Article for November - December 2006
For Wildlife Watchers: Striped bass
by Rob Simbeck
photography by Phillip Jones
EGGS ARE AMONG THE MOST REMARKABLE of biological entities. Each is designed to encapsulate and nourish a member of the next generation for a brief, precarious time at the dawn of its life. As crucial as that role is, eggs are, in general, quite fragile commodities. Even those with hard, protective shells are susceptible to mishap and breakage, and those without—well, they’re commonly fated to become quick nourishment for some other species.
Creatures that lay few eggs are likely to take extraordinary care with them. Birds, for instance, construct often hard-to-reach nests and may maintain bodily contact until the young hatch. Those that lay a lot of eggs can afford to be more cavalier about the process.
Many fish are, of course, among the latter group, and in the case of the striped bass, we can be talking extreme numbers. A female’s fecundity increases with age and size, with a five-pounder releasing 25,000 eggs, a twelve-pounder a million, and a seventy-five-pounder 10 million. They generally do so after a long swim upriver, with the eggs, carried away on currents, hatching after forty-eight hours or so. Those hatchlings develop mouthparts in about five days and can then begin feeding. They form small schools and move toward the shore, feeding at first on zooplankton, then on small crustaceans and mayflies. Very few—less than 1 percent, it is thought—avoid being eaten long enough to make it to adulthood. Still, those can be impressive numbers. One member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony reported in 1614 that he had seen so many it seemed possible to walk across their backs without getting his shoes wet. Those who recall the passenger pigeon, however, know that it is possible for humans to lay waste to true marvels of superabundance, and that nearly happened to Atlantic striped bass. By the 1970s, dams, pollution and overfishing had driven the species to a worrisome collapse.
In 1984, though, Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, which has guided states in their management of the species and helped spur a comeback. South Carolina was able to watch that process with some measure of detachment, since it is south of the range of ocean-migrating striped bass, which runs from North Carolina to the St. Lawrence River. (Stripers, also known as rockfish, are also found southward to the St. John’s River in Florida and across the northern Gulf of Mexico.)
(Saxatilus means “rock-dweller”; the meaning of Morone is unknown.)
Description: Greenish-blue back, silvery sides, white underbelly, with 6 to 8 horizontal stripes. Normally 2 to 20 pounds, they can reach weights of more than 100 pounds.
Habitat and Range: Eastern seaboard and northern Gulf of Mexico. Stripers are found in South Carolina’s major river systems and are stocked in several lakes.
Reproduction: Males mature at 2 years, females at 3 to 4. Spawning takes place in the spring.
Viewing Tips: A good bet might be a rod and reel in one of the state’s rivers or lakes.
“Our stripers,” says S.C. Department of Natural Resources Chief of Fisheries Wade Bales, “generally stay within our drainages with minimal movement offshore or among river systems, and with migration up our coastal rivers to spawn. Genetic surveys indicate the populations—for example, Savannah River, Ashepoo/Combahee/Edisto, Santee and Pee Dee—are distinct striper populations.”
Those populations vary in strength and sustainability. Those in the ACE Basin, for instance, are small but self-sustaining. The Savannah River population is naturally reproducing but, according to Bales, "has been and continues to be augmented with stocking. This, coupled with recent restricted harvest regulations, is a long-term effort to re-establish the mature, spawning-size fish abundance to ensure this population continues to exist."
In the late 1950s, the Santee-Cooper system was identified as the state’s only landlocked bass population that naturally reproduces, according to Bales.
"It is currently not self-sustaining," he says, "for reasons we are investigating now as we work on management options to solve this problem."
Stocking has helped maintain strong, albeit non-reproducing, striped bass populations in lakes Hartwell, Thurmond, Greenwood, Murray and Wateree. Finally, hybrids called Palmetto bass are produced in South Carolina and stocked in lakes Hartwell and Thurmond.
Spawning is triggered by water temperature, occurring when it reaches 68° Fahrenheit for at least two or three days. In South Carolina, stripers typically spawn in March or April.
Stripers are fished commercially north of the state, and their size, fighting ability and taste make them extremely popular game fish. That has led to their spread to many parts of the world via stocking programs. South Carolina has been a big part of that process, as DNR fisheries biologists pioneered methods for spawning and producing striped bass in 1961.
"Since that time," says Bales, "stripers produced by DNR have been distributed to nearly all fifty states and many foreign countries in cooperative stocking efforts." The state's striper fishery, largely because of the DNR's production and stocking, brings nearly $100 million annually to the state’s economy.
Stripers are true bass, unlike largemouth and smallmouth, which are actually members of the sunfish family. They are greenish-blue on the back, silvery on the sides and white beneath, with six to eight horizontal stripes. Males reach sexual maturity at two years, females a year or two later.
At one year, they are about a foot long. Adults, which primarily eat fish and invertebrates, move in schools and feed most actively in the morning and evening, reducing their feeding when the water temperature is below 50° Fahrenheit.
Age is the chief determiner of size, and stripers have been known to reach 100 pounds. The largest ever taken with tackle was 53 inches long and 34½ inches around, weighing 78 pounds. It was caught in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was determined to be thirty-six years old.
The record in South Carolina is 59 pounds, 8 ounces, caught in 2002 in Lake Hartwell by Terry McConnell, although Bales says, "I've held a striper that weighed sixty-plus pounds from one of our reservoirs—It bottomed out a fifty-pound scale and I never got it out of the water."
"The exact location," he adds with the merest hint of a smile, "is highly classified."
Rob Simbeck lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and writes for a number of state and national publications.
© 2006 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine - www.scwildlife.com