Where does 2022 stack up and what might that mean for the future?
He shook the scales and gurry from his scarred, calloused palms then wiped the excess on the pockets of his stiffened and odiferous khaki pants. A grin began to form across his weathered face as he lowered his head to my level and proclaimed, “You will never live to see another day such as this.” I wasn’t old enough to drive so I must have been about 15 and at that time I was inclined to believe him. We had just loaded 68 stripers, into the improvised trailer my friend had borrowed from a builder. I pointed out that there wasn’t a number plate on it, but he retorted, “We got that covered.”
There was a 16-inch minimum on stripers with an unlimited bag; the folks in Boston and us locals believed this type of unregulated fishing could go on forever. I was to be blessed to have participated in catches that made that haul of schoolies pale. As we were about to find out that abundance didn’t make it past the crisis of the late 70s into the moratorium of the 1980’s. We had been fishing on a few good year classes and had no idea as to the overall health of the most important sportfish in our lifetimes.
The Best Of The Best
I have been fishing Mt. Hope Bay and its tributaries for over 60 years and have endured the lean, then enjoyed the plentiful. It was sometime around the early 1960s when Bob Pond from Atom Lures and Stripers Unlimited approached me and asked if our club would donate a plankton net towards his striper research in our home waters. Working with him and the various organizations he was associated with, we helped to fund striper research and programs to raise striper fry in high school biology labs. All of that information was an eye opener for people like me who had little or no understanding of what happened to the stripers once they left our shores and how dependent we were on all the other states we share this precious resource with.
A few years ago I wrote an article about 1964, which I’ve coined as the Year of the Striper. During that year we enjoyed a mixture of great year classes of school sized to mid-teen fish in our rivers and bays as well as numerous trophy fish in the 50, 60 and 70-pound class, duly recorded in the records of the R J Schaeffer fishing contest which covered the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine to Maryland.
Based On Facts
I admit to having enjoyed much more success striper fishing than I ever deserved so if you wonder how I arrived at the conclusion that 2022 was one of the very best seasons I have ever experienced as a striper fisherman I will share my opinions with you. Biologists can arrive at fairly reliable estimates of game and waterfowl populations but when it comes to fish in their underwater world we are left with guesstimates, theories and unfortunately a significant measure of uncorroborated “science.”
I have been engaged in tagging long before it became popular. My mentor Del Thurston was friendly with a state marine biologist who enlisted our help in a tagging program. Del lived on the Lees River which was loaded with schoolies that year. We caught, tagged, and recorded 38 fish one morning and on the afternoon tide added another two dozen from the mouth of the Coles River, where it empties into Mt. Hope Bay. I could not wait to receive the feedback from fishermen, but the biologist was hired to an upper management position in New Jersey marine fisheries, and no one in his department picked up the study so we never received any information from a single return. I have caught numerous tagged stripers from Cuttyhunk to Fishers Island New York, most of which had originated from associates of the Sandy Hook marine lab.
The Fisherman Magazine has been at the forefront of the Gray Fishtag Research satellite tagging program since its inception and if it weren’t for the integrity of the staff and participants I would not have believed that post spawn stripers in the high 30- to 45-inch class would come out of the Hudson River and Delaware Bay and head for the canyons. I was always of the impression that “all” stripers left their spawning rivers and headed east toward New England. NOT SO! How long has this been going on?
Most fishermen in the know are aware that in mid to late May, large schools of stripers from 20 to 50 pounds arrive in Narragansett, Mt. Hope and Buzzards Bay and their tributaries to feed on the huge schools of menhaden that preceded them. This is not an isolated occurrence. I have been fishing on these schools for more than four decades and of course some years are much better than others, but one thing remains constant is these fish show up and feed for weeks. When most leave for the cooler waters of the ocean not all the fish move out.
Where 2022 Stands
I’m also aware that some fishermen claimed that 2022 was an average or sub-par season, but that was definitely dependent on where and how they were fishing. I would place this past season right up to and above 1964, not just by my standards but those of my friends who are some of the best striped bass charter skippers and pin hookers that ever threaded a seaworm on a hook.
In the 1960s, a few of the above mentioned fishermen any I set aside the period from October 1st to the 15th, or longer if the run continued, to commercial fish (pin hook) for stripers. Occasionally a few clients who owned seaworthy boats and desired to get in on the best action of the year volunteered their craft, fuel, and efforts to help contribute to my family Christmas Club, and a few even tipped me in the aftermath in appreciation their experience.
One of my friends is a retired Jersey charter skipper who still fishes almost daily. He texts me after his trips to share information and he believes that on most outings this fall he could have filled four to five wooden fish boxes with stripers from the surf, or his former mates boats on a daily basis. He believes that the fall of 2022 compares favorably to the best fall fishing of our halcyon days. Long after most anglers hung up their rods we were still catching quality stripers, some of these were what we refer to as the old fashioned specimens we recall from the early 1960’s, stout, short and very thick fish. My friend said without the one fish bag limit they could have slaughtered thousands upon thousands of mature breeding-age stripers.
The year 2022 was a season that seemed reluctant to end. Unlike the years when I kept the boat at the ready or forced myself to drive to the shore to take one last cast it seemed like these fish would never leave. Even when we would not actually see the stripers working, we saw the bait, harried by the bass in the Warren, Barrington, Palmer and to a lesser extent, the Kikimuit, Coles, Lees and Taunton Rivers. I have never seen so many peanut bunker and huge schools of silversides in these rivers and on my last trip to the Palmer River I was standing in knee high eel grass which was populated with huge pods of those 5- to 6-inch specimens, the largest I have ever seen; terrified as the dropping tide was about to expose them.
Much of that bait was still holding in the above systems after I finally hung up my rods as I had invitations on charter boats that were catching right up to and through the second week of December. Every season by mid-November, after my boats are hauled and winterized I continue fishing locations from the Westport River to Point Judith, RI.
My evidence that this was the best season, particularly the best fall run of the last 58 years is from my personal experience and the vast network of skilled anglers I have developed over 47 years of preparing fishing reports for this magazine, the numerous fishing industry contacts established from serving on the Mass Marine Fisheries Commission as well as my years as a fishing committee chairman during the Schaeffer fishing contest.
I personally caught more stripers this spring and fall than I did in all of the past seasons dating back to 1964. Many of those fish were members of the slot class of 28 to just under 35 inches. They were shorter and much stouter than recent specimens. The Palmer River is usually the first to produce schoolies because many of the early season white perch fishermen hook them as a bycatch during the last week of March and the first week of April. This year the Palmer gave up the last of the slot fish to a kayaking friend who made one last trip Thanksgiving week. He bemoaned the difficulty of accessing the river but said those fish made his struggle all the more gratifying.
I can only hope those fish return to our waters in similar numbers and perhaps with anglers much more skilled at catch and release, even though current regs mandate the release of the large breeders, we might begin to reduce the striper population through a different channel; death by photograph. The 2023 season comes with much promise, but I urge you all to try and be a few seconds faster with your releases and maybe we’ll see a few more seasons that can compete with 2022 or 1964.