Bradford Burns (he goes by Brad) is the president of a conservation group called Stripers Forever, which aims to make striped bass a strictly game fish. In case you hadn’t heard, the stripers are running, and that made us want to talk to Burns. Topics covered include why he thinks commercial fishing for striped bass (not allowed in Maine by the way) is a threat, how he learned to fish and how far he’ll go to do it (above the Arctic Circle). When we reached the Falmouth resident, he’d caught several stripers already that day, in the Presumpscot, although they all went back into the drink. (He is a conservationist.)

FIRST FISH: A lifelong fisherman or woman has to remember the first fish he or she caught, right? Well, not if they learned to fish right around the same time they learned to walk. “It certainly would have been a fish I caught off the dock in Friendship,” Burns mused. He lived there until he was about 10. “In the bait shed there was a piece of the floor that lifted out and they would pour the bait brim – the water that came off the salted bait – into the water.” The water would cloud up and when it cleared, there would be “a million pollock down there.” His first fish, then, was probably a pollock. Then mackerel. “That was a great fish in the summertime.” Burns came from a family of fishermen (“lobster and ground fish and clam digging”), but his father did not want to be in the family business. “He didn’t mind going fishing but he did not want to be a lobsterman.” And so he took a job at Bath Iron Works, and the family moved to Damariscotta. That’s where Burns, around age 11, first encountered the far more “glamorous” striped bass.

Bradford Burns, president of Stripers Forever, fishes in the Presumpscot River near his Falmouth home. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

MADE IN MAINE?: While Burns and Stripers Forever’s treasurer, George Watson, are both Mainers and the group was incorporated here as a nonprofit, it is by no means Maine-dominated, Burns said. Membership is up and down the East Coast, with the biggest concentrations of members in Massachusetts and New Jersey. “With the exception of George and me, our most active members are from Massachusetts.” Among them is Dean Clarke, one of the inventors of the Duck Boat (and an award-winning marine journalist). Burns himself is the author of the “L.L. Bean Fly Fishing for Striped Bass Handbook” and most recently “Closing the Season” about fly fishing in New Brunswick.

A SHORT HISTORY OF STRIPED BASS FISHING: Burns, 67, remembers when there were no bag or size limits on striped bass. “Everyone kept every striped bass they caught, basically.” The fish were heavily fished commercially when he was growing up. “There was no real conservation concept. Nobody thought of it. You saw them, and you knocked them over the head, and you ate them.” In Maine though, the far northern range of the fish, “it had never been a big commercial fish.” Not the way it was in places like Maryland. In 1978, John Cole, the local legend who had co-founded Maine Times, published a book called “Striper.” The book was eye opening for Burns. “The best thing he ever wrote,” Burns said. The book “was bemoaning the crash of the striped bass in Maine. I couldn’t believe it. I called him up.” (The two men ended up writing a book about saltwater fly fishing together.) But Cole was right, and by the mid-’80s, the East Coast population of stripers had collapsed. “They were fished too hard.”

GOALS: Stripers Forever argues that there aren’t enough stripers for a true commercial harvest in the states it is allowed in anyway, which Burns describes as a real “patchwork up and down the coast.” Commercial catches are allowed in slightly more than half the states, with the heart of it in Maryland. Even there, it has been reduced radically. “The whole quota in the Chesapeake Bay is 3 million pounds, which sounds like a lot but used to be a good day on Georges Bank.” He said a lot of cheating goes on in the Maryland and Virginia commercial fisheries. Advocacy by recreational fishermen for striped bass has made a difference. “At this point, we’re certainly not worried about them being extinct or going the way of codfish (in serious trouble) but that is because the recreational fishing community, as disorganized as it is, has made a lot of noise at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.” Recreational striped bass fishing is an industry unto itself, he said, with its estimated 3 million sport fishermen contributing to the overall economy in gear and tourism dollars.

CATCH AND RELEASE: Burns tosses all his stripers back. “I’m a hopeless case.” But he’s not advocating for that from others. “It’s about having a reasonable harvest so that people can eat one from time to time.” In Maine, which has no commercial striped bass fishery, under new regulations, recreational fishermen can take one striped bass of 28 inches or bigger a day. Burns says getting rid of the commercial fishery in other states for this migratory fish (most of the stripers we see in Maine have come north from Chesapeake Bay) would boost populations. “More of them would live to be large fish and that would even out the spawning success, so you wouldn’t have as many ups and downs in the spawning population, and it would be more democratically enjoyed by more people.”

THE PURPOSE IS PLEASURE: Striped bass fishermen aren’t exactly doing this to feed their family. “It’s much cheaper to go down to the store and buy a piece of fish than to try to go and catch your own.” For Burns, their mere presence brings joy. “It’s a very emotionally positive thing. It is like having songbirds or not.” Why are stripers so fun to fish for compared to other fish? Versatility to start with. “You can take striped bass fishing on the bottom with a marine worm or with flies or surface plugs.” Or you can get more extreme. “People do things like swim out to rocks in a neoprene suit and stand out there in the middle of the night. Or you can catch them on the end of a little culvert in a tidal creek in Maine. They fit almost everybody’s idea of a great fish to catch.” The big ones can grow up to 5 feet long and 80 pounds. They live a long time, over 20 years.

ON AND OFF THE HOOK: Fishing, he says, “has been my main interest my whole life.” But he’s toned it down somewhat; back in the day he’d be out all night surf casting for stripers along the Kennebec, where he once kept a dock near Bath specifically for fishing. “And work half-asleep every day.” Burns is in the process of retiring; he owned Portland Computer Copy Inc., which he sold last year to Kyocera Document Solutions. That might mean more time to go farther afield to fish. He recently traveled to Russia, where he fished above the Arctic Circle. But he’s very aware that someone in his family is not such a fan of fishing: Mrs. Burns. “She hates everything to do with it,” he admits. “I have spent way too many Mother’s Days and Fourth of Julys and Labor Days fishing.”

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