Your Big Striper Chances
by Frank Daignault
any striper fishers to whom I speak express concern for their chances of catching a truly big striper, say something over 35 pounds. Theirs is a frustration that comes from nights of landing endless short stripers. True, there is variety in their throwbacks because of the spread of year classes available to all of us. However, that spread does not go quite far enough back in history to include more opportunity for such moby stripers. The size barrier is likely the '82 year class.
The top bass in most striper clubs for 1998 was 36 to 38 pounds. That is why, for the majority of us, about the best we are likely to do in 2003 is around 40 to 42 pounds. We say around because, now that these fish have aged, they have taken on individual size characteristics so that two fish born at the same time could vary between 30 and 40 pounds; and at the high end, if one has been piggin' on sand eels, she may even be over 44 pounds. We cannot talk inches here, which is so much the practice these days, because true weight remains the most definitive means of size measurement. Never forget that bass of this age are all females. Moreover, this reminds us of the laws of longevity when each passing season leaves less of a year class behind. Back when there were a lot of big fish, it was possible to catch dozens of 40 pounders and never catch a 50. Similarly, I weighed 50s for others and myself but rarely any over 52 pounds. It is like anything else.
The opportunity for big bass has never been historically constant. I have vivid recollection of the numbers of 50-pound-plus stripers (roughly 18 to 25 years old) that used to be taken back when there was a moderate chance that it could happen. As documented by the R. J. Schaefer Salt Water Fishing Contest (which closed up shop in the mid 70s), the Striper Coast, Maryland to Maine, would yield from 100 to 250 such fish per season. For you primates who still walk the beach, about ten percent were caught from shore. Even among fifties, only one percent would exceed 60 pounds. And, seventies can be 50 years apart worldwide. Still, there are years -- reflecting what had not been born 18 to 25 years before -- when less than a dozen fifty pounders were brought in all season coastwide. Keep in mind that the strong tendency to think mostly in terms of Chesapeake striper reproduction is well based, because old studies tell us that 90 percent of our migratory bass came from the area. There is no reason to think that has changed much. Even so, rivers of origin for modern stripers remain largely unknown.
It becomes even more difficult to measure reproductive success when all rivers are setting records. There is simply a lot of fish. No doubt there have been years when the Hudson River gave up a great reproductive index while southern rivers had off seasons. Twenty or more years later, any big fish opportunities would be hitched to a different river of origin. Back in the early 80s, Rhode Island had a study that showed half of their commercial catch came from the Hudson. A couple of years ago, I counted five 50 plus fish caught in that state -- all taken from boats. Maybe -- but I really have no clue -- they were Hudson River fish born during the moratorium when there was little production elsewhere. The time was when we used to leave Cape Cod's school fish during mid-summer for Rhody's monsters; talk about a reversal of fortunes. Another wild card in the equation -- measurement of birth rates and size projections -- is the Delaware River that is contributing more and more bass each season.
A few years ago, when I began worrying what my readers would think if they knew how few keepers I was catching, I began to take greater interest in the numerics of modern striper fishing. In the last five years, my wife and I have experienced going from a rare keeper to numerous fish in the teens including an increasing number of 20-pound-plus linesides. I t has gotten to a point where a cow from the '82 year class is sort of a major event. Five years ago, a Boston Harbor boat fisher who that season brought in 200 keepers had only one that exceeded 30 pounds. His numbers, like yours and mine, are better this season, reflecting what is available. More examples would illustrate the point to redundancy. The main thing here is that we are watching the stripers grow; and, you have to have schoolies first.
That's another thing about bigness: Because it is the custom to refer to small fish as "schoolies", an assumption springs that infers that monsters are more likely to be loners. Not true, because I can't count the times when we ran into groups of moby linesides. They were not 18 pounders like they are now but fish so big that you could never carry two -- over 40 pounds. It was not uncommon to run into a school of such fish pounding three pound hickory shad in the surf. On other occasions, we might have been fishing live eels and the fish that were taking the baits were huge. One night my late brother, Norman, broke off with 50 pound braid and his next fish, only minutes later, weighed 48 pounds. Ray Jobin, a regular of the time, was rolling in the waves not far from our beach and he had two fifties in his boat. One does not even eat when it is like that.
Big stripers are not rocket science. Many of the better charter skippers have conquered waters that naturally appeal to monsters. I'm thinking Cuttyhunk and Montauk where the professionals have learned the hard way about both where to go and when to be there. There are other places, but you get the idea. Again, they cannot catch what was not born. However, when you are with the best, those who took 60 pounders back when they were around are taking 40s now which clearly places you at the top of the heap in '99.
A truly big striper has to be drawn from natural advantages. A lean fish in May is the way she is because of winter, spawning, migration and the poor feeding opportunities of spring. Like the land, the sea has less forage to offer. By mid-summer, however, the seasons are working for you where bellies sag heavy with bait and the fish condition themselves for another cycle. That same fish will be bigger in the fall.
Another size concern is that some contemporaries are saying that bass growth is being impeded by a shortage of bait. I really don't know if that is the case, but I must say that I have observed no such indication. What does concern me is that the so-called scientific evidence which is being used to support the notion that our stripers are underfed is flawed when they say that the great bass of the good old days weighed more. Some have even argued that old time bass weighed "an inch per pound" saying that today's bass are undersize. They apparently want their 40 inchers to weigh 40 pounds when half that is about right. We've all been disappointed in front of the scale but shouldn't blame the fish. There will always be "racers" which are long, thin fish that weigh less for their length than they should; that is not new. Seven years ago in Striper Surf, I published a size chart of numbers compiled 20 years earlier (page 223) which gives some feel for what our fish weighed then for a given length. Today's fish, measured fork length like we were required to measure them then, are identical. Then and now, an inch per pound fork length is valid only around 50 inches. Starving stripers is not an issue.
People lament the small fish today when they should be celebrating. There are more stripers now than at any time in the 60 years of striper measurement. This translates to more moby fish than has ever been seen. The more informed angling culture of today is better equipped to care for that fishery than before. I have every confidence that history's mistakes will not be repeated. What remains is whether there is just one more monster, because I dream of three things: ten point bucks and 50-pounders.
And, yes Virginia, I can count.
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.
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Articles by Frank Daignault