To the delight of fishermen, striped bass make comeback

Numbers and quality of fish up on Hudson

40-pounders caught

July 08, 1999|By Andrew C. Revkin | Andrew C. Revkin,New York Times News Service

VERPLANCK, N.Y. -- The Hudson River, which for years was a forgotten waterway between more popular fishing grounds on the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes, has become one of the hottest spots for striped bass fishing in the country.

The schools of silver-streaked striped bass migrating up the Hudson River on their annual spawning run are cleaner, more plentiful and bigger than they have been in a generation, anglers and New York state biologists say. And sport fishermen from Texas, North Carolina, Michigan and Indiana are contributing to a boom in the charter boat business up and down the river.

In the broad bay near this village 40 miles north of Manhattan, anglers who just a few years ago dreamed of landing a 30-pound trophy were catching 4-foot-long 40-pounders and are now dreaming of 50-pound giants.

"There's been an incredible surge in the last five years," said Andrew Kahnle, a biologist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation who has studied striped bass for 20 years. "People have clearly figured out that the fish are back."

All along the East Coast, the bass are strongly rebounding from past overfishing, repopulating rivers from Virginia to Maine, including some -- like the Roanoke, Delaware and Kennebec -- where they had largely disappeared.

PCBs

But in the Hudson the turnabout is even more striking, because the bass here are overcoming another longstanding problem -- contamination with polychlorinated biphenyls, industrial chemicals that were dumped by factories in the upper reaches of the river.

Recent tests by New York state biologists have found that after a long decline, the levels of PCBs in fish caught south of Poughkeepsie have dropped enough to meet safety standards set by federal officials. As a result, Gov. George Pataki has announced that state fisheries officials are going to consider reopening the commercial fishery for stripers on the river, which has been closed since 1976.

And the state Health Department has begun a review of the warnings it posts about eating bass which now suggest that pregnant women and children eat no river fish and others eat no more than one meal a month of bass caught south of the town of Catskill. Bass caught north of Catskill should not be eaten at all, the advisory says.

'It's great'

Pataki is one of many people living along the river who happily eat the fish in moderation. "It's great," Pataki said as he trolled for bass in Newburgh Bay.

Up and down the river, fishing activity has grown steadily over the last decade. Unused boat slips are a rarity at marinas. Many boat dealers say they are nearly sold out of the small craft used for striper fishing.

The combination of plentiful fish, a good economy and cleaner water means lots of business, said Rich Pasiut, the general manager of Prime Power Marine, in Newburgh.

"We're making up for a lot of tough years when people were just hanging on by a thread," he said.

For many years, Grant Scott, a professional fishing guide and boat captain from Marshall Creek, Pa., took clients fishing in Lake Ontario and along the Jersey shore. But five years ago, after reading an article about the Hudson's bass, he said, he tried launching his boat here.

"The fish were just amazing," he said, describing how the screen of his sonar fish finder would "be a blackout" -- so thick with dark spots indicating fish that it looked dark.

He spent several seasons learning the river, then last spring began running $275-a-day spring charters in the Hudson for anglers from as far away as Maryland. He has been fully booked ever since.

Boating on the Hudson, an 8-year-old magazine, has seen its spring and summer circulation grow from a few thousand to more than 22,000, said John Vargo, a retired designer of telecommunications equipment and the magazine's advertising sales manager. Vargo, a native of Verplanck, is an avid angler himself.

Nowhere is the return of large bass more evident than in the waters off Verplanck, which for most of the century was a center for commercial netting of shad and sturgeon on the Hudson, with stripers usually a secondary, almost incidental, catch.

Dominant activity

Now, angling for bass is a dominant activity, with clusters of boats growing steadily through the misty morning as anglers converge over a sandy flat frequented by bass, their fishing lines glinting like spider silk.

The older fishermen here time the arrival of the bass by the flowering of dogwood trees along the banks. That has always been the case for Tucker Crawford, 73, a shad and sturgeon fisherman. Now, though, his grandson Michael, 30, marks his calendar months ahead of time, securing the first week of May for a vacation from his janitorial job with the Metro-North Commuter Railroad so he can take his boat, the Club, out on the river from dawn until dark at the height of the bass run.

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