Friday, February 17, 2012

Stripped Bass Revisited

Me and My Fish

When I was a small boy I loved to study the life and habits of fish. I graduated from college with a BS in Biology and later a MS in Environmental Sciences and obtained a successful career in environmental engineering and marine biology. My masters thesis centered on the age and growth of the stripped bass Morone saxatilis in and around the James River and Chesapeake Bay.  About a dozen of the members of Grove Avenue Baptist Church every year go stripped bass fishing around the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. This year on February 10, 2012 I had the privilege to attend this fishing trip. It was like going to see some distant fish relative  I had not seen for years. Once again I would have the chance to be reunited with my stripped friends from days past. Due to the Chesapeake Bay Conservation Act we would be allowed to keep two fish each for food. Stripped bass in the Bay are called rock fish.  Before I go into the details of my fishing trip experience let me tell you a few facts about stripped bass.

Fish Lesson

Stripped bass are anadramous fish living in saltwater and going up freshwater rivers to spawn or lay eggs.  A 50 pound female may lay up to 5,000,000 eggs in one spawn. The most important variable in determining when the fish spawn is water temperature. The best temperature for fish to migrate is between 57 to 71 degrees. This fact will help you understand my fishing experience later. After the eggs hatch the young fish return to the saltwater for two years to grow. The stripped bass makes two migrations in the spring and the fall to return up the freshwater rivers to spawn. They are usually 30 inches in length for the first migration. At this time they have a ferocious appetite and will eat just about anything in their path but prefer other fin fish. December and January are good months to fish for the strippers as they swim upstream in the rivers. The adults may live for up to forty years and reach a weight of 100 pounds. But the norm is about 10 years old for males and 20 years old for females. An average female may lay 850,000 eggs with each spawn.  On an average a 15 inch fish may weigh 2-3 pounds and be 2-3 years old, a 30 inch fish may weigh 11-16 pounds and be 8-14 years old, and a 45 inch fish may weigh 30-45 pounds and be 15-30 years old. You can determine the age of these fish by looking at the rings on a fish scale like the annual rings on a tree. When I was doing my research on the stripped bass I aged about 10 thousand fish in and near the mouth of the James River. I usually took 4 to 5 scale samples per fish. That is a lot of looking at scales under the microscope. I became very familiar with my new friends. 

How do we determine where the best fishing spots are going to be to catch the biggest and best fish?  I have been told that you are only allowed to keep two stripped bass on each trip and there is only a catch and release requirement within the Chesapeake Bay boundaries.  Your best bet is to fish during the two upstream spawning migrating of spring and fall. Stripped bass tend to be in shallower waters at this time. The warmer the water the deeper they will go. The best time might be in December, January, or February. Look for feeding birds circling on top of the water marking a spot where birds are eating fish scraps left from the hardy appetite of the stripped bass. Fish during the first 3 hours of an outgoing tide or the last 3 hours of an incoming tide. Look for the turbulent water indicating that there are large masses of fish movement below the surface. The strippers feed the best in a temperature range of 40 to 75 degrees. If all else fails have your caption of the boat turn on his fish finder to spot the fish movements.

Fish Story

Back to my fish story. I was thrilled to be able to be with a bunch of Christians on a boat fishing for my "days gone by" friends of the past stripped bass. Two church friends picked me up about 4:15 AM to travel to a Virginia Beach for a 7 AM boat launch. We traveled in the boat north to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The air temperature was around 25 degrees. It was a large fishing boat with a closed in cabin to warm up in when we got cold on deck. When we reached the spot the boat made a continuous circle with the fishing lines trolling behind. We used lures because these fish are so hungry that they will bite at anything that looks similar to a fish. We trolled at several spots for several hours without any luck catching fish. We gave up on catching and keeping the fish to eat and decided to go into the Bay to catch and release fish to get the thrill of catching a big fish. Again with no luck. By this time it was getting late and we decided to call it quits and headed home. On the way back to the dock the motor in the boat quit. The captain had to radio for a tow back to the dock. We got back to the dock no worst for ware. Some of our party stopped off at a seafood restaurant to be able to at least eat some stripped bass even though they could not catch any fish.

Why didn't we catch any fish?

We went fishing in February toward the end of the fish migrations at the time when the weather has been unseasonably warm. Spawning fish like to travel in cooler temperatures. The fish sensing warmer weather approaching moved faster up the rivers to spawn leaving fewer in the coastal areas to catch. The group usually books the fishing boat well ahead of time in order to reserve it during the fish spawning times. Like all fishing trips there is no guarantee that you are going to catch fish. The group leader said that he has been doing this for ten years and this is the first time he has never caught any fish. If I am invited back next year I want to prove that I was not the unlucky banana (bananas were consider unlucky to take with you on a fishing trip).

I enjoyed the fellowship of christian men and women on this fishing trip and would do it again in a heart beat.

Isaiah 19:8 The fishers shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish.