In Maine, striper fishing can be fickle. There has been fantastic fishing, like what we experienced in the mid-2000s, and there can be less than fantastic, similar to what many of us in northern Casco Bay and beyond have experienced the past few years.

What will this year bring? Well, if the early returns are any indicator, there may be cause for optimism.

“Despite the cool weather, the stripers seemed to show up right on time,” said Bruce Joule, leader of the Maine Department of Marine Resources Recreational Saltwater Fisheries Program. “It’s been a nice mix of fish, some schoolies, some slot size fish, and even some over 40.”

That’s good news for anglers, for up until last year most of the returns were fish over 30 inches. While no one scoffs at any striper over 30, what was notable was the continued absence of smaller fish, which meant that there were no new age classes to replace the older, larger fish.

But last year, sub-legal schoolies started to appear in the 16-18 inch range, representing a new age-class of stripers arriving in Maine.

“Last year we saw schoolies for the first time in two or three years,” said Joule, who added that many of them showed later in the season. It was also somewhat localized, as anglers from the Royal River south enjoyed the best fishing.

“East of Boothbay, it wasn’t so good, and it hasn’t been for a few years,” said Joule. And that was after an early season in which stripers appeared in the St. George River for a week early in the season, only to disappear for the remainder of the summer.

“I’m optimistic,” said Joule. “Last year we had a lot of charter guys catching fish, and this year people are catching fish already. It will be interesting to see what happens.”

To no one’s surprise, fishing at the southern tip of Maine is the place to be.

“There are reports of mackerel from outside of York up to Saco Bay,” said Joule, echoing comments from other anglers. In those areas, there are some large stripers being caught.

“Saco Bay Tackle gives away a rod and reel for the first striper over 40 inches, and they have already done that,” said Joule. “I talked to some anglers who were out near Richmond Island and they saw all sorts of big fish, but they weren’t taking bait or lures. They just weren’t biting.”

But what most early anglers are excited about is the presence of smaller stripers once again, more schoolies, which could be a favorable sign of good things to come.

Anglers are catching these stripers throughout southern Maine, many of them in tidal rivers such as the York, Mousam and Saco. Small plastic baits have been working very well.

And what about last year’s schoolies? Many of the stripers that anglers returned to the waters last year are showing up again, and this time those fish are in the 20-26 inch slot limit.

“Last year was encouraging,” said Joule. “People were getting fish. They weren’t getting the ‘hundred a day’ they were a few years ago but they were getting fish.”

And happily, anglers are again catching schoolies in that 15-18 inch range, which means another age class of stripers that could ensure good fishing for future years.

“It’s still early in the season but I am cautiously optimistic. We’ve got another good age class coming; last year’s schoolies are now slot size and there still are larger fish around,” said Joule.

Mark Latti is a Registered Maine Guide and the outreach coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.