A northeast saltwater guide perspective of 2020 – and what it all means for us in 2021

By Capt. John McMurray

At this point, the “good riddance” memes, quotes etc. about how bad 2020 was are cliché.  We got the message – 2020 sucked… in more ways than the obvious if you’re in the fishing business. 

But was it really THAT bad? 

Let’s take a look at what went down this year, and we’ll opine about what it’ll likely mean moving forward.


The two-month shutdown

When the shutdown orders came in March, there was industry-wide panic.    

Let me be clear that I/we understood full-well why those shutdowns needed to happen.  The pandemic was, and still is, NO joke.  But that didn’t stop me and others from questioning their necessity in our case.  Seemed clear that being outdoors, spaced-out on an open boat, with a few of your closest friends was perhaps one of the best ways to social distance.  But getting decisionmakers in state capitals to understand that seemed near impossible.  In their defense, it’s hard to accept a claim like that when clearly, we’re not infectious disease experts, and our opinions were clearly biased.   

We weren’t happy about losing April, but we all understood, or more aptly hoped, it was temporary, and most of us expected to be fishing by May.  By mid-April, it became pretty clear that wasn’t happening.  At that point, it all seemed devastating.  Those in the business understand that A LOT of money gets invested over the “dry dock” months.  Generally, those first two months of the season serve to cover some, if not all, of those costs. 

A lot of us were in full-on panic mode as not only would it be impossible to garner income, we weren’t sure how we were going to pay off debt incurred over the winter. 

The comeback

While I certainly understand people’s reluctance to put stock into Federal programs, Congress did come through with a couple of extremely helpful loan/loan-forgiveness programs that kept a lot of guide/charter businesses from coming apart at the seams.  And, for those businesses that can prove a loss of 30% or more compared to the prior three years, well, it looks like there’s more bailout money available to the fishing industry (guides and charter boat Captains included).

But if the current number of folks taking advantage of that program in New York is any indication, it looks like most didn’t qualify for it. 

Late in May, mostly due to outreach (not necessarily or exclusively from ASGA, but our organization certainly contributed), along with a few strong letters from local and state legislators, just about all states made announcements that charter fishing would be open in June.

And with that opening, all the pent-up demand was let loose.  It’s pretty clear that the tackle industry had a banner year.  So did boat dealers. It was difficult to keep product on the shelf and boats in the lot.  Why?  People weren’t vacationing/traveling, they certainly didn’t want to be inside, and they were looking for good healthy outdoor activities they could do.  Fishing fit that profile well. 

Yeah, losing those first two months seemed utterly devastating at the time, but by the end of July, it was pretty clear to some of us that we were on track to having an acceptable year.  Speaking personally, rarely was there a day I wasn’t booked from June on.  I’m not gonna say we knocked it out of the park.  Certainly things could have, and definitely would have, been better had the pandemic not existed.  But I am saying demand was such that the great majority of us didn’t go belly-up.  I would not have believed that to be the case in April. 

To say that I am/we are thankful for that would be an understatement. 

Effort estimates

One of the takeaways from this is that there was almost undoubtedly an increase in fishing effort.    More folks not going to the office, less folks spending $ on vacations, more folks trying to find things to do outside, unquestionably, more folks on the water.  From north to south, that seemed to be the general consensus. 

The dockside recreational fishing surveys used to determine catch, for the most part, didn’t take place in March and April, and there are significant gaps in intercept data well after that.  Those surveys still aren’t 100% back on track, and they likely won’t be for a while.  This is problematic on a number of fronts, the most obvious being that managers can’t make sound management decisions without good data on recreational landings.  There seems to be no solution that we can see.  If you expected managers to be precautionary in light of such data gaps, well you’re wrong.  Seems like just about everything will be status quo until the survey gets back on track. 

The effort surveys, however, are done via US mail, not in person like the dockside surveys, so theoretically, effort estimates weren’t affected.  What’s surprising is that those preliminary estimates indicate that angler effort in 2020 was more-or-less the same as it was in 2019, at least looking at things coastwide. Hard to believe that’s the case, but we’ll know more once the data are finalized this spring.. 

But let’s get back to that in a few. 

The Situation with Stripers and Blues

As readers likely know, since right around 2012 – while there’s certainly been some fluctuation between now and then – most of us started to experience a significant downturn in striped bass availability.  More recently, bluefish numbers had declined as well.  But, neither has been terrible to the point where it simply wasn’t worth going. 

Fisheries for these two species, over the last decade or so, have been characterized by periods of site-specific abundance.  In other words, if it was good in Montauk, several weeks later, we’d maybe see those fish in Western Long Island/Northern New Jersey, and of course vice versa in the spring.  

So while, sure, there are folks who still think the striped bass fishing has been out-of-this-world for the last decade or so, cause they saw it on Facebook and they caught a few as well, from the perspective of a guy who spends A LOT of time on the water and is well connected to others in different regions who do also, it wasn’t.  It could be described aptly as boom or bust.  You just didn’t know, depending on the day. 

What we really hadn’t seen for a while was the sort of widespread abundance that created situations where it was good in Montauk and Western Long Island at the same time.  What’s been missing from those fisheries is the consistent sort of action in the spring and the fall, and to some extent the summer that many of us built businesses on. 

These anecdotal observations do seem to jive with the science.  As readers likely know, striped bass and bluefish are overfished, and overfishing was occurring all the way up until last year.  We’re not sure what sort of impact Addendum VI management measures – in most states a 28 to 35” slot limit – had on the fishery, given the above-mentioned survey data gaps, and whether or not such measures truly addressed overfishing.  And we don’t know what going from a 15 fish bag to a 3 fish bag – 5 for party/charter boats – had on addressing overfishing on bluefish, although I suspect not much as most people don’t kill ’em anyway.  The point is that, of course, with less fish, the fishing will be less consistent. 

A major reason the striped bass stock is overfished is that we didn’t have the same sort of recruitment we saw in the boom years.  From the late 80s to the early 2000s young-of-year seine surveys clearly showed that the largest producer area (the Chesapeake Bay) was producing average to well above average year classes on a regular basis.   After 2003, those same surveys indicated a lot of average to well below average young-of the year production.  The notable exceptions were two years – 2011 and 2015 – when recruitment was well above average.

So it makes sense…  When you have a depleted stock, with only a couple strong year classes moving along the coast, you would expect that fishing would be good in certain areas at certain times, and maybe substandard in others. 

All this said, it hard to argue that the last couple of years haven’t been markedly better. 

Just about everyone has seen an abundance of schoolie stripers, and not just in isolated areas.  They seem to be, well, everywhere.  Generally fish in the 20 to 26” range. While of course no one is sure about this, presumably these are the 2015s.  All of this is kinda reminiscent of the mid 90s and early 2000s when striped bass were rebounding from decades of overfishing and schoolies where super abundant. (Note: the 2011s never really recruited to the extent we all expected them to.  Many believe that’s because too many of them were harvested by MD fishermen before they made it out of the bay).    

And, to make it interesting there are, for sure, larger fish lurking about.  Make no mistake, a lot of the 2003s – the last good year-class before the Chesapeake Bay Juvenile Abundance Index took a nosedive – haven’t met their maker yet.  Speaking personally, we actually released a half dozen fish in the fifty-pound range this year.  Yes, for sure fifties are and always have been rare, and for sure we were extraordinarily lucky to find ’em and stay on ’em for a bit.  But, well, if we are speaking objectively, with the schoolies and those very large fish, it was a good year by any measure.  Not as consistent as it once was, but still, pretty damn good.  And absolutely, that’s a good thing. 

And let’s not forget about the bluefish.  While it’s anecdotal, this year saw a much better showing than last.  Both big and small.  And last year wasn’t terrible either when compared to 2018 which saw almost a complete disappearance from traditional areas.  While it’s still too early to tell, I do suspect they are on the rise. 

What does all this mean for 2021? 

Well, that’s a really good question.  If radio chatter is any indication, it’s hard to believe the Addendum VI slot limit didn’t have an impact.  There was a lot of gnashing of teeth on the VHF about not being able to find a slot fish – between 28 and 35”.  Almost everything was either too large or too small. 

For sure, A LOT of fish over 35” were thrown back where they wouldn’t have been the prior year.  Yes, some of them might not survive (the discard mortality estimate currently used is 9%). But it’s also true that ALL fish that are harvested do die.  So, absolutely, there were significantly less big females killed this year. And yeah, it’s anecdotal, but I do know that just about ALL of the big fish we released required little revival and swam away robustly. 

The small fish?  Yeah, a ton of them were released also.  And clearly, most of them this year fell just short of the 28” limit.  But, I suspect that will change in 2021 as all those 26” fish should be 28” or larger.  It’s hard to believe that fishing mortality won’t go through the roof as those fish recruit to keeper size.  And it’s not unreasonable to think that this abundance of young, presumably 2015 fish, isn’t going to get severely depleted over the next several years as A LOT of fishing effort will be focused on them.  And that is NOT good with a stock that is struggling to rebuild and a management body reluctant to constrain harvest any more than it has. 

And keep in mind that all of this will be unfolding while the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will be rolling out Amendment 7, which could completely change how we manage striped bass (more on this in a few). 

I suppose we’ll see how all of this unfolds, but it’s clear that there are A LOT of variables with the striped bass fishery moving forward.   And, the uptick many of us are seeing right now could very well be temporary. 

And bluefish?  Well, frankly that’s a recipe for disaster.  Without getting into too much detail, a couple years ago, when setting the recreational harvest limit, the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council decided to use one year of landings (2018) to project catch in 2020.  2018 saw the smallest landings estimate in the entire time series, which goes all the way back to 1985.  Setting bluefish specifications is generally done by using a 3-year average instead of a single year baseline, for obvious reasons.  Why did the Council deviate from that?  Well, the short answer is the reductions would have been brutal if based on the 3-year average instead of the single year. 

Where this is all going to bite us in the ass is, well, with all these new fish showing up, the overage in 2021 is likely going to be extraordinary.  Even without those new fish, scientists were projecting significant overages.  I suspect, if had we had complete survey data, there would have been a pretty clear overage this year.  And because the stock is overfished and federally managed, those overages will require paybacks, as part of federal law.

Nothing will change with bluefish in 2021.  Because of the aforementioned recreational survey data gaps, the Council chose to stick with status quo regulations.  When things get straightened out, it’s likely that the Council will be forced to implement some REALLY constraining regulations in 2022.  Like maybe a 1 fish retention limit. 

Really, that won’t affect us all that much, because like I said, most of us don’t keep them anyway.  But, because of the payback requirement, it’s NOT out of the realm of possibility we’d see a complete shut down, or seasonal restrictions, or something along those lines.  And that could mean no targeting/no-catch-and-release at all, although that would probably be next to impossible to enforce. 

Lets move on. 


Yeah, the offshore stuff was kinda off the charts in 2020.  From June to October, it was better than just about anyone had seen it in the last two decades, at least off of New York and New Jersey.


Bluefin showed up in the traditional midshore areas, almost certainly because of the massive sandeel aggregations we’ve seen during that last several years.  Why all the sandeels?  Well, I really have no idea, and it’d be silly to hazard a guess.  But those giant bait balls have created some pretty extraordinary circumstances.  It’s not unusual that we see epics whale feeds, with porpoise,  shearwaters, storm petrels etc. – the kinda stuff you see on the National Geographic channel.  Throw a popper or a stick bait in the mayhem and it was game on. 

To be clear, it hasn’t been just big or small bluefin.  There was a pretty good mix of age and size classes this year as well as last.  We even had a body of giants show up in 80’ of water off the Rockaways and stick around for several weeks to feed on schools of menhaden.   But the really good fishing has been on that 30-fathom curve in June and July.  Mostly with fish in the 60” range, but like I said, a good amount of smaller fish around also, which, although anecdotal, is likely a good indicator that the stock is in pretty good shape. 

Objectively, and strictly from an on the water perspective, it does indeed appear like bluefin are and have been on the rise for quite some time.  And to some extent the science bears that out.  But there are so many variables with a pelagic fish like bluefin that it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on. These fish we’re fishing on may very well be of the eastern Atlantic stock that spawn in the Mediterranean, and not the Western Atlantic brood, which spawn in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The truth is, the science is ANYTHING but clear on bluefin.  In fact, it’s hard to keep up with it.  If you want to get into the weeds, our Executive Director breaks down the current situation with bluefin here.  But the short version is that scientists are recommending a reduction in harvest for 2021.  Not necessarily because overfishing is already occurring, but because a couple of really good year classes are beginning to phase out of the stock and recent data doesn’t show another big influx of juvies.  In other words, if we continue to fish at the current rate, we will be overfishing in the very near future.  

That’s a little hard for some anglers to believe given all the school-size fish we saw this year and not just in my neck of the woods, but seemingly everywhere – but well, like I said, bluefin management is VERY nuanced, and it’s a good idea to trust the science here.  For sure I’d rather kill less fish now, rather than suffer a lack of fish in the future.  And I truly believe most anglers feel that way. 

In 2020 anglers could keep two fish between 27” and 47” (AKA “unders”) per boat – 3 for Charter/Party boats – in addition to one from 47” to 73” (AKA an “over”) and one “trophy” 73”-and-over a year, when the trophy season is open.   Speaking personally, as someone who runs quite a bit of bluefin trips, I wouldn’t mind one bit if they got rid of the “under” category all together.  Killing those small fish always rubbed me the wrong way.  And frankly, one over is enough for the entire boat, and then some.  Everyone on board gets a photo with it.  And there’s always catch and release after that. 

We’ll keep an eye on this and let ya know what goes down, but it sounds like managers may simply punt and keep things status quo for the next year, using the same sort of justification (COVID issues) they did with bluefish.


Moving on to yellowfin, 2020 was extraordinary.  We pretty much had fish from 40 to 100lbs on the forty-fathom curve from late July though late October.  Interesting because yellowfin were, more-or-less, a no-show in 2019.  Why were they around this year and why did they stay put for so long? I have no idea, but one thing I did learn is that when they don’t show, the bluefin stick around A LOT longer.  I used to think that the arrival of yellowfin, and the subsequent departure of bluefin had to do with water temperature.  But it seems that when, or if, the yellowfin show, they come in such numbers that they appear to push the bluefin north.  Speculation of course, based on a very limited timeline, but it does seem to be what happens.

Unlike bluefin which are a slow growing, long-lived species, yellows are fairly short-lived and fast growing and thus are quite a bit more difficult to overfish.  That said, they are far less reliable than bluefin, or at least they have been in recent years.  Some years they come, others they don’t.  And it’s pretty clear it isn’t related to bait, because as mentioned, the bluefin will stick longer on the bait balls, if the yellows don’t show. 

So, what can we expect next year?  That’s anyone’s guess.  Certainly hoping for more of the same. 

Mahi mahi

Let’s briefly touch on mahi.  While I can only speak to the local fishing, August and September were pretty damn good this year.  Why?  Undoubtedly because of all the buoys in the water in that 15 to 30 mile range. 

It used to be pure luck that you’d find a stray pallet or other flotsam, and you’d clean up on the mahi that would gravitate to it.  And maybe you’d be able to get a few at the Weather Buoy on the way out to the tuna grounds, or on the way back in.  Recently, however, there’s been a good amount of structure, mostly because offshore wind-power developers have been deploying research buoys to gather data on future wind-farm sites.  The result is a network of mahi attracting structure that simply didn’t exist before.  I should note that these things also seem to draw false albacore, skipjack, chub mackerel, not to mention black seabass, ling, even cod on the bottom. 

The point here is when you drop structure in what is ultimately a structureless area, well, it draws fish, and could increase biological productivity of the entire area.  And that’s important to consider in the context of wind-farm construction. 


Lasty on the inshore front, let’s touch on the funny fish.  Pretty poor showing this year.  Last year wasn’t that great either.  But this year really sucked, particularly in my neck of the woods.  Sounds like it was kinda spotty elsewhere too. 

Are albies overfished?  Probably not, but, we don’t really know because there’s no management plan for them.  We narrowly missed the opportunity to do that with the Mid-Atlantic Council’s “Unmanaged Forage Amendment”.  Including them would have mandated a cap on landings, but because of a few “recreational” Council members, it failed.  But let’s not get into that. 

The question is, who kills these things anyway?  You’d be surprised.  There is a market, despite their poor eating quality.  Particularly in North Carolina and Florida, but certainly up north also.  I’m not sure where they’re getting processed, what they’re getting sold as, or who’s eating them, but indeed commercial fishermen do target them.  And for sure some recreational folks kill them also, although they usually learn their lesson after the first one. 

There’s no large-scale harvest that I’m aware of, but the point here is that there could be, very easily.  It’s NOT a bad idea for one of the Councils (favorably the Mid Atlantic Council) to do a small pelagics fishery management plan – to cover not only false albacore, but green bonito, frigate and bullet mackerel.  And that is actually being considered by the Council.  More on this as it develops. 

Opportunities For Engagement in 2021

While it’s hard to predict what’s gonna go down in 2021 all of the above kinda sets the table, and gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect. 

Amendment 7 to the Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan is probably the most obvious opportunity for engagement, and the stakes are unusually high.  That’s because it has the potential to completely alter the way striped bass are currently managed.     

Editorializing here for a minute, it was somewhat obvious to a lot of us that the impetus for initiating such an Amendment was a desire to liberalize regulations/allow more harvest, during a time when the stock is clearly overfished.  That should be clear given the pro-harvest state that made the motion, MD.  Fortunately, that desire doesn’t seem shared by the northern states.  Still, there seems to be a LOT of room for mischief here.

The first step in drafting an amendment is to create a Public Information Document (PID) and release it for comment.  The Amendment 7 PID will put the following issues before the public for feedback: 1) Fishery Goals and Objectives; 2) Stock Rebuilding/Timeframe; 3) Management Triggers; 4) Biological Reference Points; 5) Regional Management (Recreational Measures, Coastal and Producer Areas, Regional Reference Points); 6) Recreational Dead Discards; 7) Conservation Equivalency; 8) Recreational Accountability; and 9) Coastal Commercial Quota Allocation.

We’ll take a deep dive into each of these once a final PID is released.  But let me stress here that it is REALLY important, in fact critical, that anglers and particularly guides/Captains weigh in once public hearings are announced. 

Where are we now in the process?  A draft PID has already gone through a first round of edits, and what will likely be the final document will be presented at the Commission’s winter meeting in February.  Assuming it’s approved by the Striped Bass Board, hearings (most likely virtual) will probably occur in the spring and early summer. 

Stand by for more on this. 

Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act

Don’t want to get into too much detail here, but in December Rep Huffman of California recently issued a discussion draft of a reauthorization bill. And just yesterday, Rep Young of Alaska re-introduced his reauthorization bill in the new Congress. We’ll have more to say on these in the coming weeks. In case you’re not familiar with the Magnuson Act, it dictates how we manage fisheries in federal waters. 

Like Amendment 6 to the striped bass management plan, it is fairly conservative.  It requires councils to address overfishing within two years and to rebuild overfished stocks within 10 years (if biologically possible), and requires accountability measures (i.e., paybacks) if the Councils fail in that regard.  Furthermore, it requires that scientists, not stakeholders, set the upper catch limits.   

The Magnuson Act has been quite controversial because many believe it to be overly constraining.  But the truth is that when you look at fisheries that are managed under federal law and compare them to those that are managed by the Commission, well, the picture becomes pretty clear.  Without mandates to prevent overfishing and rebuild stocks, without real accountability, overfishing continues and stocks don’t rebuild.  Because frankly the political pressure to keep people fishing, even if it’s at an unsustainable level, wins the day if the law doesn’t force managers to do the right thing. 

It is important that the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act remain intact.  And it’s not a bad idea to require the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to abide by the same conservation requirements that are in the Magnuson Act.

More on this as the year progresses, but the conservation minded fishing public, especially guides, will need to be vocal when there’s an opportunity to be. 

Wind Power

Anglers should be paying more attention to wind development.  We have a unique opportunity to have a say in the process.  Arguably, science is being outpaced by development.  It concerns us but it is a problem that can be addressed and something we can change for the better. 

One can only imagine what the fishing will be like if/when wind farms actually do go up. Again, speaking personally, it’d be nice to see ’em in my lifetime, but I’m not holding my breath.  Seems like too much opposition, largely coming from the commercial fishing fleet, but also from a part of recreational industry.

Regardless, we need a seat at the table during the siting, development, and operational phases and ASGA has been working hard to make sure that happens.  That’s it for 2020. Out with the old, in with the new.   

Let’s hope that 2021 is a good year for all of us.  On the fishing front, on the conservation front and on the management front. 

We will be sure to keep everyone in the loop as all these things develop. 

One Response

  1. John and everyone at ASGA,
    Thank you you this informative update, it brings some clarity to a complex array of issues. I look forward to your future notifications on what we can all do to help.
    Capt. Parker Mauck

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