Gerald Almy: Fishing for giant stripers in Atlantic

Gerald Almy

To lots of people, fishing means sunny days, cold drinks, and shirtsleeve weather. But the reality is, some of the most rewarding angling takes place in the dead of winter and early spring when temperatures hover in the 40s and cold winds and gray clouds are the norm.

One of the most obvious places where this is true is along the coasts of the Mid-Atlantic states of Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, and especially the Virginia Beach area. Here anglers bundle up in multiple layers of wool and high-tech synthetic clothing and forge out with thermoses of hot coffee or chocolate to challenge the mighty saltwater striper.

Huge fish swarm down the East Coast and congregate along this coastline from December through April, offering the chance for stripers in the 50-, 60-, even 70-pound class. Thirty and 40 pounders are caught virtually every day. Twenty pounders are routine.

During many years striped bass are the most prevalent species registered for awards with the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, which recognizes notable catches among sport anglers. Over 1,000 of the pin-striped bass received award citations in the best years. That means the fish weighed over 40 pounds if they were kept, or measured longer than 44 inches if they were released.

In one recent year over 1,400 of these huge fish were caught, with 107 of those stripers weighing more than 50 pounds and 22 of them topping 55 pounds. In that year a total of 11 fish were caught that weighed 60 pounds or more.

That year, 2012, was especially inviting because the weather was milder than normal. Those relatively balmy conditions drew over 100 boats to a small area off the Virginia Coast in the Atlantic Ocean on one particular day, Jan. 20.

Impressive numbers of 20- to 40-pound fish were reeled in by the anglers trolling off the resort city. But none of them caught a striper to match Cary Wolfe’s.

The Bristow, Virginia, angler landed a fish that was later certified as a new state record for striped bass. The enormous fish weighed exactly 74 pounds, eclipsing the previous record by 1 pound. That previous fish was caught by Fred Barnes, of Chesapeake, nearly four years earlier, to the day, according to Lewis Gillingham, director of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament at the time.

Cary Wolfe, an X-ray technician who works at Manassas Hospital in Virginia, was fishing off the Virginia Beach coast near Cape Henry when the record bass struck. He was trolling with Captain Tim Cannon aboard the charter boat “Bada Bing” when a rod bowed sharply and began throbbing in its holder.

Grabbing the rod, Wolfe let the fish make a strong initial run, and then patiently worked it in by cautiously pumping and reeling.

Fifteen minutes later, the giant striper broke water near the boat. It was then that the captain realized the fish was too big to fit completely in his landing net. The angler would have to first lead the fish’s head over it. Then the captain would scoop the body in, curling and lifting it simultaneously.

But just as the angler pumped the fish toward the net, the hook fell out of its mouth! At that point the fish could have dove and escaped. Fortunately for Wolfe, momentum carried the striped bass over the frame of the net and the captain and angler somehow hoisted it aboard.

The fishing party shot several photos and figured the big striped bass would easily weigh over 50 pounds. But when they got to the dock, they were shocked to find out they had broken the state record. The fish measured 56 3/4 inches long and had a girth of 31 1/2 inches.

The lure the big striper grabbed was a trolled tandem parachute rig, consisting of a pair of 2-ounce big-mouthed nylon skirted jigs, paired with 9-inch rubber shad bodies trolled from a custom rod attached to a Penn 114H reel. The reel was filled with 80-pound Ande monofilament line.

Lewis Gillingham, who viewed the weigh-in at Long Bay Pointe Marina, said “the fish seemed very long for its girth. It had a large head and not much in its stomach.”

Captain Cannon also said the fish had spit up several medium-sized eels after it was brought onboard. Both of those facts mean it could have weighed up to several pounds heavier at some point.

Wolfe allowed the removal of the big striper’s ear bone (otilith) by a member of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission so it could be aged. The fish turned out to be a female and was an incredible 26 years old.

That made it a member of the 1986 age class, the same one the previous record caught by Fred Barnes had come from. It is one of the oldest striped bass ever recorded.

To put this fish in perspective, Gillingham noted that “it is one of less than 10 stripers weighing 70 pounds or more ever landed on rod and reel along the Atlantic Coast.”

Next Week: Tactics for catching winter saltwater stripers in Virginia.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.