As the slanting November sun cast a cold light on a chilly Long Island Sound estuary, an angler made his final casts after a long, but fairly successful day of striper fishing.
"I've been checking the boat's fishing log," the angler said, expertly dropping a white, soft plastic jig a few inches from a line of eel grass 30 feet away. "It looks like we caught and released around 750 fish, since we started fishing in April."
On first hearing, that sounded like an impressive number, but the angler had more to say.
"That's about at least one quarter down from last year's total."
Listen to other anglers who do most of their fishing in Connecticut waters or Long Island's south shore or at Montauk, and you are likely to hear the same kind of downhearted assessments for the 2012 season.
What most perplexes and depresses striper anglers is that the falloff of the bass numbers is happening at a time when the supply of bait seems to be peaking. Be it sand eels, herring, or mackerel, all season the sonar screens revealed huge masses of bait fish under the boat. Even the bunker schools were there, at least in the spring and early summer. All that was lacking was the striped bass feeding on the schools.
On Long Island, the striper pall seems particularly bleak.
Bill Wetzel, one of the island's most avid surfcasters, told the Surfcaster's Journal blog that despite a fantastic run of sand eels this spring, most of the time it was fluke, not stripers, under them. In late summer, Wetzel said that while surfcasters took some big bass, the schoolies were noticeably absent.
Another downcast veteran bass fisher said that he doubted his grandchildren would ever catch a striped bass.
On this side on the Sound, brothers Mike and Jim Micinilio, two of the most dogged striper chasers in Connecticut, caught a lot of fish this season, but there were also many extended dry periods when bass and even bluefish were hard to come by.
Another contributor to the Surfcaster Journal may have put it best: "I agree that the bass numbers are way down and the lack of smaller bass is troubling. Action must be taken fast like no commercial harvesting and going back to one fish (limit) at 36 inches, no exceptions. I think I have kept only 3 bass in my almost 50 years of fishing because I enjoy catching them more than keeping them to eat. I release over 99 percent of all the fish I catch. There is no reason to keep two bass just because you fished a charter and can keep one from 28 to 40 inches and one above 40."
Others believe that head boats are allowed to catch and kill far too many stripers. Still others, the optimists, think the striper falloff is just another downturn in a natural up-and-down cycle. The number, they say, will rebound in the coming years.
We can only hope they are right.