One of the many things that has gotten lost or been pushed out of view by the emotional excesses of the winter striper-regulation wrangle: I am—have always been— an unapologetic meat fisherman. I have minor philosophical trouble with “pure” catch-and-release fishing, particularly as it’s practiced by guys who feel compelled to poke holes in stripers, fight them for five minutes on borderline too-light gear, then repeat until they’ve racked up a shock-and-awe tally of stripers—25 or 30 or 50 fish—molested in the name of high sport then featured in an entire afternoon’s bragging around the marina.
Granted it’s not always like this— the whole competitive angle guys so often fall into. I must admit that I don’t love the idea of driving a steel sharp through the face of a critter I have no intentions of filleting or eating just for a gas—just to see what happens. I got the gist of that arrangement the first time I put a worm hook in a largemouth bass at age 6, give or take: Seems fish don’t particularly relish the chance to get stabbed in the face, dragged across a weed-choked pond by a string attached to the aforementioned piece of steel, then partially asphyxiated and freed—an activity that seems damned close to “pure” sadism.
It’s not that I spill crocodile tears for every bass that ends up wearing one of my hooks—more that it feels righteous to spare our down- trending striped bass the additional strain of a needless puncture wound or worse, a gut-hook.
In a perfect world I’d sting a fish or two, appreciate the turbo-charged fight of a 35-inch lineside in very cold water, bleed and ice one for the table, maybe pick another fight or two with relatively ballsy tackle, put the wood to these fish, then send them back somewhat the wiser for the encounter, swap my striper stick out for fluke weaponry and resume the fillet-and-release work.
I mention this because suddenly it’s May, and I’ve spoken with several of the top-dog charter skippers— guys who typically have large chunks of their schedules booked solid by this point. This year, the silence has been unnerving as the angling public—including all the folks who have booked multiple striper charters every season since that stock rebounded in the late 1990s. There are big question marks about the long-range sustainability of our post- moratorium appetite for striper flesh.
I don’t want to sound like an elitist, here, but I’ve been dismayed to hear from a few old friends in ther chartering racket that they’ve had actual cancellations from long- time clients in the wake of the recent announcement of the one-at-28” bag limit reduction. Between the radio silence on the booking end and this meat-or-bust attitude among some percentage of those buying charters, it’s obvious we’re l-o-n-g overdue for a serious attitude adjustment on the so-called “recreational” end of the fishery.
As I said, I more than understand the urge to put away a surplus of world-class, wild-caught fish for future meals. What I’m struggling to fathom is some anglers’ willingness to abandon ship on rod-and-reeling because there is no guarantee, in light of the tighter limits, that a charter is going to deliver a windfall of future grocery savings to offset the dollars out for a day on the water.
If we have any enduring love and respect for Island waters, the stripers they harbor, or the men who make their living there, it’s time to consider what really defines a memorable and successful trip. It seems almost sacrilegious to evaluate a charter solely as a fish purchase, where you put the fillet yield on a hand scale and divide the trip’s cost by net pounds to calculate the price-per-pound of your striper experience.
If you can boil a pre-dawn mission across the Sound on a light-and- variable May morning—if you can declare the North Rip or Southwest Corner, the spring air full of birds, the surface fragmented by fleeing sand eels and popping bass, a failure because the fillet bag you filed off the boat carrying didn’t feed enough people for enough days, fishing ain’t for you.
One of my foremost fishing mentors has spend the last 20 years working to transition away from Rhode Island’s 50-plus-year legacy as a meat-fishing hub—weeding out the percentage of clientele that expects trash bags full of freezer-ballast fillets in exchange for the cost of a charter. “It’s your livelihood,” he has often said to me, “not just today or tomorrow, but every day. If a guy expects you to jeopardize the future of the very fish that make your livelihood possible, then you don’t need his money. Your job is to take him fishing, not walk with him to the fish market.”
For better or worse, Rhode Island has always been a meat-fishing hub, and the immediate hardships our charter fleet is feeling start and end there. To put things in perspective, a full-day striper trip commands north of $1,200 in Montauk, well over $1,000 in CT, and over $1,200 in most parts of Mass. And yet, here in RI, the charter fleet gets uneasy about the $800 it charges for a full day’s fishing on grounds immeasurably more productive, accessed via a much shorter and less exposed steam. (Consider that some Montaukers add a surcharge to make the crossing to Block Island when fishing tapers off in points west.
Where, then, is the disconnect? Unfortunately, the Ocean State’s legacy as a meat-fishing hub reflects the state’s chronic failure to broadcast its unique— in many ways unparalleled—credentials as a world-class angling destination. At a point when our primary claim to interstate fame is a top-three finish in the race toward 100% unemployment. The so-called “political leadership” in RI is forever courting the next big thing in economic development (a la Kurt Schilling, liquid natural gas or container shipping). At every turn, we’re trying to bring assets into the Ocean State from elsewhere. But barring the occasional synaptic hiccup that moves us to name calamari our official appetizer or declare the quahog our state bird* (*this never happened), we almost never look at the economic potential of what’s already here, what has always been here.
Especially now, when the fishing industry faces such diverse threats, it has never been more important to tell the world why so many of us stick it out in Lil Rhody despite all the economic disadvantages. Off the top of my head, we might start with the spring striper fishery at Block Island, which should gain steam from the second week of May onward as waves of north-/eastbound migrant stripers hit town.