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Jun 23, 2009 3:13 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

In the Field: Are stripers spawning here?

Jun 23, 2009 3:13 PM

I’ve long been a proponent of releasing big striped bass as a small contribution toward preserving our wonderful resource for however many years are left in our own lives and for future generations as well.

Male striped bass very rarely grow to larger than about 32 or 33 pounds, so any fish bigger than that is almost certainly a female that is breeding each spring. While throwing a 40-pounder back doesn’t guarantee that she will find her native brackish backwater the following spring to breed, it certainly gives her a better chance than she would stand in the bottom of a cooler, and I’ve sacrificed both bragging rights and tournament prizes to make this small but personally important contribution to the fishery that’s given so much back to me over the years.

So imagine my disappointment when I slit open the stomach cavity of an unusually fat 25-pounder I got off the beach in Montauk last week and out slid two fat, bright green gonads of a female striped bass that had yet to spawn this spring.

Fishermen in the Hudson River, Delaware River or Chesapeake Bay are likely quite often faced with the decision of whether or not to kill a fish whose bulging belly is clearly that of a ripe female on her way to spread hundreds of thousands or even millions of eggs on the spawning grounds. But here on the East End, the majority of the fish we catch are post-spawn and telling a mid-size female from a male is effectively impossible.

I was stunned that a ripe female like that would even be in our area this late in the year. The vast majority of stripers spawn in the Chesapeake Bay or Hudson River and another major spawning population ventures up the Delaware River and many scientists think small batches, maybe up to the tens of thousands, are using smaller coastal rivers as spawning grounds up and down the East Coast.

Chris Gobler at Stony Brook Southampton said the fish looked like it was primed to spawn within a few days, so it would have to be headed to somewhere close, unless it was a sick fish that was just lost and wasn’t going to release its eggs anywhere they could have been fertilized. The Connecticut River would certainly only be a day’s swim from Montauk. What about the Peconic River? Connetquot? Big Fresh Pond? Otter Pond? There’s no scientific evidence that bass are spawning anywhere locally, but is it possible?

Craig Cantelmo, the Van Staal sales rep who is also a marine biologist, said the fish was most likely headed for—or wandered out of—the Connecticut River, where an increasingly abundant year-round population of striped bass has fueled speculation that the fish are spawning there annually now (bass stay near the mouths of their home rivers for the first few years of life, before beginning an annual migration along the coast between the river and the coast of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland).

Regardless of where it was planning on spawning (assuming it wasn’t a sick fish and just wandering about with no chance of spawning) the fact that this fish was in our area means I will be vigilant for potentially ripe females in the future, and I would hope you will be, too. In fact, the cool spring has meant that there potentially could be more females still headed for spawning grounds, especially if those grounds are north of us.

While striped bass are doing well by most accounts and one more female probably makes little difference in the grand scheme of things, it just seems like a small sacrifice to make, even if only a symbolic one, for the future.

But otherwise, catch ’em up. See you out there.

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