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Fishes of the Gulf of Maine
by Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder

Striped Bass Roccus saxatilis (Walbaum) 1792


[Jordan and Evermann, 1896-1900, p. 1132, as Roccus lineatus (Bloch).]

Figure 209.—Striped bass (Roccus saxatilis), Chesapeake Bay region. From Goode. Drawing by H. L. Todd.

Topic Part   Topic Part
 Color and Size I    Importance [Conclusions] IV
 Description I    Migrations II
 General Range II    Occurrence in the Gulf of Maine III
 Habits I    Periodic fluctuations in abundance IV
     References R


No one character alone characterizes the striped bass, but rather the combination of fin structure and arrangement with general outline and structure of the jaw. Its rather deep and keelless caudal peduncle, stout body, the presence of two well-developed dorsal fins (spiny and soft rayed, and the one about as long as the other), its lack of dorsal or anal finlets, and a tail only moderately forked, separate it from all the mackerel tribe, from the bluefish, and from the pompanos.

The fact that its anal fin has 3 spines [page 390] and is almost as long as the second dorsal, also (less obvious) that its maxillary (upper jaw) bones are not sheathed by the preorbital bone, separate it from all the weakfish tribe (p. 417). Nor is there any danger of confusing it with the sea bass, cunner, tautog, or rosefish, for its two dorsal fins are entirely separate whereas in all these the spiny and soft-rayed parts are continuous, as a single fin. The white perch comes closest to it in general appearance but the two dorsal fins of the perch have no free space between them (p. 405), and its fin spines are stiffer.

The trunk of the striped bass is 3-1/3 to 4 times as long (to base of caudal fin) as it is deep, thick through, its back hardly arched. It has a moderately stout caudal peduncle, a long head (almost as long as the fish is deep), two spines on the margin of each gill cover, an oblique mouth gaping back to the eye, a moderately pointed nose, and a projecting lower jaw. Young fish are more slender than old. The two dorsal fins are of about equal lengths; the first (9 or 10 stiff spines) triangular in outline, originating over the middle of the pectorals; the second (12 or 13 soft rays) regularly graduated in height from front to rear, and separated from the first by a distinct (though short) space. The anal (about 11 rays preceded by 3 spines) is of about the same size and form as the second dorsal, and originates below the middle of the latter. The caudal is moderately wide and only slightly forked. The pectorals and ventrals are of moderate size, the latter somewhat behind the former.


Dark olive green varying to bluish above, paling on the sides, and silvery on the belly, sometimes with brassy reflections. The sides are barred with 7 or 8 narrow, sooty, longitudinal stripes, which follow as many rows of scales and which may be variously interrupted. The highest stripe is the most distinct, and all of them but the lowest are above the level of the pectoral fins. The dorsal, caudal, and anal fins are somewhat dusky.


The bass grows to a great size, the heaviest of which we have found definite record being several of about 125 pounds that were taken at Edenton, N. C., in April 1891.[24] One of 112 pounds, which must have been at least 6 feet long, was caught at Orleans, Mass., many years ago. One of 100½ pounds is said to have been taken in Casco Bay, Maine[25] and fish of 50 to 60 pounds are not exceptional. Usually bass, as caught, weigh from 3 to 35 or 40 pounds; the average weight of ones recorded in the register of the former Glades Hotel[26] at Scituate, Mass., during the period 1854 to 1858, was about 27 pounds.

Bass weigh about ¾ pound when 12 to 13 inches long; about 2¾ to 3 pounds at 18 to 20 inches; about 5 pounds at 24 inches; about 10-15 pounds at 30-32 inches; and about 18-20 pounds at 33-36 inches. Twenty-pound bass average about 36 inches in length; 30 pounders about 43 inches; 40 pounders about 47 to 48 inches.[27] On the Pacific coast 50 pounders run about 50 to 51 inches,[28] and the relationship between weight and length runs about the same for very large fish on the Atlantic coast. The record fish caught on rod and reel was one of 73 pounds, taken in Vineyard Sound in August 1913 by C. B. Church. [ See: Taking the Record Striped Bass of 1913 ]

Females grow larger than males; probably most bass of 30 pounds and heavier are females.[29] Thus the common use of the term "bulls" for the very large ones might better be replaced by "cows."

Habits [30]

Stripers are powerful fish; so strong in fact, that they appear to have no difficulty in handling themselves in the surf, where one is sometimes seen actually in the translucent crest of a comber just before the latter breaks. But this is not a very swift fish as compared with the mackerel tribe. Bass often swirl conspicuously at the surface or splash in pursuit of bait fish. They sometimes roll as the little northern porpoise or puffing pig (Phocaena) does. And we have heard of them finning (i. e., with dorsal and tail fins showing).[31] But we have never seen or heard of one leaping clear of the water as tuna and bonito so often do unless hooked in shoal water.

During the first two years they live mostly in small groups. Later they are likely to congregate in larger schools; this applies especially to those up [page 391] to 10 pounds or so, which are often spoken of as "school fish." the larger ones often school, but the very largest, of 30 to 40 pounds and upward, are more often found single or a few together. They are most likely to be in schools while migrating, but more scattered while feeding in one general locality.

Small fish (2 and 3 years old) in particular, tend to school densely; also they travel considerable distances without scattering but, as Merriman emphasizes[32] it is not likely that a given school holds together for any long period, for fish of various sizes (i. e., ages) up to the very large ones often school together, showing that different ages intermingle more or less. Mixed schools running from 8 or 10 pounds to 30 or 40 pounds were reported repeatedly in 1950, for example.

The bass is very voracious, feeding on smaller fishes of whatever kind may be available, and on a wide variety of invertebrates. Lists of its stomach contents for one locality or another include alewife, anchovy, croakers, channel bass, eels, flounders, herring, menhaden, mummichogs, mullet, rock eels (Pholis gunnellus), launce, sculpins, shad, silver hake, silversides, smelt, tomcod, weakfish, white perch, lobsters, crabs of various kinds, shrimps, isopods, gammarid crustaceans, various worms, squid, soft clams (Myra) and small mussels. In our Gulf the larger bass prey chiefly on herring, smelt, sand launce, eels, and silver hake, on squid (on which they gorge when they have the opportunity), on crabs large and small, on lobsters, and on sea worms (Nereis); while small ones are said to feed to a considerable extent on gammarid crustaceans and on shrimps.

When bass are gorging on any one particular prey it is common knowledge among fishermen that they are likely to ignore food of other sorts for the time being. It seems also that when prey is plentiful, bass are likely to gorge, then cease feeding to digest, then to gorge again; also that all the members of a given school are likely to do this in unison, with consequent annoyance to the angler.

Bass, too, seem on the whole to be more active, and especially to feed more actively, between sunset and sunrise than while the sun is high. In estuarine situations this fits with the habits of their prey, for it is by night that the sea worms (Nereis) that are the chief item in their diet there emerge from their burrows to swim about. And bass fishing is often much more productive by night than by day off the open coast also, though schools of bait fish are seen at all hours (else the terns would starve), while the time when crabs, etc., are most likely to be stirred up by the surf, and are most easily caught around the rocks, depends on the stage of the tide, not on the hour of the day. So most fishermen (ourselves included) believe that it is inherent in the nature of the larger sized bass to avoid strong sunlight by sinking to the bottom. A familiar instance is the regularity with which they desert the surface soon after sunrise on bright summer days at places where large numbers are caught by trolling during the hour or two after daybreak; the eastern side of Cape Cod Bay is a local example.

It has been discovered recently that trolling deep with wire lines is often productive, irrespective of the time of day, at times and places where bass "show" only during the early morning hours. This habit, however, is not so deeply engrained but that schools of bass often rise to the surface in pursuit of bait fish at any time of day, or come within easy casting distance of the beach. We recall seeing several schools of good-sized fish (those that we landed ran up to 23 pounds) suddenly splashing all around our boat about midday, on one occasion off Wellfleet, in Cape Cod Bay, though it was only for a few hours after sunrise that the several boats fishing regularly there had taken any by top-water trolling for some time previous.

The best advice we can give the surf-caster, in this regard, is to go fishing whatever time of the day he is free to do so

The striper is so strictly an inshore fish that we have never heard of large catches being made, or schools seen, more than 4 or 5 miles from the nearest point of land,[33] though the migrating schools doubtless pass much farther out in crossing the mouths of the larger indentations of the coast, such as Delaware Bay and Long Island Sound. And a few fish may stray far offshore in winter, for one about 18 inches long was taken in an otter trawl about 60 miles south of Marthas Vineyard, in 70 fathoms of water, in February 1949 (p. 400).[34]

On the landward side, many bass come within easy casting range of the shore; we have had a fair sized one strike our plug not 4 feet from the rock from which we were casting on the Cohasset shore. Many (especially the smaller sizes, but large ones also) run up into estuaries and into river mouths. In some rivers, good numbers (large as well as small) are caught so far upstream as to make it likely that they remain there the year round. This is notably the case in the Alabama River system where (we hear) 250 to 300 bass ranging from 5 to 40 pounds were caught near Tallasseem some 30 miles above Montgomery, which is at least 300 miles from salt water, following the river.[35] they are also known to spawn some 250 miles up the Sacramento River in California. It would be interesting to know what proportion of the bass that spawn at Weldon, N. C., 100 miles or so up the Roanoke, and that run 60 to 90 miles up the St. John, in New Brunswick,[36] ever see salt water. Bass also run up the Hudson for about 160 miles to Albany.

The great majority of the total population of bass frequent the coast line, except at breeding season. Among these, the smaller sizes, up to 15 pounds or so, are found indifferently within enclosed bays, in small marsh estuaries, in the mouths of rivers and off the open coast. But we do not often hear of fish heavier than 20 to 25 pounds caught in situations of these sorts. And the great majority of the large bass, of 30 pounds or more, hold to the open coast, except at spawning time (p. 394), and perhaps in winter (p. 400). But this is not an invariable rule; we are familiar with one narrow inlet where tides run strong, and where some lucky angler catches a very large bass now and then (p. 396).

Bass off the open coast are most likely to be found along sandy beaches, in shallow bays, along rocky stretches, over and among submerged or partially submerged rocks and boulders, and at the mouths of estuaries, the precise situations that they occupy being governed by the availability of food. Off the outer beaches they may be anywhere right to the breakers. When they are close in they frequent the troughs that are hollowed out by the surf behind off-lying bars, also the gullies through which the water rushes in and out across the bars as the rollers break, for it is in such situations that bait fish are easiest caught, and that crabs, worms, and clams are most likely to be tossed about in the wash of the breakers. When the tide is high, bass often lie on a bar, or even in the white water along the beach if there is a good surf running. When the tide falls they drop down into the troughs or move farther out, according to the precise topography. In either case, every surf fisherman knows that his chances are much better when the sea is breaking at least moderately heavy so that he can cast into white water, than when it is smooth.

They also lie under rafts of floating rockweed at times, probably to prey on the small animals they find among the weeds.

The best spots along rocky shores are in the surf generally, and in the wash of breaking waves behind off-lying boulders and among them, or where a tidal current flows most swiftly past some jutting point. In the mouths of estuaries they are apt to hold to the side where the current is the strongest, and in the breakers out along the bar on that side. In shallow bays, they often pursue small fry among the submerged sedge grass when the tide is high, dropping back into the deeper channels on the ebb. And they frequent mussel beds, both in enclosed waters and on shoal grounds outside, probably because these are likely to harbor an abundance of sea worms (Nereis).

When bass are schooling outside they are likely to be moving along the coast in the one direction or in the other. But they may remain in the same general locality for weeks, or through the summer. Thus a body of very large fish, of 25 to 50 pounds, stayed close in to the outer beach near the tip of Cape Cod, through most of July of 1951 and into that August, yielding consistent catches to the more skillful surf-fishermen.

Bass are active over a temperature range from perhaps 70° down to about 43°-46° F. Present indications are that if the temperature falls lower they either withdraw to somewhat warmer water if off the outer coast, or lie on the bottom in a more or less sluggish state if they are in some estuary. On the other hand it is not likely that they can long survive temperatures higher than about 77°-80°, for many were found dead in [page 393] shallow estuaries in Connecticut and in Massachusetts during the abnormally hot August of 1937.[37] they are equally at home in fresh or slightly brackish water, and in coastal salinities of 3.1 to 3.3 percent. But their usual wanderings do not take them out into waters of full oceanic salinities (3.5 percent or higher).

CONTINUED 1 |  2 |  3 |  4 |  Footnotes |  Next »

[24] Smith, North Carolina Geol. and Econ. Surv., vol. 2, 1907, p. 271.

[25] Atkins, Fish. Ind. U. S., Sect. 5, vol. 1, 1887, p. 694.

[26] Kindly lent by John Adams.

[27] For a detailed tabulation of the length-weight relationship for bass from ¼ pound to 47¼ pounds, see Merriman, Fish. Bull. No. 35, 1941, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, p. 7, vol. 50, 1950, pp. 1-77.

[28] As scaled from a graph given by Scofield, California Fish and Game, vol. 18, 1932, pp. 168-170, fig. 38.

[29] Definite information in this regard is scant.

[30] Interesting recent studies of the striped bass are by Pearson (Bull. U. S. Bur. Fish., vol. 49, 1938, pp. 825-851) and by Merriman (Fishery Bull. 35, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1941, 77 pp.).

[31] Frank Mather of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reports an instance of this.

[32] Fish. Bull. 35, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1941, vol. 50, p. 43.

[33] Henry Lyman informs us that bass are caught in numbers late in the autumn in the rips east of Nantucket about 4 miles out, but that verbal reports of some taken during the summer of 1950 on the offshore part of Georges Bank were actually based on two weakfish (p. 419).

[34] Reported to us by Capt. Henry W. Klimm of the dragger Eugene H.

[35] Information from Henry Lyman, from an angling correspondent in Alabama. They have long been known up the Alabama as far as Montgomery (Pearson, Bull. U. S. Bur. Fish., vol. 49, 1938, p. 826).

[36] According to Adams (Field and Forest Rambles, 1873, Pt. 3, Fishes, pp. 248-249), who has given an interesting and readable account of the bass in the river.

[37] Merriman, Fishery Bulletin No. 35, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1941, vol. 50, p. 43.

Bluefish Pomatomus saltatrix (Linnaeus) 1758

Striped Bass Roccus saxatilis (Walbaum) 1792

Summer flounder (fluke) Paralichthys dentatus (Linnaeus) 1766

Weakfish Cynoscion regalis (Bloch and Schneider) 1801

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