What is a Holdover?
Winter in New England brings cold and nasty weather, most saltwater fisherman either convert to freshwater, or stack their rods away for hibernation. However, if you do some exploring you can find a great winter fishery in your backyard. Striped Bass will “holdover” in rivers and estuaries in the winter time. These fish are mostly undersized, however some good fish will stick around. Holdovers will stay in any creek or tidal river with bait and some sort of spot for them to hold in for a harsh winter. Key things to look for are deep pockets in protected parts of large rivers. Holdovers look for an easy spot to settle down for the winter, so slow current and deep holes are where they are going to be. Also look for deep holes and bends in smaller tidal rivers, where there may be a deep pocket or an eddy. These fish will mostly be found in brackish water, however some are caught in completely freshwater, so don't be afraid to try that. When looking for bait, try and walk the banks looking for grass shrimp. These are the prime prey for winter stripers, at least when they want to eat. Holdovers are found in large schools, of sometimes over a thousand fish. These tightly packed schools of fish can provide you with the best fishing day of your life, or the most frustrating. Keying in on certain lures can help you succeed in catching more fish.
What do I use?
Despite being found in large schools, holdovers are picky with what they will eat. They want something slow enough to grab when the water is just above freezing, yet have enough movement to draw a strike. Because these fish are just holding over for winter, they don't really want to eat. Reaction strikes are the name of the game. Lures like the Big Occhi 7” rigged on a ¼-½oz jig head and the DuraTech Paddle Tail Combo excel in these circumstances. Working the Big Occhi on a jig head is like crawling a bucktail around the bottom for fluke. Let it sink all the way to the bottom, then pop it off the bottom with little twitches. Because it's a reaction strike, the fish will almost always hit it in the fall, so be ready for the hookset. When the fish aren't energetic enough to eat the Big Occhi 7”, try using the DuraTech Paddle Tail Combo. Because of its design, this lure will cast far and sink fast, getting you right in the strike zone. Keep it low and slow, holdovers don't want to move much. Let the swimbait hit the bottom, then slowly retrieve it back to yourself. Holdovers will pick up the swimbait on the fall and retrieve and head right towards you, so as soon as you feel the slightest bit of slack, set that hook. The most important thing to consider when fishing for holdovers is lure color. If you are fishing during the day, use pearl white, as it is bright enough to cause a reaction strike, yet natural enough to look like a real baitfish. However if you are fishing at night, dark at night is always the way to go. Throw dark colors at night like Black&Purple, since it creates the most contrast to the surrounding waters. For rods and reels, you want something light enough to be fun with schoolies, yet heavy enough to handle a big fish in current. A go to set up that excels in this type of fishing is a 3000 size reel on a 7’ medium power rod. You want something that has a light tip to detect the slightest of bites, yet enough backbone to muscle the fish out of the current. For reels you want something that's small and light, yet can hold a decent amount of 15lb braid. The ultimate goal is to catch fish and have fun doing this, so go as light as you can possibly go.
Another factor in holdover fishing is the tide. Every river is different when it comes to tides, some rivers are best fished at low tide, and some are better at high tides. Low tide typically means there are more fish packed into a smaller area. These higher densities of fish can mean better fishing, however they might be more skittish when fish are being pulled out of the school. At high tide, the fish are going to be more spread out, yet more aggressive. Higher tides can also mean baitfish (grass shrimp) are exposed and can trigger an aggressive bite within the school of fish. The incoming tide is generally better because it flushes warmer water in from the ocean, which then activates the fish.
These striped bass that holdover are typically more fragile than fish caught at other times of the year. They are holding in these tidal rivers because they cannot make the journey south, generally smaller fish and lazy slot sized fish. Fish care is important when handling them. Be sure to use single hooks, and pinch the barbs when the fishing gets hot. Set the hook as soon as you feel the bite, preventing the fish from getting the hook too deep. After catching a fish, take a quick picture and let them go on their way. Remember, that water is cold, and these fish may not swim away the strongest, be sure to only hold them out of the water for the least amount of time possible.
When It Comes to Holdover Fishing, It's Game On!
While it may be frigid fishing in the winter, there are plenty of opportunities to get on some fish. Holdovers can provide some of the best fishing all year, and are best fished from December through February. These fish are the go-to species to target throughout the winter for saltwater anglers, with hundred fish days being the norm. Sometimes you hook into a slot-sized fish and it can take you for quite the ride on light tackle, which is always a blast. Be sure to grab some DuraTech Swimbaits and Big Occhi’s and head down to your local tidal river to give it a shot.