"We're starting to catch some stripers in the Ashley River." That comment, made a few years ago during a fishing conversation with Ralph Phillips, was an eye opener. Sure, stripers can be found in many lake systems. But stripers had virtually disappeared from many of their historic homes including the Ashley River.
Size and catch limit: For coastal river systems minimum size is 26 inches total length and anglers cannot possess more than three fish per person per day. Possession prohibited from June 1-Sept. 30.
The reason Phillips and other local anglers are tangling with striped bass in the Ashley, Cooper and Wando Rivers can be tracked to a stocking program by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
During the past eight years DNR has stocked 107,000 stripers in the 6- to 8-inch size (released in the fall) and 465,000 1- to 2-inch fish (released in the spring). Now, anglers are catching stripers from the Ashley River that are approaching and sometimes exceeding the state's 26-inch minimum size limit. This past Wednesday 5,000 of the larger fish were released into the Ashley River at Ashland Plantation. These fish were raised at the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton and genetically fingerprinted so biologists can tell if a recaptured fish comes from the wild or is a part of the restocking effort. Evidence suggests that these fish are now reproducing, meaning the fishery could become self-sustaining.
What happened to stripers?
"Historically, there was a population of striped bass in the Ashley River. Many years ago striped bass began to disappear from the river and we're not sure why," said Dr. Michael Denson, director of the Marine Resources Research Institute at Fort Johnson.
Was it environmental effects? Overfishing? Scientists wanted an answer, and in 2002 DNR was able to obtain funds for researching and restoring the striped bass fishery from mitigation paid as a result of the 2002 Ever Reach oil spill in Charleston Harbor.
Denson said DNR had been sampling marine fish populations up and down the coast and never caught a striped bass in its trammel nets. Electro-fishing surveys rarely turned up striped bass. Since stocking efforts began in 2006, stripers are regularly seen in the surveys.
"It looks like from our work that some of the fish are spawning in the river and maybe contributing to the next natural population," Denson said. "While doing all this, we're collecting lots of information on other animals and fish in the system.We're beginning to knock off a lot of those questions and answers."
Information on the stocking program can be found at the DNR website: dnr.sc.gov/marine/stocking. It includes information on stocking locations, where recreational fishermen can donate fish carcasses for research and how recreational anglers can participate in the DNA study by taking a fin clipping and then releasing the fish.
"In most cases we find fishermen are returning (the stripers) to the estuary, which is a good thing," Denson said. "We're interested in seeing those fish get to a critical mass so they have a successful spawning run in the spring and kick-start the population. All our work is really toward that end of re-establishing the population so we wouldn't have to restock the fish."
Targeting striped bass
Phillips, his family members and friends enjoy catching stripers, but they also are interested in seeing the fishery rebound so their excursions are strictly catch-and-release.
"If it was legal I wouldn't keep anything," Phillips said. The average size of the fish he is catching is 15 to 20 inches "and every once in a while you'll catch a big one." He said his son Warren recently caught a 24-inch striped bass from the Wando River.
"We've been finding stripers way up the Wando, in the Cooper River, the Ashley, all around. People just don't target them," Phillips continued. "The biggest thing is to get away from the salt. The fish are far up the river. Get where the water turns brackish."
Phillips said in the Ashley he begins fishing around the gardens (Magnolia, Middleton, Drayton Hall). He suggests fishing structure and points out that stripers like fast-moving water.
"Get moving water, whether it's coming in or going out doesn't matter, and fish the ambush points, old pier heads and pilings in the water, rock piles," Phillips said.
He uses small plastic jerk baits (blue and silver is his favorite color) and fishes them faster than he would for a trout and redfish. He said last year when the weather turned cold he also used a short-arm spinner bait.
It's too early to say the fishery is self-sustaining, but the fact people are regularly catching striped bass from our rivers is a nice sign the fishery is on the rebound. Thanks DNR and thanks recreational fishermen who want to leave something for the future.