Striped bass stocks along the east coast of the United Stated are in trouble yet again. Recent reports indicate that striped bass are overfished and both commercial and recreational fisheries are being implicated. There are also sentiments being circulated that when striped bass are released in the recreational fishery – often because they are not of legal size to harvest or purely because of a catch-and-release ethic – that mortality after release is playing a considerable role in the current downturn.
Given how many recreational anglers target striped bass along the Atlantic coast, as well as how many are caught and released from boats, beaches, flats, breakwaters, and bridges, it shouldn’t be too surprising that how stripers are handled can influence whether each fish swims away to go on and lead a normal life, or if it is negatively affected in some way. Although there have been a few scientific studies done on how striped bass respond to catch-and-release, given the diversity of ways in which stripers are fished at different points in their migration and across a wide range of environmental conditions, the science behind how stripers should be handled to minimize impacts has barely scratched the surface. For instance, no study has yet examined the impacts of air exposure on stripers, even though most images we see on social media these days are of fish out of water, and science on other fishes indicates that each species likely has its own air exposure threshold.
Photo by T&T Pro Staffer Garner Reid
With striped bass stocks in rough shape and until more science is done that can inform species-specific guidelines for striped bass catch-and-release, it is essential that we use some of the fundamentals of fish biology as a guideline that for reducing the impacts of handling on striped bass. When it comes to fly fishing, hooking damage is likely less of a factor, simply because of the way stripers attack a fly. Nevertheless, going barbless can make it easier to remove a hook, and doing so reduce handling and air exposure times. If the fly get inhaled, it is best to just cut the line rather than risking damage to vital organs (e.g. gills, heart) when digging it out. As with any recreational fishery, it is also important to match the tackle to whatever you are targeting and avoid underweighted gear as a way to reduce fight times that can really tire out a striped bass. Even before the fish is in hand, give due consideration as to how you are going to land it. Avoiding hard surfaces, such as the deck of a boat, rocks on a jetty, or coarse sand on the beach, is a sure way to reduce the loss of slime on the fish, as well as physical damage to fins and other body parts. Fish slime contains antibodies and enzymes and protects them from disease and infections. If you are tempted to use a net, make sure it has smooth, rubber mesh, which is much less abrasive and damaging than knotted nylon nets.
Photo by T&T Pro Staffer Brian Chou
Once securely in hand, a critical thing to do is to minimize air exposure – fish do not breathe out of water. But, do we know how much air exposure is too long for striped bass? No. Until science specifically addresses this for striped bass across a wide range of conditions, and if we care about the future of the fishery, keeping air exposure to 10 seconds or less is a great way to give each striped bass you release this season a helping hand.
For more information about basic principles and tips for catch-and-release, check out Keepemwet Fishing https://www.keepemwet.org/principles-2#principles .