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It looks like anglers who fish the Northeast coastline for stripers are in for a pretty good season. Numbers of fish may be down from the historic highs of 2003 and 2004, but only slightly. That is the indication we get from some population statistics released by Gary Shepherd, who tracks stripers and bluefish for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. He says anglers are likely to encounter large numbers of fish in the 26- to 30-inch range from the 2003 spawning. That was a banner year in all four primary spawning areas: the Hudson River, Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia. There should also be large numbers of smaller fish from the 2007 spawning, and good numbers of large fish held over from successful spawnings in 2001, 1996 and (most prized of all) some 42- to 49-inch fish still hanging around from 1993.

To be sure, the 2009 season has been slow to start as this is written in mid-May, probably due to cold water. But it looks like the rest of the season will proceed more or less on schedule from here. At this writing, the stripers are showing up in good numbers as far north as the north shore of Cape Cod. I have that from Capt. Avery Revere who fishes the waters around Barnstable, Massachusetts. Jeff Northrop, who may be the busiest guide in Connecticut, reports that he spent the early part of the season in the mouth of the Housatonic River, but that bigger fish are showing up in numbers around his home base in Westport. Likewise, David Porecca of Rivers & Riptide Anglers in Rhode Island tells us he is noting an abundance of larger fish (24 inches or better), including several in the “keeper” range (28-plus inches), showing up in his waters around Coventry.

The other bright side of the equation for 2009 is that bluefish numbers appear to be on the upswing. But that does not automatically translate into better fishing, as bluefish are unpredictable. A pelagic species that spawns in the open ocean, bluefish roam from Florida to Maine, often following their food sources far offshore beyond the reach of most recreational anglers. “You simply can’t predict how good bluefishing will be by looking at gross numbers of fish available,” says Shepherd. “We’ll sometimes find recreational anglers bemoaning the lack of blues inshore while the offshore commercial fisherman are finding them in abundance.”

As for the future of striper fishing, Shepherd says there are good and bad omens. On the bright side, he points to the return of the Delaware River as a major spawning ground, the direct result of clean-up efforts in that estuary. “The cleanup began in 1982 and is really beginning to pay off,” says Shepherd, “The Delaware is once again a productive spawning ground. It’s producing more fish, which adds to the overall numbers available.”

On the downside, according to Shepherd, is the continuing presence of Mycobacteriosis, a bacterial disease that infects stripers, particularly in Chesapeake Bay. The fish may be disfigured as a result of skin ulcers and internal lesions and may also be skinny or in extremely poor condition due to the chronic nature of this wasting disease. Data obtained during 2002-2003 from fish harvested in Virginia and Maryland waters indicated that over 80 percent of striped bass in some areas may be infected. Mycobacteriosis is thought to be associated with water temperatures and dissolved oxygen levels. A Connecticut source contacted for this report sees this as real concern for the future, though he notes that striper numbers are currently at a historic peak and a slow decline shouldn’t have any significant impact on the fishery for some time to come.

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