By Richard Gaines
---- — Smiles were spread across the faces of about a dozen fishermen who were strung along the northern bank of the Little River Thursday morning just before and after the 10:20 a.m. low tide at what to some is known as the “candy house flats” due to the presence of Nichols Candies above the saltmarsh.
And why not?
They were catching stripers on flies, plugs and squigglies, those rubbery things that seem to remind stripers of bait fish or squid, which are reported to have arrived in Gloucester Harbor and, along with the herring in the river, announce the sure beginning of the season.
The arrivals Thursday included the first little stripers and a sprinkling of babysitters, fish of more than two feet and less than the keeper length of 28 inches.
Paul Dredge and Gregory Ekirt of Arlington said they took and released 15 schoolies, and Tony Sydorko of Beverly said he caught and released about 30 in the “couple” of hours before dead low tide at 10:20 a.m.
The day dawned with the smell of lilacs opening up after a week of intermittent rain and gradually warming temperatures, and the knowing, ambitious and optimistic casters and fly fishermen ready for what has become a rite of spring — the arrival of the advance scouts from the giant summer migration of stripers seeking temperatures in the 50s and the northward pulses of forage fish.
Heading back to his car, Skip Montello of Rockport, a charter boat captain and columnist for On the Water Magazine, described the fishing as “spotty,” and traced the first hookup of the year to a week earlier — May 9, which would have put the rites of spring right on track.
The two remaining intelligence exchanges and bait and tackle emporia on Cape Ann — the Fin and Feather of Essex and Gloucester’s Three Lantern Marine and Fishing Supply — both acknowledged credible reports of stripers in local waters for most of May.
“Started getting reports of schoolies two weeks ago, behind Nichols Candies and in Jones Creek (also a finger of the Annisquam River estuary),” said Peter Colbert, owner of Fin and Feather. “(There are) some in the Essex River, backside of the beach. There are also fish in the Merrimack River.”
“Everything we’ve heard so far is schoolies in the river with tons of bait, with the main block of stripers in Winthrop a few days ago and yesterday in Beverly,” said Skip Shepard, who owns Three Lantern on Parker Street. “So they should be here by the weekend,”
Striped bass, an invaluable commercial fish in summer in Massachusetts, as well as a magnet for recreational anglers who are now required to have federal permits), are the inshore light tackle game fish of choice from the Canadian Maritimes through the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The striper was nearly wiped out in the post-war years of estuarial pollution, but then nurtured back to numbers unimaginable by old timers as the nurseries — the Chesapeake, the Delaware and Hudson Rivers — were cleaned up somewhat and conservation programs were established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Tagging and DNA studies show that the majority of fish that pass or summer in Cape Ann’s waters were born in the Chesapeake, winter in the bay or in giant schools off North Carolina, and begin moving north in pursuit of the bait and temperatures in the 50s. Colbert said in shore waters of Cape Ann were now 50 to 51 degrees, about the temperature stripers need to feed actively.
“Recreational harvest has grown steadily since the reopening of many state fisheries in 1990, peaking above 2.7 million fish in 2006,” the Atlantic commission states. “Under the current management program, commercial harvest has averaged nearly 1 million fish annually. The striped bass is a opportunistic feeder — known to take worms, clams, crabs, herring, mackerel and just about anything marine animal, but its unquestioned favorite food is ... lobster, as lobstermen will readily testify as they throw shorts back from their traps.”
The lobster population is heading inshore from its deep water winter keeps, and due to their small brains, they are very much intuitive creatures do not know what awaits them in the shallows.
Commercial striper landings in Massachusetts last year were 371,000 pounds, with ex-vessel value of $1.1 million, reports the state Division of Marine Fisheries. And Gloucester is the No. 1 landings port for commercial striped bass in Massachusetts.
The bass will be here into and perhaps through October, when the exodus of bait and dropping temperatures will send them scurrying back down south until the next spring’s flowering of lilacs that bring the sweet smell of spring back to Cape Ann.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.