A striper is what it does. It’s how the fish goes about its daily business of feeding in so many habitats and under such varied conditions that makes it so magical. I have followed stripers for a lifetime, and they surprise me every season.
What’s not to like about striped bass? New York fly guide Captain Brendan McCarthy said he wishes the fish would tail more on the flats, like bonefish. A nitpick, but fair enough. Someone else told me that if striped bass jumped, he’d quit his job and leave his happy home to follow the fish to his ruin.
Stripers make an honest jump on rare occasions, but more often they pull off what one might generously call a clumsy leap—more like a barrel roll—where they partially emerge from the water and curl back over with a splash. But a true jump, like a rainbow or billfish? It’s not part of the package.
What a striper can do more than makes up for its lack of aerial explosives. “Stripers are so well-endowed in terms of where they live and how they make a living,” said John Waldman, an aquatic conservation biologist and professor at Queens College. “There is almost no habitat along the coast where they are not found.”
According to Waldman, who is a longtime striper angler and edited the book Stripers: An Angler’s Anthology, the fish is the ultimate generalist. “Some species have very particular requirements, like grayling or brook trout,” he said. “These damn things exist and flourish in an amazing range of geography and environments.”
Striped bass are perfectly formed to thrive in a world of tides and currents, moving in water and breaking waves from North Carolina to Quebec, Canada. Most of us have watched them feed as if it’s their last day on Earth amid nor’easters and the remnants of hurricanes, gales, horizontal rain and sleet, and gnarly storm waves. For stripers, the worst weather you can conjure is just another day at the office.
Striped bass have incredible tolerances, said Waldman, rattling off the various places the fish are found: freshwater reservoirs and lakes; rivers that drain into the Gulf of Mexico; on the West Coast; in estuaries, rocky coasts, the open Atlantic, and hundreds of miles up the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Stripers are also regularly caught in a host of urban areas, including Boston and New York harbors. Photographer Tom Lynch sometimes chases the fish in heavily industrialized backwater areas of New Jersey, including a former Superfund site.
“It’s been called a sewer trout, sardonically, because it tolerates an amazing range of environmental conditions,” said Waldman, who has studied striped bass for decades and written more than 100 scientific articles and several popular books, including Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations. “That’s not to say it’s invincible, but it’s a helluva hardy fish.”
I was barely out of boyhood the first time I saw a striper race up the back of a big green breaker, chasing bait a moment before the wave toppled in a roar of foam and spray. A year or two later, my adrenaline surged again when a bass shot diagonally across the face of a reared-up storm wave and snared my Hopkins jig as improbably as a wide receiver makes a fingertip catch. I was in my early teens, and I stood transfixed.
Stripers have evolved to take full advantage of what old-timers used to call “boisterous” weather. Long ago, dressed in waders and rain gear, I fished the rocks at a lighthouse during a booming nor’easter as waves surged up the riprap and forced everyone casting there to back against the seawall surrounding the light. I imagined we were crew on a clipper ship clawing its way around Cape Horn with the decks swept by breaking waves eager to grab a careless sailor and carry him to his demise.
As water drained between the rocks, we returned to our spots and fired off casts. The stripers, meanwhile, frolicked through the heart of the storm, feeding on bait that was helplessly disoriented by the surf, current and froth. How could you fail to love a fish so suited for even those bad-ass days that keep the largest boats in their slips?
For all their ability to feed in foaming rips and pounding shore break, striped bass are equally adept at finding food in tidal rivers, bays, salt ponds and flats. You gain a sense of their capabilities by watching them sip cinder worms in salt ponds and feed on crabs and sand eels on the flats. I once heard a story about stripers that regularly trailed a lobsterman, devouring the shorts he culled and threw over the side.
The ability of a striper to find a mullet, menhaden or your bucktail in billows of white water, day or night, is a function of its prominent lateral line. This organ is embedded in scales, senses vibrations in the water, and allows the fish to zero in on prey that is floundering. In stripers, this line extends one-third of the way onto the caudal or tail fin, with additional short sequences of lateral line scales above and below the main one on the tail, adding sensitivity to the rear of the fish. During a day bite in white water, the fish relies on eyesight in addition to its lateral line.
I asked Waldman if he could compare a striper’s lateral line to any human sense. What might come closest, he said, is “wind on our naked body, on our arms and legs.”
Some of my most memorable fishing has occurred when schools of discombobulated bait become trapped in broad swaths of white water between breaking waves—the stripers moving in and going ballistic, cutting through bait and foam with abandon. You time your casts so that your lure is in the air as the last wave in the set crumbles. You crank the reel handle a few times and are tight to a good fish. Those moments have the visual and auditory elements that make striped bass fishing as spectacular as any experience in the angling kingdom.
“They love to feed in white water,” said artist Nick Mayer. “And their big, broom-like tail is pretty remarkable. It’s made for navigating in that churn. It has a lot of torque. They’re like apparitions that appear out of the water.”
When a striper grabs a mullet, bunker or even an American eel, it usually holds tight, thanks to an effective arrangement of teeth. The fish have regular teeth along the upper and lower jaws, which feel like sandpaper. They’re the ones that give us “striper thumb.” The fish also have additional teeth for grasping food right on their tongue—near the tip in the soft tissue, and a pair of tooth patches on the tongue bone section.
“The fact that they and the five other members of family Moronidae have these lingual teeth [lingual means tongue] makes them pretty unusual in the fish world,” Waldman said. They also have teeth farther back in their gullet that can help crush a small blue crab or a fish. They’re dentally endowed.”
Stripers don’t pull like tuna, they don’t jump like tarpon, and they don’t have the top speed of a bonefish, permit, or sailfish. But they bring their own brand of powerful magic as they move along the coast. A big striper in heavy cover is a handful.
If you’re going to make hay with stripers, it helps to get comfortable fishing nights from a boat and from shore. You can certainly catch them during daylight, especially in deep water and at opportune times of the year. But the striped bass is principally a fish of night tides and moving water. It is a fish that rewards hard work, persistence and knowledge of the tides, as well as an understanding of seasonal rhythms and patterns. Their challenges are compelling. Just when you think you can predict their comings and goings, they leave you flummoxed.
The surprises are part of their appeal. Mayer, an avid angler, remembers a blitz on the west side of Charlestown Breachway in Rhode Island, when schoolies actually beached themselves in their amped-up pursuit of peanut bunker. “They were launching themselves on the sand and flipping around until they got back into the water,” he said.
Fish long enough and you see your share of oddities. My fishing partner Bruce was playing a schoolie on a summer evening and his eel slipped up the leader to the swivel, where it dangled and twisted above the water. A second striper lunged a foot or more out of the water for the squirming bait, successfully knocking it free on its second attempt.
The striper is one of the handsomest fish in fresh or salt water. It looks like a proper fish—stout, distinctive, without a hint of the outlandish or eccentric. Ichthyologists refer to its shape as a “classic fish body.” From its wide tail to its large head, the fish is, indeed, classically proportioned. A 25- to 30-pounder exemplifies the beauty, balance and strength of the species, with its broad shoulders, striped flanks and spiny dorsal. The skin mount of a 26-pounder that hung in my friend’s beach cottage in Rhode Island was a perfect embodiment of balance, beauty and form following function.
“If there was a Fibonacci number for fish, I think the striped bass would be the base mark,” said Mayer, referring to the idea that beauty in a host of fields is related to this mathematical relationship of dimensions. “The proportions are pleasant to the eye.”
“They are absolutely striking,” said Bob Popovics, an innovative fly developer and striper fan from New Jersey. “There is a balance to it. It looks like a fish is supposed to look.”
A Long Island charter skipper once told me that if you gave a kid in the Northeast a crayon and asked him to draw a fish, it would come out looking like a striped bass. I was one of those kids. Each fall in school, I doodled dozens of striped bass on the covers of my notebooks as I daydreamed of racing to the lighthouse when school let out.
“The fish has an indescribable look,” said Lynch, the photographer and avid surf fisherman. “I’d say the shoulders and the dorsal are the two most definitive parts for me. And the broom tail.”
The broad palette of hues and the many shades, tones and tints with which the fish is endowed—combined with its seven or eight dark, longitudinal stripes—make it one of the world’s most striking fish. “There are so many colors,” Lynch said. “It’s a great mix of greens, magentas and browns, silvers, gold and purple. There is a little section behind the eye, up high, where there are just some crazy colors.
The shades change depending on where the fish have been feeding. Darker tones point to deeper waters and rocky bottoms covered with kelp, rockweed, Irish moss and other seaweeds. Those dark fish are strikingly beautiful in their rich robes of purple, green and browns. On the flats, the fish are lightly colored to match the sandy bottoms and appear more mirrorlike. “You don’t notice all their beauty until you hold the fish in your hand,” said striper fanatic John Jinishian, pointing to the turquoise, blues and purples around the fish’s eyes and gill plates. “It’s not just a zebra fish.”
Stripers are something of a Goldilocks fish, neither too simple to catch nor too difficult. “It’s at the elite edge of the everyman fish,” Waldman said, “and that’s a good place. They are not an easy fish. You have to pay your dues.”
“They just bring it all,” said Captain McCarthy, who guides out of Montauk in the fall. “They are the most everyman fish on the planet. I think of them as the hungry man’s can of stew.”
On certain days, you can catch stripers cast after cast; on others, they are fickle, remaining closemouthed as frustrated anglers change colors, retrieves, and lure sizes, all the while speculating about hundreds of possible factors that might be at play. “They definitely can be a puzzle,” said Rex Messing, a striper fan and fly fisherman. “If they weren’t, you wouldn’t chase them.”
Casual anglers as well as fanatics from a broad range of backgrounds pursue stripers: millionaires and warehouse workers, truck drivers and financial analysts, the rough-spoken and the literati, high school dropouts and Ivy Leaguers, preachers, reporters, pipefitters, scoundrels, grandmothers, and everyone in between. People catch them from beaches, rock piles, rips, jetties, piers, marshes, rowboats, beneath highway bridges, and along urban waterfronts, as well as in pristine coastal areas far from crowds.
A chunk of menhaden stuck on a single hook and flung from a $50 rod-and-reel combo bought at a discount store can yield a 30-pound striper. I’ve seen it happen. So can intricately tied flies or $40 hand-turned plugs cast with $2,000 fly or spinning outfits. The fish doesn’t give a hoot if your guides are attached with electrical tape or if your popper is an old red-and-yellow Atom refitted with new hooks like the one I tossed last fall. You can drop a million dollars on a new triple-engine center console, or you can catch your fish from a kayak. The fish doesn’t care.“
The striped bass is America’s fish,” said Jim Hutchinson Jr., managing editor of The Fisherman magazine, citing the striper’s history in this country, including helping to fund the first public school in the Plymouth Colony through a tax on the sale of the fish.
Those who catch striped bass consistently have put in their time; studied the fish; paid attention to maintaining sharp hooks, good knots, fresh line, and smooth drags; and have accrued plenty of knowledge of tides, current, weather, location, and a dozen other factors that make a difference. And then there are those who are just flat-out “fishy.”
“If you’re fishy, you’re fishy,” said author and Rocky Mountain fly guide Callan Wink, speaking of the intangible qualities that set some anglers and guides apart. “This is something that goes beyond the realm of experience or even luck. This is the stuff of mysticism, and I think these people are closer to artists than the rest of us.”
As to diet, stripers are not picky eaters. “They’ll eat anything they can get their jaws around,” the late Mario Comoli, a Rhode Island boat fisherman, once told me. I’ve heard Comoli’s sentiment expressed dozens of times. The better question might be: “What won’t they eat?” A 4-year Massachusetts survey found 48 different prey items in the stomachs of 3,000 stripers taken from June through September in estuaries, off beaches and rocky shores, and in offshore waters.
When the fall run is in high gear and I am surrounded by a thousand screaming gulls and acres of breaking bass, I sense the bounty that was commonplace along these shores 400 years ago. “Watching, you get some dim idea of how it all used to be, some small glimpse from the edge of winter at a world before the fall,” wrote Ted Leeson in The Habit of Rivers, a popular book about rivers, trout and fly fishing.
The life span of a striper can exceed 30 years. Historical accounts tell of seine and pound nets capturing bass weighing upward of 125 pounds. With stripers having few natural predators, save for sharks and seals, and little fishing pressure at the time, those reports seem credible. The current world-record striper weighed 81.88 pounds and was caught in 2011 by Greg Myerson off Westbrook, Connecticut, on a live eel drifted over a reef on a three-way rig.
Today? Biologists like Waldman and others doubt a striper can survive the gauntlet of ever-more-sophisticated gear and techniques long enough to reach those historic sizes, not to men-tion the environmental factors at play. “The environment is conspiring against that,” Waldman said. “It’s unlikely we’ll ever see a 100-pounder again.”
He’s probably right, but part of me wants to imagine there are still some 100-pound fish out there—transiting the coast in small pods with the seasons but spending most of their time in deeper waters, outside the usual migration routes and beyond the many snares set to capture them. It’s a boyhood fantasy that won’t die.
“Seasons of the Striper: Pursuing the Great American Gamefish” by William Sisson was published by Rizzoli New York in 2022.
This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue.