Groundhog’s Day



It was Groundhog’s Day a couple days ago, and aside from being notable for a cinematic masterpiece, and less pleasantly,Bill DiBlasio sparing this year’s groundhog from an untimely death, this arcane and bizarre ritual told us what everyone already knew: expect an early spring. Of course, it would be a stretch to say we’ve even had a winter at all. Despite the blizzard a couple weeks ago, we’ve really only had to suffer through a handful, less than a week’s worth by my count, of really painful, frigid days, and otherwise the weather has hovered in the 40s, 50s, or even 60s on some days. I feel this disconnect between the warm-ish weather and not heading to the beach or jetty, and instead sitting at home tying leaders or replacing hooks and plugs as per a usual winter. I did pick up some freshwater gear, including a little Shimano Sahara 2500FE and some Zoom Flukes these dudes at Cabelas put me on that I want to try out at the city ponds. With this weather, some largemouth fishing seems possible to scratch the itch, so speak. I grew up fishing in Maryland and Delaware for bass so I have to say I’m a little excited to get back into it in the off-season.

I finished reading Dick Russell’s excellent Striper Wars last month. Russell himself was one of the leading striped bass activists, along with the likes of Bob Pond, the inventor of the Atom plug, in the decline of the 1970s and 1980s, so Russell spent many years in the trenches of conservation efforts, both personally and lobbying politically. The book has a strong environmental angle, but Russell is also a journalist and makes efforts to show opposing sides, even interviewing his old rival in Rhode Island, George Mendonsa. Mendonsa was a third-generation commercial fisherman in the years of fast and loose rules regarding catch limits and fish sales, but the chapters regarding the fight between recreational, commercial, and conservation sectors show a human side of some of the private interests at work and the difficulties involved in fishing for a living. The Groundhog’s Day (the cinematic masterpiece) reference is important here, as it’s incredible, but shouldn’t be surprising, to see the similarities between the decline of the bass population, environmental degradation, the political foot-dragging, and the decline that we’re observing now.

Even if you’re not interested in the conservation of striped bass and justify keeping every short you catch before the resource runs out, Russell’s book is still a good read about the life cycle and biology of stripers, as well as the role it played in American history. Even as far back as 1639, the striped bass has had a place in economy, and along with cod, promoted one of the earliest fishing regulations “[I]t is forbidden for all men to imploy codd or basse fish for manuring of pasture.” More locally (and recently), striped bass stocks and spawning areas shaped policy regarding development along the Westside Highway and further north in the Hudson near Cold Spring. I didn’t know about any of these.

I’ve been digging through Charlie Witek’s latest posts, starting with this one. Witek’s posts always very thorough, probably owing to his background as a lawyer, and this one looks at some options the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC, or the Commission) considered during its February 4th meeting. Titled, “The Ink’s Not Even Dry Yet,” Witek writes,

“When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board voted, in late 2014, to reduce harvest by 25%, we won a victory of sorts, although the ultimate reduction was smaller than we had requested.

But as soon as that fight was done, we were forced into another battle at the state level, as fish-hungry businesses and angling organizations began to press fisheries managers, using ASMFC’s concept of “conservation equivalency” to find was to kill more striped bass than the one fish, no less than 28 inches in length, that the Management Board set as the coastwide standard.

“Thanks to the leadership of some state fisheries managers, notably most of those in New England and—yes, I’m proud to say it—right here in New York, 1 fish at 28 inches or more became the standard all along the coast, except in New Jersey, where conservation is as alien as a three-headed cow, and Delaware which, in recent years, seems to have been infected by New Jersey’s mismanagement efforts.

“Now, with the ink on last year’s regulations barely dry on the page, it appears that New Jersey’s contagion is spreading even farther south, and morphing into a sort of even more malign infection as it hybridizes with native greed in the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions.”

New Jersey, which doesn’t have a commercial sector for striped bass, has regulations of one fish at 28″ to less than 43”, and one fish 43″ or greater, plus a bonus tag system of one fish from 24”-28”. Delaware also has this stupid “trophy” system, with 2 striped bass per day (in any combination) from 28” to 37”, or 44 inches or greater. I say stupid trophy system because this regulation results in a lot of half dead fish being tossed back. During a New Moon tide at Indian River Inlet last May I watched more than half a dozen fish between 38”-43” getting pulled from the water, up the rocks, five minutes for the guy to take out the hook, five minutes to get their photo taken, zero minutes reviving and instead tossing the fish back like a burlap sack full of potatoes, and about as lively. This figure doesn’t include the dozen or so fish of around the same size guys dragged back to the parking lot before it was light out (when the park rangers *might* show up), knowing full well these fish “were too big to keep,” as another guy explained to me that day.


Of course, I feel somewhat of a hypocrite, because with all my interest in environmental conservation with stripers in particular and also the bigger ecosystem approach (which includes forage fish and others in the food cycle) of fisheries management—one of the topics my contact at Pew is working on this year—most of the other research through books/forums/web magazines/inquiries/gear concern HOW TO CATCH MORE FISH. In Ian Frazier’s piece on the ocean activist Sylvia Earle for Outside magazine, she posits him a question: “I had made the mistake of telling her that I liked to fish, and she kept asking me why. I said I just loved it because it’s my bliss and I want to follow my bliss. That argument had no effect. ‘But why do you enjoy torturing wildlife? It’s just a choice for you. It’s life or death for them. Why not just observe them without torturing them?’ I mumbled an answer about the thrill of the chase.”

Ian Frazier, stumped. And I am not nearly as eloquent or intelligent as Mr. Frazier, so I’m having even more difficulty reconciling my love of fishing with Sylvia Earle’s quest to protect the ocean (which I believe in, by the way), and being a responsible fisherman. The truth is, I’m not nearly a good enough fisherman to think I’m putting any pressure on the population, but if one thinks about all the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people fishing up and down just the east coast, and do the math on taking one fish, or two or three like New Jersey allows, and what Maryland is currently considering (not even considering the poaching that goes on). This is the gist of what Witek was writing about in his 31 January post: that it is not commercial interests that are contesting the ASFMC’s 25% reduction many of us fought for last year, but rather these are ostensibly recreational interests. More thoughts on this in an upcoming post.

For now, other “fish catching” stuff I’ve been into are these series of videos on reading the beach by Rich Troxler, which I started watching at the end of last season and already have been pretty useful when checking out new beaches, and ones I’m pretty familiar with too.

There’s a ton of fishing videos to get you through these somewhat cold months of whatever winter we have left, whatever the groundhog has predicted. None are more enviable, at least in my opinion, than John Skinner’s videos, in which he catches bass on pretty much every cast. This guy must have sponsors lined up begging him to use their plugs. His books are pretty damn good too. Here’s a good video to get started:


More to come this week (I hope)!




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