Can Understanding Striped Bass Migration Patterns Help You Catch More Fish?

Local Populations and Migration Patterns of Striped Bass

On the Atlantic seaboard, striped bass range from Florida North to the gulf of the St. Lawrence. Between these limits can be found in the most widely divergent types of water imaginable — from the muddy warm fresh impounded lakes of lake Moultrie in South Carolina to the crashing cold and clear surf of Popham Beach in Maine.

Before mentioning the complicated migrations of the fish along the Atlantic coast, it would be well to point out that some populations apparently migrate very little. Thus, the base of the St. Lawrence make short journeys up and down the river but rarely are found outside its limits similar native schools can be found in Nova Scotia New Brunswick and Quebec Rivers. At the other extreme of its range, the St. Johns River of Florida supports a population that sticks pretty close to the freshwater so that vicinity.

fishing for striped bass

Perhaps the most startling freshwater bass are those of the Santee Cooper drainage system in South Carolina. Stripers have always frequented the two rivers but in the past they were able to make the annual return to saltwater. Then one summer, while a considerable number of fish fit contentedly, men sealed off to huge dams dash dams which had been in the process of building four years. As a result lake Moultrie and Lake Marion were formed — effectively land locking those bass which were present.

Today ain’t the stripers have not only fattened and prospered in their new homes: they’ve started to spawn and multiply. Baby bass are appearing in the man-made lakes in larger quantities while their parents still provide support for the small boat anglers who swarm over the lakes on each region.

Migrating striped bass: hard to predict

Most recent findings in the Hudson River in New York indicate that young fish spawned in this body of water rarely venture out of Long Island Sound. Chesapeake Bay, which is undoubtedly the largest hatching area for the species, also has striper groups which appear to remain in the Bay area throughout the year. Since these representative sections maintain native populations, it seems highly probable that there are many other native stocks all along the coast stocks which depend upon local conditions for their survival. Research now being carried out along the coast may confirm this.

If local populations were the only ones, problems of the scientist and legislator would be simple. Unfortunately for these gentlemen, striped bass or accursed (or blessed) with with wanderlust if all of them stayed close to home local laws and local conservation measures would satisfy everyone, but since the fish swims happily over state lines, conservation and control becomes an interstate question. The problem perpetuates itself because laws governing the taking of the fish are not uniform. On the coastal states, commercial fisherman put on all possible pressure to make the species a market fish to be taken by any means short of dynamite, while sport fisherman apply similar pressure to make the striper a true game fish to be taken by hook and line only with no markup market sale of allowed.

Where the recreational value of the fishery is paramount the sportsman are apt to succeed, but where the food value of the fishery is most important, commercial men take control.

Migrating stripers won’t sit still

Overlapping areas caused legislative trouble. In Delaware Bay, for example, enforcement of the New Jersey law with regard to Delaware fisherman has practically started a shooting war which apparently will last for years. The cause of it is the stripers reluctance to stay put.

That characteristic wanderlust is apparent in the spring when vast schools of  bass begin to migrate. some of them come from Chesapeake Bay, swim out through the Virginia Capes entrance and head north and east. Others move out of Delaware Bay to join with passing northbound schools. These southern fish may spend the summer in New England or even go as far north as Canada’s Maritime Provinces, but no one knows.

The exact routes of young fish have been mapped fairly successfully, but migrational routes and patterns of the larger specimens are virtually unknown. Once thought to have a simple Northeast migration in the spring and a Southwest trip in the fall, is now apparent that young stripers move in a far more complicated manner. Traveling schools overlap with others from different areas; these in turn mixed with local native species and then some speed individuals take solitary side cruises of their own.

striper migration

Research on larger fish, those weighing more than 15 pounds, has been almost negligible as far as the coast wise picture is concerned. Some are known to winter over in coastal rivers, others may be found in deep holes and sheltered base, but the majority vanished from the ken of man in the late fall. Come spring, they appear as mysteriously as they left.

Large concentrations of these big fish are reported late in the fall, long after smaller specimens have returned to their wintering grounds. Silver concentrations appear again in the weeks before spring when the youngsters are still cruising about their cold-weather playground. So far, no pattern has been established.

Science and tracking stripers

The unpredictable striper continues to surprise scientists. Off Old Man Rip, near Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, fishermen discovered thousands of bass, none under 25 pounds, concentrated year after year the fish appear to arrive in the spring and feed ravenously until late November. Then, just as researchers decided on an extensive tagging program in that area, the fish felt that it was time to change her stamping grounds and they have never been schooled heavily in that spot!

During the month of February, huge stripers gather at the mouth of the Potomac River in Chesapeake Bay. Extensive fishing, prior to that time, produces fewer monsters, yet the great cows are there at the Potomac long before they’re spawning time. Perhaps the stripers are the game fish sighted each year off the southern coast of North Carolina — when water and weather are still cold before the warmth of spring. Off the Carteret Coast, these schools of big bass — most of them in the 30 to 40 lb class, can also be found in December by those hardy enough to see them. How many other concentrations maybe swimming in offshore waters during the season one fisherman hug those home fires, no one knows. Research alone will supply the answer.

Seasons of Abundance: arrival and departure

MIgrations in themselves are interesting enough, but the average angler wants to know when the fish will arrive rather than the name of the spot they came from.  Like bathing beauties, bass generally follow the sun. They become more active, feed more readily and begin to think of the opposite sex when the water temperature reaches about 45 degrees Fahrenheit.  When the mercury boils to about 80 degrees, stripers head for cooler climes–unless no such climes are within swimming range.

In many areas hardy anglers can take stripers throughout the winter, but this type of fishing is usually limited to commercial seiners.  Anglers who troll the Thames River, in Connecticut, begin to wallop school bass in late February and March, fully two months before the annual migration is supposed to hit New England.  These fish are taken far up the river, and the action progresses downstream, toward the sea, as the season advances. Finally, by the first of May, Thames fishing tapers off and Connecticut anglers head for the open beaches.

commercial striped bass fishing

That northern rivers hold native populations is common knowledge.  At one time, in the Parker River of Massachusetts, commercial netters accounted for numbers of wintering bass.  The procedure followed a set pattern: a channel was cut across the river ice just below a known bass hole. A large bow net was then lowered and the bass catcher dropped a tin can full of acid into the water above the hole.  As the current carried the acid to the fish, they would float blinded and gasping into the waiting net. Such methods almost annihilated the native population in the Parker.

With the coming of April, rod and reel fishermen all along the coast begin to thin of stripers.  From the Carolinas to Connecticut, then, bass are on the move. As the month progresses, major migrations jump off and, by the end of April, some fish are being taken all the way from Cape Cod southward.  By mid-May, stripers are feeding throughout the their entire range.

Good fishing continues through June and part of July; then, from mid-July through the second week in August, there is usually a slump which imaginative anglers call “the doldrums.”  During this period bass apparently choose their food most carefully–and drive fishermen crazy with their antics.

Weather and migration

Extremes of weather can break the slump but, on the average, it lasts for three or four weeks.  By mid-August, things start to pick up: schools that were splashing and playing in the summer sun have begun to feed heavily, instinctively stockpiling the energy which will take them south.  By September, angling reaches its peak–a peak that often maintained into the last week of October or even the first of November.

chart of striped bass migration

From Nova Scotia and the Saint Lawrence down through southern Rhode Island, September and early October are conceded to be the best fishing times.  This early fall period is also productive from Montauk to Florida, but the best catches along the Long Island and New Jersey shores are usually reserved for October.  From New England north, fishing is a cold sport in November, but one that is sometimes amazingly successful. Also during this period Chesapeake and Carolina anglers make a killing. Late November storms usually mean the end of practical bassing–and sportsmen begin to count the days until the cycle starts all over again.

All season vary to a certain extent with the arrival or departure of coastal storms.  In general, however, they apply–as can be seen from an examination of certain old records kept by the famous bass fishing clubs of New England. Dr. John H. Cunningham of Brookline and Wareham, Massachusetts, compiled records of catches made from 1865 to 1915 at three clubs located at Cuttyhunk, Pasque and Squibnocket.  The fishing started in June and ended in mid-October. This did not mean that the very first fish arrived in June, but did mean that bass were plentiful enough for the “sports” to make the trip from New York worth while. Similarly, there undoubtedly were some stragglers in the Massachusetts islands’ waters after October, but the anglers did not consider the fishing good.

Excerpts taken from The Complete Book of Striped Bass Fishing by Henry Lyman and Frank Woolner

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