Your Big Striper Chances

by Frank Daignault

Many striper fishers that I talk to voice concern for their chances of catching a truly big striper, say something over 35 pounds. Theirs is a frustration which springs from nights of endless short stripers. True, there is variety in their throw backs because of the spread of year classes available to all of us. But that spread does not quite go far enough back in history to include more opportunity for such "Moby" stripers. The size barrier is likely the ‘82 year class.

That is why for most of us about the best we are likely to do is around 39 pounds. We say around because now that these fish have aged they have taken on individual size characteristics where two fish born at the same time could vary between 30 and 40 pounds; and at the high end, if she has been piggin’ on sand eels, she may even be over 40 pounds. We cannot talk inches here, which is so much the practice these days, because true weight remains the most definitive means of size measurement. Never forget that bass of this age are all females. Moreover, this reminds us of the laws of longevity where each passing season leaves less of a year class behind. Back when there were a lot of big fish, it was possible to catch dozens of 40 pounders and never catch a 50. Similarly, I weighed 50s for others and myself, but rarely over 52 pounds. It is like anything else.

The 78-pound 8-ounce world record taken by Joe McReynolds. Experts later agreed that if the fish could have been weighed immediately, it would have run to 82 or 83.   Click here for the story of the catch.

The opportunity for big bass has never been historically constant. I have vivid recollection of the numbers of 50-pound-plus stripers (roughly 25 years old) that used to be taken back when there was a moderate chance that it could happen. As documented by the R. J. Schaefer Salt Water Fishing Contest, (which closed up shop in the early 70s) the Striper Coast, Maryland to Maine, would yield from 100 to 250 such fish per season. For you primates who still walk the beach, about 10 percent were caught from shore. Even among fifties only one percent would exceed 60 pounds. And seventies can be 50 years apart worldwide. Still, there are years -- reflecting what had not been born 25 years before -- when less than a dozen fifty pounders were brought in all season coastwide. Keep in mind the strong tendency to think mostly in terms of Chesapeake striper reproduction is well based because old studies tell us that 90 percent of our migratory bass came from there. There is no reason to think that has changed. Still, rivers of origin for modern stripers remain largely unknown.

It becomes even more difficult to measure reproductive success when all rivers are setting records. There is simply a lot of fish. No doubt there have been years when the Hudson River gave up a great reproductive index while southern rivers had off seasons. Twenty or more years later any big fish opportunities would be hitched to a different river of origin. Rhode Island had a study back in the early 80s that showed half their commercial catch came from the Hudson. I counted five 50 pound plus fish caught in that state two seasons ago -- all caught by somebody else from boats. Maybe they were Hudson River fish born during the moratorium when there was little production elsewhere. Time was when we used to leave Cape Cod’s school fish during mid-summer for Rhody’s monsters; talk about a reversal of fortunes. Another wild card in the equation -- measurement of birth rates and size projections -- is the Delaware River that is contributing more and more each season.

Recently, when I began worrying what my readers would think if they knew how few keepers I was catching, I began to take greater interest in the numeric of modern striper fishing. In the last five years my wife and I had experienced going from a rare keeper to numerous teen fish with an increasing number of 20-pound-plus linesides to the point where a cow from the ‘82 year class was kind of a major event. Four years ago I met a Boston Harbor boat fisher whom that season had brought in 200 keepers, only one of which exceeded 30 pounds.

Captain Doug Jowett, a Maine sometimes Cape Cod charter skipper who specializes in fly fishing for stripers, told me last show season that his ‘96 take of 2277 bass had 90 fish over 30 inches, 30 over 36, 4 over 40 inches and one 44 inch fish that was believed to be 38 pounds. Some might argue that his was mostly schoolie fishing, but then he simply caught what was there. There could also be a difference in big fish opportunity geographically. All the trophy stripers taken by the Cape Cod Salties the ‘96 season were in the 30s. The examples support each other in the sense that we are all drawing from the same striper populations and largely coming up with the same results. Main thing here is that we are watching the stripers grow; and, you have to have schoolies first.

That’s another thing about bigness: Because it is the custom to refer to small fish as "schoolies" an assumption springs that infers that monsters are more likely to be loners. Not true, because I can’t count the times we ran into groups of Moby linesides. Not 18 pounders like now, but fish so big that you could never carry two -- over 40 pounds. It was not uncommon to run into a school of such fish pounding three pound hickory shad in the surf. Or, we might be fishing live eels and the fish taking all the baits from all those fishing were huge. My late brother, Norman, broke off with 50 pound braid one night and his next fish , only minutes later, weighed 48 pounds. And Ray Jobin, a regular of the time rolling in the waves not far from our beach, had two fifties in his boat. One does not even eat when it is like that.

Big stripers are not rocket science. Many of the better charter skippers have conquered waters that naturally appeal to monsters. I’m thinking Cuttyhunk and Montauk where the professionals have learned the hard way about both where to go and when to be there. There are other places, but you get the idea. Again, they cannot catch what was not born. However, when you are with the best, those who took 60 pounders back when they were around, are taking 40s now, which clearly places you at the top of the heap in ‘98.

A truly big striper has to be drawn from natural advantages. A lean fish in May is the way she is because of winter, spawning, migration and the poor feeding opportunities of spring. Like the land, the sea has less forage to offer. By mid-summer, however, the seasons are working for you where bellies sag heavy with sand-eels and the fish all condition themselves for another cycle. That same fish will be bigger in fall.

People lament the small fish today when they should be celebrating. There are more stripers now than at any time in the 60 years of striper measurement. This translates to more Moby fish by the turn of the century than has ever been seen. The more informed angling culture of today is better equipped to care for that fishery than before. I have every confidence that history’s mistakes will not be repeated. What remains is whether there is just one more monster because I dream of three things: ten point bucks and 50-pounders.