As far back as I can remember, and long before that, the Penobscot River has been a productive fishing ground for striped bass. Until five years ago, that is. Since then the sporty “schoolies” have been scarce to say the least. Actually, it’s been slim pickings for striper fishermen on coastal rivers from Kittery to Calais. Accordingly, theories, opinions and guesses on the matter have been as constant as the tides. Conjecture, however, falls short of conviction, so I began casting for credible answers.
For starters, it was slow fishing at the Maine Department of Marine Resources, so I lengthened my cast to reach the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Maryland, of course, borders Chesapeake Bay, which, according to scientific consensus, produces the stripers that migrate to Maine’s rivers. Moreover, since the striped bass is Maryland’s state fish, I figured that by fishing the Home Pool, so to speak, I’d land a limit of valid answers. Unfortunately, that effort resulted in only a few “short takes” and a suggestion to contact the National Marine Fisheries Service. When that agency referred me to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in Arlington, Va., I expected another unproductive pool.
But thanks to Kate Taylor, an ASMFC fisheries management plan coordinator, I didn’t get skunked. Refreshingly straightforward, Taylor attributed the decline in Maine’s striper runs to a lethal bacterial disease called mycobacteriosis. She explained that the disease, which attacked the livers, spleens and kidneys of fish, was first detected in Chesapeake Bay stripers during the summer of 1997. To cover the water thoroughly, Taylor sent me a copy of a 2011 Draft Addendum to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan. The comprehensive document states that mycobacteriosis “currently infects more than 50 percent of resident Chesapeake Bay stripers.“ Furthermore, “Non-fishing mortality of striped bass in Chesapeake Bay has increased significantly since 1999.”
Nevertheless, there are signs that the tide may be turning. Word is that striper production in Chesapeake Bay has improved in the past couple of years — and we may be seeing evidence of it. For instance, while spreading and raking a load of pea stone dumped in my driveway recently, my hardworking helper and avid fisherman Jon Evans said he and a fishing partner caught small stripers on repeated trips to the Bangor Salmon Pool in June. Though that anecdote isn’t likely to start a run on the sale of bucktail jigs and bloodworms right away, it will surely start a groundswell of optimism among fishermen awaiting the return of stripers to the Penobscot. In the meantime, keep fishing. Productive or otherwise, it clears the cobwebs from your mind.