Here’s what went down this year… on and off the water

By Capt. John McMurray, President, ASGA

How would I best describe the fishing this past year? Not bad really, but it could have been better. I think that’s the sentiment from most guides in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. For sure 2021 had its moments, and there were some interesting things that happened, not just on the water, but in the fishery management realm as well. We’ll get into that here.

In addition to being the president of ASGA, I’m a full-time guide/charter boat captain and owner/operator of a comprehensive charter fishing operation based out of Western Long Island, NY, operating both inshore and offshore. My team and I log A LOT of underway hours each year. And we’re pretty wired into the rest of the guide/charter fleet in the Mid-Atlantic and New England region. I’ve served as New York’s Legislative Proxy at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) for the last several years, and I served for 9 years as a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC), which manages bluefish and other recreationally-important species.  So, my perspective on what’s happening both on the water, and at the management table, is somewhat unique.

My disclaimer though is that some of my assertions are based on anecdotal information (i.e., on-the-water observations). So, take it all with a grain of salt.

Let’s start with stripers.  

Striped Bass

The 2021 season in my neck of the woods started off with what seems to have become a predictable showing of fish in Lower New York Harbor (specifically Raritan Bay).

As readers likely know, striped bass are anadromous. Like salmon, they spawn in natal freshwater rivers and spend their adult lives in saltwater. Generally, those early season fish in Raritan Bay are older, larger fish. There might be some schoolies mixed in, but the great majority of fish are from 30 to upwards of 50” –just about all spawners. Given that Raritan Bay/Lower New York Harbor is essentially the entrance to the Hudson River, and that spawning there generally occurs in April/May, it would stand to reason that these are more-than-likely pre-spawn Hudson River fish, although I’m not aware of any science proving that is the case.

I should note here that Jamaica Bay, directly east of Lower New York Harbor, doesn’t really get these fish anymore, yet seems to be loaded with schoolies. Why that is, is a mystery, but I suspect it has something to do with the concentration of menhaden in Raritan Bay.

Indeed, it does seem like there have been more and bigger fish caught in recent years in Raritan. But is that simply a perception because we just see it more on social media platforms? It certainly seems that more folks are targeting them there, and that too is likely the result of social media posts about early season success in those waters, inevitably drawing crowds to what is generally the only game in town, at least early in the season. But it certainly does appear that the fishing is getting progressively better there. 

The trouble with such assertions, particularly if you live in New York or New Jersey, is that folks tend to extrapolate them to the entire coast, believing that the striped bass fishery is good across the board, when maybe what we’re seeing is simply an aggregation of pre-spawn fish that hadn’t really been fully utilized before. Or, it’s quite possible that it could mean that fish that spawn in the Hudson are doing quite a bit better than Chesapeake spawners (Note: the Hudson produced a very strong year class in 2007, which could account for a large share of the bass being caught in Raritan Bay). That wouldn’t exactly be great news, as it’s generally accepted that the Chesapeake accounts for somewhere between 60 and 80% of the coastal stock while the Hudson accounts for a much smaller percentage. And you simply don’t hear about those sorts of aggregations in the Chesapeake region anymore.

Moving into the late spring and summer, indeed striped bass aggregations, from large to small fish, showed up periodically along the coasts and in the bays. Noteworthy were the often huge aggregations of 24-to-26-inch-ish fish, and the number of 40 and 50s that were found amongst the menhaden schools a couple of miles off the beach.

All that said, we’re definitely not seeing fish with the consistency and numbers that we saw prior to 2013. And, you’d be hard pressed to find any surfcasters that didn’t believe the current fishery is still a shadow of its former self. For sure, most folks that spend real time of the water outside of hotspots like Raritan Bay (Or Montauk, or Cape Cod) would agree.

To be clear though, it’s not all doom and gloom.  And while it’s anecdotal, there are certainly some would argue that’s it’s been getting a little bit better over the last few years.  How do recent management actions figure into such an assertion?

In 2014 the ASMFC accepted a stock assessment that told them that fishing mortality was above the target level, and the stock would likely be overfished in the near future. In other words, we were fishing at a rate that would likely result in a reduction of the spawning stock to a level that scientists considered unsustainable. ASMFC responded by reducing fishing mortality by 25%, through a reduction in the coastal recreational bag limit from two fish to one fish, as well as a 25% cut in commercial quotas.

For the most part, those regulations not only worked, but exceeded the coastal reduction requirement. Along the coast, recreational survey data indicated that the reduction was over 40%. Where things arguably failed though was in the Chesapeake Bay. In Maryland, not only was the 20.5% recreational reduction not met, but the overall fishing mortality actually increased by more than 50%. Yes, that likely had to do with “conservation equivalency” regulations, which were arguably crafted not to achieve the required reduction, but to satisfy a political need to appease certain members of the fishing community who wanted the ability to kill smaller and more fish. But it also likely had to do with sheer availability of one very robust Chesapeake Bay year class, the 2011s. Because they were around in good numbers, well, people fished them, hard. The issue with those 2011s was that projections of future striped bass abundance relied heavily on large numbers of them leaving the bay and joining the coastal stock. If most of them never made it out of the bay, well, they weren’t going to be available to fishermen up and down the coast in meaningful numbers. And while we can’t be sure of all the reasons why, recruitment of that 2011 year-class outside of the bay was far lower than the scientists expected/relied on.

Fast-forward to 2019, and  ASMFC accepted a new benchmark stock assessment that told them that not only was overfishing occurring, but the stock had also become overfished. Their reaction this time, based on the advice of their scientists, was to reduce fishing mortality another 18% in 2020 to get fishing mortality under the target, through a coastal slot limit of 28 to 35”. That process was fraught with problems too. Once again, some states, New Jersey in particular, were allowed to adopt conservation equivalent measures that didn’t actually achieve their share of the coastal reduction. Another point of contention was that, while an 18% reduction would theoretically rebuild the stock, it was very unlikely to do so within the 10-year time frame required under the management plan. That said, it appears that problems with conservation equivalency, as well as the rebuilding timeline, will be addressed with the next management action, Amendment 7, but we’ll see – no reason to get into that here.

Putting all of the above together, there are a few things going on here, I think. Current and future abundance relies on spawning in producer areas, most notably the largest one, the Chesapeake Bay. While we haven’t had great juvenile abundance indices in recent years (the last three years are certainly a cause for concern), when considered over the entire timeline of those surveys, we haven’t had a big string of terrible ones either. Which proves that the striped bass stock can indeed still be productive.

Aside from the 2011s, according to the Chesapeake Bay juvenile abundance indices, the Bay produced another relatively good year class in 2015. The unusual abundance of larger schoolies we’ve seen in the last few years, as well as the almost-and-just-barely-keepers we saw this season, may very well be those 2015s. If that’s the case, that would be good news, as those fish should make a substantial contribution to the spawning stock biomass in the coming years. The bad news, however, is that they will likely fall into the slot limit in 2022 and get worked over pretty good. Can they withstand that? Maybe they can. We’ll just have to see. But for now, those 26”-ish fish do indeed seem to be abundant across the coast, and particularly in the bays. For sure we’re getting back to the days where we’re releasing 20 or so schoolies a day, reminiscent of the late 1990s, early 2000s.

And the coastal slot limit? Yes, our opposition to this measure during the Addendum VI process a few years ago was based on the idea that fish had to make it past the slot limit gauntlet before being protected, jeopardizing the outlook for larger, older fish. And that’s exactly where we are with the 2015s right now. But it’s hard to argue that, at least up to last season, the slot limit isn’t having a profound effect. As aggregations of large fish show up in places like Raritan Bay and along the coast as they migrate, there are a lot of large females that are being tossed back in, that otherwise would have gone into the cooler. Yes, there’s some release mortality associated with that, but it’s likely not significant compared with what’s likely a huge conservation savings. The numbers for 2020, while still not entirely clear because of the reduced capacity of the recreational fishing survey, do tend to bear this out.

So to simplify all of that, there are indeed more schoolies around. I don’t think many folks would argue with that. And, there’s been greater access to those larger fish as they show up. That’s likely because they aren’t getting killed en masse on their way up and down the coast. So yes, I would argue that things have gotten and are getting better. Of course, whether or not that’s sustainable depends on how hard the 2015s get hit as they enter the slot, not to mention what happens with the management triggers in Amendment 7. But that’s a subject for an entirely different post.  

Let’s move on to bluefish.


There’s wide consensus amongst fishers in the Mid-Atlantic and New England that bluefish numbers began to tank around 2016. By 2018 estimated landings were down to their lowest point in more than 30 years. Why the disappearance is anyone’s guess, but it’s true that the bluefish stock is subject to wide swings in coastal abundance, which may not necessarily be due to fishing pressure. That said, the 2019 stock assessment indicated that overfishing was occurring every year going back 30 years. We should note here that overfishing did not occur in 2018 and 2019, presumably because those fish weren’t around to catch.

Without getting into too much detail here, overfishing went on for so long because NOAA Fisheries was greatly underestimating effort (the number of fishers targeting bluefish). Alternative survey methods (essentially using mail instead of phone calls) indicated that effort was way more than NOAA Fisheries expected. Yes, that meant that the stock size was larger than expected too, but that overfishing had still been occurring for a long while.

Bluefish were declared “overfished” in 2019. Because they are jointly managed by the MAFMC and ASMFC, federal law requires that they be rebuilt in the shortest amount of time possible, but not to exceed 10 years. And so, the Council initiated a rebuilding plan at its October 2019 meeting and, in June 2021, adopted a plan with seven-year timeline instead of the recommended five-year alternative (a.k.a. “shortest amount of time possible”). Because recreational effort and landings had been significantly higher, as part of that same action, there was a small allocation shift from the commercial quota to the recreational one.

One of the irritating things about the bluefish management plan is that it still allows transfers between the recreational and commercial quotas. So if we don’t kill all our allotted quota and instead release bluefish, like most anglers do, then they can just be transferred to the commercial side. Yeah, we would have liked to have seen that go away with this action, but the truth is that it’s a non-issue, as currently and likely well into the future, the recreational side will probably utilize all of its quota due to the increase in effort estimates.

Which brings us to the last two years. In my neck of the woods, and indeed in others, there has been a significant resurgence in bluefish abundance. How that translates to the recreational catch and effort survey remains to be seen. However, I suspect we’ll see landings go up quite a bit in 2020 and 2021. How that affects the rebuilding plan remains to be seen; however, I suspect it isn’t going to be good, because more fish generally equals more effort and that generally results in higher landings, during a time when managers are trying to constrain harvest.  

Because of the recalibration, and the estimated increase in effort, we already went from a 15-fish bag limit in 2019 to a three-fish bag (five for charter and party boats) in 2020. I’m not sure how it’s going to play out if we have to reduce further than that. But we shall see.

The take home is that anecdotally, bluefish appear to be coming back. How management responds will be interesting.

Demersal fish

There’s a LOT going on with summer flounder, black sea bass, and scup, which like bluefish are jointly managed by the ASMFC and MAFMC. But we’re not going to get into detail here because, frankly, bottom fish aren’t terribly important to the “guide” constituency.

The Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Commercial/Recreational Allocation Amendment was more or less a dud, with some reallocation of quota to the recreational side to reflect the recalibrated MRIP estimates, but not much.

More significant though is the Recreational Reform Initiative—a joint effort by the ASMFC and MAFMC to change the basic recreational management paradigm for black sea bass, fluke, scup, and bluefish—currently under consideration. Of particular concern is the Harvest Control Rule, and the alternatives currently being discussed. There seem to be a lot of questions on how such alternatives would achieve adherence Annual Catch Limits and Accountability Measures required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which have been quite constraining, particularly on abundant stocks such as black sea bass and scup, but there’s no doubt they’ve worked to rebuild stocks and prevent overfishing.

Clearly, how this works out can and will change how other important recreational species are managed at the federal level. Like I said, we’re not going to get into detail here because it’s a can of worms. But be assured that we’re keeping an eye on it and submitting comments as necessary.

Bluefin tuna

After well over a decade of extraordinarily good bluefin fishing, there were more than a few curveballs this year.

We thought we were off to another epic bluefin season when found a good concentration of 60 to 70” fish on sand eels in mid-May, but it didn’t last more than a week.

The truth is that large-school and small-medium-sized fish (47-73”) have been consistently showing along the 30-fathom curve from Virginia to Cape Cod, for a good 15 years. That size tuna is really the perfect guide/charter fish, because it isn’t too large to be landed on spinning gear, but it’s large enough to dump a hundred yards of braid under 30 pound of drag in seconds, and dump a whole lot of adrenaline in the process. Arguably, landing a fish like that a popper or a jig is the pinnacle of “light-tackle” fishing.

If it was just one or two year classes moving through you’d expect to see the fish getting larger and larger. But, that was never really the case. Pretty much the same size class of fish, every year, for an awful long time. We know that these are likely a mix of eastern-origin (Mediterranean Sea) and western-origin (Gulf of Mexico) fish, and I suspect that class of fish simply comes here to feed on the huge sand eel aggregations we have at 20 to 50 fathoms.

What is interesting about that class of fish is that while size varied some, we rarely got giants out there. While yes, we’d get aggregations of schoolies moving though, the giants seemed to be in North Carolina, then disappear for a few weeks, and reappear in Cape Cod and points north.

Well, this year, everything seemed to get turned on its head. Those large mediums in May seemed to vanish into thin air. They didn’t really see them on the Cape, or north of that. Perhaps they headed straight east? What did fill in, in June, were a ton of school fish. And that kinda sucked. We simply did not get the sand eel concentrations we had come to rely on in previous years and it seemed like they were on squid most of the time. That made them very easy to catch on spreader-bars, but very difficult to catch on jigs and poppers, and, well, that’s kind of the “Guide” niche.

I should be clear here I’m taking about fish off of Central New Jersey to Central Long Island. Once you got east of that, there were more sandeels off of Montauk and Block Island, and while they were still school size fish, at least they would take a jig.

Now, mind you, when all of this was going on off/mid-shore, there was an extraordinary giant bite developing off of Western Long Island and Queens, generally in 70 to 90’ of water, but sometimes as little as 40’. Like I said, usually giants don’t set up in our area, but it’s not unusual to have them pass though, crushing bunker schools along the way. But generally people see ’em for a week or less, and yeah, maybe one or two are caught.

It is precisely for that reason that we didn’t bother with them at the beginning. Because it seemed likely that as soon as we did, well, that would be the day they left. But, while the fishing remained tough offshore, the reports were getting too hard to ignore. A few really skilled guys were hooking them on spin-gear/poppers and an even smaller number had actually landed one. Keep in mind we’re talking about 70 to 100” fish here. It wasn’t long before the rest of the fleet realized that livelining menhaden or bluefish on 80 wides was very effective. Yes, some where landed on 50-wide gear but generally, you needed the big stuff. Once the fleet found out about them, they more or less sounded and became impossible to fish on the surface.

I could go on about this, but the point is that body of fish showed up late May and stuck around in one pretty small area, all the way through Mid October. Do I think that will happen again? It’s anyone’s guess, but I’d say the odds low. I certainly hope they do, but that aggregation was anomalous. And, well, the lack of large medium fish was anomalous too.

One thing I have to note before moving on here. Towards the end of that run of inshore fish, we began to catch quite a few fish in the mid 60” range. But these were clearly different fish than what we had become accustomed to offshore. They had way larger tails, they were fatter and seemed to weigh more. They just looked different than the 60” class fish we’d catch in 30 fathoms. Maybe that’s an indication that these were western, and not eastern fish, or vice versa. Would certainly be interesting to know. But let’s move on.

How does this all fit into management? Well, for sure there are more school bluefin than managers originally thought. While they were a little bit harder to find in my neck of the woods, once you got east of the Montauk Buoy you couldn’t help but run into them.

Without getting into too much detail, there was a stock assessment in 2020 that indicated that the Western bluefin stock was declining. That conclusion was based on a few good year classes in the early 2000s aging out/getting fished down and there weren’t many juvies behind them. Well, for anyone who spends real time on the bluefin grounds, that’s just not true. Schoolie tuna have been and are making a good showing, for at least a decade. To be brief, a few changes were made with an updated stock assessment this year, and while it did show a potential long-term decline in the number of juvenile bluefin tuna entering the fishery, it also showed several years of strong recruitment, and 2017 was detected as one of the best recruitment years in four decades. That change was due both to the estimates of increased juvenile abundance coming from the recreational fishery and, of course, changes in how that index was calculated.

Overall, the new stock assessment determined that overfishing of the Western Atlantic bluefin tuna stock was not occurring and that the current total allowable catch has a 0% probability of leading to overfishing. While the 2020 assessment estimated an 11.7% decrease in biomass from 2017-2020, the 2021 assessment estimated a 9% increase, which makes a lot more sense given the increase in availability most anglers have seen.

So yes, Western Atlantic bluefin tuna are looking relatively healthy, and international managers elected to increase the quota by about 16% for 2022. Still, I should note here that the stock assessment still estimates a stock size well below the historical average – 18% of 1950 biomass and 46% of 1974 biomass. Hard to believe what things might have looked like back then. I’m not going to go down the stock mixing rabbit-hole here, even though I think it’s quite relevant to all of this, but the fish spawned on Eastern side are looking relatively healthy too.

The point of all this is that there does seem to be a real increase in bluefin tuna, both in the data and on the water. And that indeed is a good thing.

As far as the anomalous patterns we saw this year (the lack of large mediums and the abundance of school fish offshore, and the giants inshore)? Well, with any highly migratory species, they have tails and will swim. We’re just going to have to see what the 2022 season will bring.


The yellowfin in my neck of the woods showed up relatively early this year. A body of large fish (larger than what we usually get) showed up in a very specific area in early July. Most of these fish were in the 50-plus inch range and many of them had the characteristic long sickle fins you don’t often see around here.

Those fish were thick enough that we were getting them to eat jigs and poppers regularly. But, because they only appeared to be in this specific area, once the word got out, it got pretty crowded. Still, we were picking some really good fish on jigs all the way into September. For better or worse, somewhere around the middle of the month, they dispersed. It took a lot of fuel sometimes, but if you managed to find the porpoise schools and you could get in front of them and cast poppers, you’d get some ferocious strikes. These fish seemed to be quite a bit smaller than the ones that  had set up in that specific spot, but really fun nonetheless.

I wouldn’t say it was a great yellowfin run this year. Certainly, 2020 was more consistent and the fish tended to be spread out, so one spot wouldn’t have the huge crowds we saw this year; however, what we did have this year were real quality fish in the 100 to 150 pound range well inside of the Canyon. And that was pretty cool.

How does all this fit into the management stuff? Well, it doesn’t really. Yellowfin are a fast growing short-lived fish. Of course, any species is subject to overfishing, but those characteristics make it less likely that’s going to happenAnd yellowfin are notoriously hit or miss each year. Some years, as was the case two years ago, they just don’t show at all. Other years, like 2020, they were super abundant.

So, yes, yellowfin appear to be in pretty good shape, and the Atlantic-wide stock assessment suggests they’re currently not experiencing overfishing (although there’s a lot uncertainty there). That said, if there’s definitely been A LOT of killing going on. Like, party boats “limiting out” (3 fish per person) at that spot I was referencing. I’m talking over a hundred fish per boat on these trips. And I’m certainly not pinning anything on them, or anyone else. For sure the fleet killed a bunch too, myself included. And it’s important to take this all in context—remembering that the U.S. (commercial and recreational combined) is responsible for only a few percent of Atlantic-wide yellowfin landings.

But with all the photos of dead fish stacked that everyone is posting, ya gotta wonder if it all even gets eaten. Seriously, I don’t really get it. These fish are so freak’n beautiful. The brilliance of their colors rarely translates to film, because most folks, for reasons I can’t understand, don’t wash the blood off before taking them, or just wait till they are washed out. Those stacks of dead fish people always post? Ugly. I don’t really get it. But I may be veering off into “elitist” territory.

Let’s move on.

False Albacore

Albie fishing was pretty weak this year for most part. Montauk had a bit of a run. Western Long Island and Jersey had a very abbreviated run of fish too. I will say that when they were around, they were around in uncharacteristically good numbers. But, I can count the number of good albie days our boats had on one hand. Up north, there appeared to be more fish, but not many.

I’m not sure if this is the beginning of a pattern or not, but last year wasn’t great either, nor was the year before for that matter. I certainly hope not, because a lot of us rely on false albacore for early fall business, before the stripers show.

As far as management goes? Well, there’s very little science on false albacore, mostly because they have very little market value. Ever try to eat one and you’ll know why.

Years ago, we became awfully close to getting them managed under the Mid Atlantic Council’s Unmanaged Forage Amendment, which would have given them protection from potential new large-scale fisheries, but in the end, that effort failed.

Right now, they are being harvested, but it’s not a huge market. Some for food, but there’s indications that it’s becoming sought after for strip baits for the offshore boats. There is indeed some concern that it could grow quickly and dramatically.  

The truth is that false albacore are very vulnerable. Their only saving grace really is that they taste awful. But with all the new markets, and creative ways to prepare them, it’s entirely possible a large scale fishery could open up quickly and there isn’t much that could be done about it. It hasn’t happened yet, and maybe it won’t. Let’s hope so.

But indeed right now, there does seem to be a decline in inshore abundance. Speaking personally offshore they are super abundant. So maybe it’s just and issue of them not venturing inshore because the bait is thick out there and they don’t have to. Pure speculation though.  


As far as on-the-water and off-the-water stuff, that’s about all I’ve got for you this year.

One thing I didn’t mention (intentionally) is wind power. This will be a big issue as far as siting and eventual development. I may be oversimplifying the entire issue, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say wasn’t looking forward to having some structure to fish in my neck of the woods. Despite the warp speed everything seems to be moving at, the press releases, etc., I’d be surprised if we see construction in my lifetime. Entirely possible, and some would say likely we will, though.

At any rate, much smarter people at ASGA are engaging and keeping a close eye on things, if not for other reasons than to simply make sure that the angling community isn’t left out of the decision-making process, because for sure it could affect the angling community negatively if things go down the wrong road.

Lastly, I should mention that, literally as I write this, Draft Amendment 7 (starting on p. 83) to the Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan just dropped. The ASMFC will be discussing it Wednesday, Jan 26.

Stay tuned for a pre- and post-Board summary on that.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks. Spot on based on my on the water observations.

    I’d only add that the rec size bft never really showed close in off the outer cape in 2021 but did fill in thick along the 100 fathom line for late August and September. Likely bait related cuz most of the the whales were way North compared to most years. Biggest difference 2020 to 2021 was the huge schools of menhaden that brought the giant bft into the Outer Cape part of the Bay June 2020 never happened in 2021. Also, the explosion of juvenile bonito around the outer Cape has continued and there’s been a nice/honest, predictable, targetable adult bonito run developing mid and late August when the peanut bunker show.

  2. Thank you. As a Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay striper fisherman, my experience the past two years has been that the numbers are way way down. There do seem to be a lot of dinks. Maybe that’s good. One specific thing that bothers me is that enforcement on the Potomac near DC (a major spawning area) is non-existent, allegedly due to jurisdictional confusion and infighting (MD, VA, DC, US park police). That is a specific issue that would make a difference. There are lots and lots of stripers illegally harvested. We’ve all seen it every spring. You call it in and nothing seems to happen (US Park Police seem to be the most responsible agency in the big spawning areas inside DC city limits, and this doesn’t seem to be a priority, which is understandable but not good for stripers). I have only heard of one enforcement sweep at a very well known spot where illegal harvest is common in the >20 years I’ve been fishing near there.

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