Required Reading: Caught

Jeff Nichols gives us an intimate, on-the-ground look at some glaring problems in the striped bass fishery

Book Review: Caught: One Man's Maniacal Pursuit of a Sixty Pound Striped Bass and His Experiences with the Black Market Fishing Industry - by Jeff Nichols

Caught: One Man’s Maniacal Pursuit of a Sixty Pound Striped Bass and His Experiences with the Black Market Fishing Industry – by Jeff Nichols
Buy it on Amazon

Let me start by saying I have no interest in how many books this guy sells.  Other than a couple of email exchanges this fall, I know Jeff Nichols from a hole in the wall.  Having said that, after reading CAUGHT, One Man’s Maniacal Pursuit of a Sixty Pound Striped Bass and His Experience with the Black Market Fishing Industry, I have a great deal of respect for the guy.  Frankly, I’m a little surprised he is still alive, or is at least isn’t in hiding somewhere.  What he offers with this book is a candid, no-holds-barred biographical account of the underbelly of the East End striped bass fishery.

Having heard pretty much nothing at all about this book, someone passed it to me at a recent Council meeting, with the precursor “you should really read this”.  Since then, it sat tucked away in an obscure pocket of my laptop bag for a few months.  One of the unfortunate circumstances of my life these days is that, having two four-year-olds, and three (arguably four) jobs, I have very little time to read anything except for Council briefing books and grant requests.  Yet, on a recent flight to the West Coast, after three hours my laptop battery began to die, and I began to panic, faced with the real possibility that I may be stuck reading Sky Mall for the next 3 or 4 hours.  It was then that I remembered I had the book.

For the next several hours my surroundings disappeared as I entered the seedy, pathetic and the sometimes strangely-hilarious world of a striped bass addict and flat-out poacher.  Not only did I find the book incredibly insightful and eye-opening, on a number of levels, but it was also very entertaining.  First thing I did when I got home was buy several copies, mostly for my fishery-manager colleagues.  In short, if you really give a crap about striped bass, you NEED to read this book.

The author’s background is an interesting one.  Not what you’d think would be the standard poacher profile.  He grew up a privileged NYC kid with a well-to-do family.  Went to college, held a few good jobs, had a brief but successful career as a self-deprecating stand-up comedian, and wrote a well-read book Train Wreck, My Life as an Idiot which was eventually made into a successful movie called American Loser.  Not really what you’d call an unsuccessful guy.  But somewhere along the way, he was bitten by the striper bug, and in short, gave up everything to fish.

Not unreasonable really…   If you are intimately involved in this fishery, you kinda get how this sort of thing could and often does happen.  Certainly I’ve developed my life around striped bass, and there are many others who have chosen to scratch out a living as charter boat captains etc.  Yet to support his addiction (he likens a fishing rod to a crack pipe) the author starts selling fish, and eventually gets embroiled in the Montauk underground illegal fish trade, which the author admits was at least half of the allure of chasing big striped bass.  He also mated for the iconic Capt. Jimmy George, and now runs Second Choice Charters… just that name cracks me up.  (Note: One of my favorite parts of the book was when he writes “Whoever wrote that book Do What You Love and The Money Will Follow should be beaten with a stick.”)

Book Review: Caught: One Man's Maniacal Pursuit of a Sixty Pound Striped Bass and His Experiences with the Black Market Fishing Industry - by Jeff Nichols

Legal Commercial Stripers

I suppose what I thought was really interesting about this book was that not only could I closely relate (to the obsession anyway), I had seen this sort of poaching, although perhaps more blatant, happening regularly in my neck of the woods (Western Long Island) for the last two decades.  Lots and lots of it, often in broad daylight.  The point is that it’s endemic, not just here and in Montauk, but all along the striper coast.  And it’s incredibly destructive.  Because it is so difficult to evaluate, there is no estimate of illegal fishing in the striped bass stock assessment or fishery management plan.  In other words, because they can’t pin-point it, managers choose to simply disregard it.  And so, all these fish caught illegally are above and beyond the fishing mortality estimates from legal commercial and recreational fishing.  It is certainly not unreasonable to speculate that the number of fish sold and bought illegally is more than that of the legally sold fish.  Of course, one could never prove that.  But the point is that given such poaching, we could have been and probably were fishing well over the fishing mortality threshold set by managers for a very long time (read overfishing), and that certainly such overfishing could be a contributing factor to the well documented decline.

That said, there has always been the very real contention that anglers account for the great majority of striped bass fishing mortality.  In fact in 2006, when the striper population peaked, according to ASMFC, recreational catch accounted for more than 80% of total mortality.  Believe it or not, the number of recreational dead discards (those fish that die after they are released) was actually estimated to be double the total commercial catch.  This is something I’ve written about extensively here and elsewhere.  This point is and always has been that we can’t just point the finger at the commercial guys and say “it’s all them”.  That said, however, I do believe that commercial mortality, at least what’s accounted for (in other words those fish legally caught and sold,) greatly underestimates the real commercial mortality.  As mentioned, it could likely be double what it is on paper, maybe even more.  Nichols is quick to point out, though, that the stripers’ current troubles are not due solely to such illegal fishing, but simply the sum of all things combined, with recreational fishing of course being a big contributor.  He is absolutely right about this.

Moving on though, what the book does, among other things, is shed some light on the practice of poaching, particularly where the fish end up.  As the author makes clear, a lot of it is simply sold through the backdoor of fancy New York City and Long Island restaurants.  This is something that there was little evidence of before, save a few DEC busts in the last decade or so, but something a lot of us greatly suspected.  It’s refreshing to hear someone talk about it so candidly.

What I also thought was particularly interesting about the book was Nichols’ catharsis.  How he went from an ardent sport-fisher and pursuer of large fish to striper addict/poacher.  Instead of developing reverence for the fish, he kills and sells them, knowing that what he is doing is wrong as the years press on and the striper population is visibly reduced.  His gut is telling him that the fish need to be protected.  And so, after narrowly escaping a few situations that could have ended very badly he got out, relatively unscathed, and now appears to be an ardent striped bass conservationist, killing few and selling none.  In the last 15 pages he gives us his on-the-water perspective of the striper situation, which I found insightful and compelling.  The afterward by the books editor, Zac Harvey, is equally so.

But really, I don’t want to give up to much.  Get yourself a copy, and maybe one or two for your friends.  It’s an easy quick read.  It will make you angry, but it will also make you laugh your ass off at times, and it will certainly give you a clearer picture of some of the problems in the striped bass fishery, particularly the poaching one.  Frankly, I’m a little bit surprised this book isn’t creating more of a buzz.  I mean, it should be required reading for any hard-core striped bass angler, and I really do wish it would end up in some fishery manager’s hands.

As for Jeff Nichols:  That dude has balls.  I’ve always considered poachers to be cheating little weasels that not only screw the real hardworking fishermen who follow the rules, and of course the resource itself, but also the fish-eating consumer, who really has no idea where the fish came from, (I can tell you first had that a lot of them come from Lower New York Harbor).  Nichols, however, is the proverbial prodigal son.  Back from the depths of hell to tell us all his story.  And that sort of thing takes guts, particularly when you’re dealing with people that are likely to kick your ass, sink your boat etc.  Unfortunately, I know this from experience.  So my hat is off.

The book is available on Amazon.  Caught: One Man’s Maniacal Pursuit of a Sixty Pound Striped Bass and His Experiences with the Black Market Fishing Industry.

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After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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3 comments on “Required Reading: Caught
  1. Thanks for doing all that you can for Striped Bass and bringing to light to the poaching… it goes on up this way as well in the northeast. I hope that you have success with the council and get new regs in place for the coming rather than waiting another year, as you know it’s already too late.
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  2. avatar Michael C. Shipton says:

    Nice review John, I plan to pick up a copy and have a go at it. I especially like you and the authors comments on commercials which in my opinion,often receive too much of the blame for the decline of the stock. Sadly most recreational anglers don’t have the insight as to the workings of commercial fishermen. They would rather blame someone else than take the time to investigate the industry and how they are regulated. Are there shortcomings in commercial fishing? Most certainly! but not the the extent that some would have you believe. In regard to poaching, one of the major problems is the shortage of enforcement officers and the inherit weakness of the governing laws. I have personally reported poachers, as well as now other who have done the same. Unfortunately, with the way enforcement are spread out so thin, it is unlikely that there are officers close enough to catch the offenders in act. And without that proof, there is little that can dissuade the poachers from continuing or expanding their operations. I personally don’t believe that poaching is at epidemic levels in NJ, where I live, but it certainly contributes to the problem. The conservation officers I have spoken with are ever diligent of the issue and go through great pains to uncover it when they are made aware of it. I had the opportunity to spend a few days with them down here and even did a ride along for a day and they are beyond diligent. Most seem to live the job 24-7. But if you look at the NJ Budget line for marine enforcement, you will probably notice that they are woefully underfunded. All this being said, I look forward to reading and hearing more about this subject. I believe there are other areas that play into the decline including migratory patterns, cyclical anomalies and believe it or not, catch and release practices themselves. I have friends who C&R thousands of striped bass every year. Based on mortality studies that one in every ten fish fails to survive, we could be talking some big numbers. Once again, thanks for the review.

  3. avatar jeff Nichols says:

    First I want thank John…for the exposure (I guess:) and his constant efforts to help bass stocks. I disagree with John that my book should be required reading: I would first go with Dick Russell’s Striper Wars and Karas’s The Striped Bass,. Both these books should be required reading for they meticulously articulate the impact man has had on these fish over the years. Russell’s book in particular show’s a wonderful grass route movement in the 80’s lead by, of all people, a Mailman and vet… Captain Jim White! (he sent me a letter…describing what he went through…the abuse he and his family took from both commercial and rec guys, over trying to protect the fish that ironically we all enjoyed and profited on…over the last decade.) Q: Is there another..Jim White Out there this time?
    I read both books twice. (John also shows how hard it is for us all to find time to read these days… I used read all the time, now I have a flat screen with 500 channels! And a I-Phone were I can get e-mails telling me I have a CVS discount and get notices alerting me that I can get Viagra from Canada! ….why read?!
    John also brings up a question …where are the real writers/media on this issue??— I am a B-level hack—I admit it…but someone has got to address this? How was both the North Carolina massacre and the 10 tons of bass (do I have that right?) found in just one illegal submerged gill net in the Chesapeake not picked up on by the NYTIMES..or even 60 minutes? Both these stories got no national attention. If they were bald Eagles instead of Stripers, Operha would be all over it… There are good high profile professional journalist out there that, A) no the fishry is in trouble and B) could take on this subject of poaching but choose not too, my guess is that subjects like Anthony Weiner is a safer subject….and sell better.
    To be honest, the reason I Sensationalized the” black market” aspect of my book in the title was I knew that it would generate some press, which you need to sell books I guess. As John points out, MY first book was made into a movie and I was paid well, so I tried again..you all would too. My plan: option movie rights to Hollywood then move to Alaska and hunt and fish…. Well lighting did not strike twice, and here I am… I guess if I did get shot (or worse…left on a booie somewhere out on Block Island Sound) ..then, of course, the movie people would come around again. BUT seriously, looking back.. The title “Caught” would make one believe that everyone in MTK is shuffling off with illegal bass to the market place, for this I am truly sorry- for- from what I have scene, that is far from the case.
    I mated on several boats out there over the years , including head boats, and never saw and extra fish taken… I saw log books properly filled out…by good captains who were forced to labor under excessive regulations (compared to other states). I spent 100’s of nights on BI sound and never came across a dragger culling bass. (I am not saying it did not happen, I have herd it has esp in fog, I am just saying I never saw it) A good DEC officer also put the fear of God into everyone out there a few years back. I am not trying to kiss anyone ass here..I a 48 year old… I have no wife or kids, my body is failing neurologically, and I have no carrier to speak of…I love life…but this world has got to care a little more about the species that we are wiping out (by droves) in the name of commerce/ greed everyday..… If I was killed for bringing attention to poaching of this sacred fish then I did not die in vein..
    I always laugh at people who think I am making money of this book…. It cost me $4000 so far to self-pub and I have made back $1000. I wrote this book because I am a writer. I write. And I care about Striped Bass.
    What the book is about is me getting “caught” in 2003 (he “the captain”, had four fish in a cooler he had caught the day before and we brought in three fish…making the total 7: intent to sell….the captian did not put tags on fish) with a renegade commercial guy who was not a local Montauk fisherman but a transient from down island. He did not even have a slip out there or a registered boat. he was a well know scofflaw and Not a typical Montauk commercial fisherman.(he was also a funny mother fucker). I was innocent at the time… later I sold my limit and admittedly had a problem with Bootlegging. (different than poaching?) (but then I just wanted to learn how to fish) brought into a 2 year court case… it is interesting stuff, . IT is also FUNNY in parts-God forbid. But because no one read it …what did I get out of it.. NO one talks to me in MTK anymore, I am paranoid, and my 18 thousand dollars new engine was deemed sabotaged by Boat US and police reports.

2 Pings/Trackbacks for "Required Reading: Caught"
  1. […] I would be ok if I went out and caught (or had a shot at) three fish a night.. I grew up trout fishing on reservoirs in Putnam.County..were one squeaky oar lock spooked the fish (ocean fishing is a joke by comparison)…. I would troll around for 6 hours and be happy not to have a bight…because I new it would come eventually. if I put the time in… I don't have to catch 30 fish.a night…I am a hunter..2006 to 2010 or so was absurd ..perhaps the stock needed to be culled. But do it by rod and reel…we are culling dear now …it is working but we are not using nerve gas….our nuclear weapons(same impact of fish that nets have)… one bullet one dear…not one net 3000 pounds of bass! if I read in books like Dick Russell's Striper Wars, and Karas THE Striped BASS. correctly,..crashes go like this 30- fish a night- one yea-15 fish a night– the next 0 fish… like don't even bother. type fishing. for five years to come. the fishery drops from catching 30 to 15…to NADA….. I remember chartering boat in MTK in 88…. and the captian was blown away that we landed 1 keeper at 34 inches. ..That rat (17 pounds) was the. biggest and only keeper (cought on a dimond jig) at the dock that day. http://www.reel-time.com/articles/co…eading-caught/ […]

  2. […] press on caught/free give away Review http://www.reel-time.com/articles/co…eading-caught/ I have another ten books (can't sell them tried to at freeport show I may as well have been […]

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