The Thames River: A Hidden Ecological Gem Worth Preserving

The Thames River: A Hidden Ecological Gem Worth Preserving

Dusk had just begun to settle as I stepped out of my car on Benham Avenue, and the only sound accompanying my footsteps was the hum of the cicadas in the oak trees. The walk to my favorite spot on Mamacoke wasn’t far, but I knew I had to get there before the dark had fully settled in. The night was soft, and despite it being mid October, a warm breeze poured across the face of the Thames, carrying with it the scent of mud and low tide that bled up through the fading water. By the time I had reached the pebbly stretch of beach on the southern tip of the island, I was greeted by the sight I had been daydreaming about since my 9 am class: baitfish. Illuminated by the dancing shine of the lights from the submarine base on the opposite shore, the surface of the bay boiled and rolled as schools of small fish were pushed closer to the beach. Mouth dry with anticipation, I fumbled through my tackle box to find my 1 oz. silver Atom Popper, a surface lure that resembles a dying fish floundering on top of the water as it is retrieved. Not long after sailing my first cast far out into the dark, I began to feel the lure being bumped and missed as the fish began taking notice. Then, five feet from the beach, an explosive slap smashed the water, my lure disappeared and my rod nearly bent in half. I had a fish on. It must have taken about five minutes, but in the surrounding darkness and on such light tackle, the fight felt endless. It was only until I heard the sound of a tail against the stones in front of me that I realized that I had landed the mystery on the other end of my line. Phone light in hand, I doubled over to see a 10-pound bluefish on the beach, my surface popper imbedded deep into its toothed jaws.

Throughout this fall, experiences like this kept me coming back again and again to the shores of the Thames. It seemed as if there was no end to the pursuable gamefish to be caught, and the anticipation of such constant activity kept me distracted during many afternoon classes. Whether it was catching striped bass in the shallow salt flats by Mamacoke or bluefish on outgoing tides beneath bridges, what became clear to me over these past few months is that New London hosts a very healthy and very active fishery.

This was not always obvious to me, and I can understand why it wouldn’t be obvious to others. Being a pretty mediocre fisherman for much of my life, I never really considered the Thames to be an option for fishing, mostly because of the tales of horror I had heard as a freshman of it’s legendary uncleanliness. “I saw a kid come out of there yellow once, head to toe yellow,” is a common narrative repeated about the Thames. Despite such extreme stories, most of which were relayed to me late at night over the railings of various ridges, it wasn’t until I entered a local bait shop my junior year that I learned the truth.

It was a cold, grey day in early April when I wandered into A W Marina & Bait on Pequot Ave to assess the coming season. Given that I had up until that point spent most of my life fishing in fresh water, I figured that now, being as close as I was to the ocean, was the time to get acquainted with fishing saltwater. After paying for a few lures, I asked the salesman behind the counter where the best local spots for fishing were. He rummaged through a drawer, pulled out a map and proceeded to point out every conceivable beach, inlet, and jetty in the surrounding area that might possibly hold a fish. Finally, after poring over the coast, he stopped and said that my best bet for fishing would come out of the Thames. At first, images of deformed, mutated fish with three eyes popped into my head, but the more he spoke, the more it began to make sense.

Southeastern Connecticut and Rhode island are known nationwide by ardent anglers for hosting the most prolific fisheries in the country. This is due to many factors but all starts with how gamefish, like the striped bass, migrate and reproduce. Beginning in the Chesapeake in March, the striped bass migration begins when warming water temperatures send baitfish up the east coast. As the striped bass move farther north, they chase the bait up various tidal rivers along the way, eventually staying in order to spawn, i.e. reproduce. As the water temperatures in the North-east begin to steady out in the high 60’s, usually in June, the larger striped bass move back out of the rivers and into local bays and sounds, searching for deeper water and more prey. During this migration and the months between it, however, the tidal rivers become hotbeds of activity.

In our case, the Thames is not actually a river but rather an estuary: a brackish length of water that extends upwards into the state and rises and lowers with the tides of the sea. Regardless of definition, the Thames remains an active and healthy fishery throughout the fall and summer due to its unique geological make-up and the rich biodiversity it accommodates.

The Thames traces its beginnings back nearly 15,000 years, when the glacier that sat atop southeastern Connecticut finally melted, leaving in its place mass areas of gouged out rock and soft dirt that were soon filled by rising sea levels entering at the mouth of what today is Long Island Sound. From there, the Thames became attached to the cyclical tides and motions of the sea, allowing both marine flora and fauna to populate the growing habitat. Today, the Thames and Long Island sound look a lot different than they did at the end of the last ice age, but the biodiversity is still just as robust. This is part in due to the incredible ecological benefits that are provided to tidal-river habitats by the salt marshes that typically line their banks. Salt marshes are vital players in the health and well being of any marine ecosystem due to something known as microrelief. Microrelief is the change in elevation of a salt marsh’s physical layout that provides certain plants and animals space to thrive. For example, the tidal layout of Mamacoke Island provides habitat for over 150 different species of plants and animals. In addition to being nurseries for a host of marine organisms, salt marshes also act as giant sponges that help clean the water of toxins and foreign chemicals.

Given this robust environment, the striped bass are provided a haven in which to breed and gorge themselves all summer long, their stay often extending through the final days of November. While here, the bass take advantage of not only the habitats forming on the bank, but the hydrology of the river as well. Because it is tidal, the Thames is separated into two different water columns, the top consisting of fresh water taken from upriver, and the bottom consisting of salt water taken in from the sound.  It is in this delicate exchange of water that a food chain is established. On the bottom, crabs, lobsters, flounder and mollusks chase detritus and smaller fishfry, which too are chased by baitfish such as herring and peanut bunker, which finally are taken by striped bass and bluefish.

So between the physical layout of the Thames itself and the manner in which water navigates its 15-mile stretch, what stands out is that the Thames hangs in a beautifully delicate yet robust balance that allows many different forms of life to flourish.

Yet this delicate balance of life is in danger of being disrupted. The past few years have seen a major decline in salt marsh and tidal river habitats due to pollution and rising sea levels attributed to global warming. The Thames is not immune to these global problems. While  it has persevered through the presence of Electric Boat, the Naval Submarine base and Pzifer Pharmaceutical, the impending issues of global warming remain serious threats to all marine habitats.

As members of the New London community, we must remain vigilant and caring about the local habitats and cyclical nature of the Thames River. Though the river nobly bares the brunt of climate change for the time being, it is up to those who exist in nature to be the whistleblowers when things start to go south. As I sit here and type this, the first schools of striped bass are trickling their way upriver to hunt bait, and following in their wake is another season of excitement.

If you are ever interested in enjoying day of fishing on the Thames, here is a list of supplies that can be cheaply acquired at any local tackle shop in New London:

  1. 6’6” medium-heavy action spinning rod
  2. A spinning reel that can accommodate 185-220 yards of 8-10 pound test monofilament line (or braided line of the same diameter if you are willing to spend the extra money)
  3. Storm Wildeye swim shad 3-inch soft plastic swimbaits

4. Stillwater’s Smack-it Jr. topwater lure