Learn about striped bass

Find information about the biology, habits, and management of striped bass in Massachusetts.

The striped bass is native to the United States and Canada. It is found from the lower St. Lawrence River in Canada to Northern Florida, and along portions of the Gulf of Mexico. The striped bass have been prized in Massachusetts since colonial times. Today, they support both recreational and commercial fisheries in Massachusetts. Striped bass is by far one of the most important fish to local anglers. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) does much research to support the proper management of the species.

Appearance

  • Striped bass can weigh over 100 pounds, but it is rare to find one over 50 pounds. Females are far larger than males.
  • Striped bass have large mouths and jaws that extend below the eye. The body of the fish is blueish to dark olive, with silver sides and belly. There are also 7 or 8 stripes that run from the head to tail of the fish.
striped bass

Striped bass fisheries in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, striped bass were food for native Americans in pre-colonial times. They have been an important natural resource since the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts in 1620.  

Today, striped bass supports both recreational and commercial fisheries that take over 175,000 fish each year. Any Massachusetts resident or non-resident may fish for striped bass but either a recreational or commercial permit is required to do so.

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Striped bass biology and habitats in Massachusetts

Most striped bass in Massachusetts come from Chesapeake Bay, Delaware River, and Hudson River.  Striped bass normally do not migrate during the first two years of life. From tagging research, we have learned that striped bass migrate northward in the spring and summer months and return south in the fall.  Fish from Chesapeake Bay exhibit more extensive migrations and are caught as far north as the Bay of Fundy in coastal Canada. A few striped bass stay in Massachusetts waters during winter.

Striped bass can live up to 40 years and reach weights greater than 100 pounds. However, individuals larger than 50 pounds are rare. The all-tackle angling record fish was caught in Connecticut in 2011 and weighed 81½ pounds. The Massachusetts record is a 73-pound fish caught at Nauset Beach in 1981.

Females grow larger than males and most stripers over 30 pounds are female. The number of eggs produced by a female striped bass is directly related to the size of its body; a 12-pound female may produce about 850,000 eggs, and a 55-pound female about 4,200,000 eggs. Males are able to spawn starting when they are two or three years of age, but females do not begin to spawn until they are at least five or six years of age. Stripers reproduced in rivers and the brackish areas of estuaries. Spawning occurs from the spring to early summer, with the greatest activity occurring when the water warms to about 65 degrees F. The eggs drift in currents until they hatch 1 ½ to 3 days after being fertilized. Because newly hatched larvae are nearly helpless; striped bass suffer their highest rate of natural mortality during the several weeks after hatching.

Striped bass are rarely found more than several miles from the shoreline. Anglers usually catch stripers in river mouths, in small, shallow bays and estuaries, and along rocky shorelines and sandy beaches. The striped bass is a schooling species, moving about in small groups during the first two years of life, and thereafter feeding and migrating in large schools.

Striped bass eat a variety of foods, including fish such as alewives, flounder, sea herring, menhaden, mummichogs, sand lance, silver hake, tomcod, smelt, silversides, and eels, as well as lobsters, crabs, soft clams, small mussels, sea worms, and squid. Feeding occurs throughout the day, although night feeding does occur.   Because striped bass are so abundant in Massachusetts waters during summer, their feeding can impact populations of prey important to other fish species.

Learn about striped bass tagging in MA

Learn about the diet of striped bass in MA

Striped bass management

The numbers of striped bass along the Atlantic coast have fluctuated greatly over recorded history. Very low numbers occurred at the end of the 19th century. No catches of stripers were reported north of Boston for 30 years after 1897. Numbers recovered a bit by 1921, and numbers increased for 6 years of increased numbers following a very good year of reproduction in 1934 . Large numbers of young fish were seen during the 1940s in Massachusetts waters and increases in numbers followed.  During the 1970s, the last peak year of reproductive success in the Chesapeake Bay was 1970. Low numbers of young were produced in

the 1980s, except in 1982 when modest numbers occurred. Thus, most of the bass harvested during the 1970s and 1980s had come from the spawning effort of 1970. This prolonged period of reproductive failure had caused a steady decline in striped bass numbers. The decline caused decreases in fishing success by recreational anglers and commercial harvester. For example, recreational anglers along the Atlantic coast caught about 6,600,000 pounds in 1979 but only 1,700,000 pounds in 1985. Catches of striped bass by commercial harvest plummeted from 14 million pounds in 1973 to 3.7 million pounds in 1984.

The decline in numbers of stripers coming from the Chesapeake Bay was caused by many factors, including the pollutants in spawning grounds, fishing pressure, and feeding and nutritional problems of larvae. A changing management plan was developed in response to the severely depleted numbers of the striped bass. Before the mid-1970s, management of striped bass was carried out more or less independently by each coastal state. In 1979, Congress amended the Anadromous Fish Act to create the Emergency Striped Bass Study Program. In 1981, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) adopted a coast wide management plan, to be acted upon by each coastal state. This plan recommended minimum size limits for fish caught in nursery rivers and in coastal areas, and restricted fishing on spawning grounds during the spawning season. In response to falling numbers of stripers on the East Coast, this plan was amended (Amendment 3) in 1985 to protect females hatched in 1982 until they have spawned at least once. In 1985, several states imposed mortaria or began a progressive increase in minimum size limits scheduled to reach 38 inches in total length by 1990. Amendment 3 of the ASMFC's plan also stipulated that regulations protecting the 1982 year class would remain in place until the 3-year average of the Maryland's juvenile index (a measure of year class strength) exceeded the long-term average of 8.0.

The Maryland juvenile index value exceeded 8.0 in 1989 and initiated a new management regime. In late 1989, Amendment 4 to the ASMFC's plan was adopted. The amendment required that striped bass must be managed to first restore the spawning stock biomass and then to support fishery yield. Under Amendment 4, the states were allowed to have limited fisheries starting in 1990. Daily bag limits of one or two fish were imposed on the recreational fishery of all states and the commercial fishery catch was greatly reduced compared to historical levels. Each state was also required to record all catches and to calculate fishing mortality using research methods.

During 1992-1994, increases in spawning stock and high numbers of young striped bass from Maryland prompted the ASMFC to declared in 1995 that the Atlantic coast striped bass population had recovered.  Amendment 5 was then adopted to address management of recovered stocks. The amendment allowed slight increases in fishing mortality and broadened states' options for meeting management goals while preventing overfishing and maintaining self-sustaining spawning stocks. Due to the lack of a definition for a quality fishery in Amendment 5, the ASMFC striped bass management board passed Amendment 6 in 2003 to produce regulations that maximize the overall benefits of the available striped bass resource.

The 2016 ASMFC stock assessment indicated that the coast-wide striped bass population is declining, although it is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.   

Angling tips

The striped bass is so prized for its size and battle on the line that many anglers consider it the best game fish in Massachusetts. This species is found in Massachusetts from May to November. Fishing at dusk or dawn is the best time to catch them, but fishing at night is often good during midsummer. Fishing with bait or lures from the shore is best in areas where currents occur.

Fishermen who fish from shore use plugs and live eels and some prefer a 10-12 foot surf rod and reel with 30 to 40-pound test line. Other fishermen like a medium to heavy rod with 12 to 20-pound test line and consider it ideal for plugging, jigging, or offering bottom-fished baits to bass.

Lures are attached to the line with a snap swivel. When bait fishing, the preferred rig has a pyramid sinker attached as a fish finder, and a long leader with a colored float attached close to the hook. The float keeps the bait away from the bottom-dwelling crabs and skates.

Many fishermen have great luck using live bait such as herring, menhaden (pogies), or mackerel. A stiff boat rod with a conventional reel is the preferred rig. A live fish is hooked through the back or snout using either a single or treble hook.

When trolling for bass in a boat, the rod should have a high-ratio reel and carboloy guides to prevent line wear. The fishermen use monofilament, lead-core or wire lines depending on the water depth. Many plugs, jigs, tubes, umbrella rigs as well as live bait are good for trolling for stripers.

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