Every year, a small number of striped bass winter over in the bays, marshes, and salt ponds of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We call them “holdovers.” They’re not big, they can be tough to find, and by the middle of the winter, they look a little haggard. Their flanks, once polished a gleaming silver by a life in the ocean, dull to a slate gray by New Year’s.
With more food and better conditions off Virginia and Maryland—where most of the striped bass population lives from December to March—it’s unclear why these fish stay behind. Perhaps they became trapped, following the scent of baitfish into the backwaters and staying until the ocean was too cold to continue their journey. Perhaps they weighed the risks, deciding that a lean winter was more appealing than the gauntlet of seals, sharks, hooks, and nets awaiting the migratory fish. Or perhaps they sought an endless summer, where baitfish schools never left, waters never cooled, and striper season is a year ’round affair. Or was that me?
Striped Bass winter over in the bays, marshes, and salt ponds
I arrived on Cape Cod for a summer internship in May 2008, right alongside the spring migration of striped bass. When the northwest winds of September cooled the Cape, the stripers began grouping up for the long swim south and the summer tourists began their exodus over the Bourne and Sagamore bridges. With my summer rental ending, I had to decide whether or not I’d also migrate home. During one of my last nights before having to move out of the tiny, garage-top apartment, I found a school of small stripers deep inside one of the Cape’s South Side salt ponds. The fish seemed in no hurry to leave, and, while catching them, I discovered that I wasn’t either. The next day, I packed up my things, found somewhere to survive the winter, and I held over.
The holdover stripers provide a dead-of-winter option to the fishermen so enamored with striped bass that going five months without catching one is unthinkable. I look for them several times each winter, desperately dredging Clousers through back creeks on afternoon ebb tides, just to make sure the fish are there, and to remind myself that the long Cape Cod winter will eventually end.
On days when an extreme full-moon low tide concentrates the bass in the deepest channels, you can catch them by the dozen—if you want. I find it difficult to catch more than four or five without feeling guilty about harassing these fish as they struggle to survive the winter.
They aren’t always able to. In January 2019, after a polar vortex grazed the Cape and sent temperatures plummeting, I returned to the marsh to find the bodies of cold-stunned stripers scattered throughout the spartina. But most years these holdovers make it, hunkering down deep in the bays until the long days of early April warm the waters and awaken their appetites.
By early May, they’ll stop being holdovers and go back to being plain-old stripers.
By early May, they’ll stop being holdovers and go back to being plain-old stripers. They’ll leave the backwaters to join the migratory bass along the beaches, where I’ll cast to them once again. The fish and I will both be more lively then, energized by the beginning of another endless Cape Cod summer, barely recognizable from the cold, desperate creatures who met in the marsh over the long-forgotten winter.
Jimmy Fee is a Cape Cod “wash-ashore,” the local term for off-Cape transplants , though he prefers to think of himself as a holdover.