Credit: John Holyoke

Just seven years ago, there were so few striped bass in the Penobscot River and more easterly coastal areas that anglers all but quit trying to catch them.

The drop in stripers was precipitous, and rapid: According to the federal Marine Recreational Information Program, anglers caught more than 4.1 million stripers in Maine in 2006. Five years later, they only caught 160,000.

But this year, after a steady trend toward improvement, striper anglers are smiling again, and the population of the coveted fish are seemingly surging again. Statistics for this year aren’t available, but in 2017, about 1.5 million striped bass were caught by recreational anglers in Maine. That’s double the recreational catch from a year earlier.

So why have the stripers returned?

A regulatory change that has protected smaller stripers up and down the East Coast and an abundance of bait for those fish to feed on are likely contributors, experts say.

Capt. Pete Douvarjo, a charter boat guide who lives in Sedgwick, remembers earlier boom times, and lived through the population crash.

“Around 16 years ago, I could take you out to a couple coves around Deer Isle and Brooklin and catch 30, 40, or even 50 stripers on an incoming tide,” Douvarjo said. “About 15 years ago it went from 50 fish a tide to maybe 10 on a good day. One year later, it was over.”

Douarjo adapted, buying a bigger boat so he could go farther out to sea and let his clients try to catch sharks instead. But he kept waiting for the stripers return, and has been on the lower Penobscot frequently this summer, posting frequent photos of happy clients holding up striped bass.

And he credits a change that fisheries managers say helped set the stage for the population surge: A simple new regulation that took effect in 2015.

Douvarjo points to an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission order that mandated states to cut striped bass mortality by 25 percent as a catalyst. That led to a Maine rule passed in 2015 that protected smaller stripers.

In 2015, Maine changed the size of bass that anglers were allowed to keep, said Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Instead of allowing harvest of one fish per day between 20 and 26 inches, or one longer than 40 inches, Maine’s new rule allows keeping one fish longer than 28 inches.

“Having that consistent size limit along the coast is a good thing from a management standpoint,” Nichols said.

Back in 2013, Bruce Joule, who heads up the marine department’s recreational fishing program, told the BDN that he hoped an effort launched as part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project would also help stripers recover.

Stocking river herring to jumpstart a sustainable run as two dams were removed from the river would provide more food for all fish, including stripers, Joule said at the time.

“There’s great potential there,” Joule said in that interview. “If there’s bait in the water and fish start to enter the river, and you have baitfish, you’re more apt to hold the fish.”

On Friday, Nichols said the marine department thinks those river herring are having a positive effect. And he said the presence of an abundance of menhaden — another common baitfish favored by striped bass — in recent years has also turned the Maine coast into a buffet for stripers. Menhaden runs are cyclical, not constant, and in recent years the runs have been strong, Nichols said.

“The fact that we’re seeing an increase in the number of menhaden in our water at a time that there’s an increase in observed striped bass [is worth considering],” he said. “There may be a correlation there.”

And Joule said when the stripers are in, everybody’s happy.

“When the fish are here, the word hits the street and the anglers flock to the shore. Word of mouth is really something,” Joule said. “And that works both ways, people have limited free time in this day and age. If the word is that the fish are not here people will do some other activity and not fish. Anglers, overall, are very excited and happy about this season so far.”

In Brewer on Saturday, Mike Thibodeau of Hampden returned to a spot he says he caught his first striper about 20 years ago. The grassy area off South Main Street is called “Fisherman’s Park,” and it gives anglers a chance to target stripers from shore.

About an hour before high tide, Thibodeau and a half-dozen others had set up rods baited with bloodworms. A few hundred feet offshore, other anglers anchored their boat and took turns casting to the stripers they hoped were waiting.

The scene was one you wouldn’t have found five years ago, when the stripers were largely ignoring the Penobscot. But a decade ago, the park was buzzing at every high tide.

“[Stripers] were more plentiful. Much more plentiful,” Thibodeau said. “I just started fishing stripers again after five or six years off.”

Thibodeau had some luck on Saturday, catching a pair of small stripers within a 10-minute span, and was excited about that. But he said the fishery still isn’t what it once was.

“Once you got into ’em, we caught ’em every cast,” Thibodeau said. “It’s not quite like that now. But they might be coming back.”

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...