Many boats spotting stripers make for crowded waters.
Every July, when local waters heat up, squid and sand eels - and the voracious stripers that follow them - congregate in the cold, comforting depths off the outer Cape and Chatham becomes the hub of the striper world.
A recreational angler has a two-fish limit, and I was invited to chronicle the very different world of the frequently maligned commercial fisherman, who is allowed to catch 30 fish - in the eyes of some, an unfair and unreasonable allowance.
Today, they're resting - and so am I - with aches from 12-hour sessions of vertical jigging with light spinning gear. The constant repetitive rod movement necessary to impart tantalizing action to the jig is taxing to the wrist, forearm, elbow, shoulder, and back. Lower-belly skin is commonly bruised from supporting rod butts. Catching a commercial limit averaging 500 pounds is exhilarating, hard, two-Aleve work.
If you've never fished with the Chatham fleet, you could easily be intimidated and put off by what on the surface is a zoo, a circus, a massive playground for a few too many cowboys and mavericks. There is no admiral coordinating vessel movements and behavior. Every boat needs to maneuver deftly and adjust quickly to frequent and close intrusions. There's no room here for incompetence. What's surprising is the overwhelming number of skilled sportsmen among the interloping rude and selfish yahoos.
On especially crowded days, the Chatham fleet reminds me of the Serengeti's great herd of migrating wildebeest - acting sometimes like bewildered beasts without a leader. Its collective conscious searches insatiably, randomly testing every stretch of water for a biting school. It is an aquatic chess game of quick, amoebic moves and continuously advancing counter-moves, intently looking for bent rods - the surest sign of fish below. The stress and competition are constant.
From the start, even finding a parking place for a boat trailer is a challenge. There is no convenient access - unless you're a Chatham resident or have connections. Chatham land is largely exclusive and frustratingly off-limits to nonresidents. I can't imagine, though, what it would be like if everyone could easily launch a boat there.
Generally, only fools or the financially challenged come out in undersized crafts, and 19- to 26-footers are the norm. Nevertheless, a couple of supremely experienced old salts with beards and weathered skin will venture forth in tiny 16-foot boats more suitable for Cape Cod ponds. I saw them catch fish - lots of fish - as they maneuvered among us.
The commercial striper season is necessarily short, ending abruptly whenever the stock's safeguarding quota is reached. Buyers are in daily contact with regulatory authorities, who act quickly to prevent over-harvesting. Fishermen are apprised online the day before the season closes. So the vast majority of commercial fishermen, depending on the boost to their income, go out every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday - if they have the stamina, unfailing equipment and navigable weather.
Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays are the exclusive domain of recreational anglers, who may also fish on commercial days. Though limited to only two fish, recreational anglers cumulatively take far more fish during the entire season than does the commercial fleet.
Once at sea, if wind and fog don't shut everyone down, members of the Chatham fleet become part of a gigantic spectacle. I counted nearly 300 boats filling the horizon. It was congested frenzy, the kind of adrenaline-filled action that one might expect from human sharks knowing that a big paycheck awaits those who know what they're doing and work efficiently.
The basic idea is to maneuver behind a hooked-up boat and drift with the current through its proven concentration point, which can be vast - or very small. This strategy causes a strange phenomenon. Boats are constantly hopscotching up-current in big numbers. You can try to avoid everyone by moving far ahead. But shortly after you hook a fish, there will be a boat - more likely several boats - behind you, ready to drift in and replicate your hook-up.
Sometimes the schools are concentrated so densely in a tiny area that dozens of boats will pack uncomfortably close together. At those times, you could spit a watermelon seed on some of them and see the whites of their competitive eyes. It's no place for the timid or claustrophobic. But it is very heartening that most of the captains know what they're doing and somehow get out of each other's way.
Thus the armada moves, like an enormous amoeba, spasmodically in sync, periodically fragmenting and stretching up-current, thoroughly covering vast areas.
When the commercial season first opens and demand is highest, a typical, 20-pound, 34-inch minimum-sized striper is a $100 bill. Eyes open big and adrenaline flows. Sleep-deprived anglers leaving the dock well before sunrise show no signs of dozing off. Anglers fishing for their pocketbook, though, can sometimes forget courtesy - and need to work to disengage that personal flaw. The worst offenders I saw were a couple intrusive trollers.
By far the most popular technique to catch stripers was vertical jigging, which allows a hundred boats to drift close together without jeopardizing anyone's success. Unfortunately, along comes the occasional conscienceless troller, dragging long wire lines smack in the middle of the vertical jiggers. One cost me a huge striper, my lone chance at a maybe 40-plus pounder.
The huge fish took my jig, powerfully stripping line from my drag, never giving me a moment to reel in a centimeter. It surged deep and far like a log under power for about 50 yards before it stopped. My held-high rod was dramatically apparent for anyone caring to observe, but the careless wire-liner plowed straight across my line, snapping me off, testing the core of my civility. Fortunately, most of the fleet worked cooperatively - some even celebrating our hookups.
As the crew filled one huge cooler and then another, I looked at the fleet and knew I had to write a story about it - with one reservation.
To our south, most of the Atlantic striper population is undergoing a precipitous crash, largely because of breeding habitat degradation in the Chesapeake and baitfish declines from over-harvesting and habitat loss. Is our local commercial take contributing to the overall demise of striper stocks? All who revel in or object to the abundant harvest should hope that we can restore breeding habitat and baitfish stocks - and fight together to accomplish those most critical goals. Meanwhile, we should also hope that we can trust fisheries managers, who have determined that our commercial harvest is sustainable, if not equitable. For the sake of our beloved stripers' future, they better be right.
Contact Mark Blazis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday - Open Bass Fishing Tournament at Riverside Park, Connecticut River. Cost: $15. Information: www.ct-tbf.com.
Saturday - Family Fishing Festival, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Houghton's Pond, Blue Hills Reservation, Canton. Information: Jim Lagacy, (508) 389-6309.
Monday - "Fishing for Bonito and False Albacore," a Rhode Island Saltwater Angler Association seminar, West Valley Inn, West Warwick, R.I. Cost: $10.
Wednesday - Fish & Wildlife Western District board meeting. Information: (508) 389-6300.
CUTLINE: Fish Finder
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|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Jul 26, 2013|
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