By NICK HONACHEFSKY
“Striped bass nearly extinct.”
That was a true statement among 1980s newspaper headlines in the Northeast. Commercial overfishing, menhaden exploitation and unregulated pollution decimated the stocks. Fast forward to the late 1990s and early 2000s, and that statement seemed near impossible with record-setting catches of stripers both in size and number all along the Eastern Seaboard. It was a true success story, and for anglers, it was almost not even a challenge to score a lifetime trophy 30-, 40- or even 50-pound bass and limit of fish on nearly every trip out. The institution of a moratorium in the mid- to late-’80s, strict commercial regulations and tightened recreational bag and size limits of stripers allowed the stocks to rebound dramatically, but as they say, history has a way of repeating itself.
A maelstrom consisting of intense recreational pressure through the late 2000s and early 2010s — combined with illegal harvesting of bass in the Chesapeake Bay — continued commercial fishing pressure, and a new problem of Omega 3 menhaden boats scooping up all the forage for stripers has put striper stocks on a downward trend. Recruiting class numbers have dropped. A relapse appears to be on the horizon, leaving questions. Are we doomed? Must we repeat history and have to save the stripers from the brink of extinction as in the 1980s? Hopefully not, and here are three reasons why.
Protect the Bunker
In past Guy Harvey Magazine articles, (see “Omega 3” article and 2014 “Stripers Forever Gone”), I have covered the direct correlation between forage food and striper stocks and the necessary protection of bunker, aka menhaden stocks, to maintain a healthy striper fishery. So where do we stand now?
Decades ago, the days of Russian Reduction boats netting bunker (menhaden) unregulated, and with a blind eye in state waters, are long gone, but Virginia-based Omega 3 Protein filled that spectral problem area for private fish-oil profits by entering out-of-state waters, such as New Jersey, and vacuuming up massive amounts of bunker schools that hug the coastline. Laws banning Omega 3 from entering state waters prevented that practice and has had real results. No longer do you see the purse seiners scooping up all the bunker, making the ocean a barren desert in less than a week. Bunker schools are now thick as molasses almost year-round along the Northeast coast. More positive telltale signs of that protection are in the form of humpback whales, dolphins, bluefin tuna and finback whales, sometimes breaching to feed on the bunker only a half mile from shore, making New Jersey one of the top destinations to whale watch. Now, we can hope stripers will follow that trend of repopulation.
Change the Limits
When striper stocks were depleted in the 1980s, drastic but necessary measures were taken to save the fish, including the institution of a moratorium in Maryland and Chesapeake Bay from 1985–89, which allowed the bass population to rebound and recover. To date, stocks aren’t down to that dire level, but new recreational regulations have been implemented, and for good reason — here’s why. Male striped bass sexually mature between 2 to 3 years old, approximately 16 to 20 inches, while females mature at 4 to 8 years old or approximately 24 to 32 inches. Prior to 2020, some Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states retained size and bag limits that damaged that threshold level, culling out fish before they were mature enough to breed. Conversely, fish over 40 inches and 25 pounds are most likely female fish carrying hundreds of thousands of eggs. Previous regulations allowed for taking them out of the situation en masse, which was equally as damaging to the stocks.
Striped bass size and bag limits have changed dramatically, shifting from previously liberal size and bag limits on both sides of breeding classes. Now, most East Coast states’ ocean regulations are set at one fish between 28 and 35 inches long, and New Jersey between 28 and 38 inches, with varied size restrictions in the Chesapeake Bay and spawning rivers along the East Coast. The pressure on both small, recently sexually mature fish and large egg-carrying breeders has now been diminished. Only time will tell if this will have a positive impact on the stocks.
Circle Hooks Only
The newest conservation measure that was enacted on January 1, 2021, is the federally mandated coastwide law that anyone fishing with bait, live or dead, for striped bass, must use a non-offset, in-line circle hook. That goes for fishing clams, worms, bunker, chunks and eels. No longer can you snag and drop a live bunker with a weighted treble, but you can snag a bunker then reel it in to transfer over to a circle hook rig to liveline. It’s more like snag-n-switch now.
Other rigs that historically used a J-hook, such as a tube and worm, eel skin rig, rigged eel, or the addition of pork rind, squid, etc. to a bucktail jig. All are now illegal unless you incorporate a non-offset circle hook into them, which renders the fishing method moot in most cases.
The reasoning for the circle hook mandate is that it’s generally professed that J-hooks have a relative 9% mortality rate. Way back in 1999, the DNR of Maryland performed a study in which 1,116 stripers were caught by hook and line, marked to differentiate between those caught on inline (non-offset) circle hooks and those caught on J-hooks, then observed in net pens for 72 hours. The bottom line? J-hook-caught fish had a mortality rate of 9.1% and those caught on circles had a mortality rate of 0.8%. Science confirms that circle hooks prevent gut-hooked fish; how the new law affects the fishery remains to be seen.
A Bright Horizon?
As with any science, the hard data is a long time coming, but the institution of new regulations aimed at protecting young and breeding classes alike, banning of Omega 3 bunker boats in some state waters, and the incorporation of circle hooks when bait fishing are steps in the right direction to preserve and protect striped bass stocks.
Circle Hook Mechanics
On a circle hook, the hook shank is curved around into a near complete “circle,” so when a fish swallows a bait, it goes down past the mouth into the throat. As the fish swims away the hook is pulled out of the throat harmlessly, and the barb point lodges itself into the jaw of the fish — where it sets, doing no harm and preventing any gut-hooked fish.
The hook does not have to be “set” in the traditional sense of a J-hook, but simple pressure and reeling tight will lodge the hook point into the jaw of the fish. Circle hooks are reported to work successfully 99% of the time without gut-hooking a fish.