Field Guide is a series of blogs written to increase your odds in the surf, written for surfcasters of all experience levels. For those with a passion for fishing and writing who would like to guest blog for The Atlantic Surf, please email email@example.com.
When you think of the symbols that most accurately represent the culture and history of New England, there are some obvious ones that come to mind. You can almost taste the ocean air when you see an image of a Gloucester fisherman hauling lobster pots onto his skiff. Or maybe its the covered bridges of New Hampshire that make you ponder the travelers who've crossed them for decades. Any of these scenes give a powerful rush of nostalgia and emotion, a reminder of the love we share for our home. For many, there is no greater symbol for New England coastal living than the striped bass. Since colonial times the striper has played an important role in New Englander's lives as a reliable food source. When the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts in 1620, they ate striped bass. And today, centuries later, the fish still sits at the dinner tables of New Englanders up and down the coast. Throughout history one of the biggest changes is the striper's evolution into a target for sport-fishing, a topic you can learn more about by subscribing to The Atlantic Surf Logbook. The following article is written for the naturalist, angler, and common man interested in learning more about this iconic fish.
Let's begin with the fish's naming. Striped bass (morone saxatilis) go by a number of nicknames on the East Coast, e.g. linesider, rock, or rockfish, but to the average New Englander, we most commonly refer to them as stripers. The nickname striper comes from the distinctive color pattern that stretches across the fish. Its body is lined with horizontal dark stripes beginning behind the gills and running to the edge of the tail. Roughly 7-9 markings lay boldly across this ocean-breather, vivid in color and set against a silvery backdrop. The top of the fish can vary in color as well with palettes ranging from dark grays to olive greens. When observed up close, their intricate patterns and color range comes to life; a beautiful specimen that can be appreciated by fishermen and non-fishermen alike. The common mature size for this fish is 30-40 pounds and they are believed to live roughly 30 years.
If you trace back through the years of a striper's life, eventually you'll find yourself in one of the Atlantic Coast's primary breeding grounds for the bass; the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware River, or the Hudson River. As technology has evolved, we've become able to tag and track the striper from the start of it's life. Using this method scientists have learned that striped bass don't typically migrate for the first 2 years of their lives. At this point, they travel north in the Spring and Summer months, eventually reaching the Gulf of Maine and returning to warmer waters in the Fall and Winter time.
One of the biggest reasons New England fishermen seek out the striped bass is simply because they can be easily caught from the shore. These fish are just as comfortable feeding along rocky, boulder-strewn beaches as they are over long spans of soft sand making them easy targets for fishermen regardless of skill or experience level. For those of you passionate for hunting trophy fish, it's worth noting that the striped bass record was set in Connecticut in 2011 by Greg Myerson, weighing-in at 81.5 pounds. The Massachusetts record fish was caught by Anton Stetzko from Cape Cod's Nauset Beach in 1981. With his beach-caught 73-lber, Anton cemented his place in Massachusetts surf fishing lore. Much of the inspiration for The Atlantic Surf stems from the nostalgia of striped bass fishing on Cape Cod's outer-beaches during the old days. It's easy to imagine yourself in the record-holders shoes, standing waist deep in the Atlantic, throwing cast-after-cast, and all of a sudden the hit from a 70lb. bass shakes you to your core and nearly knocks you off your feet.
The diet of a striper spans a pretty wide range of foods including fish such as alewives, flounder, sea herring, menhaden, sand lance, silver hake, tomcod, smelt, silversides, and eels. They also enjoy a number of other sea creatures (what salty New Englander doesn't) including lobsters, crabs, clams, mussels, sea worms, and squid. When fishing bait, stripers are known to take any one of these options. Artificial lures of varying types, colors, & sizes will also produce fish when bass are present and feeding. They will gladly inhale anything from jigs, to pencil poppers, metals, & diving swimmers with significant force. Whether you fish bait or lures (or both), odds are strong for a hookup in the summer months with the right weather, timing, & tide.
As for the future of this beautiful specimen, things are looking up. Back in the 1980s the condition of the striped bass was in rough shape. With populations dwindling fast, a coordinated effort across the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), recreational, and commercial fishermen contributed to a strong rebound of the fish's population. The species is now considered restored by the NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association), and labelled "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. I think this is an inspiring example of what humanity can do when we put our heads together. A relatively small group of people worked to preserve nature and sustain a pastime that has been important to New England culture for decades. While I have no problem with the occasional dinnertime fish, a right think every angler has and should take advantage of, I respect the need for thoughtful fishing regulation and practice. It's amazing to see what people have already accomplished by practicing catch and release, and it can only help to secure striped-filled summers for generations to come.