Real World Striped Bass: Part II

Striped bass with a catch-and-release scar

Read Part I of this series. Top photo: striped bass with a catch-and-release scar

On and Off the Water Observations of 2023’s Fishing Season

Last go around, we detailed some relevant on-the-water/real-world observations regarding last season’s striped bass fishery. Primarily how the new 3″ slot limit likely increased dead discards, ahem, a LOT.

This go-around we’re going to discuss possible takeaways.

Takeaway #1

Dead discards unquestionably go up with more constraining regulations. That is NOT anything new. Managers have always known this. Of course, discard mortality is always lower than the 100% mortality associated with getting thrown in the cooler. And every analysis I’ve seen shows a net decrease in fishing mortality with more constraining regulations, least if we’re talking just about striped bass. So, absolutely the existing constraining slot-limit is a good thing in the context of rebuilding.

However, current recreational discard mortality assumes a 9% mortality rate across the board. In other words, one in eleven fish that get thrown back don’t make it. Extrapolate that across estimated fishing effort, and you have a figure right around 50% of all fishing mortality. To be extra clear here, recreational dead discards constitute around half of all striped bass fishing deaths. That’s kinda five times more than what commercial folks harvest.

I do know that there are folks who question that 9% figure, and especially the 50% one…but based on my 30 years of striped bass fishing, I’d say that’s a conservative estimate, and one that I might even restrict to artificials (plugs, flies, jigs, etc.). Once you get into bait, 9% seems WAY low to me. Off the cuff, I’d guess something closer to 20%. I mean, it’s really hard for me to believe that it’s less than that when you figure in all the snag-and-drop stuff and the large inexperienced section of striped bass anglers that are gonna let that fish run with the bait before they set up on it. And circle hooks, assuming we could actually get folks to use them? Let’s be honest here. Sure, they work better than trebles, but they do, I’d venture to say often, gut-hook fish. And once that happens, ain’t no way you’re getting that hook out.

So, while some may strongly disagree with me here, this year in particular, I began to understand that real world numbers on dead discards are likely quite a bit higher than 9%. Especially during, but certainly not limited to, menhaden aggregations where large fish are likely to swallow big baits and big plugs, or spoons, or even flies.

Yes, the science is the science, and we’re supposed to take the 9% estimate as Gospel, but what I see on the water just doesn’t mesh.

Trust me when I tell ya, man…there were a LOT of floaters out there this year. And while I hesitate to admit this, even when we’re talking about an operation that focus on plugs, spoons and flies (i.e., NOT bait), we inadvertently killed more than our fair share too.

Takeaway #2

I don’t know that we can count on “fishing effort” (i.e., people going out and getting after it) going down with more constraining regulations. It has long been a claim by some folks, managers included, that it will. The harvest moratorium advocates in particular, opine that discards wouldn’t be a real issue if we instituted a no-harvest moratorium, because those fishing simply to harvest fish wouldn’t bother, or shift effort to other fisheries that did allow harvest, thus reducing effort overall.

Again, this is anecdotal, and limited to my region. But that sure didn’t seem to be the case this season. Like I said. More-or-less zero chance of harvesting a “legal” fish for most of October here. Yet crowds, presumably driven by an abundance of trophy-sized stripers, were the largest I’ve seen them in my 25 years of fishing here.

Takeaway #3

I’ve been in the charter business long enough to understand well that abundance drives participation, in just about any fishery, EVEN a catch-and-release one. It sure as heck seems to me that when you get aggregations of fish like this, sure maybe people want to keep one, but just because they can’t, doesn’t and won’t keep them tied to the dock.

It seemed to take Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commissioners by surprise when effort skyrocketed in 2022. It shouldn’t have. As the stock rebuilds and becomes more abundant and more accessible, anglers will get after it. Can’t imagine we won’t see another increase in 2023, which would presumably come with a large increase in discard mortality (based on that 9%, which IMO is a real underestimation).

What I haven’t mentioned yet is the fact that once we got into November, well, that was when we actually did begin to see lots of fish that fell within that 28″ to 31″ slot, thus harvesting a keeper wasn’t terribly difficult. That size class of fish was abundant all the way through December. So, again, if the survey picks this up, I’m guessing we will maybe see a large harvest increase also.

These are all assumptions of course. And really, recreational fishing surveys sometimes don’t seem to reflect reality. But, whether or not we’ll still be on track to rebuild by 2029? I do have doubts.

The point here, while I’m not doing a great job of making it, is that fishing effort seems to be on the rise, and I can’t imagine it won’t continue to do so as the stock rebuilds and large aggregations of fish like the ones we witnessed this fall continue to flourish. Maybe we’ll stay on track to rebuild, but again from an “on-the-water” viewpoint, sure doesn’t seem like it.

How would managers deal with that? We’ll have to see.

Hypothetically, if the board decides on effort controls, and it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t, we’d likely see constraining seasons (e.g., no-harvest closures in New York in, say, April and November) which would NOT be ideal in New York.

Even with such closures, this year’s observations would seem to indicate that it would do very little to control effort, thus we could expect discard mortality to rise. Would such closures be enough to prevent enough fishing mortality and allow rebuilding by 2029, assuming a continued increase in effort? Probably, but maybe not.

Even so, some managers seem intent on addressing dead discards. And I understand why. Like I said, catch-and-release mortality accounts for 50% of all fishing mortality. Why wouldn’t catch and release anglers be expected to shoulder some of the burden. Managers could and certainly have considered husing “no-target closures” specifically to address discard mortality – in other words prohibiting even catch and release fishing during certain months. MD has indeed implemented such closures.

A lot of folks believe this is unlikely, and I do hope they are right; yet, having been there for more than one no-target discussion, I’m not sure how unlikely it really is. It’s not out of the realm of possibility by any means.

Takeaway #4

Enforcement and compliance? This is a really big consideration in the context of how the Commission decides to proceed, assuming the very real possibility we see an effort and subsequent fishing mortality increase, and projections are that we don’t meet the spawning stock biomass deadline by 2029, because we’re still killing too many fish.

This year and last year’s on-the-water observations proved to me, beyond a doubt, that with regulations that are difficult, or perhaps impossible to enforce, you simply won’t have compliance. This idea that most anglers will be compliant, especially when they might feel the regulation is unjust and/or does little good, is naive.

Which, makes any sort gear restriction, and/or no-target effort controls worthless, IMO.

What a no-target closure would do, however, is punish those charter operators who have always largely practiced catch and release, ahem, like me. Because for sure, you can’t market and book trips for “bluefish” when there’s clearly no bluefish around.

Takeaway #5

Is this incredibly constraining slot limit working? Absolutely there are more dead discards. Likely WAY more if we’re all being honest here. But it’s hard to argue that we don’t have more access in recent years to more and larger fish. And that sorta thing does seem to coincide with the initial slot limit being put in place in 2020. Of course, this could simply be a few robust year classes moving though the fishery, but I dunno…we sure didn’t see ’em like this before that slot went into place. And it just makes sense. Don’t kill all those big fish and, well, they’re accessible to anglers. That’s indeed a good thing. Just not sure it’s good enough to get us to a historically high target by 2029. Mostly because I just don’t know if stock increases can withstand what will almost undoubtedly be an increase in fishing effort as the stock rebuilds.

Takeaway #6

Atlantic Striped Bass Female Spawning Stock Biomass & Recruiting

Atlantic Striped Bass Female Spawning Stock Biomass & Recruitment (click for larger version)

I understand that the fishing isn’t extraordinary EVERYWHERE. I don’t wanna beat a dead horse. But wow man, it was just unbelievable here! Biblical was the only word to describe it sometimes. So, while yes, we’re still rebuilding, what exactly is a “rebuilt” stock going to look like? I don’t remember those years (2000 to 2005?), when we were at or above target, being anything near what we’ve seen in the last three years. I suppose the goal is see the sort of abundance we had in the New York Bite everywhere. Absolutely, that would be a good thing, and let’s hope that’s where we’re heading.

Yet it would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are a few managers/biologists out there who argue that the biomass target we’re striving for might be too high. It’s empirical (not biological) based on a single year (1995), and it’s really the result of a data recalibration back in, I think, 2018. And, we’ve only reached it five times in the 40-year time series (see chart). Yeah, I dunno that lowering the goalposts is a great idea, like ever, but I also understand why some managers have suggested the science folks take another good look at the biomass target we’re trying to reach. But in the end, the “best” available science is just that. Under no circumstance should we let anyone’s limited perspective dictate management action in its place.

Conclusions

The long-term existence and proliferation of the striped bass resource is of course critical to my business, to me, to my existence. It’s not really hyperbole to acknowledge that, without it, really, I don’t exist, least not in the way I want to. And that is, of course, of the upmost importance, not just right now, but beyond my expiration date (it would be nice if my kid had an opportunity to take over a business that took decades to build).

While for sure some folks don’t seem to want to acknowledge it, striped bass are extraordinarily prolific in some places right now. The stock is indeed increasing in size, and that is supported by the science. The truth is that what managers are trying to do is get them to a historically high level in a short amount of time. And while it may seem counterintuitive to those that witnessed the epic fall run, that is NOT only a requirement, it’s a good idea given what will most certainly be weak year-classes recruiting into the stock.

I should be clear though that once we do get to that biomass target by 2029, we’re likely facing even more belt tightening in the future, as those well-below-average Chesapeake Bay young-of-the-year begin to affect coastal abundance. For sure we’ll need to cross that bridge when we get to it.

Lastly, I’ve begun to realize that maybe, I’m NOT one of the “good guys” anymore. Whether inadvertently or not, I likely kill a LOT of striped bass. I mean, none of us are innocent. To think that you are just because you use a certain type of gear and release fish is 100% false. The only innocents are those who have given up fishing for good.

I’ve ALWAYS been a “conservation” advocate. To be really clear though, it’s simply because I want, I need consistent access to fish in the water. Abundance drives opportunity, and that sort of opportunity not only books trips but has come to sustain my mental health and wellbeing.

The uncomfortable truth is that being a conservation-focused angler does not make me (or you) one of the “good guys” anymore. We’ve kinda gotten to the point where it seems like there are no “good guys” in the fishing community. Only different stakeholders with different goals. And that hurts a little bit once you begin to fully understand that it’s true.

But hey, man…right now, I’m trying my best to just enjoy the good fishing, and the bump in business it’s created, to be content watching my kids grow up, and most importantly, to stay out of social media discourses perpetuated by armchair QBs.

I’m not gonna lie though. It’s increasingly hard to sleep well at night.

Because one thing seems pretty clear. We’re not gonna be out of the woods anytime soon with striped bass. And, unless something changes, we might be facing some REALLY difficult decisions in the not-so-distant future.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is a full-time charter boat captain and president of ONE MORE CAST CHARTERS in Oceanside, NY. McMurray spent nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and six years as a legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and is a founder and past president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

12 comments on “Real World Striped Bass: Part II

  1. Hey John…thanks for putting your observations down on paper. What I can report based on my experience fishing from the beach not far from where you frequent is that surfcasters experienced one of the worst fall runs in memory. A very good friend who fishes most days during the fall run did not land a single striped bass over 10 pounds. Yes, there were a few pockets of fish that came onto the beach for a short period of time, but for most, it was a tough, tough pick. I had one week where I found nice sized fish within casting distance. Yes, there were a few pockets of fish that came onto the beach for a short period of time, but for most, it was a tough, tough pick.

    I imagine that this is due in part to the lack of sand eels around or bluefish that could push the bait and fish onto the beach. But what is interesting to me is that a matter of less than a quarter mile (and more) could be the difference between epic fishing and a very tough time in the surf.

    Again, I do not dispute any of your observations. My only point is to share that the epic run that you experienced never really made its way onto the beach. We saw the boats pounding the fish, we just never got a shot at them. So was the body of fish you were experiencing that large or merely a reflection that the fish were concentrated off shore and not spread out along the expanse of Long Island’s shoreline?

    • Good points Ross and that’s a perspective I wasn’t aware of. On the South Shore, from Highlands to Moriches, seems like those fish were up on the beach quite a bit. So much so that I didn’t often want to get in there cause I didn’t want to screw over the guys fishing the beach. Can’t tell if that was a rhetorical question or not at the end there. But that body of fish was indeed absolutely massive. From Moriches to Shark River at one point. Does that mean the fishery is fine and we don’t need to continue to rebuild? Of course not. But I also don’t think ignoring or trying to discount such observations as small and localized/irrelevant and claiming that the stock is somehow in a precipitous downward spiral, when clearly it is “rebuilding” (read increasing in size) and the only way to fix it is a moratorium, decreases all our credibility. I’m not saying that you’re say’n stuff like that, but there are certainly plenty of folks who are.

  2. Capt. McMurray,

    Thanks for taking the time to put your observations down and… certainly finish that book.

    You’re observations are pretty consistent with those up and down the coast… Here in South Jersey… We essentially had a bass desert…

    Your observations are not only consistent with colleagues up north but with the current data. Large bass in the system with far less juvenile bass to fill in behind them. This phenomenon is likely reflective of the poor recruitment from 2017 (or so) on.

    In my opinion your salient point is one that I try my best to get across to others… Our customers come to catch striped bass… Not necessarily to eat them. I don’t see social media posts or pictures in someone’s office of Bass on a plate with a side of veggies…

    It seems like your view is consistent with that of ASGA… Conservation breeds business… I also want to applaud you on bringing up the point that there are no “innocents “, and enforcement is the linchpin.

    Thanks for sharing reasonable observations, not attacking the scientists, and for holding a mirror up so we can all acknowledge culpability and be better.

    Be Well Fellow Greyhound

    Capt. Jason Moore
    Island Fly
    Brigantine NJ
    970.471.5803

    • Thanks Cap. So those fish never showed up at all? Or they just showed up too late for them to be useful. I totally agree with ya re the lack of schoolies along the coast. That said, you duck into any of the bays here (Jamaica Bay in particular), and they were loaded with schoolies. In fact, J Bay kinda had them all summer into December. Likely Hudson fish, but hard to say. One thing is for sure though. We’re gonna have to pay the piper once those shtty YOYs from the Chesapeake begin to recruit (or not recruit) into the coastal fishery. And while it’s possible guys like you and me who generally don’t keep fish aren’t affected, it’s also very possible we will be. No target closures are a VERY real thing, already being implemented in MD. When discards account for 50% of fishing mortality, how can we expect for them to NOT address it. Maybe I’m just being paranoid and thinking worse-case here. But maybe I’m not???

  3. Bottom line is that catch and release needs to be tool to lowering mortality while keeping access and opportunity open. Guides/charters, fuel docks, marinas, marine services (repair), tackle shops, etc. all rely heavily on angler trips. Anglers will continue to take trips if fishing is good. Just look at the paricipation levels with a mere 3″ slot forcing more fish to be released. Yes, discard mortality is a real thing and should be accounted for. I also dont want to get lost in the percentages of overall mortality either. I dont care if discard mortality is 50% of total mortality or more as long as overall mortality goes down significantly. Striped bass are already mostly a C&R fishery with over 90% of fishing being caught being released. I am sure the dead discards of other speices that are vastly catch and release are more than 50%. It is overall mortality that is king in rebuilding, not what percentages are dead discards vs the ones that go home with anglers. That is why C&R is a tool. With that said, mortality is far better controlled through harvest. Yes the coast is going to have to eventually see harvest season closures. We have them in the Chesapeake and for most species along the coast. What I dont want to see is the roll out of the no-target closures we have in the Chesapeake, which 1. do not show any advancement in the timeline to rebuilding 2. cannot show a measurable mortality savings vs no-harvest because fish are released while targeting other species. 3. are not enforceable, especially to businesses who cannot just say they are targeting other species. Our managers need to continue to look at options that reduce mortality while keeping access to fishing open. No-target closures do not do that.

    • We are on the same page Greg. But…what happens if we continue to see effort/participation grow as the stock rebuilds (because as ya know, abundance/availability drives participation)? Plug a big effort increase into the model and it’s entirely possible that we can’t rebuild to what is unquestionably a historically high level even with harvest closures. And simultaneously you’ve got anglers and for-hires who do want to take home a fish making the point that they are the only ones sharing the conservation burden while C&R/sporting anglers aren’t doing sht. It’s a compelling argument that certainly seems to have gained traction in MD and if it comes down to whether or not we’re actually gonna rebuild by 2029, it’s not unlikely it’ll gain traction with SB board members. Maybe I’m overly cautious/paranoid, but this kinda thing has me more than a little worried. They decide to do no-target in April and Nov I’m F’d. Yeah, lotta dudes up here say it’s unlikely. I’m not so sure I agree. Guess we’ll see.

  4. Good to hear from you John, keep writing. Down here off Ocean City NJ, the menhaden have been a no show for at least the last two years, while being abundant not far to the north. That is hard to understand, and results in much less dynamic stripper fishing. In recent past years, I had to work hard at finding fish big enough to keep. This year it was like a switch flipped, and it was hard to find a fish below 31 in. For me, catching and releasing fish gets old quickly. Overall I worry about the forage base that is necessary to support a rebuilt stripped bass stock, so I am hoping that the schools of menhaden return to my fishing grounds soon.

    • That’s interesting Fred. I’ve heard from more than one person that the fishing was pretty weak down there. I wonder why menhaden seem to bypass OC? Did you know of any sein boats that came up that way over the summer/fall?

  5. Hey John-as usual a week-done look at the current status of striped bass management. Some very good observations. My one question is “what will work?” What sort of management regimes should striped bass anglers advocate for? Should folks be pro-active or as they have been in the past reactive? You have a great combination of on-the-water experience and going-to-meeting fisheries management experience, so your thoughts on the way forward are important. Obviously a few of-the-charts YOY years would be a great start, but that is wishing and hoping. This fishery needs a well defined and effective management plan.
    You have outlined what doesn’t work, now the focus needs to be on what the course forward should be. Onward!!

  6. Man… That’s a loaded question. I honestly think that despite the discards, the slot is working pretty well. Way more big fish around, and most of them have scaring around the jaw indicating they’ve been caught before. Some don’t make if, for sure, but I do think most do. I know that there are MUCH smarter folks working on solutions than me. I think it’s gonna be REAL hard to get to this target by 2029. And I think we’re likely gonna see no-harvest closures (seasonal probably). And really, that might not get us there either. INo-target closures are kinda silly IMO, but I do NOT doubt they are a real possibility. I mean, why wouldn’t they be if discards are 50% of the fishery? I wish I had a good answer for ya here, but I don’t.

  7. Intresting to hear you northerly perspective, and I’ve heard much the same from the NY guys I know. One comment and two questions for consideration:
    1. You mention not seeing the fishing this good back when the stock was rebuilt (set 2000 – 2005). Totally believable, but in the Chesapeake the numbers of 18″ – 30″ fish back then were just what you speak of now – hands-down epic. That was more or less the case until six or seven years ago and our past three falls have been IMHO progressive “worst-evers.”
    2. On C&R mortality I’m surprised you didn’ bring up water temps – maybe up north it’s not as much of an issue as it is here on the Chesapeake? We see floaters in July/Aug (especially when live-lining is happening) but very few before the water heats up and after it cools back off and/or when the spot aren’t around for live-lining, and I’m sure you’ve seen the studies done here that showed a 1.6-percent mortality rate in water under 60 degrees – which is doubly frustrating for C&R anglers since that’s what it is when we have no-target.
    3. In the discussion of release mortality RE artificials I’m surprised you didn’t mention single-hook jigs, which is probably the number-one choice of C&R anglers around here. You guys do use them, right? I ask specifically because I’ve found it exceptionally rare to hook a large striper in a way that threatens its health while using them. Smaller jigs and smaller fish, yes it happens sometimes, but fish over maybe 32″ and a 9″ plastic on a 1.5oz head, I literally can never recal seeing it (while noting my memory is old & foggy – I’m sure it must have a time or two).
    Thanks – enjoy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *