You want to know what is going on in Striper Country? We are killing too many big breeding classes of fish and everyone is turning a blind eye, and why, because the law says we CAN!
This is a tough topic for me, for our industry and the people who love to target striped bass. This is also an issue that we are all aware of and no one wants to discuss in public or attach their name to.
For those selling fishing tackle, it is a double-edged sword as good fishing gets people on the water and buying equipment. Big fish break rods; sell boats and get people excited. But the long-range ramifications could be devastating if we keep killing everything we catch.
Imagine this scenario: a friend or yours fishes maybe five times a year and on one particular outing, he hits it right. He is calling you to say you are missing out. Thirty to 40-pound bass are rolling on bunker and its pandemonium.
On this day, the boat of three fishermen catches roughly 60 striped bass over 25 pounds, with most weighing 35 pounds, amongst what he says was 1,000 boats. Everyone around is doubled up or tripled up for hours he tells you.
Then, that same guy says "Why aren't people releasing these big fish? I hardly see any going back over the rails."
This happened to me this past week. Look, it is no secret. Fishing for striped bass this year is off the charts, especially in the New York, New Jersey and Delaware Bay Region. We are blessed with a ton of bass, and they are big.
In fact, this scenario has been a common occurrence for many guys across many days here in New Jersey. I don't know about you but everybody I know, in a mad dog blitz and only fishing five times a year, wouldn't have time to notice other boats not releasing fish.
The fact that my friend noticed what others were doing around him speaks volumes as to the severity of the issue of killing too many big bass across a fleet. Now, do I think that these adjacent anglers are pirates?
No, not at all. But when guys are catching fish left and right, you would think that some bass need extra resuscitation, requiring anglers to be bent over the gunnels while properly releasing fish. Only a few times did he notice that.
Killing big bass is not a local problem. The amount of 25-50 pound bass not being released, up and down the coast, throughout a year is absolutely unconscionable. Something has to change; either our attitudes toward catch and release or the regulations that allow us to kill so many breeding class of fish.
In no way am I some elitist snob and against those who keep fish for dinner. But, like trees in a forest, we as anglers should be selectively harvesting bigger fish before they are gone.
I am not a biologist but I do know that any other genetic dominant creature, the bigger and wiser they are, the better the offspring. People who hunt deer know that big bucks yield the best genes. It only makes sense to me that those big bass posses dominant genes that we should protect and not kill in excess for the betterment of future stocks.
I know I am not alone and people in the angling community will not say publicly what I am saying right now in fear of killing their business. But, I honestly feel (through the support of pictures from up and down the coast as well as hands on experience), "The bigger the fish, the quicker it dies."
How many commercial striped bass guys in New England kill their allotment? How many dead 40-plus pound bass are strewn all over the docks during the winter months down in Virginia and North Carolina? How many near shore boats have access to this amazing fishery right now just in New York City alone?
In all, a TON!
As a former full-time charter captain, I was part of the problem, so you might ask, who am I to preach?
With that experience, I can honestly say that my customers will be the first to say that I pleaded with them to release big stripers, especially during the spring months.
I also had a guy kill his first 50-pounder for his wall, only to have the fish's tail pop the freezer door open and ultimately destroy any attempts at a mount.
I can also say that I lost customers to other captains because I was not in favor of killing (per New Jersey regulations) 12 really big striped bass each day just because they purchased their daily permits allowing them to do so.
I have seen it all and probably heard it all. But, it is time for someone to stand up and say something before this fishery goes away.
In the end, the law allows us to catch and kill. Until things change, big stripers will continue to die at the rail.
Maybe it is time to begin releasing more of these bigger for healthier, future stocks. Do we live in such competitive environment that we are only judged by killing our limit or showing our buddies a dock full of 40-pound bass?
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 N.J. / N.Y. 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).