Where Have All the Big Bass Gone?

from "The Fisherman", Jan 16th 2003

by Fred Golofaro

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association February 2003 Newsletter)

Few topics have generate as much discussion along the Striper Coast in recent years as the "lack" of big stripers in the fishery. Whether you do your hunting from beach or boat, the question seems to rear its head everywhere. From the docks in Montauk to the sheltered confines of buggies along Jersey beaches, to tackle shop counters and fishing club meetings, it seems everyone is crying about the lack of big stripers in the fishery. Until recently, I counted myself among the hordes of anglers, fishery managers and journalists who voiced their concern about the perceived lack of cow stripers in the fishery.

Before we go any further, let's make it clear that I am not saying we have an abundance of big stripers causing our waters these days. I know too many sharpies in boats and on the beach who have put in an inordinate number of hours chasing stripers in recent years. Some have been fortunate enough to count a 40 or two among their scores, but most have struggled to get beyond the 30‑pound mark. I will say that I think our expectations of what the fishery should be like are probably unrealistic, and our recollections of the past are largely distorted by time. First, we need to remember that striper stocks were decimated to the point of collapse a little over a decade ago. It takes time to grow big stripers, those fish that tip the scale at 30, 40 and 50 pounds. By most estimates, it takes about 15 years to grow a 40‑pound class striper, and it could take as much as 18 years for these fish to attain true trophy status. The numbers of fish reaching these weight classes also diminishes as the weights increase. In a healthy fishery, we should always have more 20 pounders than 30 pounders, more 30s than 40s, and more 40s than 50s. When it is easier to catch a 40 pounder than a 10 or 20 pounder, there is trouble brewing in the fishery.  That's a lesson that was made pathetically clear in the late `70s and into the `80s, but more on that later.

It may not be as evident to most observers, but those first good year classes from the rebuilding years are beginning to bear fruit. I am in the unique position of being able to review striper reports from up and down the Striper Coast on a weekly basis. I peruse our New England, New Jersey, Mid Atlantic and Long Island editions every week, and I will tell you that each of the last couple of years has seen an increase in the number of 30 and 40‑pound stripers finding their way into the reports. This past year saw the most dramatic increase in big fish numbers, and it is a trend that I think will continue. There were even weeks this past fall when some of our reports featured several 50 pounders. In my own weekly surf reports, it was just a few short years ago that I'd sometimes go weeks with no mention of even a 30 pounder taken in the suds. In 2001, we saw a clear increase in the number of 30s finding their way into the reports, and this past season we had a dramatic increase in the number of 30s and 40s.

In addition to the amount of time required to grow these big fish, there are other factors at work. During much of the striper's comeback, there was a lack of large forage baitfish in many areas. Perhaps this has been a factor as to why the length to weight ratio of so many fish in the current fishery is way off what it used to be. For most of my striper hunting lifetime, any 50‑inch striper was a sure bet to put you into that magical 50 pounder dub. Not so in recent years, when I've seen fish that actually topped 50 inches barely make it into the 40‑pound class.

Those discrepancies have been evident right on down through the smaller fish. We've reported 36‑inch bass sometimes weighing as little as 12 and 13 pounds when the standard should be more like 18 pounds. I can recall a number of 47 and 48‑inch stripers that weighed only 37 or 38 pounds in 2000 and 2001. Back in the `70s and `80s, more than a few 48‑inch stripers managed the 50‑pound mark. This season was the first in recent years in which the length and weight ratios of many of the bigger stripers reported were in "proper" proportion. It's also no coincidence that there was a preponderance of big baitfish around in 2002.

Another factor contributing to the "no big fish syndrome" is that our recollections of the fishery in the 60s, 70s and 80s tend to be distorted by those who were there, and misunderstood by those who weren't. So many of those who today are crying about the lack of big fish, were not even catching stripers 20 and 30 years ago. There have been periods over the past few decades when those willing to put in the time could hit the beach or leave the dock full of anticipation at the prospect of catching a 40‑pound striper. It certainly didn't happen every trip, but you at least felt like you had a chance.

There were also those special times when jumbo stripers dominated the fishery, but this fishing was often limited to a certain geographic area, and usually associated with a lack of small fish in the fishery. People hear stories of the good old days and conjure up visions of 40 pounders everywhere, season after season. It really didn't happen that way, but I'm probably as guilty as anyone of perpetuating those images, simply by relating some of the action we were fortunate to have been a part of.

To hear me tell of beaching a dozen stripers in the 40‑pound class in a night's fishing is difficult to fathom for those new to the striper game, particularly when that same night saw at least three or four 50s beached alongside me by other casters. Such scores paint a glowing picture of the "good old days," when in fact, that fall of 1981 was spectacular on the Cape but disappointing in most other areas along the Striper Coast. There were also the five fish in the 40‑pound class that I livelined back in the mid `70s and days when we didn't even bother counting the number of 30s that sucked down our live baits, but there were also seasons back then when the largest bass in our fishing club didn't break the 30‑pound mark.

And then there was that special time when Block Island's surf seemed to be home to all of the giant stripers in the Atlantic. When 40 and 50 pounders were stacked like cordwood on pallets waiting to be shipped by ferry to market. It would be the last hurrah before the fishery hit rockbottom and taught us a lesson we should not soon forget.

The fish from those memorable years were borne of a time when the striper size limit was 16 inches and boats returned to the dock with catches sometimes numbering into the hundreds. Still, large numbers of fish survived to become true cows. Under today's current regulations, and with the catch and release philosophy solidly entrenched among those who do most of the catching, I'm increasingly confident that today's crop of striper anglers will see their share of days and nights to remember. If you saw our cover photo last week, then perhaps you know the story of Howell's Rob Stout and his 56.8‑pound striper caught this past fall.  Rob and his 11‑year‑old son, Cody, had just showed up at Island Beach one November evening, and upon seeing a shooting star, dad had turned to son and asked if he made a wish for that elusive 50 pounder. A skeptical 11‑year old looked at his dad as if he were crazy, yet not more than 20 minutes later, the two were dragging their 52‑inch cow back across the sand from the Barnegat Inlet's north jetty. Such extraordinary fishing may be rare, but the point is that such encounters with big fish are always rare and never taken for granted.

These days, it is not uncommon to hear some hard‑core anglers "complaining" because all of the fish they caught on a given day or night were in the teens, or even into the 20‑pound class. Remember that the more fish we have in the teens and 20s, the better the chance they have to become 30s, 40s and 50s. The numbers of big fish will continue to increase, especially if the amount of big baitfish like shad, bunker and herring remains on the upswing. As for the good old days, in looking over back issues of The Fisherman from the `60s and `70s, the fishing reports were fill of bass under 15 pounds weighed at tackle shops. How many people even bother to weigh such "small" fish at tackle shops these days?

I'm confident that we are already seeing a return to the days when you can head out the door and know that you at least have a chance at beaching or boating that striper of a lifetime. The evidence is already mounting that the numbers are growing, but we need to be patient and we must never allow a return to the wasteful practices that devastated the striped bass fishery in the past.

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