January 4 2023

Winter Striper Fishing and Holdover Striped Bass Secrets

by Ryan Collins
17 comments

The information in this article first appeared on My Fishing Cape Cod during the winter of 2013. It has since been updated and revised for the 2023 season. 

In this post I am going to share with you some ideas, tactics and secrets that I think will help you experience success winter striped bass fishing much quicker than I did!

If you are looking to learn about how to catch holdover striped bass during the winter, then this blog post is for you.

You can scroll down to continue reading, or skip ahead by using the table of contents to jump to a particular section. 👇


How My Winter Striped Bass Fishing Obsession Got Started

When I was younger, the winter was just too long for me to handle.  I would lay awake at night during January and February, conjuring up new ideas and fishing tactics to use during the next season.  The stretch from December through May felt like nothing short of an eternity.

During the 90's I would sometimes hear stories about winter striper fishing and people catching holdover striped bass during the winter on Cape Cod. Being just a kid at the time, and not having tools like Facebook at my disposal, these stories remained just that - unconfirmed stories about winter striper fishing opportunities that alluded me.

Not all striped bass make it through the winter. Arctic cold fronts can cause a sudden drop in water temperature that can prove lethal to schools of striped bass that are "holding over" for the winter.

Then one day I came across an old copy of On the Water Magazine.  On the cover stood a man with a striper while snow fell around him.  "Was this some sort of a cruel joke?" I remember thinking to myself.  "Could it be true that this guy is fishing the Cape and catching striped bass during the winter?"

I read the article with such vigor that my eyes hurt.  According to the article, it was possible to catch stripers fishing on Cape Cod during the winter.  "If this guy can do it, so can I!" I recall thinking.  And so started my next Cape Cod fishing obsession-learning how to catch striped bass during the winter.


The Winter Striper Fishing Learning Curve

I quickly discovered that fishing the Cape for stripers during the winter  is easier said than done.  I recall dragging my Dad for hours through sub-freezing temperatures looking for signs of life.  I tried plugs, swimmers, jigs, and shad bodies of all sizes and shapes.  I tried different estuaries and many obscure locations, each time hoping that this spot would be the winter striped bass fishing hot spot that would finally produce a bite.

Fortunately I had a mom and dad that understood my intense curiosity with winter striper fishing. They continued to take me to places where I thought I might have a chance of catching a winter striper, and sometimes they would watch from a heated car as I froze my butt off!

During the early years I even tried fishing the Cape Cod Canal for winter stripers, albeit without any success.

Learning something new requires a fair amount of time, effort and energy.  If something is worth learning, it is not going to be learned instantly, and this holds true with winter striper fishing. 

Maybe I am a little slow, but for me 5 years seems to be the right amount of time to really learn something new.  Said another way, if I am hoping to tackle something brand spanking new (like catching a striper during the winter) I am most likely going to have to put in 5 years of effort before I really experience any significant results.

Thus I spent 5 years in the marshes during the winter, trying my best to figure this darn holdover striper thing out.  I had a bunch of fun, but I will admit that my hopes of success began to dwindle after the 5th winter striped bass fishing season passed by without a bite.

Yet with all this time logged in, I found it impossible to give up, and thank God I stuck with it, because I would finally crack the code the very next season.


My First Successful Holdover Striped Bass Fishing Trip

The year it finally happened I was 19 and home for the Holidays after my first semester of college. It was mid-December and the sun was shining nicely during an abnormally mild afternoon. I had high hopes as always, but no real expectation of hooking a fish. Nevertheless I set out on foot to a virgin Cape Cod fishing spot I had not fished during the previous 5 years.

I walked for a long time that day, bypassing many good looking fishing spots for no apparent reason. Maybe I had a hunch or maybe I just didn't feel like logging in anymore "casting practice" as I had been the previous years.  I forget the reason why but I just kept on walking until I stumbled upon a section of water that looked just too nice to pass up.

And then it happened. For a moment I thought I was actually hallucinating.  Was that a swirl or just my eyes playing tricks on me?  Are there really fish breaking the surface, way back here, in the middle of December-or am I experiencing some post-college freshmen party/drank too much cheap booze and now I don't know what the heck I'm looking at syndrome?

I made a cast towards the swirls/hallucinations and hoped for the best.  Nothing.  I made another cast.  Nothing.  As I made my third cast I was indeed starting to believe that I was seeing things.  Then my line went tight.  What the hell is happening.  My rod bent.  What is this.  Something splashed the surface.  Is that a fish?  Is this really happening?  Is it healthy to be this excited about hooking up with a striper the size of shoe?

Yes it is.  And yes, I was actually hooked up with a striped bass!

As a teenager it took me 5 winters of searching and fishing before I finally started having success catching holdover striped bass. The first stripers I caught were schoolies (like the one pictured above) but eventually I started catching holdover stripers as large as 40 inches.

That day ended up being nothing short of epic as far as winter Cape Cod striper fishing is concerned.  Final tally, according to my 2004 fishing log, was 34 stripers between 12 and 24 inches.  I was astounded.  It was true, some bass really do spend the winter here on good ole Cape Cod.

Since that day I have returned each season to particular winter Cape Cod fishing spots with hopes of repeating that day's success.  Some winters are better than others and some Cape Cod holdover fishing spots produce while others shoot blanks.  I've enjoyed days of double digit catches while snow pelted down from above, as well as many days with nothing as much as a sniff.

Each winter is different, that is for sure.

Yet if you are hoping to mix things up this winter and head out on your own for a chance at a winter fish, then I do think you may have a pretty darn good chance.  More than likely you will have to log in some time and effort in order to find and catch these elusive winter specimens, however the information in this post will surely help you cut the learning curve.


Winter Striper Fishing 101

Once in a while while growing up, I would hear a story about someone catching a big striped bass (over 40 inches) on Cape during the winter, and I would be willing to wager that right now there are at least a few huge winter stripers swimming somewhere on Cape.

However, schoolies are a much more common catch than big striped bass during the winter. The general consensus is that small striped bass are able to deal with the cold better than their larger brethren.

Schoolie stripers are much more common during the winter than big striped bass (at least where I fish on Cape Cod).

Nevertheless, over the past 5 years I've caught a handful of holdover striped bass in the 30 to low 40 inch range.

I once caught a 38 incher while striped bass fishing on Cape Cod during January. In 2016 I caught this 40+ incher (pictured below) while holdover striped bass fishing in late March.

monster 25 plus pound cape cod holdover striper

This giant winter striped bass was apparently feeding very well! The striper was one of the healthiest-looking striped bass I've ever caught. To learn more about targeting big holdover striped bass during the winter, please watch my members-only seminar > Targeting BIG Holdover Stripers.

Striper fishing in winter can yield surprise big fish, but most of the fish will be on the smaller side. However I don't recommend using super light tackle because there is always a chance that you'll run into a rogue big holdover striper.

Also, in some spots you might have to lift a striper up a marsh bank. If you're using very light line then you will risk snapping the line while hoisting the striper up the bank.

With this in mind I would recommend outfitting yourself with a 7-9 foot spinning setup with 30 pound braid and a 30 pound leader. You won't be making long casts from a wide open like those of Outer Cape Cod. A shorter rod is more appropriate for the estuary and back bay areas where winter stripers live.


Holdover Striped Bass Locations

A few years ago a member from MFCC was walking along the cold, wind and snow whipped shoreline of an exposed Cape Cod beach when he stumbled across a freshly dead striper in the sand. It was just a few days before Christmas when he found the bass.

His guess was that the striper had succumbed to the brutally cold ocean temperatures. Yet what was the bass doing out in the exposed ocean to begin with? After digging in deeper I discovered that the fish had washed up just a half of a mile away from the opening to an estuary.

Now the story began to make more sense.

One Cape Cod, and throughout New England, winter striped bass will be found in back bays and estuaries. You won't find many stripers along wide open beaches during the cold winter months.

Perhaps the striper had ventured from the relatively safe confines of the estuary and been caught in the unexpected cold water temperature of the open ocean? Or maybe the striper had died in the estuary, and been carried out to the open beach by the current?

The moral of the story is that you will be hard pressed to find any striped bass along the open beachfront during the winter. You need to be ok with venturing  into the Cape's estuaries in order to find holdover stripers.

walking through estuary setting sun

The winter marsh is a beautiful place on a clear evening when the sun sinks low in the sky.

Estuaries are the only place where I have ever found striped bass during the winter. One winter in particular I was fortunate to stumble across a portion of an estuary that contained hundreds of striped bass, all stacked up throughout a 200 yard stretch.

Marshes and estuaries on Cape Cod are safe havens for many different species of fish. My Dad likes to refer to estuaries as "nurseries" for striped bass and I have to say that he is spot-on.

I think holdover striped bass on Cape Cod spend their time in estuaries because estuaries offer protection from the hazards of the open ocean. So far some of the most productive estuaries I have located on Cape Cod for winter holdover striper fishing include...


How To Find Winter Stripers

The hard truth is that some of the Cape's estuaries are incredibly large. Narrowing down exactly where in the estuary to fish can be quite the challenge. Yet there are certain places within an estuary that seem to fish better than everywhere else. 

I used to think that bright, sunny, warm days would be best for winter striper fishing. I figured sunny and mild weather would warm up the water temperature, which it surely does. However, I have discovered that winter stripers still bite the best at night, just like they do during the summer.

Keep in mind that estuaries are expansive places and zoning on the small portion of an estuary where bass could be holding is incredibly challenging. As mentioned in the beginning of this post, it took me 5 years of trying before I was finally able to catch a winter striper on Cape Cod.

The #1 most important tip I can give you for finding winter striped bass is...[please login or start a membership to view this tip].

These spots are always the most productive, at least for me. 


Best Baits & Lures for Winter Stripers

Estuaries and marshes are filled with green crabs, mummichogs and other small prey items that provide bass with food throughout the winter months.

Over the years I have used several different lures and baits for winter striped bass fishing. Below you will find photos of the lures and baits that have worked well for me when striped bass fishing during the winter.


Holdover Striper Videos

Below is a selection of videos about holdover striper fishing which I've created over the past few years. Some of these videos are more like tutorials, whereas others were shot on site while I was actually fishing.

As is the case with just about everything on My Fishing Cape Cod, some of these videos are viewable by the general public, but to get access to the best stuff you will have to be a member of My Fishing Cape Cod.


"How-To" Articles & Written Reports About Holdovers

I know a lot of people prefer to read written articles and reports, instead of watching video tutorials. Below are some of my favorite written articles and written reports here on MFCC about pursuing holdover striped bass.

As is the case with just about everything on My Fishing Cape Cod, some of these articles are viewable by the general public, but to get access to the best stuff you will have to be a member of My Fishing Cape Cod.


Holdover Striper Seminars & Webinars

In addition to the videos, articles and reports featured above, I also have several seminars and webinars here on MFCC about holdover striper fishing. Grab a cup of coffee, beer, or your favorite cocktails because most of these seminars/webinars are 45+ minutes long and are very in-depth.

In Targeting BIG Holdover Striped Bass you'll get access to a 35 minute video recording of a seminar about targeting keeper-size holdover striped bass here on Cape Cod. This presentation was given to 50 members of My Fishing Cape Cod & members of the Buzzard's Bay Anglers Club. If you want to learn some "secrets" of catching big holdover striped bass during the winter on Cape Cod, then I recommend watching this seminar.

In Catching Your First Striper of the Winter, you'll get access to a 1+ hour long webinar recording. The webinar reveals how to find and catch stripers during the winter. Learn about the types of areas where striped bass gather during the winter months. Learn about the types of lures and techniques which work best on holdover striped bass. Get access to a bonus question & answer session at the end of the webinar.


Winter Striper Fishing Forum Posts & Conversations

The My Fishing Cape Cod forum is a 100% members-only private forum. This helps us maintain top-notch quality of conversation. There is no bashing, bullying, sarcasm and useless posts. In our forum you will only find helpful members who are willing to offer accurate advice and information about fishing on the Cape (and throughout New England)!

Below you will find links to some of the best forum threads and topics about holdover striped bass fishing.  You will have to be logged-in as a member of My Fishing Cape Cod to access these conversations.


In Conclusion

Best of luck if you give holdover striper fishing a try this winter on Cape Cod. There aren't many stripers out there during the winter, but there are a few!

Plus winter striped bass fishing is a good excuse to just get outside and be out in nature during the "off season."

Stay safe, have fun and let me know how you do.

Tight lines 🎣

About the author 

Ryan Collins

I'm fortunate to have grown up on the beach, and I've been fishing since kindergarten. I have great family, friends and fishing experiences to be thankful for. Just being out there is enough-catching fish is just a bonus!


  • Hi Ryan. After reading this I can’t relate more. I am a 16 year old trying to find some February fish. Specifically striped bass and sea trout. I was wondering if you could share some hot spots that hold many of those fish. Boredom Has struck me way to hard and I’m itching to catch something. Thanks!

  • Ryan,
    This is becoming buried, could you put the whole thing on MFCC University?
    MFCCU has one of these presentations, but it would be helpful to have the entire grouping more easily available.
    Thanks, Dex

  • Just listened to the webinar. Good Stuff!
    Someone asked a question about using shiners for holdovers during the winter as traditional salt water baits are not readily available. Shiners are stocked in bait shops as they are used for fresh water ice fishing. Last year I was live lining shiners in the North River during early March. It seemed like a great idea but the problem is that they do not last in the brackish water and will die in about 5 minutes.

    • Pumped to hear you gave the live shiners a try. I love it! However I think mummichogs would be the best option.

      I am going to set some minnow traps this year in some of the estuaries I fish and hopefully catch some mummichogs. Using live bait to catch holdovers would be a ton of fun!

  • Do you wear pant waders when holdover fishing in the kayak? I would think that it would be important to keep your clothing dry.

  • Hey Ryan,
    Im heading down to N. Truro this weekend and wanted to possible get some lines into the water. Was wondering if you had any suggestions for me. Fresh or salt, maybe for some holdovers or even soaking some baits for Cod from shore?

    • Hi Cheyenne,

      I’d say you would have a great chance of getting into some nice trout. Try Crystal Lake in Orelans, Cliff Pond in Brewster, or Herring Pond in Eastham. There are plenty of others worth exploring, but I know those have trout.

      Are you familiar with the Goose Hummock in Orleans?

      I’d really recommend swinging into the shop on your way down. Tell them Ryan from My Fishing Cape Cod sent you and I know they will do their best to point you in the right direction for some nice trout.

      As far as holdover stripers go, I have not heard much recently. I know there were some cod caught from shore during April/May of 2017 on 6 inch Storm Wildeye Shads off the oceanside Truro beaches, but that is definitely a long shot.

      In conclusion it’s still really early for saltwater, but you could definitely do well fishing the fresh! Gluck and have fun!

  • Hey Ryan,
    Any particular estuaries of Falmouth you’d target for winter stripers? Also, is there any other winter saltwater fishing to do? I’ll be in Falmouth mid-February. Thanks!
    Jim

    • Hey Jim, no I have never had any holdover success in Falmouth. Doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but I just haven’t found them.

      I think you could have a ball trout fishing while you are down here. The trout will be cruising the shoreline and you can catch them with small spoons and jerkbaits.

      Checkout Ashumet Pond in Falmouth, or if you feel adventurous, go to Nickerson State Park in Brewster and try Cliff Pond (as well as the others in the park).

  • Hey Ryan I enjoyed this reading this piece. I was wondering as of now where would be a good place to surf cast from. Maybe some locations and what there hitting . Thank you, appreciate it

    • Thanks John! It’s still early in the season right now for stripers, but I feel your best bet would be around the estuaries in Vineyard/Nantucket Sound as well as Buzzard’s Bay.

      They usually show up their first. I would think we would start hearing about confirmed catches beginning this week.

      Small lures like the 3.5inch Storm Shad work very well on these early spring, small stripers. Keep me posted if I can assist with anything else.

      Thanks!

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