By John Macone
---- — PLUM ISLAND — Kay Moulton has uttered those two words that are sweet music to the ears of every striped bass fisherman.
And she uttered a few more musical words as well.
“And there’s a lot of them.”
The first official “keeper” sized fish of the season was brought into Kay’s Surfland on Plum Island Thursday. A keeper is a fish that is at least 28 inches long, the minimum size that can be taken in Massachusetts.
Mother’s Day is the traditional start of the striped bass season in the local area. The popular gamefish follow hot on the tails of smaller baitfish, such as shad and herring, as they head north up the coast on their annual migration. The striper season in local waters typically lasts from mid May to about mid June; the stripers head to northern waters during the hottest months of the summer, then in the fall blitz through on their way south.
The keeper fish was caught off Plum Island Point, one of 12 fish hauled in by three fishermen, said Moulton, who has been at the helm of Plum Island’s iconic bait and tackle shop for over 50 years. Fishermen have been bringing their keepers into her store since 1962 to get their picture taken and their name and catch recorded for posterity. They are added to a big photo collage that has long been a wall of fame for local fishermen.
Moulton said striped bass were also being found at one of the most popular fishing spots in the Merrimack River, Deer Island in Amesbury. Fish are also being found in numbers in the Haverhill stretch of the Merrimack, because the waters above it are too shallow for the fish to run right now.
Schools of baitfish have been spotted moving along the local coast and up rivers for the past couple weeks. A two-hundred-yard long school of baitfish, with dozens of birds furiously diving into it, could be seen yesterday in the waters just north of Plum Island Center.
It is early in the season, but Moulton said there are some encouraging signs for the fish population this year. One of the key indicators is a good run of river herring and shad this year. Anecdotal information from fishing website forums and news stories indicate that large runs of herring have been seen in rivers all along the Massachusetts coast this year. State fisheries officials did not return calls by press deadline.
Moulton said another indicator is the presence of small stripers, 8 or so inches long. For the past couple years these small fish were rarely caught in this area, leading fishermen to believe that the overall striper population is declining. Moulton said their presence might indicate that the stock is rebounding, at least locally.
Fisheries officials who monitor the striped bass population in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay could not be reached for comment yesterday. However, according to a report by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, last fall’s survey of newly spawned stripers showed the lowest levels in the 59-year history of the monitoring program. It was an aberration, as the results of the prior year’s survey was the fourth highest on record.
“While we expect large variation in striped bass reproduction from year to year and do not view this low value as an imminent problem, we will be carefully monitoring the results of future surveys,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell in a statement. “Three consecutive years of poor reproduction would be necessary to trigger mandatory conservation measures.”
Striped bass spawning success can vary dramatically from year to year. Environmental conditions such as water flow rates and water temperature influence spawning success. The highly successful years of 1989, 1996, and 2001 were followed by below-average years.