Before long, a strange sensation will start to grip fishermen and consumers along the East Coast—striper madness! It’s a hard-to-define attraction to the striped bass, a migratory game fish found in large numbers in the Chesapeake Bay.
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Stand on the seashore along the East Coast this fall from the Outer Banks north, and you might spot birds wheeling and diving out over the swells. Look closer and you might see the water churning, roiling with sparkling menhaden leaping in every direction like so much popcorn, fleeing predators. The stripers are “blitzing.” That’s the word anglers use when they spot thousands of 15- to 50-pound striped bass in a feeding frenzy.
Stripers, also known as rockfish, tend to bring out a bit of craziness in folks this time of year. Part of this is because they appeal equally to fishermen and foodies—fun to catch and nice to eat. A sturdy fish with a torpedo-like body, iridescent blue and green and etched with dark stripes, the striper has the piscine equivalent of a lantern jaw. While it isn’t that elusive or rare, fishermen love the striper for its fight. And chefs, vendors and consumers laud its culinary qualities. Tim Sughrue, a former marine biologist and now co-owner of Jessup, Maryland-based Congressional Seafood, which sells to restaurants from North Carolina to New York, describes the striper as “a white, mild, flaky fish that has great appeal … . People are willing to pay a lot of money for it—sometimes I have to pay an awful lot for it if there’s not much around.”
Dave Whitby, owner of Yellow Umbrella Seafood in Richmond, is one of Sughrue’s regular customers. He praises the delicate flavor and non-steakiness of the fish, which makes it versatile enough for grilling, pan-searing or roasting. “Striper is king around here,” he says.
That’s especially true in the autumn, when the fish makes its appearance in the Chesapeake Bay. Like many fish, the striper is migratory. Each year in September, after summering in the waters of northern New England, the striped bass begins moving southward to follow its favored prey, menhaden, as it heads for warmer waters. The striper is compelled by instinct to bulk up for the winter, which it will spend off the Virginia and North Carolina capes. Then, in the spring, it will swim back to the freshwater streams where it was born, to spawn. “They find their way back by their sense of smell,” Sughrue says. “It’s implanted on them, like a salmon, except they don’t die.” After that, larger striped bass will migrate north for the summer, and the smaller, younger ones will remain as resident rockfish in the Bay.
David DiBenedetto, author of the 2004 book On the Run: An Angler’s Journey Down the Striper Coast, calls the fall striper migration “a moveable feast.” He followed the migration from Bath, Maine, to Oregon Inlet—and along the way he encountered a rogues’ gallery of anglers chasing the fish. One of them, Paul Melnyk, fished by floating at night, sans boat, hundreds of yards off the shore at Montauk. Buoyed by a heavy-duty wetsuit, he was armed only with fishing rod and a knife and toting live eels in individual Ziploc baggies. “Large stripers often towed him like a water-skier,” writes DiBenedetto. On Martha’s Vineyard, the author met Janet Messimeo, a diminutive taxidermist whom he calls “arguably the most well-known female angler on the Striper Coast.” “I really love to work with stripers,” she told DiBenedetto. “Some have broad shoulders, some have huge heads, and some are, well, kind of ugly.” DiBenedetto also found Albert McReynolds, who in 1982 caught the biggest striped bass ever—a world record-setting 78.5 pounds, 53 inches long, with a 34.5-inch girth. “I can’t read or write,” McReynolds said, “but if I could, I’d publish a book called The Night I Hooked the Devil.” DiBenedetto winds down his journey with a languid afternoon off Cape Charles with fishing guide Charlie Stant before his final stop in Oregon Inlet.
At one time, striped bass were abundant enough to support commercial and recreational fisheries all along the Atlantic coast. But nearly three decades ago, we almost lost them. According to the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, striper harvests in the mid-1970s reached “unsustainable levels”—too many of the fish were being caught too fast. By the early 1980s, overfishing, combined perhaps with pollution and habitat reduction, caused the North Atlantic striped bass population to crash. While fluctuations in the striper population aren’t unusual, says Sughrue, the population dip at that time was severe. “It was newsworthy when you caught one.”
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) responded by creating a fishery management plan, and in 1984 Congress signed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, enjoining states to comply with the ASMFC plan. The states of Maryland, Delaware and North Carolina (for its Atlantic waters) responded to the act by taking it a step further: suspending all commercial and recreational fishing of striped bass. The other Atlantic states, including Virginia, instituted larger size limits, smaller bag limits and restrictions on the commercial fisheries. All of these efforts were designed to preserve the young fish that would replenish the population—to give them a few years to grow.
If striper is king, then the Chesapeake Bay is its Queen Mother: Some 80 percent of the Atlantic coastal striped bass population is spawned in it or its tributaries throughout the spring. For the last 50 years, biologists have assessed the success of each year’s spawn through a seine survey taken annually at the same locations around the Bay. For two decades, from 1972 through 1992, the numbers were abysmal—but in 1982, says Sughrue, there was a small up-tick: “All of a sudden there were all these little three- and four-inch fish.” The preservation of that 1982 freshet of little fish would eventually lead to what he calls “a real fisheries management success story.”
From there, the stock began to grow. In 1990, the three states with bans lifted them and began to allow a modest fishery. In 1995, the striped bass population was declared restored, and coastal regulations were further relaxed.
The ASFMC estimates that the striper population is now about 58 million, up from a low of 7 million. That would seem to be good news, but Sughrue describes it as an explosion—it was too much. “There wasn’t enough food to carry the striper population,” he says. In fact, online fishermen’s forums are rife with complaints that stripers these days are “skinny.” And the spawns have been down again recently—the 2006 numbers were the lowest on record, which means fewer adult fish to look forward to. It appears Mother Nature is taking matters into her own hands.
Even if the striper is lean these days, it’s still tasty. But culinary quality depends very much on when and where a fish has been caught, and fall is the time to eat striper. It’s been chowing its way down the East Coast and should be at peak health, with a lot of body to it. In spring, the fish are depleted from traveling and spawning, so their tissue is spongy and squishy—not prime eating.
Whatever your relationship with striped bass—chef, gourmand, angler, scientist or Captain Ahab … whether you hook it on a dark October night, icy Atlantic spray in your face, or you pick up a nice fillet at your boutique fish retailer … consider all that this fish has been through before getting to you. That’s why we’re mad for striper.
On January 7-9, the Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shootout, a fishing tournament, is held off the coast of Virginia Beach. Tim Sughrue has participated for the last three years. “It’s hard-core,” he says, “but it’s fun.”
See here for details about Virginia’s striped bass regulations.
rockfish, 6 to 8 ounces per person
Brush fish well with olive oil, and season generously with salt and pepper. Place in a grill basket and grill over medium-high charcoals until done. Garnish with lemon slices.
Jicama and red cabbage slaw
1 small head red cabbage, julienned
1 small head napa cabbage, julienned
4 medium carrots, grated
2 medium jicamas, julienned
1⁄3 cup green onions, sliced
1⁄4 cup toasted sunflower seeds
for the vinaigrette
3⁄4 cup cider vinegar
1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄3 cup olive oil
Combine all vinaigrette ingredients except the olive oil, and mix well. Slowly add the olive oil, and mix.
In a large bowl, combine all the vegetables and toss until evenly mixed. Add the vinaigrette and mix well. Salt and pepper to taste. Fold in the cilantro, and garnish with sunflower seeds.
Corn, quinoa and roasted red pepper salad
2 ears of corn
1 12-ounce box of red quinoa (white or black
quinoa is fine as well)
2 red peppers
1⁄2 cup chopped cilantro
for the vinaigrette*
1⁄4 cup elder flower vinegar
1⁄4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon Japanese Sansho pepper
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup safflower oil
*The last five ingredients of this vinaigrette were left out of the print edition due to technical difficulties.
Shuck, cut and blanch the corn in boiling salted water, refresh in cold water, drain and set aside. Cook the quinoa according to package instructions, and allow to cool. Roast the peppers, either over an open flame or in the oven, until the skin blisters (or, if using an open flame, until it chars). Place in a bowl and cover for 15 minutes. Then peel the peppers, and cut into medium dice. Mix all the vegetables, and drizzle with the vinaigrette before serving. Salt and pepper to taste.
2 pounds broccoli, cut into florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin seed
1 teaspoon salt
several grinds of the pepper grinder
Whisk together the oil and seasonings, and toss with the broccoli. Arrange the florets in a single layer on a baking sheet, and bake at 425 for 18-20 minutes, until some of the broccoli is a little singed on the edges. Serve with lemon wedges.
1 pound lard
6 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vinegar
5 large golden delicious apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1⁄4 inch-thick slices
1⁄2 to 3⁄4 cup sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon butter in small pieces
1 tablespoon water
raw sugar or mixture of equal parts sugar and brown sugar
2 tablespoons melted and strained apricot preserves
Mix lard, flour, baking powder and salt together with a pastry cutter until well blended—it should resemble a coarse crumb mixture. Do not overwork. Crack the egg into a one-cup measuring cup, add the vinegar, and beat well. Add to this mixture enough cold water to make one cup total. Using the pastry cutter, blend the egg mixture slowly into the dry ingredients until the dough “comes together.” Add a tablespoon more of cold water if needed. Yields enough to make three tart crusts or double-crust pies. You can freeze any remaining dough—just wrap enough for each individual crust in plastic wrap and aluminum foil. Label and freeze.
Divide dough as needed, and transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Pat the dough into a disk. Roll out the dough into a 16- to 17-inch circle about 1/4 inch thick. Line a large un-rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll the dough around your rolling pin, and unroll it onto the parchment. Preheat oven to 400.
Meanwhile, combine cut apple slices with sugar, cinnamon and flour. Arrange the apple slices on top of the dough to within 3 inches of the edge. Place small butter pieces uniformly on top of apples. Fold the dough up and over the apples in a free-form fashion.
Combine egg and water to form egg wash. Brush the tart generously with the egg wash, making sure you get in the folds. Sprinkle the crust with the raw sugar and bake in the center of the oven at 400 for 30 minutes. Then reduce heat to 350 and bake another 20-30 minutes, until crust is deep and golden brown and cooked through and the apples are tender and bubbling.
Remove from the oven and brush the apples with the melted preserves. Slide the parchment onto a wire rack, and let the tart cool slightly before serving.