rivers, in an area locals call the “Wood Lot.” Here you can idle or drift just beyond the transition zone where the depth drops abruptly from four to ten feet. Do this quietly to prevent spooking the fish, especially on calm days.
With the boat in deep water, cast a soft-plastic lure or surface plug into the shallows and retrieve it toward the drop-off. Drift with the current and continue fan-casting until you locate the fish. You’ll get most of your strikes in the shallow water, but always make a few casts to the deep side of the drop-off.
If you fail to find fish here, head south to Gibraltar Rocks, a set of three clearly defined boulder fields. This is a great spot to anchor and cast, but keep an eye on your chart plotter and be cautious of the subsurface rocks. Cast up- or cross-current and retrieve your lure just fast enough to keep it from hanging bottom. Many bass and hickory shad wait to ambush prey in the slower, deeper water.
Farther south and just east of buoy RN “10” are Sodom Rocks, another perennial hot spot for bass. Stripers also tend to gather around the cluster of rocks and the small marsh island just east of buoy R “8.” Griswold Piers, just south of buoy R “8,” is a fishy area denoted by three small rips. Lastly, at the river mouth, you can cast to the sandbars and breakwaters, which provide good action on an ebb tide.
On the flood, work back upriver toward the Wood Lot. Begin by fishing the edges of Great Island just north of Poverty Point, this time in three feet of water close to shore. A trolling motor or pushpole can be useful for working this area, as the stripers and bluefish are easily spooked. Indeed, you can often see the fish scatter if your approach is too noisy or fast.
Cut your motor well off shore then work your way in quietly. When you’re within casting distance of shore, work the edges of the marsh banks, such as those along Great Island or Calves Island (north of the bridge). Proven lures include large Slug-Gos and Hogys rigged Texas-style; topwaters such as the 4 ½-inch Zara Spook, the Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow and the Cordell Pencil Popper, and soft-plastic swim shads. Soft-plastics rigged on jigheads and hopped over the bottom also take fish along the marshes.
From Great Island you can work past the rocks that mark the mouths of the Back and Lieutenant Rivers. Be cautious of rock piles left from the days of haul seining. While they make attractive structure to fish, these boulders can ruin your lower unit—and consequently your day.
Another note of caution: One of the biggest mistakes made by beginners is spotting a cluster of boats in the shallows and zooming over to get in on the action. Doing so will always spook the fish and make you persona non gratis in the process. There’s a lot of water in this big river, so be anti-social and locate your own bunch of fish.
West Side Story
A good place to get away from the crowds is the west side of the river. Just south of the railroad bridge, the mouth of Ragged Rock Creek and several rocky outcrops are worth checking out. This area is hit-or-miss, but can be productive from late April into early summer. Some spots are fairly shallow, but they are lightly fished compared to others.
Slightly downriver of Ragged Rock is the entrance to North Cove. The shallow flats and drop-off between the cove and the railroad bridge is a great spot for large bluefish in late summer and fall, when it’s too warm for bass. A surface plug chugged over the flats can bring exciting action at first light or late afternoon when the bluefish are drawn in by bunker (menhaden) schools.
For most of July and August, striper fishing inside the river is slow due to boat traffic and warm water. However, in mid-September, striper and bluefish activity heats up again, especially if bunker are present.
Summer Sound Spots
During the summer months, savvy anglers turn their attention to the cooler waters of Long Island Sound. Several major reef and shoal areas within five miles of the river mouth produce some of the best and biggest striped bass and bluefish in eastern Long Island Sound.
Running east, you’ll find Hatchett Reef, marked by buoy RN “6” on its southern corner. It’s the first major piece of structure east of the inlet, and is therefore attractive to large stripers moving in and out of the river. If you have a small boat, Hatchett is a short, direct run south from the shallow Four Mile River launch.
You can cast plugs and metal lures by starting at the rocky shore off Hatchett Point and continuing all the way to the far end of Hatchett Reef, about a mile off the coast. Hatchett Reef rip is always worth a look when searching for false albacore and bonito in late summer and early fall. The deeper, southern end of the reef often holds bass and blues upcurrent of the structure, and can produce fast action on three- to five-ounce diamond jigs cranked up from the bottom.
West of the river mouth is a rocky area called Cornfield Point. South and southwest of the point are Cornfield Point Shoal, off buoy R “2” on the south side, Hens and Chickens reef, and Crane Reef, the last marked by RN “4” on its south side. These are premier striper spots; however, big boulders lurk near the surface, so use extreme caution. Once you learn these waters, you’ll find them to be an excellent place to cast plugs, metal lures, soft-plastics or live eels.
South of Hens and Chickens and Cornfield Point Shoal is a lengthy sediment deposit appropriately named Long Sand Shoal. Buoy R “8A” marks the south-central section of the shoal, which shallows to four to six feet. Along its edges you can cast for bluefish, striped bass and occasionally false albacore. The shoal is also one of the best fluke spots in the eastern Sound, but use caution when the current opposes a strong breeze, as a significant rip line forms, making it unsuitable for small boats.
Whether exploring the lower Connecticut by foot or by boat, the beauty and diversity of this huge estuary is hard to match anywhere in the Northeast. Bluefish, striped bass and baitfish are abundant, and you can usually fish inside the river when conditions in the Sound are nasty. It’s an all-welcoming spot for anglers of all types—as it has been for thousands of years.
The lower Connecticut River is an epicenter for adult menhaden in eastern Long Island Sound, where they’re pursued by large bass and bluefish from May to November. To best way to locate the bait schools is to search around the mouth of the river early and late in the day, when the schools move closer to the surface and are easy to spot. Just look for big patches of “nervous” water and the telltale “flips” of the bait.
“The mouth of the river holds bunker between and outside the breakwalls,” says Q Kresser, manager of River’s End Tackle in Old Saybrook. “You can also find them west of the western wall and west of the outer lighthouse.
“I suggest snagging one with a weighted treble hook then swimming it near the school on the largest circle hook you can find. I prefer a 10/0 Owner rigged through the bait’s nostrils and tied to four or five feet of 50- to 60-pound Jinkai mono leader. For the main line, I prefer 50-pound-test PowerPro Super Slick braid.”
“For some real excitement,” continues Kresser, “throw some bunker in your live well, run back upriver and swim one near the Wood Lot. Because the water is so skinny here, you can watch the bass attack the bait and rip off across the shallows. That kind of action can’t be beat!”
Live bunker are also effective around any of the structure spots listed in this article, including Long Sand Shoal. In fact, you might consider drifting a live bait behind the boat as you cast lures in these spots.
Lower Connecticut Resources
Tackle & Supplies
River’s End Tackle, Old Saybrook
Baldwin Bridge (I-95 launch), Old Saybrook
Large, free state ramp with ample parking below the I-95 bridge. Best
bet for large boats.
Four Mile River, South Lyme
Small ramp suitable for small vessels only. Limited parking.
Great Island, Old Lyme
Small ramp suitable for small vessels only. Limited parking.
A Connecticut fishing license can be purchased online here.