Striped bass burgeoning

A striped bass caught in Lake Moultrie in 2004. The number of striped bass fell sharply but have made a comeback in the Marion-Moultrie lakes.

CROSS -- Striped bass are dying in Midlands lakes, but the prized fish is thriving in the Marion-Moultrie lakes where it had nearly disappeared. The hot summer doesn't seem to have hurt its Lowcountry comeback.

"For the first time in a long time I think we're going to enjoy a good fall," said Allan Weiss of Black's Fish Camp in Cross.

Anglers are seeing plenty of schools of striper this summer after a spring season when guides brought back parties who all caught the three-fish limit, Weiss said. "A fisherman this morning said he saw good-sized schools on both sides of the lake."

Some 1,000 dead stripers were found Aug. 18 in lower Lake Murray, near Columbia, and the state Department of Natural Resources has warned anglers to expect more die-offs because warming water is choking off oxygen they need.

"In Lake Murray, this type of fish kill generally occurs during the latter part of the summer and varies in magnitude from year to year," said Hal Beard, a DNR fisheries biologist.

In contrast, Marion and Moultrie waters have stayed relatively cool with good vegetation to provide cover and oxygen, said Scott Lamprecht, a DNR biologist. "We've not seen significant die-off."

The striped bass, or striper, is the signature catch of the Marion-Moultrie lakes, and a popular catch across the state. It helped turn surrounding counties such as Berkeley into a vacation destination worth an estimated $300 million per year, according to tourism officials. The catch in the lakes fell off mysteriously and precipitously eight years ago, despite the state stocking 2 million fingerlings per year.

Boats used to race to where the seagulls swarmed and line up in rows to cast where the waters boiled with jumping fish. Then the gulls quit swarming. DNR's sample count fell from more than 500 in 2000 to 50 in 2007.

Frustration with DNR's management of the fish rose as the catch dropped. A long list of reasons to blame for the decline included over-fishing, hydrilla removal, the 1998-2002 drought and competition from other species eating hatchlings and hatchling food.

Aggressive stocking and tighter restrictions on the catch and season, among other measures, apparently are bringing the striper back.

"We've got a bunch of fish out there," Lamprecht said. The striper season opens Oct. 1 on the Marion-Moultrie lakes. "I think we're going to have more happy anglers this fall."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.