Updated: Nov 30, 2020
As we are about halfway through New England's 2020 striper season, I figured I would share some things I do to increase survival rate of the striped bass I catch and release. As we all know, some conservation efforts are being made to bring our striped bass stock back to even a fraction of what it used to be. A "slot limit" of 1 fish between 28-35" per day has been put into effect up and down the coast, meaning fish larger or smaller than that slot size must be released safely. I'm not sure this is the end-all-be-all solution to the issue, but it's a start. Sadly, commercial boats do not have to adhere to the same regulations us recreational anglers have to, which is why it is up to us to ensure our released fish survive and live on to grow and reproduce. There are many theories that the majority of fish are offshore or that they migrate further north than ever before for cooler water, and excuses and explanations as to why we've had several well below average spawning years in a row, but those are conversations and blog posts for another time.
I myself, am STRICTLY catch and release when it comes to striped bass. I haven't kept a bass since 2013, and the only reason I kept that fish was because it was badly hooked in the gills and could not be revived. It happens, it is all part of the game. There is nothing wrong with keeping a bass here and there in my opinion, as long as the fish is of legal size and daily limits are being adhered to. I just choose not to partake. I get more enjoyment from pursuing, catching, and releasing these fish than I'll ever get from eating one. I used to look down my nose at people who kept cow sized bass (I can't imagine keeping a huge bass first of all, not to mention how awful it would taste and the amount of contaminants in the meat). I'm glad I don't have to do that anymore (at least until the slot size is removed). A 45" bass has made it 15 years on average without being taken. It takes these fish a very long time to grow. Though these fish legally can't be taken by recreational anglers currently, commercial boats can still take large fish, and there will always be poachers.
The mishandling of striped bass is a major factor when it comes to mortality rate. There are many things we can do as responsible anglers to minimize mortality, and teaching others who may not know any better is one of those things. I see it out on the water and all over social media: fish out of the water too long, fish dragged onto sand and rolling in said sand, fish not carefully released, etc. The list goes on. Here are a few things you SHOULD do if you plan to safely release your bass:
1) Keep Them in the Water, ESPECIALLY when it's Hot
As striped bass fishing has reached an all time high in popularity, the amount of people who want their photo taken with their catch has drastically increased too. There is nothing wrong with getting your "hero shots" with your big fish, just try to do it as quickly as humanly possible. The best way to get your photos is to leave the fish in the water on a leashed Boga or Fish Grip until your fishing buddy is ready with the camera or until you've got your GoPro running, lift the fish and support it by both the lower jaw and the belly, smile, and get the fish back in the water immediately. The bigger the fish is, and the hotter the air and water temperatures are, the more urgent it is to keep that fish in the water and return it to the water quickly. A build up of lactic acid and lack of oxygen can kill a large striper within minutes. Stripers will just about exhaust themselves during the fight, and the longer the fight lasts, the more worn out they will be. Think about how you feel after you've been running: out of breath, heart racing, flushed, tired, and you need to regain your strength. Now add the stress of not knowing what the hell is happening, and something seems to be advantageously pulling you away from where you were hunting. And just like that, you can't breathe.
2) Leash your Boga or Fish Grip
This is one that irks me. I've only heard of several fish that have swam away or flopped out of a kayak or boat with a fish grip on it's lip, but I do see lots of photos online with grips that are not tethered in any way to the angler or the vessel they are fishing from. When fishing from a kayak or surfcasting from slippery rocks, it is all too easy to lose control of a fish or to fumble the grips. It costs almost nothing to attach a piece of paracord or shock cord to your grips to connect it to either your surf belt/bag, boat, or kayak. If you want it a bit fancier, you can make a leash using carabiners or buy a gear leash from a small company like Neverlost Gear Leashes (https://www.neverlostestore.com). I can't imagine a fish with a Boga or Fish Grips hanging from it's lower lip is going to have an easy time hunting, and I've certainly never heard of anyone catching a fish with one attached to it's lip.
3) Don't hold Big Fish Vertically
This is another one that I can't stand to see. This is sort of a judgement call up to the angler I guess, but I feel fish over 20 lbs. or so should not be held/hung vertically by the jaw or the gill plate for any length of time. Obviously, the heavier the fish, the more damage you can do. At some point during the landing process, a fish being taken out of the water will have to be lifted somewhat vertically in most situations, but keep that time to a minimum and quickly put one hand underneath the fish to support it's weight.
4) Avoid Dropping or Dragging Bass
Although striped bass are a fairly rugged, hearty fish, dropping them can be fatal as it can cause internal injuries. A fish's organs are not protected by much, and they simply aren't built for life on terra firma. I am guilty of losing control of a bass or two and dropping them while surfcasting, and it is a truly awful feeling. The couple I dropped swam away, but who knows how long they lived afterwards. These days, most of my striped bass fishing is done from a kayak, where fish that are removed from the water are lain across my lap and if they decide to flop, they usually end up back in the water.
I see a lot of surfcasters drag their fish up onto sandy beaches during the landing process. Then the fish proceeds to flop around and basically become covered in sand. There is absolutely no call for this. A fish's slime coat is paramount to it's health and survival. The less foreign matter and dry surfaces the slime coat comes into contact with, the better.
5) Swim your Bass back to Health and Let the Fish Tell you when it's Ready
I cringe at times when I see striped bass being released from a boat with high gunwales, and the bass is sort of "dropped" back into the water without any effort to revive it. Also, moving the bass back and forth in the water is not doing the bass any favors. Fish aren't built to have water flowing onto their gills from behind. Swimming the fish forward with it's mouth partially open is the best way to nurse a tired bass back to health. Kayak anglers (specifically those with pedal driven kayaks) have a tremendous advantage when it comes to efficiently reviving bass. The best way to do this is to attach your leashed Fish Grip to the bass' lower lip (or hold the lower lip by hand if you can reach it), and start pedaling the kayak at a casual speed. This will oxygenate the fish and allow it to regain it's equilibrium.
When a striped bass is ready to be released, there will be tell tale signs that it is safe for you to let go and let the fish swim away. Sometimes you can actually feel a fish's energy level coming back. Sometimes there are visual cues. Look for the fish to begin to level out and start to become "upright", meaning what the fish should look like swimming naturally. Watch their eyes. If they begin to focus and start to move around a bit, it means the fish is aware of it's surroundings and is starting to come around. Watch for the pectoral fins to be flexed out, and watch for the dorsal fin to stand up as if the fish is downright pissed off. Finally, wait until they kick their tail or try to tug away from the Fish Grips or your hand. Sometimes I will wait until the fish does this several times before I let go. If they swim away upright and strong, you did it properly. In warmer water, big fish may swim off sluggishly at times. I always worry about those fish, but knowing I did everything I could to carefully release them, I feel good about it in the end.
Other things you can do to increase survival rate are:
Use single hook lures when possible
Crush the barbs on your hooks to minimize damage and keep unhooking times short
Use circle hooks when bait fishing
Use appropriate tackle for keeping fight times short
Striped bass need our help now more than ever. It is the responsibility of the recreational angler to properly handle these beautiful fish, release them safely, in hopes that one day we will catch that fish again when it's even bigger and the fish lives on to reproduce. I don't claim to be perfect, I've made mistakes while handling stripers before, and I'm sure it will happen again. I try to do everything in my power to keep the fights short, captivity times even shorter, and safely release bass back to the water. I've learned from my mistakes in mishandling fish, and over the years I've refined the way I do it to benefit the fish. The future of the species is quite literally in our hands, and we need to do whatever it takes to see striped bass thrive again in our lifetime, and for our children and grandchildren to lose themselves in much like I have and my peers have. My favorite part of catching striped bass is watching them swim away.