A down season for saltwater striped bass
Bill Cochran -Roanoke.com
This has been a tough winter for many striped bass anglers along the coast of Virginia. The December fishing with eels in the Chesapeake Bay never really took off -- not like the past three years.
Along the coast, from the seaside of Eastern Shore to the North Carolina line, the big January stripers frequently stayed outside the 3-mile federal demarcation line where they were off-limits to recreational anglers.
It has been frustrating to see school after school of huge stripers ripping into baitfish with a beehive of birds overhead just across the horizon where it is illegal to take advantage of a sure thing. Many fishermen couldn’t resist the temptation and have gone after them. Some have reaped hefty fines. Even the Coast Guard showed up to referee the caper.
It was no surprise when the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament reported that striped bass catches in 2009 were well below the previous year, 761 compared to 1,298. The striper citation count was the lowest in four years.
This year’s citation count likely will show little improvement since slow striper fishing has transcended into 2010 winter season.
You can make a case that striped bass aren’t as numerous as they once were, but many observers believe this winter’s decline is mostly weather related.
“Some of the decline can be attributed to rapidly dropping water temperatures beginning the second week in December,” said Lewis Gillingham, tournament director.
December generally is a top month for citation catches, especially in the Chesapeake Bay. Cold temperatures appeared to slow the eel fishing and high winds kept anglers off the water many days. Those conditions carried over to the ocean front in January, where deep-freeze temperatures sent the stripers offshore, kept them deep and pushed them southward. The winter fishery wrapped up earlier than usual, pushed along by one of the worst winter snow storms in 20 years.
“Still, the 2009 total was the seventh highest total for this species in tournament history,” said Gillingham. “A total of 59 striped bass weighed 50 pounds or more; 20 fish weighed 55 pounds or more and seven stripers topped the 60-pound mark.”
With striper fishing on the ropes much of winter season, speckled trout fishing slipped in to become the leading species in the 2009 tournament, accounting for 849 citations, 16 percent of the tournament total. Anglers reported releasing 28 percent of the specks, which is good news for this year. Speckled trout are considered to be one of the most flavorable species in saltwater and they are not easily released.
Speckled trout and a few puppy drum are about the only game in town at the moment. Speck catches are being taken at Rudee Inlet and the Elizabeth River. Just the other day, Jimmy Robinson of Virginia Beach landed four on a MirrOlure, all citations.
While speckled trout citations led the 2009 contest, be aware they took top honors not because they produced so many catches, but because striped bass produced so few. There were way more speckled trout citations in the 2008 contest, which accounted for a record 1,059.
The third ranking fish in the 35-species tournament was the white marlin. Thanks to some super late-season action the last two weeks of September, 775 white marlin were registered, all of them released. That was the most in the tournament’s 52-year history. The previous best was way back in 1978. No telling what the 2009 count would have been had the late summer fishery matched the final two weeks of September, Gillingham said.
Red drum was the tournament’s fourth ranking species, with 510 citations, the ninth highest on record. This in spite of the fact that the late September-early October fishery off Sandbridge failed to materialize, said Gillingham. Many of the drum were caught on the shoals surrounding Fisherman Island on the south side of Eastern Shore.
- Blueline tilefish, a new species to many anglers, and only included in the tournament since 2007, accounted for a record 428 citations. That is well above the 2008 count of 137. The record was broken four times, settling on 23 pounds, 5 ounces.
- Sailfish made their best showing in tournament history with 95 registered. That is more than twice the previous high in 2002.
- The 174 amberjack citations was the highest since 2003.
- Cobia made their best showing since 2006 with 292 entries. Eleven were for fish of 90 pounds or more and two were over 100 pounds.
- Sheepshead numbers were up significantly, with 114 citations, but spadefish took a dive with 57 citations, the lowest since the species was added to the tournament in 1995. Even so, a 14-pound, 14-ounce state record was established.
- Flounder citations dropped for the fifth year in a row. Only 364 were registered.
- Not a single gray trout was entered, a species that once delighted anglers with abundant catches.
- Spot took an inexplicable nose-dive in 2007 and continued to remain low with only 8 citations in 2009.
- Tarpon had a decent season, with 12 releases registered.