Despite being the most loved and one of the most heavily researched fish in the Northeast, several myths persist about the striped bass. Here are some of the most popular ones, and whether we think they’re factual or old fishermen’s tales.
Stripers Eat Rocks to Ride Out Storms
Claim: Before storms, stripers eat rocks to provide ballast that prevents them from being tossed around in the rough waters.
While striped bass (and other species) are regularly found with rocks in their digestive tracts, this is the result of accidental ingestion while feeding along the bottom. A striped bass uses suction feeding, where it creates a vacuum in its mouth, so that when the striper opens its jaws, there’s a rush of water into its mouth, in which the prey becomes trapped. When feeding this way along the bottom, items like rocks and shells can be caught up in the flow with the prey, ending up in the striper’s stomach.
Stripers Tail-Slap Baitfish and Lures
Claim: Striped bass use their tails to stun baitfish before eating them.
Rating: LIKELY FALSE
When fishing topwater lures for striped bass, it sometimes seems as if a striper has batted a lure out of the water using its tail. A striper uses its broad tail for quick acceleration, conquering currents, and fast direction changes—not stunning prey. When a striped bass appears to have tail-slapped a topwater plug, what most likely happened is the fish turned so quickly in attempting to eat or refuse the lure that the tail hit the lure by chance. In normal feeding behavior, stripers do not slap baitfish with their tails.
Stripers Use Rocks to Remove Hooks
Claim: Striped bass rub their heads on rocks or sand to dislodge hooks.
Rating: LIKELY TRUE
A common claim among striper fishermen upon losing a big striper is that the fish used the rocks to break the line or open the hook. A study that injected bee venom into the lips of rainbow trout showed that the trout rubbed their faces on the bottom in an attempt to remove the irritant. It’s likely that hooked striped bass employ a similar strategy around rocky habitats, resulting in broken lures, lines, and mangled hooks.
Large Stripers Stop Spawning
Claim: When striped bass reach a very large size, their eggs are no longer viable.
Unlike humans, a striped bass’ reproductive potential does not decrease with old age. Its fecundity increases as the fish grows larger and it produces more eggs. Fishermen used this myth to justify the harvest of large bass by suggesting they had stopped contributing to the population.
If conditions are poor in the spawning rivers during the spring, stripers of all sizes may forego spawning in a given season. In these years, fishermen may find gravid stripers, those with green, mature eggs, rather than the orange, still-developing egg sacs, far from the spawning rivers.
All the Stripers are Offshore
Claim: Striped bass have changed their habits, and some fish have begun staying offshore, far beyond the 3-mile line, and never move inshore.
In explaining poor striper fishing within the 3-mile limit where stripers can be targeted, some anglers claim that the fish have changed their habits and are feeding, even reproducing, offshore.
Schools of stripers seek out ideal conditions and abundant baitfish, which occasionally leads them 15 to 25 miles offshore, and perhaps this has become more common with changing ocean conditions. However, striped bass are an anadromous species that must return to freshwater rivers to spawn, and they do most of their feeding on the abundant baitfish close to shore. Striped bass do move offshore in parts of their range, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic during the late fall and winter. Schools of stripers are regularly encountered on the bluefin tuna grounds at Stellwagen Bank or east of Chatham, but tagging studies by the Massachusetts DMF have found that these fish move back and forth between inshore and offshore areas.
Big Stripers are Lazy
Claim: Large striped bass are lazy in their approach to feeding and swimming.
Laziness is an unwillingness to move or use energy. This is a trait found only in humans and domesticated animals, so to suggest that striped bass are lazy is anthropomorphizing the fish. Striped bass are incapable of laziness, so it’s ludicrous to suggest that a fish capable of swimming between Maryland and Maine twice each year is “lazy.”
This myth stems from the difference in feeding strategies between large and small striped bass. For a small striper, chasing small baitfish at the surface is an effective feeding strategy because it can realistically catch enough small baitfish to justify the energy expended. A large striped bass has energy requirements that are unlikely to be met by chasing spearing or bay anchovies at the surface. These fish are more likely to pursue larger or slower-moving prey, often near the bottom, which may make them appear “lazy” in comparison to the surface-feeding schoolies. A 40-pound striped bass is in the prime of its life, having reached less than half of its growing potential, and is likely to migrate hundreds of miles every year from its spawning river to its summer feeding grounds and back again.
Stripers and Eels: Mortal Enemies
Claim: Striped bass attack eels not out of hunger, but out of vengeance because eels eat baby stripers and striped bass eggs in the spawning rivers.
Because some of the areas where striper fishermen use eels are far removed from the eel’s natural habitat of rivers and bays, some anglers theorize that a striper’s willingness to attack eels goes beyond hunger and is instead the result of a vendetta against the eels.
While it’s true that eels live in striper spawning rivers and prey upon juvenile stripers, it’s unlikely that striped bass carry that grudge from their river nurseries to the ocean. Stripers do not guard their young, and beyond evaluating the river conditions in deciding when to spawn, they have no involvement in rearing the next generation of striped bass; therefore, they are unlikely to view eels as a threat. And, revenge requires complex thinking at a level that is undoubtedly beyond a striper’s capabilities.
Eels represent an easy meal to opportunistic predators like striped bass and other large saltwater species, including cobia and white marlin, which anglers also target with live eels.