By Jana Seitz
Pullquote: “In a stunning reversal of typical human behavior, the oldest and biggest females are the most desirable.”
There’s a secret language spoken around here come spring, one with catch phrases like “pulled him in on a blood worm” and “the boil could happen any day.” It passes like smoke signals among men from the Hudson River to Long Island Sound to the Atlantic. I set out to understand it recently and found it wasn’t as tough to break as Navajo code. It’s fish talk for the much anticipated spawn migration of the striped bass, four to six weeks of angler bliss, usually peaking appropriately around Mother’s Day.
These fish get around. They’re in rivers and oceans, Florida to Maine, but you wouldn’t know it unless you went searching. And it’s rather spectacular to find them, the how-to fuels fish stories from coast to coast. The Latin name for striped bass, <morone saxitillis,> translates as “stupid found among rocks,” so you wouldn’t suspect them of being particularly elusive. I think that’s part of their game. They’re also tricky, by being anadramous, migrating from salt water to fresh water. The Darwinian reason for this is making babies. Fish eggs float to the top in dense salt water giving predators a better chance, so this species figured out how to make their kidneys balance salt intake to lay eggs in fresh water where they don’t float as they spawn. That’s no morone!
The whole process is fascinating. Like us, fish take their clues for spring break from Mother Nature. Timing is determined by longer days (after Daylight Savings time), better water flow (spring rains and melting snow), warmer water (62 to 66 degrees), and drive-through restaurant availability (schools of fish hatching in tributaries). The major spawning grounds are the Chesapeake and Massachusetts bays, and the Hudson and Delaware rivers. The males arrive first and hang out for a few days, waiting on the women as usual. In a stunning reversal of typical human behavior, the oldest and biggest females are the most desirable. They begin trickling in next, followed by the younger/smaller girls. Then the fun begins: the “rock fights” or “the boil,” the pre-spawning ritual of thrashing around on the surface, swimming on their sides, and slapping the water with their tails. Groups of males surround the cow, nosing and bumping her to knock her eggs out. The trigger for the actual egg release is water temperature, 64.5 being optimal.
When the time has come, the cow sinks below the surface and releases millions of eggs. The milt (boy juice) is released and floats all around in a milky haze, mixing with eggs and floating downstream to hatch a week or so later. Momma Fish’s goal is for her eggs to have time to develop in brackish water before the current carries them to salt water to hatch. She considers the speed of the current and the distance to the sea before choosing her spot, but still only 1 percent make it to age 2. That’s no <morone>.
I had the good fortune to fish the spawn twice this season, both times fishing Esopus Meadows and Kingston Flats, popular shallow spawning spots. The first trip was out of Rondout Creek in Kingston on the Reel Easy with Captain Jay, a retired high school English teacher who’s been studying and fishing striped bass for almost 20 years. We fished by day, trolling with lures on four downriggers. He was chockfull of useful information. The slow, no-wake zone, ride out to the river was a narrated cruise through a by-gone era. Coal, steel, brick manufacturing, and shipping were all once king here in Kingstown, the first capital of New York State (in 1777 for a year, before being burned down by the British). The tattered remnants of past wealth are all around: massive brick buildings now re-purposed to house Ol’ Savannah Restaurant and the Tivoli Sailing Company. Rusting husks of PT (Patrol Torpedo) boats from World War II, a hospital ship and tugboats line the shores of the defunct D&H (Delaware and Hudson) Canal, an interesting piece of Hudson Valley history.
The 108-mile canal and 16-mile gravity railroad were operated by hand and horsepower from 1828 to 1898 to carry coal from the Lackawanna Valley in Pennsylvania to the Hudson at Kingston and down to New York City. The D&H was one of the country’s first million-dollar private enterprises, an engineering feat constructed by some of the best minds of the time, including John Roebling who later built the Brooklyn Bridge. The boats, pulled by mules, were often operated by families living on them during shipping season and spurring development of villages. IBM was the last big employer to pull out of the area in the 1970s, and the town’s recovery has been slow.
My next trip was night fishing out of Rhinebeck, a beautiful village this side of the Hudson just across from Kingston, to which history has been kinder. It established itself as a center for quality woodworking by the 1850s, attracting the wealthy of the Gilded Age from New York City who built country estates. It then became known for cultivating violets with about 20 percent of its population in the business, topping out at a million dollars annually in value.
Kris and Keith of Shrill Outdoors took me out and welcomed me in, two good old boys who know their stuff. We drift fished, a method familiar to me from my Louisiana childhood, trailering the boat to the put-in, baiting the hooks with bloodworms, and casting out, then watching and waiting while we drank beer and swapped stories.
In both cases, the rules were the same. Each fisherman is allowed to keep one fish per day, a standard set by the Department of Environmental Conservation in 2015 to offset dwindling schools. The fish population underwent a rapid explosion when commercial fishing was eliminated because of PCB (Poly Chloral Bi Phenyl) contamination, a by-product of coolants from electrical power plant operations on the river. A striped bass hatchery was set up from 1982 to 1993 at Verplanck to further supplement stocks of wild fish, offsetting the loss of fish and eggs inadvertently sucked into the huge cooling stations.
These actions and the (unspoken) Fishermen’s Code have been successful in replenishing the stock. All must adhere to the slot limit (the keepers) of 18” to 28” or bigger than 40”. All obey the tacit rule of throwing back spawning females.
So, if this tale hooks you, try your luck next spring. A list of charters can be found at NYFISHMAN.NET. Book in January/February, as they fill up fast. The best bait shop is a hidden jewel in Wappingers Falls, Lakehouse Bait Store, where Vinnie dishes up bloodworms the size of jungle snakes. The morones just love ‘em.
The author with her first catch of the day
Guides Kris and Keith with a spawning male
Sunset over the Hudson River with the Caatskills in the distance