A few weeks ago a friend and I were returning from an afternoon spent canoeing on the North River. We had paddled from the Union Street Bridge to the Pembroke Canoe Launch, and before heading home, we had to stop back at Union Street to retrieve my car. It was 8:30 PM, the sun had almost completely set, and I was concerned that the gate at the launch area would be locked for the night. As we rounded the bend, I was relieved to see the gate still wide open. I had expected that my car would be the only one left there, so I was surprised to see the parking area full. Why were there so many people out on the North River on a Sunday night?

A quick glance toward the water answered my question. The tide was going out, and the river banks were lined with people . . . and every one of them had a fishing pole in his or her hand!

I know very little about the sport, but I’ve heard about people like these who will stay up through all hours of the night if it means good fishing. Curious, I called Damon Reed of Norwell — an all-hours fisherman in his own right — to get the story. Why were there so many people hanging out at the river’s edge at the end of the day? It turns out that the striped bass are in town.

Striped bass first appear in the North and South Rivers at the end of April. By the third week in May they are here in good numbers. Like most summer residents, they will stay around until October or November, depending on the water temperature and what kinds of storms we experience in the fall.

The striped bass that we see around here migrate north from the Hudson River or the Chesapeake Bay area. Every year when the weather grows warm, they work their way up the coast (they are rarely found more than three miles offshore), searching for a river or bay or estuary in New England or as far north as the Maritimes in which to spawn. Once they’re here, they stay for the summer.

And we welcome them. Striped bass are popular among fishermen because they put up a good fight and thus are a challenge to catch. They are also quite tasty, Reed explains. Such popularity can be a problem, though. Back in 1980, the experts discovered that the numbers of striped bass were shrinking — not enough of them were surviving to reproductive age and thus the “birth rates” were down. In order to protect the brood stock, state officials set restrictions on what size fish could be kept. To protect maturing fish, each year the Division of Marine Fisheries increased the length requirement, which grew as high as 36 inches. Anything smaller had to be released.

The threat to the striped bass population has lessened in recent years, and the minimum size limit has been lowered to 34 inches. There are now a number of fish of that size — a good many more, Reed reports, than in years past. But there are lots of smaller fish too, so many more that one’s chances of catching an undersized fish are considerably better than catching a keeper. In order to maintain a sizable striped bass population, it is important to release undersized fish properly. Reed offers these recommendations.

* For fly fishermen: Use a barbless hook, which will be very easy to remove once the fish is caught, even if the bass has swallowed the hook. Fish caught with a fly rod and then released have a high survival rate, provided that the rod you use is of proper size and thus you do not have to play the fish to exhaustion to bring it in.

* For those who use spinning or conventional rods/tackle: Commonly used treble hooks can not only hook the fish in the mouth, but also alongside the body, making it difficult to release safely. Removing one or more sets of treble hooks, using less hooks in general, or even using a single hook will help make it easier on both you and the fish.

* For bait fishermen: Instead of letting the fish run with the bait for a while before you set the hook, strike as soon as the fish has picked up the bait. Yes, you will miss more fish this way, but you will greatly increase your chances of hooking a fish on the outer part of the mouth (from where it is easier to release). If the hook has been swallowed, you’ll do the fish less harm in cutting off the hook rather than in trying to remove it..

Once you have caught a striped bass and determined that you will have to release it, treat it well so that it will survive and grow to full “keeper” size. When removing hooks, try to keep the fish in the water and refrain from holding it in a vertical position. If you have to lift it out of the water, do it quickly and gently place (rather than drop) the fish back in when you’re done. If the fish is tired, hold it by the lip or tail and move it back and forth in the water until it breaks away on its own power. Touch the fish as little as possible so as not to remove as little as possible of the slimy coating that protects striped bass from disease and parasites.

Like most fishermen, Damon Reed will not disclose his favorite striped bass fishing places. Stripers have been seen as far upstream on the North River as Route 53, as well as along the length of Humarock on the South River. As striped bass are nocturnal feeders, the best times of day to fish for them are pre-dawn or dusk, especially at the stages of the tides when the water is moving (This would explain the crowds at the Union Street Bridge). Nighttime would be a second choice. As striped bass tend to retreat from sound disturbances and light, daytime is not an optimum to fish for them on the rivers.

– by Kezia Bacon
July 1996

Kezia Bacon of Marshfield is the Assistant Director of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association (NSRWA).