AUTHOR’S NOTE: This piece originally appeared November 3, 2013 in the Stripersonline Fly Fishing Forum in response to a request for “theories” as to why Northeast striped bass and false albacore fishing had declined in the fall of 2013.
My usual position when sorting out this kind of natural “puzzle” is that we tend to overcomplicate the issue – the cause and effect that drive these things are often simpler than we make them out to be. We have a tendency to look too deep. But this one’s a doozy and I don’t know if anyone will ever really sort it out entirely. Here’s my spin:
Game fish and forage cycles are certainly at the core of what’s going on. Furthermore, inshore species competition for available prey is fueling transition. When the numbers of one species swell, that species tends to dominate inshore waters, consuming most of the prey and furthering that species’ proliferation. The less dominant species must seek forage elsewhere and survival gets tougher and their numbers fall further . . . this continues until something happens that starts the pendulum moving the other way. It could be disease, increased predation by creatures higher up the food chain, over-harvest . . . there’s a long list. I believe these natural cycles are fundamentally “smooth” (like a sine wave) – a natural progression from one competing species dominance to another that shifts gradually and rhythmically over time, rather than the sudden and protracted shifts that we often see today. Natural events can certainly upset the apple cart, but I think Human impact is most significant (over-harvesting a species, destruction of vital wetlands, rivers, and the benthos, misguided bureaucratic and legislative endeavors . . . this is a long list, too). In the world we live in today, those natural rhythmic cycles are no longer smooth – they’re jagged, spikey, and much more dramatic.
Ok, so if it’s fish cycles, what about inshore albies? There’s no black market for those guys and they spawn somewhere off in the wild blue yonder, not in tributaries that feed the Chesapeake.
I annually examine the final results of the Martha’s Vineyard Derby for total catch numbers for four species: stripers, bluefish, bonito and false albacore. You can view this year’s results online, but the trend’s been consistent for several years. 2013 produced the following:
Striped bass – 487
Bluefish – 919
False albacore – 236
Bonito – 358
I consider this a great data point – the Derby runs for a month amidst the fall migration and the contestants fish from both shore and boat with every manner of tackle over a range of waters surrounding the Vineyard. In the years 2004 – 2005 fly anglers were hard-pressed to capture a bluefish from shore. Today, contestants fill that category quickly and effortlessly. Times have changed. Striped bass weigh-ins began dropping off in that event about six years ago, reaching a low of 384 fish in 2010 (lowest count since 1997). Since then, striper weigh-ins have increased slightly.
I don’t know what this site’s readership’s average age is, but I do know that regardless of age a lot of people became interested in inshore angling (especially fly fishing) at a time when striped bass were returning in a huge way and false albacore fishing (especially from shore) came into being. For those old enough to remember the 10+ year dearth of stripers that plagued us prior to 1990, do you remember albies blasting our inshore silversides each fall? I remember them bouncing about here and there off the shoreline and boaters occasionally caught one, but the fishery was not established and most people hadn’t a clue how to catch them. When they did – surprise, it was more likely to be a bonito! I do remember them off Watch Hill and Montauk, but I surely don’t recall a shore fishery. And I don’t ever recall a bonito catch from shore, but often by boaters.
Today seems remarkably like the ‘80s again . . .
Over the last several years I’ve witnessed increasing numbers of snapper blues in my Rhode Island home waters. This past season the numbers were mind boggling. For years when striped bass were on the bounce-back and our Northeast fishery was fabulous at worst and saltwater fly fishing was peaking as a sport (1990 – 2005ish) I rarely encountered snappers in our estuaries – all summer long. And I was sight-fishing back there a lot and taking stripers right through till fall migration fishing started to shape up along the beaches. Bluefish in general were somewhat hard to come by, but no one was overly upset. One season it began with the snappers, sometime in early August they mysteriously appeared. The following years there were more and more of them each summer (always appearing in early August). That’s when I began to see the decline with stripers and other fishing (albies). It’s progressed to where we are today.
A number of people this past season asked me, “Where’s all the bait”? – great question. One guy actually asked me that as we stood on the Weekapaug Breachway amidst a snapper melee where they shred every silverside in sight, completing a project they started a month and a half earlier back in the pond, back in August. Snappers have been wiping out our annual silverside crop before it even makes it to sea! No wonder the albacore have dodged us – without an abundance of near-shore prey there’s just little reason for them to come.
Ok, perhaps we’re in a bluefish / bonito high and a striper / albie low cycle – pretty simple. Here’s the tough question – where are the blues . . . the big ones? This is all eerily like the ‘80s to me, except back then there was plenty of shoreline bluefish action from September through November. They were usually on bunker of one size or another. Chunkers took big blues on any given night throughout the fall.
To round out this “theory” I’m going with the bunker factor – it’s the wildcard in all this. Without near-shore bunker availability there’s simply no reason for adult blues to come in tight. Mullet would do it, too, and last year we had plenty, but no significant bluefish blitzes materialized. It’s puzzling. Their babies are certainly taking care of the silversides and I have a suspicion that the big blues are devouring other principle forage (large sand eels, mullet, anchovies . . .) away from the shorelines. If you patrol the coastline by boat from August through a good part of October here in Rhode Island you’ll consistently find medium to large (5 – 10 pound) blues scattered about in pods, randomly feeding on abundant small bait (small sand eels and anchovies) within a mile or two from shore. But no one seems overly interested in pursuing this option. If those pods of blues were schoolie stripers (or better yet, albies) instead, this discussion wouldn’t even be taking place. My theory in three words: cyclic bluefish domination.
Keep in mind that this is just a swing at this issue – an answer to a “call for theories” . . . I could be way off (it’s November 3rd and the water’s still 60F). But if I am on the right track, what’ll be the trigger that reverses the pendulum’s swing? Who knows, maybe it’s already reversed and we just don’t know it yet. Perhaps bluefish will run out of forage and start in on their own young . . . they are known to do that.