With striped bass catch and release, are we innocent?

Catch and release mortality isn’t insignificant, but what are we supposed to do?

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Wow, man … epic weekend. There have been some scary big stripers around the bunker schools off the South Shore of Long Island during the last couple of weeks. Yes, again, I’ve seen more 40s and 50s in the last few days than I’ve seen in my entire life, including all those other times I’ve said that. We even had one on that I swear was every bit of 60, maybe 70, before it spit the hook. It’s a really short window in the morning, and I wouldn’t say we’re catching a lot of fish, but the quality is ridiculous.

It’s been real, real good, man. My entire disposition is different than it was just a couple of weeks ago when the fishing pretty much sucked. With the exception of a few “OK” days here and there, the entire season up till recently was terribly depressing – mostly because the painful reality that there are fewer stripers around these days has really set in. I’m 100 percent Irish, in my early 40s, and I hardly ever sleep more than five hours because I fish a lot. I have a short temper, probably drink too much and I’m a pretty bitter/jaded dude. A total stereotype. Usually, nothing is good, and I hate everyone. Until I have a few good days of fishing, then I’m Mister Happy-go-lucky. Don’t worry, though, it will wear off … right … now.

First, nothing kills a good fish buzz like seeing a fleet of weekend warriors in their bowriders and cruisers (you know, the boats that look like giant sneakers) gaffing every 40- to 50-pounder they are able to get to the boat. These are generally the same morons who say that “the fishing is great” and “everything is fine with the striped bass stock” because they managed to be lucky enough to stumble on one or two days or even weeks of good fishing during the entire season. Certainly they don’t have the broader perspective of people who are out there 100-plus days a year and who have been doing this shit for 20-plus years. Perhaps worse are all of those guys gaffing fish who do understand what’s happening, yet, when the fish do show, they feel entitled to kill every last one. Irritating man…

I’ve said it in three different posts already, but I have to say it again here (hopefully this will be the last time). It ain’t where the fish are; it’s where they aren’t. Just about everyone who spends time on the water from Virginia to Maine is seeing a definite lack of striped bass in their usual haunts. Yes, there are some extraordinary bodies of fish, like the one I’m talking about here, but that sort of thing really only highlights where they aren’t. And they aren’t a lot of places. It probably goes without saying at this point, but an abundant, healthy stock is expansive and widely distributed. I wanna wring the necks of those dummies who still insist everything is OK.

I’ve also got to note some of the similarities here to the last striped bass crash. Before the stock completely collapsed, the fishing was again “epic” in various isolated times and locations, including both Cape Cod and Block Island. There were a shit-ton of 50s and 60s caught back in the late 70s (and mostly sold) right before the crash. It’s hard not to think that we might be headed down a similar road and that history is repeating itself.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

But I’ve pretty much said all this stuff before. I wanna talk about all us high-and-mighty stone-throwers who are at least trying to release these fish. It’s a damn uncomfortable question, but are we living in glass houses?

I’m gonna confess here. We badly gut hooked two fish over 40 pounds during the weekend. Hey, it happens … particularly with this sort of fishing. I’m not talking about just live lining, because if you use circle hooks, which I generally do, then you can avoid gut hooking fish 95 percent of the time. I’m talking about the snag-and-drop routine, with a weighted treble. Yes, after the first one, I switched over to snagging, bringing the bait in and switching it to a circle-hook. But, um, we didn’t get a touch after that.

For some reason this just doesn’t work for the ocean fishery. I think it has something to do with the possibility that you really need to present a distressed bait in the water, away from the boat, usually on the outskirts of the bunker school. If you take it out and transfer it to a circle hook, then try and lob it back in. Seems like even if you can get it to where there are fish busting on bunker, those bigger, older, larger fish know something is wrong.

Whatever the case, it just doesn’t work. And when everyone around us was catching and we weren’t, we went right back to the snag-and-drop technique and didn’t gut hook another fish … until Sunday, anyway, where again, we had one take it way too deep to even think about getting it out, which really bummed me out. In fact I thought to myself, I don’t wanna do that again and maybe consciously jinxed us, because we stuck what was likely a really, really big fish (mentioned above), which pulled the hook, and then no more life on any of the bunker schools. I was secretly happy about that.

The point is that, yeah, I preach and preach about releasing stripers. But when it comes to mortality on these big fish, I’m not without sin. Which brings up an interesting point. Should all of us who are so adamant about conservation, and getting striped bass back to where it used to be, just be leaving these fish alone? It’s a tough, uncomfortable question to ask. In fact, I’m squirming in my seat right now.

Yes, of course, one could argue that guys like me don’t cause near as much mortality as the ones who go out with the intent of killing their limits – and in some cases even more than their limits – every day. And that’s true. But it still doesn’t mean the mortality catch-and-release guys like me inflict on the stock, particularly these large fish that we are on now, is insignificant.

I’ve been struggling a little bit with this. Really, though, what are we supposed to do? Not fish? One can effectively make the argument that if we truly care about the resource we should just leave it alone altogether, or maybe just leave these big fish alone, or perhaps just not fish live bait. I mean sure you can do that, and we have caught fish on big pencil-poppers on these bunker schools, and certainly we always try. But 75 percent of the time, the big boys will only eat livies.

The Catch 22 is that once you stop fishing, or just stop catching, you tend to not give a shit anymore. I mean, really, you think I’d be sitting here writing this blog post if I wasn’t a complete fish head? In other words, if you don’t have people physically using the resource, then you lose a whole lotta people who want to protect it from the morons who just don’t give a shit about the future viability of the fishery. Yes, there are the greenies/enviros/vegans who seem to want to protect all the cute fishes just ’cause it’s the trendy thing to do at this point in their lives. Of course they can’t be counted on other than to propose stuff like no fishing zones. And of course you have the big enviro groups, many of which have done and are doing good work on fisheries issues. But I haven’t heard a peep out of them regarding striped bass.

The truth is that it’s the anglers: the guys who do this stuff a lot and have been doing it a long time. The guys who know how it used to be and what it could be. The guys for whom this is a passion. The guys who have made fishing part of their lives. For many of them, it’s become a flat out lifestyle. These are the real advocates for the fishery resource. Don’t forget it was angling groups that pretty much started the marine conservation movement. And in a lot of cases they are still the primary movers of policy. Unfortunately, that’s been shifting in a bad direction, but I’m not gonna get into that here.

Yes, we all kill a few fish, but that’s because – well, because we fish. Even the guys who intentionally kill one or two for their families aren’t terrible in my book, even if they do run boats that look like sneakers. And the guys who are always “getting on the meat” and limiting out? Well, I don’t like that, but I think even they are beginning to want to see managers do something to rebuild striped bass, like right now. While their actions might not indicate it, they don’t want to see the resource disappear any more than you and I do.

In the end, perhaps guys like me do live in glass houses. But without us, you got nothing standing in the way of developers, commercial fishermen, stupid recreational fishermen and stupid party/charter boat captains who just don’t appear to give a shit about whether or not our kids can develop unhealthy addictions to striped bass (maybe that’s not such a good thing). Regardless, this is a public trust natural resource. And it’s F’n beautiful, man. There is nothing as extraordinary as a big, beautiful striped bass swimming away. We have a moral obligation to protect these fish, and some of us, the ones who fish hard and passionately but may kill a fish now and then, are probably the only ones who will fight to protect it when the shit hits the fan (like it is right now).

Listen, man, you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. Once you take away those cracked eggs, then what have you got?


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.

Posted in Conservation
3 comments on “With striped bass catch and release, are we innocent?
  1. avatar Shane says:

    I couldn’t have written it better myself. Write your letters, make your phone calls, now is the time to get in the manager’s heads. They are listening and responding to people lately but they need to hear it from us.

  2. avatar Anthony Criscola says:

    As I write this the striper fishery is collapsing.

    We’ve seen this coming for the last nine years @ Watchhill.

    Article in the NY Times a few

    weeks ago stated the rec. catch in Mass. has dropped 85% from 2005 to 2011.

    It’s happening right now, but few want to admit it.

  3. avatar Ross says:

    Even sports-minded anglers can do their part by practicing sound C&R techniques. Crush your barbs, have that camera ready if you plan on taking a photo, handle the fish properly by minimizing the time out of water…all these and more can significantly improve the likelihood of a successful release.

    Great job John.


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