Things just don’t look good for striped bass right now
Man… Epic fishing the last three days. There are a ton of sandeels in “that spot” that remained a secret for, I don’t know, maybe 5 minutes before the word got out… and there were lots of big bass on them. I don’t think we caught one under 30-inches in the last three days. Most were in the twenty to thirty pound class. And it was almost all surface feeding fish, boiling and smashing sandeels for acres…. in the middle of the day! But get this… there was chatter on the radio about bluefin in 70 to 80’ of water. So, of course I took the ride, way past the three mile state-water limit, because I’m a full-on tuna addict. We got to a spot at that water depth. There were some birds and a bunch of boats set up, including a handful of party boats. We dropped some tuna jigs down and were on pretty quickly. Unfortunately, they weren’t tuna. We released a striper that looked well north of 50lbs at the boat and one around 30. Probably the largest striper my boat has ever seen. Because we were in federal waters (EEZ – Exclusive Economic Zone), we were not supposed to be landing or even targeting striped bass. I imagine readers of this column already know this, but in the unlikely case they don’t, fishing for striped bass in the EEZ is prohibited, and it should be as it’s really the last sanctuary they have…. assuming it is effectively enforced. In some areas it is (see Justice Department press release). Unfortunately in our area it isn’t. Never really has been, and it likely never will be. It’s just not an enforcement priority.
So yes, all those boats out there (and there were a lot) were targeting and keeping striped bass. In fact I saw a few very large fish come to the gaff in those boats before I left in search of elusive bluefin. As mentioned, included in the fleet were those party boats who are boldly advertising “limiting out” every day on the various internet forums. Unfortunately, such fishing in the EEZ is not unique to this year, nor is it unique to this area. Each year we have a brief but good run of big fish in late April/early May outside of Lower New York Harbor, often in that same 50 to 90’ depth. Because it’s usually the only game in town every single party boat from central Long Island to Central New Jersey is on them. And yes, it’s generally well outside of the 3-mile limit, most of the time in the old Ambrose Light Area. And they are all advertising limiting-out as well. But let’s not put the entire onus on party boats. There are lots more private boats out there knocking the crap out of these fish also. However irritating this is, I don’t want to focus on all the illegal EEZ fishing in this blog, because it’s just a small part of what is a much larger problem. But the point is, striped bass, which are becoming more and more contracted/concentrated as they decline, and more and more susceptible, have literally no sanctuary anymore.
Moving on, I’m certainly not going to harp on what’s been a precipitous decline of the striped bass population for the last several years. I’ve done it too many times in other blogs, and I have a feeling readers of this blog already know it all too well, more than likely from experience on the water, rather than from my incessant griping about it. But I will note again that because of the bouts of good fishing I described above, it’s hard to convince managers that this is indeed a serious situation that requires management action now, rather than when they finally figure out that overfishing is occurring and/or that the stock is overfished. As I’ve mentioned before, managers don’t have the perspective we have, and most just don’t spend the time on the water we do.
So yes, I’ve had some of the best days of striped bass fishing in my life in the last three years. Days where I’ve seen more 40s and 50s in the space of a day or two than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. The above described fishing is a good example of that. But while such concentrations of fish are intense, they are restricted to very specific areas, and they are generally short lived. And that makes sense given all the good year-classes we had in the nineties and even early two-thousands and the poor to average ones we’ve had during the last 8 years (with the anomalous exception of 2011 of course). As we fish on these larger older fish, they get fewer and fewer, and show up in fewer places along the coast, but when they show up, boy do they show up. And herein lies the problem, and why we will likely see an accelerated slide.
Years ago, when such bait concentrations occurred and stripers got on them, it was generally an island-wide event. In the “good-old-days” in Oct we’d have solid fishing from Montauk to Sandy Hook, NJ. In other words there was a wide distribution of fish, like there should be when you have a healthy population. Now, because the stock has contracted (note, this is not anecdotal, a peer-reviewed stock assessment has confirmed a sharp decline since 2006), what we have are exactly these sorts of short but intense slugs of fish showing at very specific areas. And here’s what really sucks about that. Because of the internet, smart-phones etc., when such good fishing does occur, the word gets out so quick that every freak’n boat in the region is on them the very next day, if not that afternoon. And they are all “limiting-out” (I hate that phrase!) every single day, especially the party boats, who often take in excess of 100 fares and run more than one trip a day. Because we’ve had 8 years of average to below average young-of-the-year indices, we really just don’t have much in the way of schoolies anymore. So when these bodies of fish do show, they are pretty much all keepers, and most people feel entitled to keep their two per person.
Unfortunately, those of us who thrive on releasing most of the stripers we catch are without-a-doubt a minority. For a long time the catch-and-release thing seemed like it was catching on/growing. But it stalled once stripers got a bit more difficult to find. I’d even argue that the catch and release crowd has shrunk during the last few years, for reasons of which I’m not quite sure. What’s really irritating is that there are plenty of boneheads out there who refer to such anglers as “elitists” for not wanting to kill every darn keeper they catch. You tell me how having some foresight, or simply wanting these fish to be around so that our kids might be able to catch a few is “elitist”!?
At any rate, the point here is that we are putting an awful hurting on those fish up and down the coast when they do show like this. If you want to get angry and subsequently depressed, just take a look at any of the online forums/fish reports. Lots of photos of dead bloodied fish, piles of dead stripers etc. So many short-sighted folks out there bragging about “limiting out”. And the party boats are doing their best to advertise such “limiting out”, so they can fill their boats, and take people out again to beat the crap out of these fish before they move on to the next region where they will likely get hammered. It’s a real bummer. Makes me want to drink.
I usually try and end these blogs on an upbeat note. Like there IS something we can do. But in this case, I’m not sure there is anything. We now just have to wait and see what the ASMFC does at the meeting later this month (note: for more information see CCA MD HAS IT RIGHT ON STRIPED BASS blog). I really do hope that they vote to make a substantial reduction in fishing mortality, although judging by what I’m hearing from some of the managers themselves, I suspect they will “compromise” with something much less than what is required. I don’t think they will balk and do nothing. I also don’t think we get what this fishery really needs to stem the decline which is somewhere around a 50% reduction in mortality.
For God’s sake please don’t respond to this blog with more talk about gamefish and slot-limits. This is NOT the solution and was already covered in this blog: THE STRAIGHT DOPE ON STRIPED BASS. All we need is for significant number of managers at ASMFC to realize the importance of a significant reduction in mortality, now, before we find ourselves in a really bad situation with these fish.
Striped bass are so darn important to me and a huge constituency of anglers. For a long time they defined who I was, and to a large extent they still do. I not only built a business on striped bass, I built a lifestyle. And over the years, I have developed a profound respect for the animal. It’s so darn frustrating and infuriating to see managers sit there with their thumbs up their rears, and it’s equally maddening to see all those gaffed fish coming over the rails, all the photos of dead fish, all the bragging, and virtually no acknowledgement of the deteriorating situation.
Regarding this recent slug of fish off of Fire Island, keep in mind that it’s only been going on for a few days. Assuming these fish stick around, (this may sound funny, but I do hope they move on) this weekend will be an absolute slaughter while these fish are so vulnerable. And that really stinks. The reality though is that I don’t blame those folks killing fish, at least those killing fish legally. They are just doing what managers have allowed. It’s the weak-spine managers that are really at fault. How could they not know what the right thing to do is? It’s become so obvious.
I can’t help but sit here and feel completely helpless about it all. I would love to be able to say that we’re gonna go in to the next ASMFC meeting, guns blazing, and change things. But having been involved in the management world, I’m jaded enough to realize that this simply isn’t the way the system works (it certainly doesn’t help that the October meeting is in St. Simons Island, Georgia). Change can and does come, but it’s a slow process. It certainly doesn’t happen quickly and managers certainly aren’t swayed by yelling and screaming at public meetings. But I can say with some confidence, they have indeed gotten the message that a large portion of the recreational fishing community wants precautionary action on striped bass. And while many, perhaps most, will choose not to represent those concerns, others will.
The striped bass situation will likely get considerably worse before it gets any better. History has been pretty clear that ASMFC doesn’t take significant action until the situation is quite dire, and there’s no reason to believe it will be any different here. What’s really unfortunate is that managers are probably looking at such fishing reports off of Fire Island and thinking “there are plenty of fish around, the stock is fine”.
Yet, it’s not all gloom and doom. I don’t think we’re stupid enough to allow another crash like we saw in the early 80’s, and while history does tend to repeat itself, striped bass has developed a constituency of zealous advocates. Nothing generates more passion from fishermen than striped bass. When push comes to shove, we will rally. For that reason alone I have hope.
The ASMFC annual meeting starts Oct 28th. There is still plenty of time to contact your state Commissioners and let them know how you feel about striped bass. The stock needs a clear and significant reduction in fishing mortality (Again, for God’s sake don’t mention gamefish or slot limits or it likely won’t get read). Managers just need to have the balls to push something close to a 50% reduction through. You can help: http://www.asmfc.org/about-us/commissioners. Please, take five minutes to write.