NEWBURYPORT — It wasn't exactly as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, but those angling for striped bass Sunday were in luck, as schools of the immensely popular game fish were spotted along the shorelines over the weekend.
Stripers were so plentiful Sunday that, according to Surfland Bait and Tackle's Kay Moulton, they were pushing bait fish toward the beaches.
Unfortunately, those hoping to catch a little of that action yesterday weren't as fortunate. For some reason, the stripers were far and few in between, Moulton said.
"I'm afraid we told everybody, 'You should have been here yesterday,'" she said.
Regardless, the sight of so many bass over the weekend leaves little doubt that the striper season has returned to the Greater Newburyport area, more than a week earlier than normal.
On Sunday, fishermen crowded beaches along Plum Island, and others launched their small craft in the Merrimack River from a mobbed Cashman Park.
"It's all starting to happen: more boats, more people," Newburyport harbormaster Paul Hogg said yesterday.
Stripers are one of the most popular game fish in the region, drawing hundreds of fishermen to the area's most popular fishing spots: the mouth of the Merrimack River, Plum Island Beach, Deer Island in Amesbury and Joppa Flats in Newburyport. They can grow to almost 5 feet long, and their meat is highly prized by fish lovers.
Moulton and Hogg agreed that the striped bass season is starting a little early this season. Typically, the fish swim up the Atlantic coastline from their spawning grounds in Chesapeake Bay, near Maryland and Virginia, and into the region by mid-May.
Both believe that warmer water temperatures are a main reason for the relatively early start to the season. Such an assumption was likely aided by the earlier than usual arrival of herring, the popular bait fish for stripers. The herring, called alewives, were spotted in late March by the thousands in the Parker River in Newbury, weeks earlier than expected. In late March, the temperature reached an abnormal high of around 80.
On Sunday, the bait of choice was sea worms, which Moulton said were the hottest item that day.
"Sea worms really work well in the beginning of the year," he said.
Already, a half-dozen fishermen have had their photos taken with their bass and affixed to a wall display inside Moulton's Plum Island store. According to the state's recreational saltwater fishing regulations, striped bass can be kept only if they are 28 inches or longer. The biggest striper on Moulton's bulletin board as of yesterday was a 15-pound, 4-ounce fish caught by Andy Kelley on May 3.
Richard Hogg of Crossroads Bait and Tackle in Salisbury said he heard reports of a 47-incher caught off Salisbury Beach and multiple 30-inch-plus stripers caught off Cashman Park.
"The season has been pretty good for the last couple of weeks," Hogg, father of Paul Hogg, said.
Both Richard and Paul Hogg said stripers have been traveling far inland, having been caught at the Great Stone Dam in Lawrence.
"They're following the bait," Richard Hogg said.
But Richard Hogg said that if weather reports of days of rain for the region come true, it could seriously curtail the number of stripers caught as freshwater runoff enters the saltwater sections of the river.