When I was a kid we used to vacation every year in Eastham on Cape Cod. I have been a fishing fanatic for as long as I can remember and when my uncle told me that we were going to fish for striped bass, AT NIGHT, I was beyond excited. The fishery was in a state of rebound, I’m guessing that the year was 1991 or 1992, so I was either 11 or 12. Keeper size was 36 inches and the photos on the wall at Blackbeard’s Bait and Tackle told the story as well as any person could; there were precious few photos of fish in the 36- to 40-inch class and then there were multiple photos of the same few guys with very large fish, my memory is good but not so good that I remember exact weights; but I’d guess some of the fish on that wall were pushing 50.

I was at that age where I still had enough pure kid in me that common sense would not bleed in and ruin my enthusiasm. I was a very good largemouth bass fisherman, especially for a young kid, and I expected to be able to handle this fishery without much effort—I thought for sure we’d be on that wall the next day. Talking to the man behind the counter told a slightly different story; keepers were hard to come by, but a few of the hardcore guys were catching some big fish. I heard the names of places that I would soon know by heart from history; Nauset, The Race, Lecounts, The Mission Bell… I loved being in on this conversation, even though I had no idea where even one of those locations was. We picked up some fresh sand eels and some hooks, probably a few other things and headed back to the cottage on Depot Rd.

There was a threat of severe thunderstorms that night and I was crestfallen, I felt certain that we’d get weathered out. But we had several guests staying with us for a few nights, including both of my uncles—Jon, the one that was taking me fishing and Seth, the one that recognized that my excitement for the night was being slowly crushed by the repeated weather reports blaring on the radio. Seth, letting his inner child take over, suggested that we do a “sun dance” to try and ward off the storms. He grabbed a Wiffle Ball Bat and lead Jon, both of my younger brothers and me in a line dance while we sang the words “rat-tat-tellio-tu sun, rat-tat-tellio-tu shine!” over and over. The storms came and went quickly, there were even reports of waterspouts on Buzzards Bay, but by 11, when we were scheduled to leave, the sky was clear, black and full of stars. The dance worked!

We drove to Marconi Station Beach where Jon had done well many years prior. We walked down the beach watching for the dark waves to reveal a deep pocket—we found it. Then we set up two sand spikes, baited up with fresh sand eels and sat down on a towel with a low lantern burning so we could see the rods. After about 30 minutes, Jon walked over to one of the rods and said, “When we get a hit, it’s going to look like this,” he grabbed the line and gave a sharp yank. He turned away for a half a second and then bam! We got our hit!

Jon sprang into action and set the hook, I watched as the 11-foot rod doubled over! Jon seemed to think it was a big fish and ultimately decided not to risk handing the rod to me. I still thought we were going to crush them, so I was fine with observing this first one. Jon fought the fish carefully, I remember a big wave came up over the lip of the beach and soaked all of our stuff, tipped the lantern and cracked the mantle! I had to gather all of the stuff up while Jon tap-danced through the foam and around our floating gear! Jon, a longtime smoker, asked me to get his cigarettes out of his breast pocket, put one between his lips and light it! Which I did. After what felt like 25 minutes but was probably four or five in reality, the fish was close and Jon washed it up on a wave. I could see the white silhouette laying there in the dim light, the fish looked huge compared to the largemouth bass I was used to catching; that tackle shop Polaroid was looking like a real possibility! I felt like dancing, I scurried around Jon like lap dog on a leash. He put the tape on it, 34 inches! Not a keeper! He measured it about 12 different ways but 36 was just not happening. So we threw it back and fished the rest of the night without another touch!

We returned home and decided to crash in the living room so I wouldn’t wake my brothers. I will never forget lying down on that couch in our rented cottage to sleep, looking up through the screens to see the first light of day, a chorus of birds chattering away. No fish. But I was already feeling the sting of being hooked on this sport. How often do you get to stay up all night when you’re 11? This was definitely something I could get into! We went back to Blackbeard’s later in the week and were told that we had done better than most of the guys fishing the beaches that week. Trips in subsequent years got better and better for mostly schoolies, but looking back, it was really amazing watching the fish come back and then being able to fully immerse myself in the boom years of 1998 to 2008. When you look back it’s remarkable what fisheries managers were able to accomplish—striped bass almost slipped through our fingers!

All of this came from the moratorium that was enacted to protect the 1982 year class; which was a marginally successful spawning year, but the protection of those fish gave us all of the great fishing we have enjoyed from the late-1990’s through the late 2000s, and even the dwindling—yet still good—fishing we’re seeing today. Starting in 2003, spawning recruitment has been following a steep downward trend and the fishing—surprise, surprise—has been going downhill now as well. Since 2006, every year has seen below average returns and some downright dismal spawns—these all follow the lowering of the “keeper size” to 28 inches and the increase of the bag limit to two fish; along with more kill tourneys and higher commercial quotas.

The shining star among all of this is the anomalous 2011 year class, the Young of the Year Index that year registered a 34 a huge spike among more than a decade of downward trending and returns averaging around 10; 34 is the fourth highest ever recorded. Those fish are migrating for the first time this year and many of you may have already been introduced. My mind races, immediately to 1982 and it’s meager rating of 8—protecting that one decent spawn saved these fish from obliteration. Just imagine what kind of an effect it would have if most of us could discipline ourselves to respect this year class for the next five or more years so they can spawn?!

Respect, in my mind, means not fishing for them. When I’m sticking 14-inch micros one after another, I walk away because I feel like I’m doing damage. But I know that this is not easy for everyone and I definitely understand the fun that comes with catching fish of any size. So I’m begging you to respect them; that means all of the clichés, don’t use trebles when you’re catching schoolies, crush your barbs, etc. But even more so, release them gently, don’t roll them in the sand, don’t kick them back into the water, no schoolie selfies for your Facebook friends. They need to be handled with care, they need to be revived because we NEED them to survive. If that kind of respect had always been paid to these fish, I might not have had to go home wondering what a striper fought like on my first striper trip ever. These fish have made my life a joy to live and now that I’m a proud daddy, I want to be able to pass on the passion and ideals of this sport to my daughter who turned 1 on May second. Take that extra minute to ensure that the schoolies you’ve caught can swim away safely—this is important stuff and we owe it to the next generation (and to ourselves for sanity’s sake), without the reasonable expectation to catch a striper, the surf is a sad and lonely place. It’s all about respect, let’s do our part.


4 comments on “Twenty-Eleven

  1. Dave Whitney

    Awesome , thanks for sharing.
    First stripers for me was on a lake up in Maine on vacation when I was 10 or so. Got a bunch fishing rubber worms meant for large mouth on a row boat. That day changed everything.

  2. Bill Jakob

    Dave ,

    Life is funny , in 1992 I was bailing 20-40 pounders – throw the time machine back
    Twenty years and I was in the the same place bass fishing as you’d spoke of . I
    Hope we have the wisdom to think of our kids , grand kids and future
    generations that may not have the joyful memories that we take for granted . I try to Limit my yearly take to 2-3 bass a year. I often walk away from the blitz for that 1 big fish and refrain from injuring
    The easy catch .

    Thanks for the time warp to my past .

    Witchhunter aka. Bill Jakob

  3. HeinekenPete

    …this quote from years ago has always stuck with me.
    “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” -Gaylord Nelson


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