A Heck of a Fish Story

It’s hard for anglers not to be awed by striped bass. You can catch them in the East River alongside Manhattan, out in the middle of Nantucket Sound, all the way up the Kennebec River where it runs fresh in central Maine, and even in northern New Brunswick, where they share the Miramichi River with Atlantic salmon. With every cast, in any of these locations, you know that maybe, just maybe, you might hook a 50-pound fish.

These large, hard-fighting, good-tasting fish, often swimming nearshore, have attracted legions of die-hard anglers. Dick Russell is one of them. He got hooked on striped bass in 1973, fishing from Martha’s Vineyard. He watched the dramatic decline in stripers through the early 1980s. Then he did battle with the fishing regulators and commercial fishermen who first rejected, then grudgingly accepted tighter limits, even moratoria, on striped bass harvest. He was there to see the stripers rebound in the mid-1990s. And now he’s here to tell us all about it in Striper Wars.

Russell recounts in amazing detail the close combat in crowded hearings that led, eventually, to conservation measures. As in nearly all good stories, the big picture is comprised of hundreds of smaller ones. And it’s in painting these smaller pictures that Russell’s book really excels.

Russell introduces us to interesting characters like Massachusetts lure-maker Bob Pond, Maryland marine biologist Joe Boone, and Rhode Island postman Jim White. These people, and so many others, spent their weekends and evenings at meetings, writing letters, lobbying legislators, trying, against overwhelming odds, to get people to understand the plight of the striped bass, and take appropriate conservation measures. For many of the people in Russell’s book, it’s the love of fishing that brings them to the battle, but the battle, not fishing, is what ends up taking up most of their free time. These interesting characters, as much as the tension over the striper’s fate, are what makes the story move along.

Some authors take a subject, research it for a few months, throw in a few on-the-ground details, and call it good. Russell’s story is sort of the opposite. He was right there for so many meetings, fish samplings and visits with striper fishermen, that he almost has too much juice for one book. Better too much than too little. Russell’s role as an activist not only gives us a front-row seat to the show, it also imbues his writing with passion.

So the stripers were crashing, folks rallied to save them and they came back. End of story, right? Well, not really. Russell makes it clear that the stripers still face some serious challenges. For one, stripers are being killed and discarded as bycatch in gillnet fisheries. And the menhaden that striped bass feed on are being clobbered by commercial fishing, especially in the Chesapeake Bay region. While stripers remain abundant, it also looks as though some are undernourished. Combine this with the bacteria that are beginning to infect striped bass, especially stripers under stress, and there may be serious trouble looming for stripers. The book poses some tantalizing answers to fishermen’s frequent question, “Where have all the big fish gone?”

But this is not a bleak book. It’s inspiring to read about how individuals, working together, made a big difference for a well-loved fish. Striper Wars, as the subtitle suggests, is truly a good old “American fish story.”