Hope Springs Eternal
by Rich Troxler
It’s been an odd spring in my neck of the woods. On the surface, everything appears to be OK, but many of the patterns that have come to past this spring are just not sitting right with me. And I am not alone. For the record, I’ll be 59 years old come this October, and I have been pursuing Striped Bass from the surf for 35 years.
For starters, many of my fellow surfcasters, as well as myself, have labeled this spring as the “here today, gone tomorrow” spring run. The connotation of that dubious title should be self-explanatory. There are some early deep bay spots that I fish every April into May, that are as close to money as there is in this game. These fell a bit flat last year, but totally surprised me with how fast they crapped out this year. Oh, the bass showed up right on time, despite our cold rainy spring, but were basically there for one set of tides, and then gone.
And this was not for lack of bait, or vagaries of weather, this was just plain vanishing, and I mean the entire bay. The conditions had not changed, the wind remained out of the same quarter, the white bait was not blown out of the area, NOTHING! I was left scratching my head, as the silence throughout the bay almost imploded my eardrums.
And here’s one of the “funny” things about that first showing of fish. Typically, that period of the early spring run is dominated by fish in the 24”-27” range. But I didn’t catch a fish out of those locations that was less than 29”, with most being between 30”-33”. I found that both pleasing, from an angler’s standpoint, and disturbing, from one who had seen this before.
Then during the next set of tides, some good fish show up on a bay bound school of bunker. For one night and that was it! By late May, bunker had set up in many of the traditional bay spots I fish. This is usually a very solid bite that goes on for a couple sets of tides. But this spring, the bite was very inconsistent. Again, here today, gone tomorrow. Oh, there were enough fish to make you want to put in the effort, but mostly because of the size of the fish that were pulled, more than the abundance of previous years. Fish just did not seem inclined to take up residence anywhere this spring.
So now we’re in the middle of June. The bunker schools are off our coast en masse. The boat guys are once again, as they did last year, reveling in the 30’s and 40’s that are coming over the rail. But not quite as easily as they did last year, and as a matter of fact, sometimes not so easy at all. Most times, they are snagging the bunks in the ocean and then running back into the bay to drift the rips there. For two reasons.
The first is that, despite the 70 miles of bunker that currently stretch from north Jersey to Shinnecock NY, locating bass among them is becoming increasingly difficult, hence the bay runs by the boat guys. We, who fish from shore, have at least been blessed with a few runs of quality fish that have come within range. Actually, it’s been more than a few runs, and the fish have been large. The “smaller” fish have been strangely absent from the reports.
Currently, most of the entire coast of Long Island, from Breezy to Moriches, is blanketed with huge Bluefish. And I mean huge bluefish. My arms are falling off at the shoulders from hauling big, gnarly teen size bluefish from the wash, many of them spitting up squid, as well as bunker. I mean a bluefish on every cast, for four straight days, regardless of where along the coast I fished. And no bass underneath them, no bass next to them, no bass anywhere around them.
Now, you gotta love bluefish. They are nature’s survivors, with only a drop in numbers back in the 60’s, and they are always ready and willing to commit, but I find the presence of this many big bluefish disturbing, because it too reminds me of something I have seen before.
Now I’m not a person who dwells on negativity, and I haven’t studied all of the available data that perhaps I should. But from what I can gather from the research I have done, and from my own personal experiences, as well as the experiences of others of my age group, there are some startling parallels between what’s happening now, and what happened back in the 80’s.
From the data I’ve looked at, it seems that recruitment from the Chesapeake stock has been dismal for the past several years. This may be due to several reasons, one of which is mycobacteriosis, a disease that apparently infects 50% of the population of bass in that area, and is apparently lethal. If you do not have successful year classes, then sooner or later, a fishery collapses. This is why I find the current lack of certain size slots in my area disturbing.
Another parallel is the presence of “only” larger fish, which would seem to support the lack of successful recruitment from earlier year classes, and even these seem to be less than last year, at least in my area. When you find fish, they’re big, but they can be hard to get on, and even harder to stay on.
And here’s the paradox, the thing that really set’s my bell to ringing. My understanding is that in many areas north of Long Island (my area) that the general size of fish caught there has been dropping the last couple of years. Even in Montauk, lauded as striper capital of the world, and basically right around the corner from my area, the winner of a recent surf-fishing contest was 24 lbs, without a qualifying 2nd and 3rd place fish.
So what does this all mean? Like the title of my post, “Hope Springs Eternal”, I sincerely hope it means nothing at all, and that I’m just being paranoid. But I’ve seen this before, and many who I know have also seen this before. And we are not comfortable with what we are seeing.
Those who are in the path of those big fish that are currently running our shore will say nothing is wrong. Those who cashed in on the sand eel run on our shore last year will say nothing is wrong. Hell, last June/July – October/November, I was doing 30-50 fish a night, and yet from what I heard from outside my area, they were either down from previous years, or down-right hurting. It’s easy to let personal experience sway judgment in the larger picture, and I do not want my vision clouded by local successes or failures.
I am new to this website, and as I look around, I see that the membership here seems to be made up of a wide demographic, spanning the entire Striper coast. I would greatly value your input on what you see from your shores, and from your own personal experiences, so that we may get a better handle on the one question that can affect us all.
Are Striped Bass in trouble?