It was brought to my attention that a growing number of fishermen on a few well-known tidal rivers have been using shiners under bobbers to up their schoolie numbers in the springtime. When I talked to local law enforcement they said they were aware of this and had been making regular patrols and that most of these guys were using circle hooks and seemed to be releasing their fish. When I was a kid I used shiners for a short time and we all know that gut-hooking is a common thing with these silvery live baits, we also know that circle hooks, especially smaller ones, are far from perfect. It’s safe to assume two things, one, that a higher-than-normal percentage of these released fish are probably going belly up and, two, that you could catch at least as many on single-hook artificials like a soft plastic on a lead head or a small bucktail.
That first paragraph, is not true, I lied, I made it up. I don’t know of anyone that resorts to throwing shiners for schoolies in the springtime and I hope it stays that way. I’m going to guess that I got some readers’ blood boiling with the mere suggestion that someone might be using an unnecessary method to catch our precious schoolies. These small stripers are the only hope we have to see the next generation of big stripers in the coming years. That’s not me being dramatic, it’s just a fact. Baby anything grows into bigger everything—there’s no way around it.
I don’t think striped bass fishing has ever been more popular than it is right now. This social-media-driven fascination with fishing coupled with the COVID-borne angler boom, has really upped participation, in all styles and disciplines of angling. The same could be said for ice fishing, which I think has seen an immense increase in participation during the early months of 2022 alone! I love to see this, I love to see people finding reasons to get outside and enjoy the natural world during the winter, when most of the population is shuttered in the house, weighing down the couch and sucking bandwidth.
Last season, I noticed a modest increase in anglers targeting striped bass through the ice—I should say, a modest increase in people posting their iced striper catches. On one particular body of water, which shall remain nameless, a single post from a single group of anglers turned a small holdover pond into an ice fishing shantytown; and it happened other places as well; and it’s become a big fad in 2022. I realize that I am walking the razor’s edge here, given that part of my job is helping people find fish, but it’s not the ‘spot burn’ that has inspired me to write this column.
I feel like we’re at an ethics crossroads when it comes to targeting striped bass through the ice. And let me quickly clarify that my beef settles squarely on the shoulders of those who target them with tip-ups. I am not much of an ice fisherman and I have never caught a striped bass through the ice, but I know from my own experiences catching various other species on tip-ups that gut-hooking is a very common occurrence. It should be automatic that these guys are using circle hooks—not only because it’s the law, but also because they’re statistically proven to be easier on the fish—albeit still far from perfect. I also want to make sure I indemnify those that legitimately catch them accidentally, like the guy who bagged that 30-plus pounder last month while fishing a medium shiner for crappie. Unexpected bycatch is one of the things that makes fishing exciting.
But those fishermen that are setting tip-ups for striped bass should not be judged differently than the fictitious characters in my intro. Their actions are one and the same. And standing on a sheet of shifty, tidal ice doesn’t change that. Winter stripers stack up and, I think it would be a modest estimation to say that 90% of them are under 24 inches. These fish are at a vulnerable age, during a time of year when they are extra vulnerable thanks to a lack of food, high stress and – in some places – low dissolved oxygen. I am not telling you to stop fishing for holdover stripers, I’m just saying that doing it with small live bait that can be swallowed in a half-second, using a method that counts on the fish running off with the bait is irresponsible when targeting a species of fish that is known to be overfished. So suck it up and buy a jigging rod, it’s at least 100 times more exciting and probably 1000 times more likely to end with a successful release.