What’s Goin’ On?

Striped Bass

Things Are Different This Spring, Real Different…

Alright… I’m just gonna come out and say it. The striped bass fishing has kinda sucked so far…for me anyway.

I guess it’s bad for business for me to admit that here, but I’ve never been one to hold back on the truth, whatever the consequences may be (which I’ve found NOT to be such a great quality).

Add that to a slightly lower rate of pre-bookings, ridiculous price increases on everything it takes to run this business and, well, I’m trying not to panic, but, ahem, I’m starting to panic.

I’ll be honest…It’s a pretty darn terrible feeling when you wait all winter for the spring and it ends up being pretty weak. Especially if your income, not to mention your entire sense of self-worth, depends on whether a stupid fish eats a stupid bait. Even more so when you think you’re the man, that you’ve got it all figured out, and you’re gearing up for another awesome season, and, well, the paradigm completely changes.

I hate to admit it, but it’s often in this business where ya think you’re pretty good, only to find out that you’re really not (i.e. “hero to zero”). Fragile egos aside, so much of this stuff depends on circumstance, and, to some extent, luck.

I mean, for just about all of April and May, I was just kinda thinking it was a later start. Well, it’s probably too late to think that.

Yeah, of course I’m still catching fish, and have been. I mean, I’m grinding out three-or-four-fish days (quality fish too) and for sure there are some better days mixed in… but I guess I kinda expected a repeat of last year…or the last 4 or 5 years really.

If you follow me, I’m sure you’ve seen/heard me raving about the “EPIC” striped bass runs we’ve had. And hey, man…it really WAS that good in my neck of the woods. Not just in the spring but even more so in the fall.

But here’s the truth: this year’s early spring? It’s actually more of a normal one in the context of the last two decades – cold and wet – and maybe, just maybe, that’s a good thing. I’ll get to that.

There’s a lot being written about striped bass right now. And that’s not particularly unusual given its popularity amongst the sportfishing community. But it really has become hard to separate facts from hysteria. So, I’m gonna get into that a bit here and maybe try and make one or two salient points.

Armchair Theories

So, here’s the deal. Like I said, the weather has been really bad for most, essentially all, of April and May. Both months were cold, the wind seemed to blow hard from the east, and it sure seemed like it rained sideways more days than it didn’t.

Anyone who knows fishing knows that these are generally poor conditions in the spring (in the fall it tends to be the opposite, but let’s not get into that). Not simply because such conditions are uncomfortable, and sometimes prohibitive, but because the fishing generally doesn’t get going here until we do start to get those warm (65° and over) days. I mean, yeah, you can and will catch fish when it’s crappy out in April, but it’s definitely not “on” until some good weather comes.

With that said, however, those very same weather conditions are well-known to support better recruitment (i.e. young of the year survival) in the Cheaspeake Bay. I will note that my less than stellar springs have seemed to coincide with good Maryland Juvenile Abundance Indices. So, that may very well be a silver lining here.

But, whether it’s related to the weather or not, we just didn’t have the massive amount of menhaden that generally seems to bring fish into Lower New York Harbor, least not in the amounts we had the prior five years in April and May. That said, we did (and do) seem to have a ton of micro menhaden. Tiny ones…like maybe an inch. What that’s about, I really have no clue, but I’ve never seen them in such numbers so early. Regardless, it’s not unreasonable to believe that that first big slug of fish, which tend to be on the larger side, do indeed come in because of the adult menhaden aggregation.

It’s entirely possible that during their annual migration, those fish came in for a bit, didn’t see the large forage source and just kept on the move.

This could indeed be the case given the large aggregation of fish that did show up at points north and east of us, earlier than they usually do.

I mean, while those areas didn’t necessarily have the bunker aggregation either, they did, and do have other forage there, butterfish and Atlantic mackerel to be specific.

As the subhead suggests though, these are all armchair theories. They may have some truth to them, but they may not. The problem is that when you stick a fish in the mouth with a sharp object and subsequently pull it in the boat and ask it, generally it won’t answer.

The point is that we really don’t know why they didn’t show. I mean, no one does. Sure, we can guess, but it certainly doesn’t change things. And we sure as hell have no control over any of it. The reality of any such situation is that fish have fins and they move, under their own will, and not under any perceived pattern.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my two decades in the charter business is that the more you think you know, the more you don’t know. And that those folks who do claim to have figured it all out are generally full of poop.

The Truth Though? Not Much Has Changed

Anytime, anywhere, when someone mentions less than epic fishing, there’s a knee jerk reaction to blame it on “overfishing.”

That may or may not be the case here, but I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing. At least I REALLY hope not.

Yes, there’s been an abundance of concern about missing year classes. And I want to be very clear that it is indeed justified. We’re looking at five years of extremely low recruitment (i.e. young of the year survival) in the Chesapeake Bay. And in case ya didn’t already know, the Chesapeake produces anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of the coastal stock. Yeah, the Hudson/Delaware makes significant contributions, but even the average recruitment the surveys are picking up there sure ain’t gonna make up for what the Chesapeake is lacking.

While there are, and always will be, folks who question the legitimacy of those young-of-the year surveys that have been conducted in the Bay for the last 70 years, the truth is that they’ve been extraordinarily accurate in predicting coastal abundance 7 or 8 years out.

It’s really NOT a good situation no matter how you cut it.

But the reality is that it’s not likely we’ll really feel the effect of such poor recruitment until 2027/2028 as those fish, or lack thereof, recruit into the coastal stock. I suppose we could and probably will see less schoolies sooner than that, but we still should have five pretty good year classes along the coast (2011, ‘14, ‘15, ‘17 and ‘18, not to mention the ‘03s and ‘05s that are phasing outta the coastal stock – through fishing and natural mortality). We saw a LOT of those older, larger fish in the prior years. This year? Not so much. Least not yet, although they do seem to be appearing in smaller numbers elsewhere.

So no, what we’re seeing right now probably isn’t the result of those poor Chesapeake Bay young-of-the-year indices. Nor is it overfishing, as technically, at least according to the last stock assessment update, overfishing is NOT occurring. In other words, while the stock is indeed still “overfished” (under a spawning stock biomass threshold) it is on the increase and under the most recent set of data, should reach that target by 2029.

I understand well that all this may change come October when we’ll have a new assessment update, but right now, it appears that little has changed as far as stock size goes. And I do believe that given we’re operating on a pretty constraining 3″ slot limit (28 to 31″) the number of fish anglers are killing is quite a bit lower than it was a few short years ago. I can tell ya first hand that, even when there’s a LOT of fish around in my neck, it’s often real hard to find a keeper.

Could it be that all the releases are causing the stock to again experience overfishing? Well, yes of course that’s possible. Particularly given what has certainly seemed to me to be an increase in fishing effort over the last few years. In other words, as the stock rebuilds and there are often immense aggregations of fish to target, well, more people will get after it, thus it’s generally true that abundance drives effort.

But could that 9% discard mortality estimate (i.e. one in eleven fish die) create an overfishing scenario? Well, absolutely it could. But I find it hard to believe that all those fish didn’t just come back because so many of them died after release. I mean, come on, man. 91% of ’em did survive!

Without a doubt the striped bass fleet seems to be killing way less fish than it had been just a few short years ago.

So, while I could certainly eat my words here, I don’t believe “overfishing” is the reason we don’t have a ton of fish around right now. I think it’s yet another natural shift in abundance, that occurs regularly in this fishery, and others. While I can try and explain it away through my and other’s armchair theories, the truth is that none of us know.

Back to silver linings, I’m hoping/expecting that this terrible spring weather we’ve had will result in a banner, or at least better, Chesapeake young-of-the-year metric this year. And if you look at things from that proverbial 10K foot level, THAT is WAY more important than one crappy spring, my fragile ego and whether or not I book a lotta trips.

Absolutely, if I had a choice, I would sacrifice EVERY single spring for the foreseeable future if it meant we’ll have a better, more sustainable fishery in the future. And that’s the God’s honest truth.

In The End

I’ve been doing this long enough to understand really well that things change. In fact, in this business, that simple truth is the ONLY thing that doesn’t change.

It’s easy to blame such changes on the tangible things…the stuff we can understand. But there’s so much we don’t know about fish and fisheries and that we’ll probably never fully understand.

Yeah, I sometimes arrogantly play the role of “expert,” like I know everything about this stock and how to fish it on any given season, week, day. But hey man, when ya boil it all down, I don’t know poop, and no one does. And if you truly believe that ya do, then you clearly lack experience in this fishery, or you’re just really not that smart.

Of course you want patterns to emerge, and they often do, lasting for several years at a clip. And then, without explanation, the paradigm shifts. And you’re left thinking, “What the [expletive]!?” (Note: I can’t wait to see what the tuna season brings.)

And I suppose that’s what makes it interesting to us, and what even makes some of us downright obsessed. I mean, if these perceived patterns held, and the fishing was just always good/easy, I’d probably get bored really quickly. The truth is that while I certainly don’t enjoy these tough days on the water, I understood long ago that they are a necessary part of it all. Because you really can’t enjoy the good days, least not immensely, without the not-so-good ones. (Insert “that’s why they call it fishing, not catching” or another cringe-worthy cliché here.)

I’m still thinking the best is yet to come in my neck with striped bass. That’s just what fishermen do – always hope. And as I write this, I just got a text about a massive body of fish to the south of us. Guessing we’ll be into them soon!

In the meantime, we all just need to continue to trust in the science, keep grinding away during the tough days, and embrace and thoroughly enjoy the unusually good ones, knowing that they won’t last forever. And most importantly, understand how lucky we are to have what we have. To embrace, rather than push back on, good precautionary management, and to understand that the science is our friend, however much we might think it’s wrong. Because in the end, it’s the ONLY objective/non-biased information we really have to drive management of such a precious resource.

Because anyone over 60 can tell ya, it is VERY possible to lose it all, unexpectedly, abruptly, and in some cases permanently.

Me? I don’t want to lose it…I can’t lose it. Because honestly? I’m all in man, and I really got noth’n’ else.

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.

5 comments on “What’s Goin’ On?

  1. What’s going on? A lack of understanding, still, and management of the dynamics of the genetic groups within the changing environmental conditions influencing mortality at all ages/sizes/sexes. Fisheries oceanographic research and management remain mostly a single species affair, with little species-species interaction with even less understanding of spatial dynamics on population interactions.

  2. I’ll be 70 this year, seen stripers come and go. I totally agree that the last 2 springs were abnormally good and that this year is more like the long term norm. Still catching some nice stripers, just have to move around more and fish harder.

  3. Good stuff John, thanks for the honesty, as Greg Myerson once told me the fish are the stars of this show.
    The biomass of all fisheries is vonerable.

  4. I agree with your concerns. One issue though, not mentioned is over-handling of released fish. More lunker cow bass are being caught and released while trying for that slot fish. I see people handing fish to one another for photos, damaging the fishes slime, excessive time out of water, netting with non-rubberized nets and all kinds of other dumb things. All these actions, increasing the mortality rate of prime breeder stock. Been a bass fisherman for nearly seventy years, my family were pioneers in Montauk (including Capt. Doug McCabe). I fear the worst is yet to come. Thank you for the great article!

    • The south shore of long island is experiencing the best spring run I have ever remembered in 45 years. Multiple 45 to 50lb fish every trip. Sometimes they feed all day. Non stop madness. It’s been epic!

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