Notes from the Cockpit

Can you feel it, FishTalk readers? There’s an electricity in the air, a buzz in the tackle shops and a chaotic frenzy in the boatyards – trophy striper season in coming up fast. Wherever in the region you live, whether you fish in the Chesapeake Bay or along the Atlantic coast, those big cow rockfish are about to be set squarely in the sights as tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of us get ready to pull the trolling trigger or charge forth with chum.

trophy sized striped bass
Trophy striper season is a big deal, to many Chesapeake Bay anglers.

Is this a good thing?

It’s certainly a debatable point. On the one hand, the potential for catching monstrous fish does get people charged up. It’s a tackle- and boat-buying catalyst that prompts excited anglers to spend their hard-earned cash in the fishing and boating businesses that exist to help us in our angling endeavors. And it tempts newcomers into the fishing community while also supporting the charter fleet. In turn the trophy season generates much of the revenue that helps state and federal agencies manage the fishery in a (hopefully) sensible way. So our pursuit of these fish helps in the protection of these fish.

On the other hand, we are hunting the breeding stock. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a 15-year-old 45-inch, 35- to 40-pound fish can produce around three million eggs (six times as many as a 28-inch fish). It would be great if we could just target males, but we can’t. Years ago I was quite proud of my ability to do so and often preached spring bait fishing because over three-quarters of the fish caught with my tactics were very large males; the one pictured here, indicative of the average body shape, measured in the mid-40’s but barely weighed 30 pounds – you can see how skinny it is. For whatever reason, the fish started acting differently the last few seasons and females simply can’t be avoided (though if anyone has insight into how it might be possible, by all means, please share it with us!)

Should we be killing these big fat cows, on their way to the spawning grounds? It’s very easy to come up with a gut reaction, but very difficult to reason through an extraordinarily complex issue to come to an equitable conclusion. It’s 100-percent impossible to come to a conclusion that will satisfy everyone. I’m no scientist, nor do I depend on trophy striper season for an income. But I have been fishing the Bay for many decades and can clearly remember when catching a striped bass was an anomaly that only occurred on rare occasions. I can also remember the first few seasons after the moratorium was lifted, when it seemed like there were so many rockfish you could catch a trophy with a worm on a bent paperclip. So as we all think through what is “right,” I hope anglers will keep these additional important points in mind:

  • Whatever you may feel the quality of the striper fishery is currently, the management practices which have been used since the moratorium was put in place have maintained the species’ existence thus far.
  • Big cow fish are simply not as good for eating as smaller stripers are.
  • Many people do depend on trophy season for a significant portion of their income.
  • Taking many multiple small fish has much less of an impact on the stock than taking a single trophy does.
  • You, me, and everyone else has no right to dictate what anyone else “should” do with the fish they catch. As long as all the laws are followed and a fish is legally caught, it’s up to the individual angler to decide what he or she will do with it.
  • Even catch-and-release trophy fishing, preached by many with good intent and positive result, is not completely cost-free. However careful an angler may be, if you hook large numbers of fish sooner or later one will be deep-hooked, lose an eye, snag a gill, or otherwise die as a result of the encounter.

Notice a pattern? For, against. For, against. The arguments could, should, and I’m sure will, go on forever. Personally, I’d never dream of denying someone else the opportunity to take home their fish of a lifetime. Nor do I want to dream of the days when striped bass are again an anomaly. So I say enjoy the trophy season and enjoy the pre-season – but enjoy them judiciously. I’ll personally commit to killing no more than one female trophy this season. The first time I see roe in a fish I clean it’ll be the last one I take home for myself. How many you box this season is entirely your own choice, but I hope some folks will consider doing the same – without passing judgement on those who choose otherwise. #oneanddone.

- Lenny Rudow