As enthusiastic as I am about the coming Striped Bass season, we need to be realistic about the fishery. It’s not great. In fact, it’s pretty bad. Bordering on really bad. Creeping towards cataclysmic.
Get ready for a long, but honest, post. Keep in mind this is my OPINION. I'm also doing this in response to Steve Cultons post on his website (currentseams.com), Dennis Zambrottas post on his Facebook Page (Fishing Around The Block), and many comments on the 1@32" Facebook Group (search 1@32...bad name that needs to change, but good group). You should check those out.
I’m really happy to see so many anglers taking personal accountability and doing things to help the fishery- fishing less treble hooks, working on their release, and trying all kinds of tactics to help the fish before, during, and after they catch them. Also, I’ve seen a lot of pressure being put on those that are doing the WRONG things to try and change their minds and actions. This is probably the number-one most effective measure: peer pressure to create grass-roots change through swaying of “hearts and minds”.
For me, I want to go one more step. As someone who traditionally catches hundreds of fish a season, my singular goal this season is to limit my total catch numbers of schoolies. I did better last year. However, because I REALLY focused on catching a big fish on the fly rod this past season (70% of my trips) I “allowed” myself a lot more small fish on the fly in my quest for a 30lber. I hoped that I could stay on spots with mixed-sizes of fish in good structure to eventually run into something with shoulders. It did work- I pulled out a 17, 18, and 22lb fish in a couple nights in July from a huge mass of 20-25-inchers- but I never got that 30-pounder.
However, in 2018 and 2019 I think I had something like 150 and 200 fish on fly, and something like 700 and 800 fish total, respectively. I could go figure that out relatively easily with my log but it’s not the point of this post. Last season I had over 350 on the fly, and only roughly 550 fish total. So doing the math, my spin numbers are way down from past seasons- and that is intentional. That’s a good thing. I’m genuinely proud of that. Overall, my average weight on spin rod has definitely gone UP on average too. That’s also a good thing. That’s the goal. Less total fish, but more total pounds.
But, ok, that’s a lot of data and a pretty broad statement: “I want to catch less fish overall, but more large fish”. It almost sounds like I’m giving myself a pass. So what the hell does all this REALLY mean?
First, let’s define what a small fish is, and what is “too many” schoolies. Well, I’ve seen some people say small fish are 18”, some are saying 25” and some are saying 36”. Context is important. A 30” fish from a boat on a live eel is, frankly, silly. A 30” fish caught from shore on a plug or fly is something different. A 25lb fish caught on a pencil popper is one thing; 25, 25” fish caught on a pencil popper is something else. Some say 5 fish is too many to catch, some say 50 is OK.
For me, small fish are (roughly) anything under 30” on the spinning rod, and under 25” on the fly rod. This is arbitrary, but there are several reasons for this that I don’t need to detail here; but primarily, those are the sizes at which my catch rates start to plummet- I could catch a 1000 20-30” fish on the spinning rod if I wanted to, and probably 500 18-25” on my fly rod. But as soon as you start to go over those sizes, catch numbers start to drop fast.
OK, again, that’s pretty general and not a real definable metric to try and stick to. What does “as few as possible” really mean?
Well, here’s my new rules for 2020. It’s a bit complicated, but that’s just how I am!
On the fly, if I get to 20 schoolies and have not caught a fish over 25”, I’m done. I need to completely move away, out of that structure totally, or stop completely. And even if I’ve had a single 26 or a 27”, this doesn’t matter. I have to basically get over 30” or several keeper-sized or I’m done. No changing flies and trying to catch them on other stuff, no putting something huge on and then “accidentally” catching more, or anything like that. Period. I’ve had too many nights of 50 to 70 schoolies in my life now. Yes, it’s fun. I’ve done it- even last year I had 55 in a night and walked away because the sun was coming up and I had been fishing since midnight. I remember getting in the car and driving home feeling…mixed…melancholy…bad! I felt guilty in essence. I caught those fish just so I could have a higher yearly tally, not even so much because it was overly fun.
That’s when I started crafting all this. If you haven’t ever done that before, never had a bang up night, never had the opportunity to catch several dozen fish in a tide, fine, have at it once or twice. Really. You should experience a “fish every cast for hours” bite at least once in your life. I remember the first time I had a night of 36 schoolies with a few keepers mixed in on a Rhode Island beach and it was life changing after never catching more than 10 in a night before. Same for when I had a night of 100+ with lots of keeper fish to almost 35”. That was insane. Just be careful, and release those fish carefully, and crimp your barbs! But then, let’s just all agree that it’s probably best if we stopped participating in these crazy blitzes if we’ve been fishing for a while. We can walk away. I will walk away. It’s just for the best, and we have to accept it…even if we don’t want to.
However, if I do get a 30” or larger fish on the fly, I get a 3 fish reset. So if I’m at 12 fish, hit a 34” fish, then I get another 11 fish instead of 8 more. If I was at 17, I’d get another 6, not another 3. I think this will work well. But chances are, I’d still quit at 20 unless I feel there is some reason to continue. I did that several times last year even after nailing a 15lber or two. I’d just get to 20 and walk away. I was happy, proved that I could catch them, bent the rod and felt the drag go…and that was enough.
This rule is even more important for spin fish. It’s easier for me, and even less reason to catch small fish. I’m going to keep myself to 10 fish or under with anything less than 30”. Anything over 30” gives me a 3 fish reset. So if I’m at 4 fish and stick a 20lber, I get 9 more not 6. This should actually be much easier to stick to. I can usually keep schoolies from hitting my plugs, or at least partially so, by using BIG lures and fishing in specific places and at specific times. And when I say big plugs, I mean things over 12”. A super strike is not a big plug, no matter which you’re using. They catch BIG fish, but they also catch schoolies. Not picking on them specifically, just in general I think that’s important to understand. I hardly fish small plugs anyways anymore- the Redfin and middle-sized Super Strike Needle is as small as I go 95% of the time. And last season I think I only had maybe 5 nights I had more than 12 fish on plugs in a single night, and that was all in the fall- I can work around that. Finally, the only exception I’m going to make is fish over 30lbs don’t count towards any total. So if I catch 3 in a night, I can still catch 10 additional fish.
Yes, I know. Sometimes you have to use small plugs on sand eels. Or, you like to fish the worm hatch or fish teasers or get into spearing and catch fish from 16” to 40” every few casts. That’s fine! You need to do what works for you, and simply come up with your own rules. The point is that we’re being intentional with our fishing, and not just mindlessly racking up huge numbers of small fish that we could be harming.
The point for me boils down to this: I’m GOING to catch less fish. 100%. Maybe I’ll miss my 50lber doing this. Maybe I’ll catch 200 less fish this year. While I truly, deeply, believe I kill MAYBE 0.25% of my fish a season (so about 1-2 a season), I just don’t care anymore. I don’t want to stress fish to then become food for something else or get caught by someone else and die. I need to be part of the solution, and diminish my guilt.
Also, I’m not going to use a BOGA anymore. My buddy Ben can now say “I told you so, why did you argue with me you LOSER” and I’ll just shrug and agree with him! Do I think it really kills big fish if you weigh them once carefully and quickly? No. They are not Bone Fish. However, it’s just extra stress that I don’t care to impart. Last year I only carried my BOGA in June and July and 1 week in September anyways, and weighed exactly 3 fish all season: a 40lb on spinning, a 18lb on fly rod, and a 17lb on a fly rod (I guestimated the 22lb based on the 18lb the night before, and you can call me a liar and I’m OK with that). You can ask my buddy Dave Anderson though- we’re both really good at guessing, to within a pound and I purposely try and underestimate. So who cares. But I’ll just use rod length anyways. A couple marks with nail polish on the blank and you quickly hold the fish up and you can say it was “roughly 40”” so it was a “25-pounder” and so what if it was 23 or 27?
There are two caveats to this that I am still debating. I may still compete in Bill Wetzels Tournament in June. You have to weigh fish, there is no option for length. If I do, I won’t weigh a fish under 30lbs, even if I could win (which every year the weights get smaller, but last year the top 3 weights were like 39 [me], 43, 45 or something like that). The other is, I still may carry it during times that are the likeliest for me to get my “50”. Yes, that doesn’t really matter either. I know. But damn if I wouldn’t really like to definitively say it. But then, if I don’t have it in a shop with picture proof, I could just be lying anyways…right? Shade is thrown at just about every angler who released their 50. So, again, does it really matter if I didn’t weigh it? If it’s 54” it’s simply a “really really big fish” that “could have been”. I think I’m OK with that.
Finally, things I’m already doing include 1) no tail hooks, no matter what. I don’t use a single plug with a rear hook of ANY kind. If you want more information on this, search YouTube for “the one hook solution”. 2) Very careful planning for photos, with the tri-pod in the water set-up ahead of time. If I can’t leave the fish in the water while I turn on the camera, the fish doesn’t get photographed. This doesn’t mean laying on wet sand or resting with it’s tail in the water- it means fully head under the water, water going through it’s gills. I also set-up my focus and timer and everything so the fish is out of the water a maximum of 5 seconds. If you’d like more information on that, make a comment. 3) I’m trying to switch to inlines on small plugs like Mag darters and SP Minnows. I use them so infrequently now, I don’t really care if I miss fish. I haven’t caught a truly big fish on a plastic swimmer since 2015 (and even then it wasn’t even 30#). Note, I’m not including the Redfin in this, but I’ve always only ever used just a single front hook on a Redfin anyways and never had any trouble with hurting fish. It’s just those small plugs every once in a while a 15lber will eat it and get snagged deep. 4) Treat the fish with respect. No throwing. No kicking. No ripping out hooks. No squeezing the stomach. No sticking your fingers in the gills. Stop waiting so long to set the hook on eels (which now you have to use circles anyways, so there is no need to set at all!). Etc. Treat the fish with the respect they deserve.
I’m curious to see if I’ll catch 300 fish or 250, or even less, and how that will feel. It might kind of suck sometimes. I’m preparing myself for that NOW. Especially on the fly rod, I think it could be hard at times to walk away if I’ve had a couple low-30” fish and think there’s potential for a 40” but I’m at 25 fish total or some scenario like that. I’m not immune to this feeling of not being able to walk away. I get it. I simply have to prepare myself for that feeling. And as someone who drives really far to the ocean, I sometimes feel I have to “make it worth it”. But I need to get out of that mentality.
However, I’m also excited to force myself to walk away- it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to STOP. There are several spots I fish I often wonder what would happen if I branched out of the main spot and tried adjacent areas or walked further…how would I do? It’ll force me to experiment, and ultimately I like that as much as I like the fishing itself.
One more note: I know times are tough right now. So many of us (yes, me too) are out of work right now and having to adjust our lives on so many levels. As a result, donating to a non-profit may not be possible for many of you out there at the moment. That’s OK. Just remember them when this is all over. Also, keep in mind that the American Saltwater Guide Association (ASGA) is fighting for the fishery (and many others, not just Stripers) during a time when there is a lot of talk, but not a lot of action. These guys are at the front lines. AND- if you order ANYTHING on Amazon, you can donate to them easily. It doesn’t even come out of your pocket! All you have to do is select ASGA through Amazon Smile, and a percentage of your order total will be donated directly to them. Since a lot of us are relying on Amazon for everything from coffee to diapers to movies to socks it’s easy to rack up some dollars for this great organization. Setting it up only takes a couple minutes at most, and then you don’t have to think about it, except making sure you order from smile.amazon.com, not just amazon.com, or the donation won’t automatically occur.
Thanks for reading this far! What are you doing this season to help the Striper? Let me know in the comments, and let me know if you have ideas if I you think I could do more!