"I don't know which offends me more, the smell of rotting fish or the wanton destruction of a natural resource. They know what they're doing. They just don't give a damn," said an irate weekend angler fishing from the catwalk of Conowingo Dam.
The individuals he referred to, a group of 15 to 20 adults, were casting an array of large saltwater lures and live bluegills from the rocky shoreline at the base of the dam.
Their tackle consisted of heavy-duty spinning outfits, surf rods and saltwater bait casting rigs, and all were armed with tackle strong enough to land a white marlin.
Even to the casual observer, it was obvious these folks were not fishing for catfish, smallmouth bass or white perch, species easily caught and landed on lighter equipment.
Instead, they were fishing for striped bass, a practice that's not only illegal during closed season, but detrimental to the recovery of a species that only a few years ago was on the threatened and endangered list.
In less than an hour, the lawbreakers landed several dozen stripers ranging in weight from 6 to 15 pounds. Although every fish was released, and in some instances the angler would attempt to revive them, more than 90 percent would die.
This was evident when Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist John Foster and I surveyed a 1.5-mile section of the Susquehanna River between the southern tip of Robert Island and the I-95 bridge. Fifty dead striped bass, all weighing 6 to 15 pounds, were found floating downriver. Some had recently died while a significant number were in advanced stages of decomposition.
None of the fish died of old age or natural causes. Every corpse we examined obviously had been hooked and released by fishermen upriver.
According to a study conducted by the Maryland DNR, approximately 90 percent of striped bass caught and released in low or non-saline waters, especially larger fish, die. The survey was conducted at several locations, including a site just below Conowingo Dam.
At that location, striped bass were hooked by biologists using heavy tackle, gently lifted from the water with landing nets and carefully placed in net pens. Of the 172 rockfish used in the study, the vast majority perished in less than a week and most died within 24 hours.
Although each of the test fish were handled with kid gloves, they still succumbed to the stress of being caught by hook and line. Although a few die of the hook injury, most perish from shock.
Eric May, an DNR biologist, said striped bass migrate into the Susquehanna River in search of food, which in this case, consists mainly of small gizzard shad. Because the river has a high population of these forage fish, especially at the base of Conowingo Dam, stripers are lured into an environment that's not really suitable for saltwater fish.
High water temperatures, no salinity, low dissolved oxygen levels and strong currents stress the fish to the point where the slightest injury can cause them to go into shock.
Because the base of Conowingo Dam and the adjacent catwalk are popular fishing locations, the number of striped bass inadvertently caught by fishermen targeting other species is relatively high. However, the figure is almost insignificant when compared to rockfish taken by those who intentionally fish for the species during the closed season.
During July of 1991, 150 to 300 dead stripers were found floating nearly every day. Over a three-month period, illegal fishing activity in the Susquehanna River alone is said to be responsible for the death of 15,000 to 25,000 adult striped bass every year, fish that are considered vital to spawning stocks.