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Beyond the Keeper
An excerpt from The Trophy Striper
by Frank Daignault

The Trophy Striper by Frank DaignaultEDITOR'S NOTE: The Trophy Striper, was an immediate and continues to be a best seller, going through multiple print editions. Illustrated with more than 60 photos, the 65,000 word tome's purpose is to bridge what Daignault recalls of moby linesides to the future monster fishing on the close horizon. Few would argue that with the return of bass in the post moratorium period that the next stone in the road for coastal fishing will be size. It is Daignault's purpose to effectively warn of the pitfalls which present themselves when fishing for something more than a mere "keeper."

While much of the experience outlined here has a surf spin, (anyone surprised?) the book includes some great boat fishing anecdotes. Unlike Striper Surf or Twenty Years on the Cape, it is for everyone, everyone, that is, who fishes for striped bass.
-- Bob D'Amico - Publisher -

Beyond the Keeper
Part I

he opportunity for a big striper does not lie in your talents, work ethic, methods, friends, or resourcefulness; rather, the chance springs from what is there. What is there is based upon what was born in the preceding years -- a highly variable yet moderately well known quantity: population. The population of striper coast fish is comprised of three major groups and an unknown number of lesser fisheries: in order of size, the southern -- the true bellwether of opportunity -- which is a combined group of Virginia and Maryland migrants which are around 90% of our total; the Hudson River, believed to be second; and, the more recent Delaware River race of bass that has enjoyed late restoration because of better environmental controls at tidewater. Smaller fisheries, as with Maine's Kennebec which is the most exciting of the small ones, are scattered from Connecticut to the Maritimes.

The two largest sources of stripers in our Northwest Atlantic each have a scientific means of measuring the spawn of the season known as the young-of-the-year index (YOY). The crucially important Maryland index is determined by averaging the number of juvenile bass found in three rounds of seining at 22 sites on Chesapeake Bay; the highest ever recorded, at this writing, was 59 in 1996, the lowest under one in 1981. Fishery managers generally consider anything above 8 to be a good spawning year. This measure of fecundity yields highly variable levels of success for a given season; so, one year there are a skillion juvenile bass swimming around and the next only a few. These variations cause dramatic changes in available bass as well as their sizes from one year to the next. For instance, people from New Jersey to Maine might be catching many 12 inch shorts from an abundant year-class migrating for the first time. Then another group of 26 inch ones from a few years earlier makes an appearance. Such dominant year-classes bring some predictability to the picture which comes into focus when everybody is catching from the same good indices. All through the 90s, we caught small bass because that was what dominated striper stocks. Now, with the approaching millennium, we are entering a period of large striper fishing opportunity which was last experienced between 1970 and 80.

The term "keeper" is a post moratorium, late 80's on, term that was born from the repeated raising of the size limit of an allowable striper. Keeper had little importance in the old days because, here in the North, few migration capable bass were throwbacks what with a size limit of 16 inches. Recent attention to the term is a natural outgrowth of the continuous contacting of fish up to 18 pounds which were not suitably legal during some years of the restoration. Also, there is -- depending upon what years one speaks -- great variation in a keeper. With 36 inch fish weighing 18ish pounds and 28 inch fish weighing half that, both keepers depending upon the year, there is little definition of size to be derived from the term in spite of the logic of its development and use. For convenience, the next level of striper in need of definition would be the trophy which, while lacking a clear definition, largely depends upon a size which is larger than that which is commonly caught. Today's trophy will be tomorrow's routine encounter, probably until fair numbers of 50 pounders are available. The carrot is again on the stick.

Because all stripers appear the same, it is difficult to determine river of origin -- that which biologists call stock identification. It is important to know what percentage of the stripers in our fore come from what source or stock composition. DNA science makes that determination possible, but no such project, at this writing, has yet been undertaken in modern times to determine what percentages of migratory stripers from a particular source are of the total. Old studies believed that 90 percent of stocks were southern, 9% were Hudson, and one percent all others; no doubt, there are some shifts in stock composition as the various fecundity rates of some races of bass vary. We can expect great or small numbers from a particular river's year-class, but the wild card will always be that anomaly fish which was born in a river of origin during a bad year. Thus, while what most of us are catching is governed by what we think was born, somebody catches a monster from a bad year or from a less important river. This happens just often enough to keep us on our toes and to remind us about how little is known.

Summer of '96, a time when every club I knew gave its fish of the year award to a 35-pounder, a lineside born in the southern YOY index of '82, I heard of five stripers taken from boats in Rhode Island that were over 50 pounds. I think, though there is no way of proving it, that these were Hudson River fish from a year that was bad elsewhere. There will always be wild cards.

Opportunity for a big striper varies from year to year as a result and with this variability comes a change in the yardstick that measures bigness. In 1990, the moratorium breaking '82 year class had people measuring 15 pounders while looking for a "keeper". Few were seen that year which were bigger. They knew better than to complain because five years earlier they had had nothing for which to fish. In 1997, club winning fish were in the high 30s. Note that the numbers get better all the time.

Size discussions about stripers now utilize inches as opposed to pounds. This is a direct result of ten years of preoccupation in dealing with fish that had to be measured. Of course it is understandable because how else is a person to determine a lineside's qualifications without hurting it while being pushed and bullied by a raging surf in the deep night. Thus, while inches may work, length is a poor measure of a striper's size. It should be pounds -- the traditional measure -- because individual conditions can create dramatic differences between two stripers of the same length. Using a 16 year old year class as an example, a 42 inch fish could be as heavy as 38 pounds and as light as 28. Contemporary measurement might call this a tie, but I say that somebody has lost the contest by 10 pounds. The oft mentioned rule of an inch per pound -- using fork length -- is only valid at around 50 inches. For accuracy, many measures today are also total length where traditional measuring had been fork length, which is an inch shorter in bass over 40 inches.

As with mammals, individual condition will define much of the striper's potential in terms of being able to resist, to fight. Thin fish, athletic ones which carry less weight but the same muscle, can put up enough fight to the rod to fool anglers into believing that they have latched on to way bigger. Such '"racers", as they are called, are famous for making experienced surf fishers beg for help in the surf or retch in the dunes if they've dropped them or broken off. Racers fight hard. They win battles, not fishing contests. The more years that go by, the more disadvantages nature puts in your path to the angling greatness of a trophy striper.

There is widespread belief that such racers are males, but, in the size range of which we speak here, most fish over 15 pounds are females. True, some old-timers still refer to outsize bass as bull bass, but they are really cows and this is commonly understood. Male stripers rarely exceed 15 pounds and books say that the largest buck ever found went to 40. Because half are males, all the conservation practices in the world deny half of all that is born from ever being outsize. When you take this into account, even if there were never a line or net thrown, all males of a year class would be gone after eight or so years.

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Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Frank Daignault, All Rights Reserved

Frank Daignault is the author of Striper Surf, Twenty Years on the Cape, Striper Hot Spots, The Trophy Striper, Eastern Tides and Fly Fishing the Striper Surf. Autographed books can be purchased directly from Frank; Order Form »

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