Secret of North Carolina’s Coastal Stripers

Offshore anglers — and that’s from a few hundred yards to 3 miles out — look for “gannet showers” (flocks of birds) to lead them to big schools of striped bass.

It took a while to accept, but scientists now know spring river flows and harvest limits created our booming rockfish revival.

All one needs to know about striped bass is most of them swim between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras nine months of the year, and the remaining three months aggregate within 5 miles east of N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks from Rudee Inlet to Hatteras inlet. This winter striped bass fishery is new and historic. Fifty years ago, anglers saw and fished vast schools of striped bass at Cape Hatteras and off the Virginia coast.

But by 1973, rockfish were rare, chopper bluefish had become N.C.’s major winter sportfish, and bluefin tuna were unknown.

Were the striped bass gone for good?

Striped bass breed during early spring in natal rivers along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic seaboard. The bulk of the (increasing) population occurs from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras, the area called the Mid-Atlantic Bight. (The area from Cape Hatteras to Cape Canaveral is the South Atlantic Bight, and it has limited striped bass).

Stripers also were successfully introduced to the United States’ Pacific coast and support a major sportfishery.

In the late 1970s, fishery scientists from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, what is now the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, established a striped-bass interest group to sift through information and opinion to determine why Atlantic coast striped bass had declined.

Ideas ranged from “natural variation” in numbers to overfishing to pollution in spawning rivers to changes in oceanic fish distributions.

The FWS representative to the group is Dr. Wilson Laney, whom I’ve know since my days serving with two panels of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. Laney offered results of his winter striped-bass tagging cruises at the Outer Banks and directed me to other people with good information.

Laney goes out every year for the winter striped-bass survey, supported by the ASMFC, FWS, NOAA-NMFS, other agencies, East Carolina University, Virginia Institute of Marine Science. and other research institutions.

The striped-bass survey cruise ship nets fish in 30 to 60 feet of water. I had heard that commercial netters get them offshore when they disappear from the beaches. So do the fish head offshore in late winter to 60 feet of water?

“They probably overwinter from 60 feet or deeper all the way to the beach,” Laney said. “The research boat can’t operate in less than 30 feet of water, so that’s the closest we get to the beach, and it’s difficult to sample deeper water. Stripers don’t have those problems and go where they want.”

Laney has seen “gannet showers” over striped bass in deeper water, where the boat didn’t go.

So where do winter striped bass originate? Laney has tagged returns from the Hudson River, Chesapeake Bay, and Delaware Bay, which provide the bulk of the Mid-Atlantic Bight striper stocks. A Cape Fear River fish caught a couple of years ago was either an anomaly or the Cape Fear contributes just a tiny percentage to this aggregation.

Early in the process of managing striped bass, the ASMFC tried to build up the spawning stock by curtailing commercial and sport fishing. Stocks seemed to least stabilize, and the average size began a slow increase resulting in more potential spawners. But the fish numbers still didn’t recover. It was as though we couldn’t get a decent new year class, and nobody knew why.

It was time for a new approach. Subsequently, the ASMFC and the rest of the interagency group focused on water supply in the spawning rivers. For many years, Corps of Engineers stored spring river flows in reservoirs as a reserve for summer dry spells. Because the rivers seemed to have adequate water for spawning, few considered lack of water a problem.

But only a few years earlier, scientists studying cooling water discharges of electric generating plants discovered striped bass eggs from each river have different buoyancies. The scientists soon realized buoyancy and water flow worked together to keep eggs afloat as they drifted downstream, reaching hatching stage just as they reached the estuary where food was plentiful.

However, if the river flowed too slowly, the eggs would sink and suffocate in the river bottom or would hatch prematurely in the river where the baby fish would starve from lack of plankton. If the river flowed too fast, the eggs got to the estuary before hatching and were eaten by predators.

So the problem became how to control river flow to restore historic movement of water that would benefit the striped bass. And if one could do that, would it matter?

The striped-bass group proposed an experiment.

Some years ago, Dr. Charles Manooch of the NOAA-NMFS Beaufort lab said the Corps had agreed to build up its water reserves at Kerr Lake during winter and start releasing water from the Kerr Lake dam in spring that would be sufficient to maintain a current in the Roanoke all the way to the coast.

During the first year of increased flows, biologists discovered spectacular survival of striper larvae, resulting in a huge year class. That lesson has been extended every year and almost everywhere dams control river flows, resulting in a dramatic recovery of Atlantic coast striped bass.

Now that rockfish are rockin’ again, it’s important to manage them so they’re not overfished. North Carolina manages estuarine striped bass (18-inch minimum, three fish limit, year round) and coastal fish within the 3-mile limit (28-inch minimum, two-fish limit, year round). Beyond 3 miles, striped bass are federally managed and can’t be landed any time of the year, although Amendment 6 of NOAA’s striped-bass management plan (beyond-3-mile striper harvests) is being studied.

Because winter aggregations move from shore to deep water and back following food, it’s not difficult to locate stripers inshore where they can be legally taken. Most charterboat skippers find them by finding aggregations of sea birds and communicating by radio with other captains. Most private-boat anglers simply look for aggregations of birds or boats.

Winter striped bass eat all kinds of fish and shellfish.

ECU’s Dr. Anthony Overton studies striped-bass stomachs donated by fishermen near Oregon Inlet, while Debra Parthree of VIMS examines stomachs from fishes taken during an annual survey cruise off the Outer Banks.

Parthree sampled only 15 stripers in 2005, all with food in their stomachs. The major food was anchovies, accounting for 60 percent by weight and 80 percent by number of food items, with smaller numbers of alewife (herring-like fish), weakfish (gray seatrout), and bloodworms. During a trip a couple of years ago, all the stripers on our boat were filled with large crab larvae.

Most of our winter ocean fish would be about 16 to 18 years old, on average, following the table provided by Gary Shepherd of NOAA-NMFS. Shepherd cautioned that his curves are averages, and striped bass weights vary a lot by how full their stomachs are, their sex, and growth rates of different cohorts (age class from a single spawning in a single river system).

Running a ruler against the weight curve finds the intersect for the 28-inch minimum size for ocean stripers to be slightly more than 30 pounds. N.C.’s winter stripers average 25 to 35 pounds, so even minimum-length fish vary greatly in weight.

Laney noted that efforts to increase the striped bass spawning stock continue.

“Amendment 6 of the ASMFC striped bass management plan is to have more larger fish age 15 and older in the populations, and lower fishing mortality,” he said.

Stripers feed from top to bottom, from beach to 10 or more miles offshore when they range out that far. If they smell or see it, they eat it.

To catch striped bass, all anglers need is to be at the Outer Banks during winter and throw a bait in the water. When they’re here, everyone is an expert; when they’re not, there are no experts.

Mary Norton at the Virginia Beach Fishing Center (800-725-0509) at Rudee Inlet said her area gets the most and biggest striped bass “from Thanksgiving through February” off the beach, and most are taken from small boats (private and charter) not far from the breakers.

Vern Barrington, skipper of the Sea Hunter out of Pirates Cove (252-473-3236), looks for birds beyond the horizon. He sets his radar at 10-12 miles and watches for the tell-tale “bee hives” indicating massed aggregations of sea birds in feeding formation.

Bill Benton at T.I.’s Bait and Tackle in Kitty Hawk (252-441-3166) also said most fish are taken from private and charter boats not far off the beach, but some fish are taken by surfcasters.

“About 75 percent of the fish are taken by boat fishermen and 25 percent from the beach, except at Oregon Inlet and Cape Hatteras where surf fishermen, because of their numbers, get the majority of fish,” he said.

In the last few years, stripers ranged south to Morehead City, said Benton, consistent with Laney’s report of a southern (Cape Fear River) fish among the captures during the annual striped-bass cruise.

Everyone has a favorite place and favorite technique.

Doug Martin, a small-boat guide from Frisco (252-995-5643), said Oregon Inlet is the best place in February, but Frisco peaks during December and January.

“They first show at the end of November or early December in shallow water off the beach,” he said. “Later in the season, when the surf gets colder, they move into deeper and warmer water, probably following the bait rather than the temperature.”

Martin fishes spoons, live eels, or topwater plugs off the beach. In deeper (20 feet or more) water, he uses bucktail jigs because they go deeper (he likes a 3-ounce head with a big curlytail) but also pulls heavier bucktails and Mann’s Stretch 20+ and 30+ lures he pulls 20 to 25 feet way back, “but not too far or they’ll ride up.”

He also likes big spoons, 12- to 14-inch Crippled Alewives or 12-inch Sassy Shads, 3 feet behind a MoJo.

“Some guys use stationery hooks, and others like swinging hooks,” Barrington said, noting a fixed straight hook with a slow bait gives better hookups.

Like most charter skippers, he’ll often pull two or three baits with a single line. When the fish are in mid-range water (not too shallow or deep), he might pull a No. 4 or No. 6 planer, with an umbrella rig or spreader bar behind.

He likes the Sassy Shad as an artificial lure with regular spreader bars because they don’t foul as do umbrella rigs. He crimps 200-pound leaders to his spreaders, which keep the lures running straight. He’ll also pull double parachute rigs.

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