Save the Striped Bass
Guest Contributor: Steve Jordan (Co-Founder/Contributor, @savethestripedbass)
The striped bass are in trouble.
Some of you are rolling your eyes, and others are nodding in agreement. But no matter your stance, the science is out, it’s real, and it effects every single one of us.
There is no doubt that this issue is extremely complex. Being the migrators they are, one fish will inhabit the coastal waters of several states every year of it’s spawning life. After a winter off North Carolina, a single bass may travel up the coast of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and finally New England. A large portion of these fish will stop by the Chesapeake Bay, while others spawn in the Delaware and Hudson Rivers.
That’s a lot of states with skin in the game. Luckily for us (and the Striped Bass), each state is not entirely on it’s own when it comes to conservation. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, often referred to as the ASMFC, coordinates the conservation and management of many species that traverse the waters of the northeast. The 2018 stock assessment is currently being analyzed by the ASFMC, and although it is still preliminary, the results are not promising. All signs point towards the alarming fact that the striped bass is overfished, and the breeding populations are in sharp decline.
I grew up fishing the waters of New Jersey, and have been targeting this species my whole life. My mom tells me she used to have to come check on me from a distance several times a day at the public dock down the street from our house. Apparently being gone for ten hours at a time when you’re 8 years old is kind of concerning for a mother. I still spend large portions of my free time climbing slippery rocks with a sack of eels in the middle of the night, talking with the locals, and getting everyone’s opinion on how their fishing has been trending the past several years. I know I have noticed a substantial decline in large bass, and so has the salty, old guy who yells at me for being on “his rock”.
Anecdotal evidence aside, the science is clear: we need to change the way we fish to preserve and promote the health of the Atlantic Striped Bass fishery. It seems that the bureaucratic wheels are beginning to turn, but not fast enough. It is up to us, the recreational fisherman, to take a stand and make a change.
If you’ve made it this far, we’re probably on the same page. Maybe you’re thinking that you agree that something needs to be done, but you aren’t sure exactly what you can do as an individual to help. In my opinion, the single most impactful decision you can make is to become a catch and release fishermen (and an educated one at that). How better to serve the dwindling number of bass than to let your prized catch live to swim and breed another day? You still get your time on the water, you get to hear that screaming drag, and maybe you get lucky enough to snap a picture to show off to your friends.
But catch and release is much more than deciding that you don’t want to be part of the problem. In other words, simply releasing the fish you catch isn’t always enough. After all, what good are you really doing if the majority of the fish you release aren’t surviving? The fact of the matter is, countless recreationally caught fish die each year thanks to poor fighting, handling, and releasing techniques. To make an impact, you not only have to decide that you’re going to be a much-needed advocate for these fish, you have to arm yourself with the knowledge that will allow you to maximize their chances of survival.
First and foremost, start with the proper gear. The less time spent fighting the fish the better. Please don’t show up to target big, spawning bass with a lightweight set up. There’s a time and a place for light tackle action, just as there’s a time to bring out the big guns. The less time spent fighting, the more energy will be left in the fish (leading toward a higher survival rate). The big, spawning fish will literally fight to the death if you let them. Please don’t needlessly prolong the battle.
Once you do have the fish in a position where you can land it, be ready with your release plan. I may suggest creating a landing plan for your fish before even making your first cast. The more you have planned out, the more precise you can be - and precision means less time spent fumbling around. All of this planning equates to less time with the fish out of the water, which drastically increases it’s odds of survival.
While handling your catch, make sure your hands are wet. Avoid skin to scale contact that will compromise a fish's layer of slime - that slime is their first defense against parasites and bacteria. At no time should you ever make contact with the gill rakers (the pale white and red fleshy parts of the gills, under the gill plates or seen in the back of the mouth). For this reason, I prefer a lip grip tool such as a boga when handling larger bass. Sometimes, specifically for smaller/medium sized bass, your hands are the best tool for the job.
It’s also very important that you properly support the fish while they are lifted out of the water (or if you are fishing from a boat). Prolonged hanging from the lips or improper support of the belly can cause irreparable damage to the organs of large fish. This means if you are lipping a fish, you should not allow it to hang vertically while snapping a picture or unhooking the fish. All said and done, the safest best is to leave the fish partially submerged as much as possible while unhooking and photographing.
When you’re ready to let your fish swim free, make sure to give it as much time as needed to recuperate. This may take several minutes for large, breeding sized bass, as the fish just fought for it’s life and spent much of it’s energy. If you removed the fish from the water, it also needs time to re-oxygenate it’s blood. Hold the tail of the fish with one hand, and place the other under it’s head, slowly swing the head from side to side. Avoid the back and forth motion you may have seen anglers use in the past - the side to side motion is most natural and is less likely to damage the gills. What you’re doing here is allowing oxygenated water to run past the gills, essentially “breathing” for the fish. When it’s ready to go, there will be no mistake about it. Hold the tail until the fish is really trying to swim off, then let her go. To me, there is nothing better than watching a striped bass swim free.
This is by no means an all-inclusive, step by step instruction on proper catch and release. However, you should now be armed with the very basics in fish handling and be in a much better position to release your catch as healthy as possible. If you’re interested in more catch and release techniques, and pictures of local anglers who support our mission, follow @savethestripedbass on Instagram. I am a co-founder and contributor of the page, so you can message me, ask me any questions, or send photos you'd like featured on the page.
Spring is upon us, and it’s time to get out there and enjoy another season on the water. It is my hope that we will all start the season with the health of the striped bass population in the front of our minds. Be mindful of your impact on all marine species and realize that collectively we can all make a huge difference. After all, without a healthy population of striped bass, all of our money, time, and effort spent on fishing is for naught. Please practice catch and release and encourage all others to do so, as well!
Steve Jordan grew up outside of Philadelphia and started fishing as early as he can remember. He currently resides in Philadelphia and is a commercial pilot. On most weekends during the spring, summer, and fall, you can find him on the beaches and banks of South Jersey chasing striped bass. Steve is a contributor @savethestripedbass on Instagram and is a good friend of Surf to Stream.