On striped bass, and why it’s so damn important we speak up

By Capt. John McMurray

I grew up in Northern Virginia.  Alexandria to be specific.

Had a pretty good upbringing.  Good parents.  Stay at home mom, hard-working Irish dad, and plenty of friends.  Of course it’s hard to remember that far back, but I was a “good” happy kid. 

I sure as hell didn’t come from a fishing family, or even an outdoorsy one.  Yet, my summers were consumed with catching bluegills in what we called Mt. Vernon Pond.  Eventually I graduated to catfish.  There was that one (of course it was probably more than one) mystical fish that pulled at least one rod in the water and broke lines a few times every year.  After two years of relentless pursuit, eventually I stuck it, did a full lap around the pond, and landed it.  Instant legend (in my own mind).  Seemed huge at the time, but it was maybe 9 or 10 pounds.  To me though, at 9 years old with my bluegill gear, it was epic!  That photo – bowl-cut and all – is still hanging somewhere in my parent’s house. 

As I got older, there were the largemouth bass that showed up, almost unexpectedly, in the Potomac River with the hydrilla explosion (an invasive aquatic plant that pretty much turned parts of the river into a swamp, seemingly overnight).  A one-mile bike-ride from the house and I was throwing topwater baits at its edges and completely freaking out every time a bass exploded on them. 

Those were good days, man.   

But something happened around 13.  I can’t pin-point it, cause I don’t know what specifically it was, but I found darkness, or maybe it simply found me. 

I won’t get into the details, but I quickly became a not-good-kid.  My embarrassed mom was dragged into visits with the principal, there was a police visit to the house, and an entire summer I was grounded – confined to the house and yard until school started up.  And when it did, I didn’t last long.  Eventually, I ended up in, gasp, Catholic School, where they didn’t put up with that kinda shit. 

Yeah, it helped.  My grades got better, and I became consumed with sports, and of course girls.  I don’t think I touched a fishing rod between junior high and the first three years of high school.  But towards the end of my junior year, the unthinkable happened.  I got dumped by my high school sweetheart of two years for some other dude.  Inconsequential.  Happens to everyone right?  But I was devastated.  Anger turned into depression, and it was just a shitty summer all around. 

Towards the end of it, off work, hungover and feeling pretty bad all around –  in an act of pure desperation, I took one of my old-ass rods out of the shed, threw it in the piece-of-garbage Jeep, and headed down to a spot at Belle Haven Marina where I used to crush the largemouth.    

I wasn’t expecting much, but first cast with a swimming plug into moving current, and I could see, quite clearly, the starboard flank of a horizontally-striped fish turn on the plug and miss it, leaving a solid boil behind. 

Striped bass were extraordinarily rare back then, at least as far as I knew (of course we didn’t have internet).  But this was in the late ‘80s, the very beginning of their resurgence from nearcollapse, which I knew nothing about at the time.  What I did know was that something much bigger than the standard 3 to 5-pound largemouth just took a swing at my plug, and it sure as hell looked like one of those fish I saw in the magazines.  Was it a striper though?  “No way man, I’m seeing shit.. 

A few casts later, I saw the follow, the open mouth, gill plates flaring red… I set the hook and the fish cleared the water instantaneously.  100% a striped bass.  I was on for maybe 5 seconds before that fish broke off.  What did I expect?  8lb Stren that hadn’t been used in several years.  Brilliant of me to bring only one plug. 

Didn’t matter though.  That fish changed things.  In that moment, I didn’t give a F about my stupid girlfriend or the fact that she was hooking up with some blueblood prep-school kid.  But that isn’t the point.  The familiar adrenaline rush, the sense of hope that it brought, the anticipation that those fish were gonna be there when I went back (they weren’t, but that’s not relevant) – it kinda changed things all around. 

How it changed things isn’t terribly easy to explain, but no, I’m not leading up to some bullshit about how I knew I wanted to be a “fisherman” then and there.  The thought of monetizing it didn’t cross my mind until decades later.  I remember just feeling good…  Like maybe I could actually feel good.  

I dunno, maybe it was from there that my life’s path sprang.  But let me be clear that this isn’t some Hallmark special about how striped bass kept me eternally happy, off drugs, in school and now I’m an incredibly successful charter boat captain making hundreds and thousands of dollars.  Because God knows it didn’t do any of that. 

But as stupid as it sounds, it grounded me. 

Not because fishing was an escape.  Naha man…  It wasn’t/it isn’t an escape at all.  Exactly the opposite.  It was/is an engagement into the “real” world free of bullshit.  Where nothing else matters but the here-and-now.  Just me and those God damn mother-F’n fish.  I mean really, there were often times where that felt like the ONLY real thing in my life.

The truth is that familiar feeling, that resurfaced that day, I grasped it and held on tight through everything during the next three decades. 

What followed were, ahem, five tumultuous years of college.  Some bad decisions, lots of drinking and other stuff, a few more heartbreaks and lots of bad behavior.  Generally, it took me a LONG time to grow up.  (Note: I’m dangerously close to 50 and I dunno that I’ve quite grown up yet). 

No matter how shitty things got though – (i.e., the utter shock of stepping off a bus as an entitled college kid while some dude screamed bloody hell at me, then two months later stepping foot on a 270’ Coast Guard Cutter and shuffled right to the engine room where I wiped up oil from the bilge and needlessly polished brass – rarely seeing the light of day – while we steamed thousands of miles from where I had last called home) – I had those fish….  And I could and did always come back to them. 

Moving forward, like any life, there were good times and damn tough ones, some decades ago, and certainly some more recent.  And while it may sound hokey to say that these fish have helped me get through all of that, well, it’s true.  Because even in the darkest of times, when you’re out on the water, in pursuit, and the sun peaks over the horizon, and stripers are boiling all around you, you quickly realize that, absa-fck’n-lutely, life IS worth living. 

Fast forward to now, and yeah, while I might be better known as the tuna guy these days, I built a career off of striped bass. Not a hugely profitable one, and I work my ass off…  But, it never gets old.  To this day, I get that same sensation as I did that day at Belle Haven, every damn time I encounter a striper, whether it’s a 50-pounder or a 5-pounder.  And… with every sunrise, with every boil, ya get the feeling that all the bullshit life regularly throws at ya is irrelevant, and that this…  this is what matters.   

And my boy?  He’s gonna be 12 this year.  Since he was four, I’ve watched him evolve into one hell of a striped bass angler.  For sure, he’s got the bug, but I hope to God he doesn’t end up the miserable prick that I am (laughing… kind of).  Absolutely, striped bass have offered me a way to connect with that kid in a way I never would be able to without them.  Most of the time it’s just me and him on the boat freaking out when that striper crushes a plug –  just like I did with those first largemouth on the Potomac when I was his age – inadvertently teaching him new and colorful cuss words, taking smack, laughing a lot and having fun, unconstrained by rules we follow on land. 

Yeah, maybe at some point he’ll decide I’m a tool (ahem, like my daughter did a while ago) and that he doesn’t wanna go anymore, but right now, well, he NEVER turns down an opportunity (I take off every other Sunday to take him, but due to weather-related tuna cancelations, it ends up being a lot more).  And that is something so God damn valuable to me ya can’t even begin to put a price tag on it. 

Yeah, sure, I guess you could maybe make all these connections with any recreationally-targeted fish, but come on man… If you’re a striped bass guy – and if you are reading this, I’m guessing that you are – you understand full-well that striped bass are special.  I’m sure as hell not gonna try and explain exactly why here…  Because if you have to ask, you probably won’t understand. 

But I will say this.  Despite efforts to brand it as such, it sure as F isn’t just some bucket fish.   

Because if you stick your head into the fishing community for even a minute, you’ll understand that it is NOT comparable to fluke, black seabass, scup or even bluefish.  It is revered, romanticized and, well, respected.  And while I may be an extreme case, it absolutely influences lives.

For those folks who still have hunting and fishing embedded in their DNA, stripers offer a profoundly important opportunity to connect to the natural world – to something we all once were, and to something many of us still need.  To a lot of us, that is critical, for sanity, and maybe even for an industrialized/digitalized society’s sanity as a whole.           

Yes, absolutely, there are fisherman who would consider striped bass as little more than “meat,” and take great pains to label anyone who might think otherwise “elitists.”  But, to be very clear – judging not just by anecdotal observations, but by the sheer volume of public comment advocating for conservation with every proposed management action – they are a fraction of the striped bass constituency.

In general, folks from the recreational sector who seem to want to see striped bass managed as a bucket fish are the same folks who generate income according to how many they can kill, rather than the experience of hunting and catching them.  And there seem to be less and less of those folks.  The truth is that most anglers have evolved to understand that it isn’t about killing fish at all, but simply about the chase and everything that comes with it.  Yeah, maybe you get to kill a fish, maybe you don’t.  But it’s the reasonable opportunity to encounter that really matters.  Seems pretty obvious that if it were simply about meat, it’d be much cheaper and less time consuming to just go to the fish market. 

While it’s probably true that most folks don’t make life decisions on stripers like I did, they value striped bass in the same way that I do.  As a critical sport fish.  Seriously, how else can you characterize a fishery that is 90% recreational and 90% catch and release (NOAA Fisheries numbers, not mine)?   

Don’t think for a minute though that I’m trying to sell some sorta no-kill or gamefish (no commercial fishing) religion here.  Because let me tell ya man, we kill fish…  all of us.  Some on purpose, some not on purpose (discard mortality does add up).  And I’m sure as hell not opposed to sustainable commercial extraction. 

Can the sport fishery and harvest oriented fisheries exist together?  Of course they can.  But coastal access and long-term health and sustainability should be a priority.  It’s not rocket science.  A public resource like this, where the public clearly values things like abundance, sustainable access, sport etc., well it should be managed with that in mind. 

And to some extent, since 2004 when Amendment 6 was implemented, it has been.  Goals and objectives were created back then that emphasized things like maintaining diverse age and size classes, hedging against recruitment failure, and coastal access.  Reference points were set based on a level of abundance that reflected a truly rebuilt stock.  Management triggers were created to head off an overfishing/overfished situation (although it’s true they’ve often been ignored).   

But here we are now, at a crossroads. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is currently considering Amendment 7, which offers an unusual opportunity change all of these things.  Yes, some things possibly for the better, but most for the worse.  Absolutely there are folks interested in increasing harvest, even though we are currently in an “overfished” situation with stiped bass.  Although none of it seems to be based on science, they’ve gained some traction with arguments about shifting productivity and carrying capacity. 

To boil it all down into the simplest terms, what’s at stake here is whether this fishery is managed as just another bucket fish moving forward – which it sure as hell isn’t – or whether it’s managed for coastal access and long-term sustainability, which is long what the majority of the fishing public has advocated for.    

If you’re a striped bass fisherman, you get it…  It’s NOT just another fish.  They are SO damn important to so many folks, for so many reasons.      

The public comment period for Amendment 7 starts next month.  And what goes down at these hearings, as well as what sort of written comment is collected, is critical.

I’d like to say with some honesty that that such comment will inform decisions, but I’m guessing some readers know that this hasn’t been the case with some past striped bass management decisions.  But…  I would like to point out that there are certainly circumstances where overwhelming public comment did drive striped bass decisions at the Commission – i.e. Addendum IV, which resulted in a 25% landings reduction back in 2015 and going from a coastal bag limit of two fish to one.  And, well, the aforementioned Amendment 6 was indeed largely driven by an uprising/outpouring of concerned anglers.  And certainly, we didn’t get a lot of what we wanted with Addendum VI but try and think about that outcome in the context of what we could have ended up with without angler engagement.  However you feel about slots limits, it’s hard not to see how may fish were released this year as a result. 

The point is that managers DO listen, and absolutely, they need to hear from you. 

I know this whole fishing thing is supposed to be fun, and free of “bullshit,” like I said.  But this is NOT the time to sit on your ass and let other folks do your bidding.   Because if you do, you could very well lose that which you hold dear.  And that’s no joke.

You can see the public hearing schedule here.

Yes, we can help. 

Keep an eye out here for a comprehensive set of recommendations/suggestions from ASGA on how to comment. 

But if you give a shit about striped bass – and if you’ve made it this far I’m just about certain that you do – please understand this.  It is NOT acceptable to do nothing. 

It’s a publicly owned resource, and you are the public! 

Commissioners need to hear from you.  Governors in your state need to hear from you. 

And you….  You need to speak up.

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