(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association November 2004 Newsletter)
Published in Asbury Park Press 10/04/04
by Karen E. Wall, Staff Writer
Imagine having a piece of fishing line tied to a hook, and the barb of the hook embedded in the lining of one of the finger holes on a 12-pound bowling ball.
Now imagine standing in the sand, waves crashing around you, as you try to reel that bowling ball through the waves and onto the beach so you can grab it.
Now imagine that bowling ball fighting back as you try to reel it in.
That's a rough description of what Rebecca Hulse went through yesterday morning as she reeled in a striped bass during the 13th Governor's Surf Fishing Tournament in the park.
"It was really hard," said Rebecca, 11, who attends Christa McAuliffe Middle School in Jackson. "It was really heavy."
"I can't believe I did it," she said, grinning, as Al Ott, head of the tournament judges, and Paul Harris measured her fish.
"Twenty-seven and seven-eighths," Ott pronounced loudly, trying to be heard over the wind whipping across the sand. It was a keeper.
The striped bass is one of the favorite targets of New Jersey Shore anglers. It is sought day and night, year-round, and almost every angler who pursues the fish on a regular basis will give you one primary reason.
It's all about the size. "Since I was a teenager I read those stories about those big cows," said Rebecca's father, Michael Hulse, 42, of Toms River, referring to reports of huge striped bass caught along the coast.
The striped bass is an anadromous fish, one that spends most of its life in saltwater but migrates into freshwater to spawn. They can range from an occasional 10- or 12-inch fish to ones weighing 40, 50 pounds or more -- the size of an average first-grader.
Those are the "cows" to which Hulse was referring. Others call them trophy bass.
"I think about catching those cows every time I go out," Hulse said.
To find striped bass in the surf, you have to understand their habits -- how they feed, where they feed, when they feed. Sounds simple, but there's one problem: They're fish, which means they're not completely predictable.
"You're actually hunting for them," said Ott, a board member of the New Jersey Beach Buggy Association, one of the tournament's sponsors, as he drove along the beach. He has fished for striped bass along the Atlantic coast from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras. "You have to fish for them."
"It is the challenge," said Maj. George Schuler of Dublin, Pa., who volunteered to help judge the tournament. "They are just plain fun."
"When you see your rod go down, your heart goes in your throat," said John McCombie Jr. of the Bayville section of Berkeley, as his striped bass was measured. "You just hope you can bring him in."
At 27 5/8 inches, his fish was within the newly established legal limits as well. Dinner was in the bag. But the size limits increase the challenge.
There was a time when the fish's length didn't matter as much.
In the mid-1960s and early '70s, the striped bass fishery was at its peak, according to Asbury Park Press archives.
But the fish's population went into a sharp decline that many blamed on overfishing, particularly by commercial fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay. Fewer striped bass were being caught by anglers all along the East Coast, and they virtually disappeared in Barnegat Bay.
In an attempt to stave off what some saw as imminent collapse of the striped bass fishery, Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act in 1984. That legislation resulted in strict controls on striped bass fishing, including completely shutting down striped bass fishing in Maryland and Delaware from 1985 to 1989, and a one-year moratorium in Virginia in 1989.
In New Jersey, the result was the imposition in 1984 of an 18-inch minimum and a 10-fish limit. In 1986 it became a 24-inch minimum length and the bag limit was cut to five fish per person per day. That was increased to 33 inches in 1986 and reached 36 inches fish in 1989 -- resulting in few fish that striped bass fishermen could take home.
In 1990, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission decided the numbers of striped bass had rebounded enough to loosen the restrictions, but barely. Fishermen were now allowed to keep 28-inch fish -- but only one.
And while the fish appear to be more abundant, catch restrictions remain, making those bigger bass more attractive.
"There's always that thought of a 40, a 50," said Paul Smith, director of yesterday's tournament and a member of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, who prefers smaller fish and releases the big ones he catch-es.
"The guys who are really into it release the fish," Ott said. "The true striped bass fisherman doesn't keep many -- only what he can eat."
He is worried that the fishery will be reopened to commercial fishing, as discussions go on at the federal level about opening the exclusive economic zone, the waters from three miles to 200 miles off our coastline that, in essence, belong to the United States.
"If they ever open it up to commercial fishing again, it will ruin the fishing," Ott said.
But so long as they are there, the striper anglers will fish for them.
"It's a sickness," McCombie said. "You just get caught up in it."
"I guess it's just how you were raised, like if your family were deer hunters," Ott said. "It gets in your blood."
For Rebecca Hulse and her brother, Garrett, it's clear it's already in their blood, thanks to many, many fishing trips with their father. Standing on the beach in rubber boots and a sweatshirt, Rebecca didn't seem to noticed the wind whipping through her blond hair as she talked about reeling in her fish -- which won her a fishing rod for the longest fish caught by a girl 12 or under. "My dad's like, 'Reel it in, reel it in,' " she said, grinning. "I've caught little ones before, but . . ."
"She's caught more fish than a lot of men I know," Michael Hulse said as he wound elastic thread around a gob of clams to keep them on the hook.
"It's really exciting when you get (a fish) up out of the water, because it's heavy," said Rebecca, who also plays field hockey.
"We teach 'em young," Ott said with a grin.
"I try to go fishing about twice a week," said Michael Hulse, who works as a mechanic, as he checked his baitwork, joking that the job "doesn't help my fishing.
"Let's chuck this out there and get a 36-incher," he said to Rebecca, commenting that he thought the wind, which had been blowing hard all morning from the north under overcast skies, seemed to be pushing the fish closer to shore.
The surf was rough, nasty even -- some would call it snotty, and say it's just the way the bass like it.
They apparently liked Michael Hulse's bait as well, because by the end of the day, he and Re-becca had each caught two stripers and Garrett caught one as well, winning the top prize for boys in his age group.
The biggest striper of the day -- of the 20 recorded in the tournament -- belonged to Sal Amato of Pompton Plains, who was fishing with his cousin, Ralph Amato. Both are members of Team FishBuzz, sponsored by FishBuzz Bait & Tackle in Dover Township.
Amato's 37-inch bass, caught on a bunker chunk, was the longest fish of the day and also earned him a permanent place on the Governor's Cup, the trophy that remains on display at Island Beach State Park all year.
"We used to take the bus and fish for sunnies when we were young," Ralph Amato said.
"It's easier this way," Sal Amato said. "I just like fishing and hanging out on the beach."
There's one other thing everyone who fishes for striped bass loves about them: Eating them.
"It's the best eating fish," said McCombie, who has caught "a thousand probably," with his heaviest weighing about 30 pounds. He likes to bake his striper fillets in cheddar cheese with butter, wine and bread crumbs. "They're No. 1."
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