January 27, 2013

Allen Afield: It'll be declining stripers forever without conservation

By KEN ALLEN

Stripers Forever (SF), a conservation organization that monitors our striped-bass resources, recently pointed out that the recreational catch of wild stripers along the Eastern Seaboard has dropped from nearly 29 million in 2006 to 8 million in 2011, thanks to poor spawning in Chesapeake Bay as well as over-harvesting by recreational and commercial anglers.

click image to enlarge

Prize striped bass like this one are becoming a rarity as poor spawning in the Chesapeake and overfishing have significantly reduced what once was a thriving species.

Telegram file photo

Each spring this migratory species travels north along the Eastern Seaboard on an ancient route that includes part of the dwindling striper population visiting Maine and its forage-rich waters. SF claims the 2012 young-of-the-year index was the lowest on record in 59 years.

Maine's Brad Burns, a well-respected, renowned striper advocate and SF leader, said, "The number of (recreational) saltwater fishing trips (in the 2006 to 2011) period has declined from 8.3 million to 5.7 million."

This declining fisheries challenges captains who rely on guiding striper anglers for a living. The problem also hurts sports shops, convenience stores, baitfish sellers, restaurants, lodging facilities, and on and on it goes. Fewer customers translate into fewer jobs and declining multiple tax revenues.

Which brings up my pet peeve. A common bumper sticker on pickups along the coast reads "Commercial fishing … more than a sport." However, the decline in recreational striper fishing stresses the general economy, particularly within a two-hour drive of the salt. In short, sport fishing is indeed "more than a sport."

As Burns said, "Fewer people will fish for stripers, and the large and valuable recreational fishing and guiding industries will continue to suffer."

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission regulates striped bass along the Atlantic Coast, and ASMFC officials have continued the historically high commercial-fishing quota in 2012.

I probably won't cast for stripers in 2013, a decision others will make. It's one thing not to catch stripers, but it's discouraging to head to tidal rivers or ocean, a 90-minute drive for me, and not spot a single school of feeding bass. I might as well be casting into my hot tub, a far cry from 15 years ago.

During Junes in the late 1990s, I routinely arose in the predawn dark to dress, grab fly gear and head to downtown Hallowell a half-mile away to fish the Kennebec River from the parking lot at the foot of Winthrop Street Hill. It was common to catch stripers until the rising sun lit the water too much, and I had this spot to myself 19 mornings out of 20.

"This is too good to be true," I often whispered aloud to myself in those years while hooking bass in a business district.

Those dawns occasionally struck me as humorous. I couldn't sleep beyond the first gray light, so for want of something to do before editing or writing, I'd catch stripers – literally in the downtown of a small city.

My favorite striper times in life have occurred on Popham Beach downstream of the fort at the mouth of the Kennebec River, particularly on the bend where the sandbar extends from shore to Wood Island.

What times I have enjoyed on that beach since the 1970s. I'd arrive by the bar before first light and start throwing a shooting-head fly line off the beach with an 8- to 12-weight rod.

Why would anyone choose a big 12-weight rod for stripers?

A 12-weight with a shooting head goes a country mile for feeding stripers beyond the surf, and it's great casting practice for tarpon trips south.

With a shooting head, my 12-weight Thomas & Thomas can easily throw 115-plus feet, most or all of a fly line. Those distances could reach stripers that average casters couldn't touch with weight-forward lines on smaller rods.

I've taught fly-casting since 1974, but don't be fooled by that claim. A 30-foot shooting head on a running line takes off like a spinning lure, and any average caster can throw one of these lines for major-league distances.

The first time I cast a shooting head in the mid-1970s at the L.L. Bean warehouse, I held the rod in awe as the line sailed away like magic.

In the old days, lots of us made shooting heads from old fly lines by cutting off the first 30 feet of a weight-forward fly line and making a small epoxy loop on the back to hook onto a running line with a loop-to-loop knot. These days we can buy shooting heads already attached without knots.

Let's hope striped bass bounce back this spring. It's possible, but as usual, time will tell the big story.

Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at:

KAllyn800@yahoo.com

 

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