Our Fading Magnolia Stripers
September 30, 2010
Angling for these rugged fish is becoming more difficult in Mississippi as their stock dwindles. Let's see why striped bass fishing is going through such drastic changes.
By Robert H. Cleveland
Keith Partridge misses the days when he could drive a few blocks from downtown Jackson, park on a city street on the edge of the historic Belhaven neighborhood, hike a few hundred yards and begin catching striped bass with every cast.
And not just any old fish, mind you - but rather giants that would test his skills, push his tackle to the limit and send him back to his truck with an additional 40 to 50 pounds to carry.
"I'm not kidding you," said Partridge, who loves to reminisce about his walk-in trips to the Pearl River in the 1970s and '80s. "If I had a spare hour or two, I could run to town and be fishing in 10 minutes - and catching 10-, 15- and even 20-pound stripers just as fast as I could cast. They would be stacked up in there below the lowhead dam near the Jackson water plant. It really didn't matter what you threw - you were going to catch one.
"I can't tell you just how big they got back then, because there were some we couldn't turn. They'd just break off. We could catch them up to 25 or 30 pounds, but there were some that - well ... we never had a chance. If we'd had a boat and could follow them, maybe we could have caught one. As it was, on the bank, they'd take off, and we could only chase them so far."
The good old days: Man, does Partridge miss them. His last trip was in the mid to late 1980s. He can't remember exactly what year it was; all he knows is that he sure wishes it could be that easy again. It'd save him a lot of time and money.
Photo by Terry Jacobs
"If you never got to do that, you missed out on something special," he recalled. "Nowadays, I drive about 600 miles round-trip to the Louisiana marsh to experience the same kind of action with redfish. That's the only thing I can compare it to. Back then, within 15 minutes of anywhere in the metro area, you could be catching big fish - all you could handle. I hate it that we can't do that anymore."
What created that fishery was the stocking of striped bass in Barnett Reservoir, the 33,000-acre impoundment on the Pearl River a few miles north of Jackson. Stripers, a nomadic fish, are never very happy with one home area for very long. Biologists say that it's instinct that drives them to swim with the river currents.
"That was always a problem with the stripers on Barnett," said Ron Garavelli, chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "That was back before I came to the Jackson office, but I know from reading and from talking to the former people here that stripers stocked in Barnett Reservoir escaped through the spillway before maturing."
The agency's goals of creating a new fishery and putting additional pressure on a growing shad population in the lake never came to fruition. "What it did was create a fishery below the dam," Garavelli said. "The stripers that were stocked in Barnett got into the river, and it didn't take long before it was full of them from the Barnett Spillway to the Gulf Coast. People were catching stripers - and still are - from Jackson to Columbia, from Columbia to Poplarville and from there to the Gulf.
"The stripers we put in at the reservoir began showing up all the way to the coast, which is their native area. Our coastal rivers were once home to a native population that we are trying to restore now."
Records and some newspaper accounts from the early 1900s indicate that the striped bass was indeed a fish of choice for a lot of Mississippi coastal anglers in the Pascagoula, Biloxi, Jordan and Pearl River systems, along with Fort Bayou. But as those rivers underwent changes wrought by human intervention, the stripers began disappearing. The damming of the Pearl at Barnett slowed the river's flow. Other rivers remained free-flowing but were damaged by channelization and chemical run-off from industry and agriculture. Striper numbers fell, and it wasn't until the 1960s era that biologists began attempts to curb that decline.
When the state began obtaining stripers from the federal hatcheries and other sources and, eventually, hatching its own, the idea arose to introduce them into other areas, the feeling being that states like Arkansas and Tennessee were having great success with stripers in their reservoirs.
Unlike largemouth bass, stripers prefer deep, open water in reservoirs, and thus provide a tool with which to keep shad populations in check without subjecting the native populations of largemouths - which feed mostly in shallow, backwater areas - to a significant degree of additional competition.
According to Garavelli, all lakes can support only a certain level of biomass (the technical name for all living creatures in a body of water), of which game fish like bass, crappie, catfish and bream are just a small part. Swimming the lake as well are rough fish like gar, buffalo and bowfin, and forage fish like threadfin and gizzard shad. And the more shad there are, the less room in the lake there is for preferred species like bass and crappie.
At many reservoirs (Barnett in the 1970s and '80s, for instance), the biomass can sometimes get out of whack - sometimes to the point that game fish populations struggle. In the late '70s, Barnett, which just a few years before had been one of the country's most productive bass lakes, became known to local anglers as "the Dead Sea."
Biologists intervened with plans foreign to the bass fishermen. Jack Herring, a fisheries biologist who oversaw the reservoir, pushed for a bass slot limit to promote recruitment of small bass through the maturation process.
"I remember when we first announced that, people thought we were crazy, and it was a hard sell," said Herring, who before retiring became chief of fisheries, director of wildlife and fisheries and eventually the executive director of the MDWFP. His success at restoring Barnett was an important rung on his climb up the ladder. "But we pushed and we pushed and we educated and we won a lot of them over. Eventually, bass fishing began to turn around. Then we had everybody's support."
It was at about that time that biologists thought about introducing stripers to the reservoir. If they got a population established, it could help control the shad and, by giving bass anglers another big species to target, ease the pressure on largemouths.
The trouble with this plan was that the stripers didn't seem happy with their new home. They'd run through the spillway gates as quickly as they could find them, which was easy, since all currents showed
Then, biologists created the hybrid striper, a cross between a striped bass and a white bass. The hope was that the hybrid would be more at home in the reservoirs - would establish a population, and not leave. At Barnett, it worked almost immediately. Stockings of striped bass were discontinued or greatly reduced, and the hybrid stripers began being stocked by the hundreds of thousands in Barnett, Sardis and other major reservoirs.
"For my money, it was the greatest thing they ever did on Barnett," said Joe Watts of Canton, who had long been a fan of the upper-river fishing at the reservoir. "I was up there one day bass fishing in the spring, and I saw a school of fish blasting on the surface near a sandbar. I cast in there and immediately hooked up with what I thought had to be the biggest bass in the river. Turned out it was about a 6-pound hybrid.
"When it came to the boat and I netted it, I looked down at it - and didn't know for sure what it was. I had caught stripers before, but this one was different. It wasn't long and wasn't shaped like a bullet; its body was broad. I put it in the ice chest and made another cast, and hooked up again. I must have caught 50 or 60, and all of them were between 4 and 6 pounds. I had a ball. I was an instant fan."
But Watts was one of the few. While the hybrid became his favorite target on Barnett, tournament bass fishermen never accepted it. They'd bought into Herring's slot limit and, apparently, weren't interested in buying anything else.
"We simply couldn't get enough people interested in them," said Garavelli retrospectively. "I think that in all our surveys, the highest percent of people targeting the hybrid we ever found was less than 2 percent, and they were also targeting largemouth."
The cost of crossing the whites and stripes in a laboratory wasn't bringing enough return in fishing pressure. In the 1990s, the biologists began looking back at the pure striper, and at stocking them.
"We didn't go back to stocking hundreds of thousands of them like we had been in the early '80s," Garavelli stated, "but we kept stocking enough to sustain the population in the spillway and the river below the dam. That's were we get our brood fish for raising stripers in our hatcheries. We will always do that."
This cutback in stripers and, to some degree, hybrids, at fisheries in Barnett has occasioned no detectible controversy - perhaps because there's so much focus on the state's new hybrid honeyhole, Eagle Lake near Vicksburg, and the current striper holes, the Mississippi, lower Pearl and other coastal rivers.
Sidney Montgomery, a Madison resident who also lives near Eagle Lake while on duty at Tara Wildlife Inc., is a striper enthusiast who sees the Mississippi River as a hotspot with ever more potential. "I catch a lot of white bass, hybrid stripers and sea-run stripes in the River and in the connected oxbows," Montgomery said. "I really would like to see the state and other states along the river concentrate on building and then sustaining a striped bass fishery on the Mississippi River. I know from experience that it will grow some monsters. I've hooked up with some that stripped all my line.
"I do best behind the dikes and jetties when the water is running moderate and is clear. They stack in there behind the walls and poise behind the breaks in the tops of the rocks to feed on forage washed over in the current. I use crankbaits and tailkickers, but I catch most of them on leadheads and 3-inch curl-tail pearl grubs."
Montgomery would like to see a more aggressive approach to direct stocking of stripes into the river. Because of its fertility, he thinks, it can sustain a much bigger population than it currently maintains through "incidental" stockings.
"From my understanding, we're getting a lot of stripers in the river from states upstream, like the Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee river systems," he said. "A lot of states are stocking them, and they are working their way into the Mississippi. Every time I catch a striper, I look at it and wish it could talk - I'd love to know where it came from. I'd love to know every one of their stories."
It's even possible that some of Montgomery's stripers were Mississippi products, first stocked in a coastal river, then migrating through the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and up into the Mississippi River.
Mississippi's stocking program in coastal rivers has become more aggressive in recent decades. Millions of fish have been stocked in the coastal systems, and this has created several good fisheries. Slowly but surely, it has also created a new breed of coastal fisherman as more and more anglers discover the joy of striper fishing.
"One of the most exciting fish you can hook," said Phillip Moore of Biloxi, who likes to fish in the Biloxi and Tchoutacabouffa river system. "Short of going offshore and hooking up with something like a cobia, tuna or amberjack, I can't think of anything else I'd rather fish for. It took me a few years and a lot of reading to figure out how to catch them on a regular basis, but once I did, I developed a passion for them."
Moore agrees with statistics from the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory that the best months for fishing fall in spring and autumn. The GCRL has taken over the stocking program and has released a lot of tagged fish to track through recovery. According to GCRL biologist Larry Nicholson, most of the tagged fish reported have been caught in the spring and the fall.
"I think that's accurate," Moore said, "because I catch more fish when the water temperature is between 65 and 75 degrees. That seems to trigger striper activity, and it also provides an easier pattern for catching them. When it's colder or hotter, the stripes go to deep holes, and a lot of times, you have to fish live bait on a deep line to catch them.
"In the spring, as the water temperature climbs up and through that magic range, the fish come up and start feeding in cuts and on bars, and you see them tearing up schools of menhaden and other forage fish on the surface. That's what I love. Then we can switch to artificials and start casting away. It's awesome to see a school of big stripers feeding on top - it gets my blood pumping."
The Rat-L-Traps is one of Moore's favorites, along with some Mississippi-made slab spoons and tailspinners. Anything, he said, that will cast a long way and can be reeled back through the surface action, is a good choice.
"You want long casts because you need to stay away from the schooling activity," he offered. "I'm not worrying about spooking the stripers - I don't think you can. I'm more worried about spooking the baitfish."
In the summer and winter, Moore doesn't quit fishing - he just changes his pattern to one taught him by a late uncle, Billy Gerald, who learned to fish for stripers during the Great Depression. He moved away from Mississippi in the middle of the century but, after retiring, returned a few times a year, especially in the fall and winter, to fish with Moore.
"Uncle Billy loved to fish for them in the winter on a hard-falling tide," Moore recalled. "He'd find a deep hole in a bend of the Tchoutacabouffa and use live bait. He didn't have fishfinders back then - he'd use a marked rope with an anchor-like weight to drop down and measure the depth; he wanted bends that had 30 to 40 feet. Then he'd back off and use a lightly weighted line - I use a 1/4-ounce - and slowly spool a live menhaden or a small white trout down into the hole, and let the line run between two fingers.
"He could tell by the vibration on the line what the bait was telling him. If it was just a slight vibration, that meant the fish was just swimming. When it got to moving good, he knew the baitfish was looking at something he didn't like. Then he'd get ready for the strike - and he generally got four or five a day. That's how you catch the biggest fish all year."
Moore recalled how he, in turn, taught his uncle about fishing for stripers feeding on the surface. "He had never experienced anything like that, because back in his day, he didn't have casting reels and lures available like we do now. He loved that, and I'm glad he got a few years of it before he died."
The same patterns work on all the coastal rivers, although the Biloxi/ Tchoutacabouffa system has a slight edge in having the deepest bends. The Pascagoula River system has been very cooperative, too; for example, Mississippi's current state record for striped bass, a 37.82-pounder caught in May 1993 by Tony Graves, came from one of its tributaries, the Bowie River near Hattiesburg, a good 60 miles inland.
The average striper taken in the coastal rivers is between 6 and 10 pounds, but an occasional monster is reported. Most striper anglers have caught fish upwards of 20 pounds, mostly on live bait in the winter months.
"But I know that there are some 40s and 50s swimming around in these rivers," he said. "I've hooked into a few on live menhaden that I never had a chance to catch. They'd spool me, even with the new braided lines."
Back up in Jackson, Partridge hears Moore's comments and shakes his head.
"We had that chance, too," he said. "I'm just glad they have it now. The striper is a wonderful fish. I'm glad someone is still catching them."
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