Striper Slaughter Ensues

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It was a spectacular week of striped bass fishing, though maybe not so spectacular for the future of striped bass fishing.

If anyone was wondering where the stripers that would usually be crushing on the schools of bay anchovies off Montauk this time of year had gone, they got their answer last week. Absolutely astounding numbers of striped bass set upon the miles of big sandeels that have been stacked up just offshore of western Southampton Town and Fire Island.

The bait has been out there for months. Stacked 30-feet deep in a school that seems to stretch for 30 to 50 miles or more. Tuna feasted on them early in the summer at Coimbra and these sandeels might well be responsible for the great mako fishing we had all summer. Five days of stiff southwest winds last week apparently blew them inshore a bit and the stripers must’ve smelled them coming.

The slaughter that ensued was amazing to witness. The fishing was primo early last week as there were essentially no bluefish in the mix and much of the action was taking place on the surface, so topwater plugs, flyrods and light tackle were taking fish from 15 to 35 pounds. Bigger fish were on the bottom and diamond jigs with white and green tubes brought lock-and-load instant hook-ups from Shinnecock to Fire Island Inlet.

Unfortunately, the fish did not come into the beach so the surf rats generally had to settle for picking away at the scattered schoolies and a handful of larger fish cruising the suds.

The bassacre gave many anglers a welcome relief from what has been a poor fall run thus far. But it also raises a number of questions about the management of striped bass. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is set to discuss striper regulations for next year and into the future early next month. As I’ve said before, it is time for regulations to be changed, incrementally at first, but with an eye toward a steady reduction in the number of stripers killed by recreational anglers each season.

While such an enormous amount of stripers might make it appear that the species is thriving, it is deceiving. This is not happening everywhere by any means and we know from numerous surveys in the last several years that striper populations are dropping precipitously and will likely continue to do so for the next several years, regardless of management changes. As populations decline, they grow more concentrated, and the angling effort targeting them concentrates also. So when these fishes’ instincts lead them to pack into a relative small and easily accessible area, the main body of the population becomes suddenly vulnerable to substantial depletion.

This school of fish clearly contained several year classes of fish, from fat 30- to 34-inch fish to the huge numbers of 36- to 44-inch fish to the 50-inchers that pushed into the high 40s and 50s. These are the fish of the huge spawning years in the early 1990s.

All of which magnifies the impacts under our current rules. Certainly nearly every single angler on-site got their “over” fish, and everyone got their “under” fish, between 28 and 40 inches.

A big part of the problem is that this was taking place within range of a lot of party boats. Captree has the region’s largest party boat fleet by far and on most days there were at least six or seven party boats there. From the day I spent there it looked as though all were carrying pretty full crowds and at least some of them were making two trips each day.

Let’s say there were 20 to 30 anglers on each boat for each trip (it was probably a lot higher than that by late in the week as word of the slaughter got around). Every single one is allowed to keep two fish, and according to the posts from these captains, everyone was getting theirs.

Second, because the limit for party and charter boats is two fish, there is no maximum size limit on either fish. Whereas the average angler on their own boat may keep only one fish over 40 inches and a second one between 28 and 40 inches, party boat anglers can keep two slobs if they want to. Certainly not every angler gets two 30, 40 or 50 pound fish, but many did. I saw a picture this week of five anglers standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the deck of a party boat, each hoisting a pair of stripers that looked to be more than 40 pounds. Another photo making the rounds online shows a girl kneeling in a pile of dead stripers, many of which are clearly big females.

I won’t bother harping on the fact that it also appeared all of these party boats were fishing outside the three-mile limit of state waters, which is illegal, since it probably would make no difference as there were plenty of fish inside three miles.

The wholesale slaughter brings up the talk of the need for a slot limit again, of course. It is an interesting debate that is somewhat up in the air scientifically: is it better to have more large fish with their huge breeding capacity or is it better to have more mid-sized breeding females (as a friend puts it: “would you prefer Kate Upton or Bea Arthur giving birth to your children”). Regardless, I’m still of the belief that there should be a higher minimum size and a firm slot-limit, of 30 or 32 inches for a minimum and 42 inches for a maximum. And give everyone one trophy tag per year, when they register for their fishing license, so they can keep a real fish-of-a-lifetime. No trophy tags for party or charter boats unless the anglers bring their own.

Beyond that discussion, there could be a tweak to the rules just for party and charter boats too, perhaps something that dials back the number of fish a packed-full party boats takes. It will be a difficult problem to address, if you perceive there is a problem in the first place. Nobody wants to put stress on the already tight business of operating party and charter boats, and certainly the usual circumstances of the fishing season do not have party boats putting a substantial hurting on the striper population.

For charter boats, the two-fish limit is nearly a must-have if they are going to be able to entice anglers to pay several hundred dollars for a charter. Separating charters from the far cheaper party boats will be a difficult thing to do but maybe it would be a solution: allow party boat customers just one striped bass, in the same slot limit everyone else must live by.

It will be a discussion for many more days.

In the meantime, catch ’em up. See you out there.

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