who was around the Outer Banks from the turn of the century through
2008 would have seen an absolute melee every winter. Anglers came from
all around to join the local crowd to chase striped bass.
The fishery was hot and so was the winter money that came with it.
Rental companies, motels, restaurants, tackle shops, charter boats and
others were making some extra coin during the off-season by catering to
the many anglers who came to catch these fish.
Striped bass can grow to more than 50 pounds, they put up a decent
fight, and they are top-notch table fare.
The striped bass fishing was at its best when we saw ocean schools
pushing down from the north. These fish were absolutely awesome
entertainment for local fishermen suffering from winter doldrums and
I know because I was one of the local anglers who looked forward to
striper season, and I even co-hosted a 300-person, surf-fishing striper
tournament along with a good friend for five years.
Striped bass, also known as striper or rock fish, would cause quite a
stir amongst boaters and surf fishermen. During the good years, finding
striped bass wasn’t very difficult in January and the beginning of
February. All you had to do was look for diving birds or large schools
of menhaden and more times than not, you found stripers.
But, for the past several years, the striped bass fishery has been all
but nonexistent, though the fish made a brief showing in the winter of 2011.
Anglers began to complain and throw around theories about what happened
to this incredible fishery. In many cases, each theory held a little
So, when I was asked if I’d be interested in going out to catch and tag
stripers with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF),
I jumped at it.
Now, there are a couple political points about this outing that I am
going to get out of the way up front.
The tagging we did actually ended up happening in Virginia waters, and
we left from a Virginia port on a Virginia-based boat.
Why would this be the case for the NCDMF, which is using North Carolina
state grants to pay for the program?
Well, there was a large school of coastal stripers off of Virginia, and
these guys, like most businesses, are trying to get the best bang for
the buck. The more stripers they tag, then the better chance of
information return they have. It was nothing personal – it was just
All the fish we caught were well over the 3-mile line offshore. Federal
law states that stripers cannot be targeted over the 3-mile line.
While I was with DMF officials whose daily job is tagging fish of all
species, they were still forced to obtain three different permits to
target these fish. All the boats and captains they planned to use for
the program had a thorough background check and could not have any type
of fishing violation to participate.
It’s kind of a big deal.
The grant money, which is coming from the sale of North Carolina
fishing licenses, allows for 10 of these trips. I was fortunate enough
to fish two of them, along with my stepson.
The first day we fished we caught and tagged 158 fish up to roughly 58
pounds, and the second day we fished, we caught 264 fish up to roughly
68 pounds. There were some big schools of fish in the open water that
had some really big fish in them.
I hadn’t seen anything like this in years and my stepson, Braxton, had
never seen anything like it in his life.
Both days were sunny and pleasant to be winter fishing. Both days we
put in some serious work – leaving at dawn and returning at dusk.
The guys heading this project have their act together and have quite
the system for getting the job done.
Charlton Godwin, a biologist with NCDMF and who specializes in striped
bass research, led this endeavor. Captain Ryan Rogers of the Midnight
Sun was tasked with finding the fish. Using radar and other
state-of-the-art equipment, he managed to do so both the days I fished.
The radar can be used to pick up on large groups of birds, which can be
a sign of bait and striper activity.
Ryan’s boat is a 50-footer and has lots of open deck space, along with
a 12-pack license, which given the task, is much needed. This type of
license allows for plenty of people to be on the boat.
Many hands go into this deal.
When you are catching more than 100 or 200 fish a day and trying to tag
them, there is a lot going on. For most, this type of fishing wouldn’t
be fun. We used some semi-heavy trolling gear. Most anglers
prefer to use light, jigging or casting tackle for these fish.
The bigger gear served a few purposes.
It allowed for the trolling to be set up to catch up to two stripers
per rod, which meant more fish could be caught.
The heavier gear also meant we could get the fish into the boat faster,
which also allowed for more fish and less stress on the fish. Less
fight equates to less stress on the fish, which lessens the mortality
Contrary to belief, there is a mortality rate on catching and releasing
striper, but, in many cases, the fish doesn’t die until days after.
And, the warmer the water, the higher the mortality rate, so catching
and releasing in colder water is much better.
Charlton and his crew had brought along their own live well, which
could store fish briefly, when a lot were coming into the boat rapidly.
No matter what, all the fish were measured and tagged, while some
randomly had samples of their scales pulled to be used for aging at a
later date. The scales can be put under a microscope and a
semi-accurate age can be determined.
The best way to age a fish is by using its inner ear, also known as the
otoliths, but that’s not an option for catching and releasing.
The largest of the fish were always measured, tagged, weighed and had
You can imagine the organized chaos of having five to six rods go off
at one time (half of them being doubled up with fish) and then trying
to get those fish in the boat, in a live well, gather information, and
get the fish back into the water as quickly as possible.
At times, it was game-on for two or three hours straight. Having a boat
with a large carry capacity was nice, but, in this case, it was an
absolute necessity to have so many people on board.
While the mate, Doug Gray, was getting help from another DMF official,
Joey, who was highly efficient at mating and could hold his ground with
a pro any day, I am pretty sure that Doug had an IV of Red Bull hidden
in the front of the boat that he hooked up to every chance he got. The
man was a machine.
Doug and Joey had their job set forth, while Charlton manned the
measuring board and live well.
Charlton would take a scapula to make a tiny incision in the
body of the fish, prior to inserting the tag. One could tell he had
done this a few times before, as he was very efficient at it.
The rest of us took turns fighting fish, writing down info hollered out
nonstop by Charlton, or helping wrangle the stripers on the measuring
board and releasing them.
Captain Ryan would leave the helm when he could to race back and assist
in any way he could.
It was a melee of organized chaos. It was also some of the most fun
I’ve had in a while on a boat. Don’t get me wrong. I always have fun,
no matter the fish I am chasing or catching -- or not catching for that
matter. But, it was fun to catch fish like this for the first time, in
a long time, while learning so much and sharing it with Braxton.
Stripers grow an average of 6 inches per year. Most females between 14
and 18 inches have begun breeding, with nearly 100 percent of females
having bred by 24 inches, along with most females that size having
pushed out of the inshore waters to the coastal waters.
This means that most of the stripers that are caught along the coast
are breeding females.
Many factors have played into the downturn in numbers.
quality and pollution have played heavily into the lower stocks. If the
back waters that the fish are trying to breed in is polluted, then the
actual numbers of spawns will be low.
If heavy rains hit during spawning season, it can lead to low spawns by
dropping the oxygen in those areas or destroying the eggs.
The commercial and recreational harvests have played heavily into the
That statement alone is open for serious political debate, and I am not
going into either side of it, as that’s not the purpose of this column.
But I will reiterate that both types of fishing have had a part in the
Charlton really summed it up best by saying that anglers have tried to
compare recent years to those really good ones in the past. But, those
really good years were due, in part, to incredible spawns years prior.
Comparing them is like comparing apples to vinegar.
By the end of trip number 10, Charlton and his gang had tagged 1,042
stripers. That will hopefully equate to a lot of future data.
The most fish that these guys have caught in one day during their three
years of doing this was last year when they tagged 288 of them. The
largest fish came in last year and weighed roughly 78 pounds.
Thus far, the tag that came from the most distant point was from off
the coast of Canada.
There are eight active striped bass tagging programs from North
Carolina to Massachusetts. These programs help to determine how these
fish migrate and in what areas they are breeding and what areas are
contributing to the stocks.
There is a lot to be learned here. These individuals are not trying to
take away anyone’s fishing.
From everything I saw, these fellas and ladies very much enjoyed
fishing, and we all cracked about how nice it would be if we could take
one home to eat.
These researchers are just trying to learn how to make the fishing
better, and I applaud them for it.
I wish these large schools of coastal stripers would show up off our
coast, so that the tagging and business of the trips could stay on the
Outer Banks, but those are the breaks sometimes.
Charlton said there had been a couple decent spawning seasons in the recent
past and that, in theory, we could see some good inshore striper
fishing in the years to come.
I am glad that some of my money from purchasing my fishing license is
used for programs like this. I hope the research continues and I hope
we see the stripers again.
Go fishing and play hard.
Alderman has lived on the Outer Banks for more than 13 years and has
worked in the recreational fishing industry the entire time. A former
variety fishing TV show host, beach fishing guide, tackle shop and pier
employee, Rob currently owns and operates Outer Banks Kayak Fishing. He
is on the Pro-Staff of Bending Branches LLC, Wilderness Systems Kayaks,
Release Reels, Yakattack and is an ambassador for Ugly Stik. You can
follow his adventures at www.FishMilitia.com or OuterBanksKayakFishing.com.)