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Bittersweet season

12/28/2009

For most in the northeast, the 2009 saltwater fishing season is one we'd like to forget.

I have been in the fishing business some way, shape or form for more than 20 years, and I have never seen anything like this season. The bittersweet season threw a number of curveballs hampering the recreational angler.

Forget about the economy, it was the consistent easterly winds and closure of the black sea bass season that impacted every coastal angler in the northeast. Here, our fishing days are numbered due to the cold weather. Guides, tackles shops and all in the industry have to cash in on every available opportunity to survive.

The East Winds

Charter captains along the coast dealt with extended periods of easterly winds throughout the spring and early summer striped bass run. I was rarely able to sail during the month of June, losing 25 trips in just two weeks alone.

This is the two-week period where most full-time charter captains double up trips and run hard from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. This weather anomaly had us itching to sail and scratching our heads as to how we'd recover. The spring striped bass run is our area's bread and butter.

Tackle shops also saw a decrease in foot traffic. Lousy sailing conditions kept boats at the dock and tackle sales low.

What is unfortunate for the recreational angler is that there was an exceptional striped bass run overall. Those who braved the conditions caught numerous fish over 40 pounds. Yet like clockwork, as the weekend approached, so did stiff winds and small craft advisories. Those targeting stripers were forced to sail in adverse conditions just to reach them.

The bluefin tuna run along the 20- and 30-fathom line was nothing short of amazing. We all know that Cape Cod's tuna run has been excellent for years, but it has been less than stellar for anglers in New York, New Jersey and Delaware.

Great numbers of tuna were holding within reach of anglers for the first time in 20 years. In fact, our Mud Hole tuna fishery was so good that people took notice. Charter captains from all over were repositioning their boats and customers to cash in.

Once again however, the weather was less than ideal for consistent sailing. Tackle shops prospered thanks to the near shore bluefin tuna bite, but the weather was still a major factor keeping them from really making up ground already lost.

As the fall months approached, anglers were pumped and excited to target the fall migration of stripers. The fall winds of change entered and threw high-wind event after high-wind event at our coast.

In fact, coastal communities were forced to buckle down and wait out several nor'easters. The economic impact of the storms are still being evaluated. Seaside Heights, N.J., was among the coast communities to experience tremendous sand displacement.

The only benefit is to the surf angler with the reappearance of old jetties, piers and other. This is a surf anglers dream and should yield good fishing for years to come.

Black sea bass closure
Yet the biggest curveball to the angling community in 2009 was the black sea bass closure. Black sea bass comprises roughly 1/3 of all charter and party boat business, tackle sales for the retailer and rod and reel sales to the manufacturers.

This sudden shut down hurt all business sectors. Couple this closure with easterly winds and a reduced catch and kill limit across other species such as fluke, and fishing business owners are nervous.

It stands to reason why groups such as the Recreational Fishing Alliance and the American Sportfishing Association have taken bold steps in fighting back against the data that elicited the shutdown and how it is obtained.

The black sea bass closure was in part due to telephone reporting data. Many feel through scientific data that black sea bass stocks are safe and able to be fished. But the closure was unexpected and put a major damper on the very same coastal communities that NOAA is trying to save.

For hundreds of years fishermen have been forced to manage adversity and variables not normally found in other sports and business sectors. We have been beating the wind, fish migrations and reduced specie limits.

This past year, however, was a season where major wind kept us from excellent fishing. Fish migrations at the extreme ends of their range were below normal, but they could be found if you looked hard enough.

Some of us experienced a lack of bait as well as plenty of throw-back fish too short for the cooler, but we found the means to the end. As fishermen, we have been dealing with and beating these adversities.

But, 2009 was also the year that the federal government stepped in and overnight closed a vital fishery that when combined with the other variables, could be a deal breaker.

The very same government intervention that is in place to create jobs and help build vibrant coastal communities may have placed the final nail in some coffins for those who make their entire living in the fishing industry.

The new year can't come fast enough if you ask me.

Editor's note: Capt. Chris Gatley can be found with his fishing clients chasing striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty, or heading offshore to the Atlantic Ocean canyons off the NJ/NY coast for tuna. His articles on cutting-edge fishing techniques can be found in The Fisherman Magazine, and he's a regular presenter at key sports shows during the winter months (when he's not pursuing whatever he can find in East Coast rivers).