THE STRIPED BASS: A DETECTIVE STORY

After a 2,000-mile quest the investigator finally comes to grips with the truth—and a striper
September 02, 1956

In Part One ofthis inquiry into the character of the striped bass, the investigator followeda trail extending from Chesapeake Bay in Maryland to Bar Harbor, Maine. He hadbeen surf casting and boat fishing, had interviewed Mr. L. L. Bean, proprietorof the famous Maine hunting and fishing equipment store, and Associate JusticeWilliam O. Douglas of the Supreme Court.

But he had seenno stripers.

The investigatordecided to invade an abiding place of truth, the halls of science. He changedat Boston from Northeast Airlines to Mohawk and soon was sitting across thedesk from Dr. Edward C. Raney in Room 206D of Fernow Hall on the campus ofCornell University at Ithaca. Dr. Raney, coordinator of all current stripedbass research for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, showed the investigator anumber of striped bass specimens in bottles, gave him a sheaf of scientificpapers for his attache case and expressed regret that he could not spare hisonly copy of the classic study of the striper by Dr. Daniel Merriman of YaleUniversity. How, in unscientific terms, to explain the hypnotic charm of thestriper? Dr. Raney thought for a minute and then said:

"Men like tocatch big things, and the striper grows to be big and handsome and he can betaken close to shore."

In his office atthe Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory, of which he is director, Dr. DanielMerriman of Yale University agreed to lend the investigator one of his tworemaining copies of his own Life History of the Striped Bass. He wrote thispaper as his graduate thesis after two years' intensive study of the striper inthe field.

"A belovedand a beautiful fish," said Dr. Merriman, his eyes glowing with affection."A graceful, hardy and courageous fish. A nifty fish, indeed."

When it wassuggested that there had been some disparagement along the investigative trailof the striper as a fighter, Dr. Merriman shook his head.

"I havefished for them all and I say that the striper at from five to 10 pounds is astough as any game fish, pound for pound. He is not as spectacular as the salmonor the bluefish or the trout, but he is a plugger and will make you work likethe very devil."

As for eatinghim?

"The broiledfilets of a five-to 10-pound striper are the tastiest eating I know of,"said Dr. Merriman warmly. "Good heavens, my wife and I lived on them fortwo years while I was writing my paper!"

At RutgersUniversity, in New Brunswick, N.J., the investigator accepted more papers fromDr. James R. Westman who, in addition to teaching classes as Drs. Merriman andRaney do, was engaged in continuing research into the striper along the NewJersey coast. Dr. Westman added a new word to describe the striper: "He isa challenge fish. Because of his highly selective eating habits, the striperand the fisherman engage in a battle of wits for which the rules are constantlychanging. What is true today about the striper's feeding habits may becompletely false tomorrow."

Back in New Yorkthe investigator remembered another professor. This was a professor(self-appointed) of surf casting. His name was Jerry Jansen, and for threeyears he had been conducting a school of surf casting on Second Avenue onManhattan Island.

In his apartmentin Greenwich Village, Professor Jansen spoke on his favorite subject:artificial lures. He described the darting and the swimming and the poppingplugs and the tin jigs (see pages 48-49) that have been devised to fool thestriper. He exhibited his collection. Turning to a young striper addict,26-year-old Mort Urovsky, a visitor, he invited him to express an opinion.

"Striperfishing," said Mort, "is man attempting to achieve something withself-imposed limitations. You can catch a striper in a net. You can also reachthe top of Mount Everest in a helicopter."

"A man,"said Mrs. Jansen suddenly from a corner of the room, "looks at a striper inexactly the same way that a woman looks at a mink coat."

A few days laterthe investigator reeled from a smoke-filled room, his head screaming withstriper lore. These things he had read of the striper:

He has othernames. The scientists refer to him as Roccus saxatilis, which means, literally,the fish that dwells among rocks. In Maryland and to the south of Maryland heis called rock or rockfish. In the north and on the Pacific coast fishermencall him the striper. Years ago he was also known as greenhead and squidhound.

He has beenaround longer than the United States of America. In the year 1635 William Woodwrote of him in New England's Prospect: "The basse is one of the bestfishes in the country...the way to catch them is with hooke and line; theFisherman taking a great cod-line, to which he fasteneth a peece of lobster andthrowes it into the sea, the fish biting at it he pulls her to him and knockesher on the head with a sticke...."

The striper isfound along the Atlantic coast from the St. Lawrence to Florida and in the Gulfof Mexico from Florida to Louisiana. In 1879 and 1882 stripers weretransplanted over land in tanks to the West Coast and deposited in SanFrancisco Bay. They thrived and multiplied there and are an important game fishtoday from southern California to Oregon.

In color, thestriper varies from green to steel blue that pales to silver on the sides andto dead white on the belly. Sometimes he has a bronze or brassy look. Always hehas seven or eight pronounced dark stripes running from head to tail on theside.

He is the size ofa minnow at birth. Those most frequently taken by fishermen range from onepound to 10. Twenty-five-and 30-pounders are fairly common, 50-and 60-poundersare rare enough to call for pictures in the sports pages. The world recordstriper taken on hook and line was a 73-pounder caught in Vineyard Sound offCuttyhunk Island, Mass. in 1913. A striper weighing 112 pounds was taken in anet at Orleans, Mass. many years before that.

Fishermen callthe biggest bass "bulls," but that is a misnomer. The biggest stripersare always females and so would be "cows." A 60-pound striper may beanywhere from 20 to 30 years old.

The striper is aself-made fish. Man has done nothing for him and neither have fish. He is bornwithout a mother's love or a father's tender care. The spawning ceremony(always in brackish or fresh water) consists of a female "broadcasting"thousands or hundreds of thousands of eggs (as many as 5 million sometimes)while a number of males set up a great splashing that has procreativeconsequences. After the splashing ritual both males and females forget thewhole episode and the eggs are caught up in the currents to survive or perish.Most of them do perish, but if only one percent survive there are plenty ofbass.

The striper'smost spectacular theater of operations is that area of the Atlantic coastextending from Chesapeake Bay in Maryland to the coast of Maine. Every springmillions of bass swim out of Chesapeake Bay and move up the coast, past NewJersey, along the south shore of Long Island to Montauk, then out across theopen ocean to the coast of Rhode Island, on up to Cuttyhunk, the westernmostisland of the St. Elizabeth chain off the south-east coast of Massachusetts.Cuttyhunk is the great crossroads of striper traffic. Some stay right there forthe summer, some peel off and swim down Vineyard Sound to the islands ofMartha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Millions of others swim past Cuttyhunk intoBuzzards Bay, through the ("ape Cod Canal up the Cape to Province-town andperhaps on to Maine. After summering in the north the great majority of thestripers begin a return migration in the fall (starting in a few weeks fromnow) and it is during these north and south migrations that the striper addictsgo noisily mad. They fish for the striper from the shore and boats; they put onskin-diving outfits and go below the surface, some to spear, some just to watchthe striper. One man has designed a rubber suit which he inflates and floatsaround in, casting for the striper the while.

Now theinvestigator remembered a name that had been highly recommended by both CootHall at Cuttyhunk and Dr. Merriman at Yale. The name was Otto Scheer, for 60years a striper fisherman.

In his office inthe British Empire Building at Rockefeller Center in New York, Mr. Scheer, amanufacturer and designer of jewelry who accepts commissions from all over theworld, leaned back in his chair and glanced at the photographs that filled thewalls. One photograph was of an emerald necklace which he had sold for$492,000. All the others were of fish.

Mr. Scheer is aboat fisherman who took the Cuttyhunk design of bass boats and invented newsuicidal techniques of moving into the rocks at Montauk with one breaker andgetting out before the next breaker dashed the boat to bits. This is Mr.Scheer's idea of fishing. "Surf casting," he said, "is the highlydeveloped art of fishing where they ain't. Fresh-water fishing is like fishingin the bathtub."

Mr. Scheer, alean, tanned man of 72, said that people are continually asking him to write abook. "I won't ever do it," he said, "because what is true todaymay be ridiculous tomorrow. I remember when fresh-water plugs were adapted tosalt-water fishing. I said they would never do. And they got the fish likecrazy."

Mr. Scheer'sfather, William Scheer, founder of the jewelry firm, was a fisherman beforehim. Together they perfected certain techniques that made them the envy ofstriper fishermen up and down Long Island.

"We couldsmell the bass. We could tell where they were by the color of the water and theslicks on the water. But my father did not go along with me when I put powerinto the bass boat. He said the noise would scare off the fish.

"Actually, itworked the other way. I found that the striper, out of plain curiosity, wouldmove into the propeller's wake just to see what was going on. You could takethem with a short line."

As for histechnique of dashing in among the rocks, Mr. Scheer said he had learned thatthe bass would move inshore in heavy surf and lie under the break of thebreakers waiting for the smaller fish.

"The factis," he said, "the small fish tossed up in a breaker lose their senseof direction. You can prove that by putting some small fish in a pail of waterand churning it up, not just stirring it, but turning the water over with yourhands. The fish get dizzy and stagger around. They do this in the breaker. Thestriper knows that and so he's in close to shore waiting to grab them whilethey are trying to get back their sense of direction."

"Do youthink, Mr. Scheer," the investigator said, "that there are stripers atMontauk right now?"

Mr. Scheersniffed the air automatically. "Yes," he said, "they are there forpeople with the guts to go after them."

Next day, atnoontime, the investigator sat on a stool in the Snack Bar at Tuma's Dock inMontauk splashing catsup over a platter of hamburger and onions and home fries.The fog was thickening outside and small craft warnings were up.

A fat man,reeking beautifully of beer, slid onto a stool and pointed at theinvestigator's attaché case, bulging with notes and papers.

"What are youselling, Mac," he said. "Neckties?"

"No,"said the investigator. "I am conducting an investigation into the stripedbass. I am going out for stripers this afternoon with Captain Dick Scholz, theskipper of the Lillian S. II."

"Are you outof your mind?" demanded the fat man. It was clear now that he had beenfishing all morning with no luck.

"CaptainScholz is not worried about the weather," said the investigator.

"I am nottalking about the weather," said the fat man. "I am talking about thestriped bass. There is no such fish."

The investigatorput down the catsup bottle. "What do you mean?" he said.

"The stripedbass is a myth," said the fat man. "It is a creature of a hoaxperpetrated by trick photographers and husbands looking for an excuse to stayout all night."

"Oh?"said the investigator. "It may interest you to know that I have seenstriped bass specimens in bottles at Cornell University."

"Inbottles," said the fat man angrily. "Those are put out by Heinz. Don'tgo out with this skipper. Give me $10 and go home."

"Why should Igive you $10?"

"For myadvice. You'll save five times that. Show me an investment where you can make abetter profit. Give me the saw, what do you say?"

The investigatorpaid his check and walked out. Down at the dock he found Captain Scholz all setand ready to go.

"These smallcraft warnings don't mean anything," said the investigator hopefully.

"Not unlessyou're very small-and crafty," said Captain Scholz. "We're not goingout far. Just along the shore. This is good weather for us. We've got a betterchance in water that's just a little rough."

There were twoother fishermen making the trip. One was an associate of the investigator,Arthur Brawley of Riverdale, N.Y. The other was an air-conditioning salesmannamed Johnny whose last name has been lost among the investigator's notes.

Captain Scholzwent to the flying bridge and took the Lillian S. II out of the harbor as hismate rigged up the lines with golden nylon tassles known as the Jigit-Eel. Forgood measure the mate added a long strip of pork rind.

About 45 minutesout from shore Captain Scholz throttled her down for trolling. The weather wasgetting worse, the fog thicker. The Lillian S. II began to rock and roll andpitch and heave. Captain Scholz on the bridge kept peering this way and thatthrough the mist. Below, the mate smiled and said, "It is a little choppytoday."

The mate passedout the rods and instructed the three fishermen to "jig it," that is,to keep jerking the rod back and forth. This was intended to give any passingstripers the impression that a wounded eel was lurching by.

The weather gotno better. The mate, looking around, peered sharply at the investigator,desperately jigging away, then went below and came back with a paper cup ofwater and two yellow pills.

"You look alittle green," he said. "Take these. Some people say it's too late onceyou're out on the water, but I don't believe that."

The mate shouldhave believed those people.

For two solidhours the three fishermen sat jigging. The investigator absented himselfbriefly, then returned to the task greener than before. Shifting his rod fromone hand to the other, he jigged and he jigged and he thought back over theinvestigation. It occurred to him now that perhaps the soundest theory he hadheard had been uttered by the fat man in the Snack Bar. There was no striper.It was a myth and a hoax, a fake and a fraud.

The sea wasrougher than ever. Looking over the side, the investigator saw an ugly rock andhe thought of Otto Scheer. He made a vow that if ever, by some remote chance,he were to set foot again on dry land, he would forswear forever such childishenthusiasms as this one and devote his leisure to some worthwhile project, saya study of the Great Books or bowling.

He looked at hisfellow fishermen jigging away, smiling and happy looking, their faces ruddywith health and serenity. The investigator hated them and their joyful jiggingways.

But he jigged on,for what is a man to do? Can he cry out, "Turn back, I am sick to the pointof dying? I am weak and faint and can jig no more?"

There was nothingto be done but to jig on and perhaps to die jigging aboard this cursedcraft....

Then ithappened.

Theinvestigator's line suddenly screamed. It sang out to sea.

Nobody saidanything. The two other fishermen started reeling in as rapidly as theycould.

Captain Scholzwas down from the bridge like a shot. His mate sprang to the wheel in thecabin.

The otherfishermen backed away from their chairs.

Theinvestigator's head was clear as a bell. He started to reel the line in. Then,for a split second he stopped and looked vacantly around.

The line grewslack.

"I think I'velost him," he choked.

The captain sworean oath and brandished his gaff. "Reel in,, reel in!" he rasped.

The fish wasstill there. He had tried an old striper trick: rushing the boat in an attemptto lose the hook. Now he pulled away again in a great dash that made the linesing once more.

The investigatorreeled her in slowly, gaining line all the time.

There was a greathush. Then the mate said, like a man speaking in church: "It...is...a...bigfish."

All at once, 25yards away, there—through the fog—was the apparition.

Thestriper—lauded, berated, slandered, exalted and denied during thisinvestigation—made his appearance.

This wonderfulcreature came up out of the sea like a vision and rolled over with a flash ofdazzling green and gold and silver.

Then he was goneagain.

But he was beingbrought in now. He was tiring. He surfaced again and he came on again. CaptainScholz stood waiting, his eyes shining for all the stripers he had seen,waiting tensely with his gaff until—as the rules demanded—he could grasp thewire leader and rip into the striper with the hook.

The moment came,the striper was alongside. The investigator rose a little in his chair andlooked squarely into his eyes. The striper eyed him back with an unforgettablelook. There was no reproach in it. It seemed to say: "I have lived a longtime and I have won more battles than I have lost. Better this than thesharks."

The gaff took himand he was boated. He weighed 47 pounds and surely was more than 20 yearsold.

Later, in thecocktail lounge of Ruschmeyer's Lake View Inn, Captain Scholz and the fishermentoasted the striper.

The striperhimself could not be brought home by train, and so it was decided that hisepitaph should be written on Ruschmeyer's menu: "Fresh-caught MontaukStriped Bass. Choice of two vegetables." Better that than the sharks.

Captain Scholzsipped his Scotch and soda. He looked up at a big striper mounted on the wallof the cocktail lounge and then he said firmly:

"I love thatfish. And I'll tell you what he is. He's just a big, good-natured slob. Hedoesn't bother anybody, he just goes his own way and tries to keep out oftrouble. He's no killer like the blue is. He's just a big, good-natured sloband what we should do is hook him, bring him up to the boat, pet him and lethim go."

He pointed to theattache case lying at the investigator's feet. It was a sorry-looking bag,bulging with notes, wilted from the salt spray of the sea.

"What,"said Captain Scholz, "will be the conclusion of yourinvestigation?"

The investigatordrained his glass of bouillon on the rocks, a mark of his new sophisticationand a concession to his still queasy state of health. He signaled for arefill.

"Captain," he said evenly, "my conclusion will be that the stripedbass is not to be investigated at all. He is to be experienced. No man can tellanother what catching a striper is like."

Arthur Brawley,the investigator's associate, choked a little on his double Scotch andsaid:

"Would itinterest you to know that while you were down below being indisposed I caught a28-pound striper?"

"Is thatso?" said the investigator absently. "Well, that is a nice sizefish." He whirled the ice cubes in his glass and leaned forward.

"Boys,"he said earnestly, "I'll tell you what I'm going to do now. I'm going outand get me one of those really big babies. Maybe a 60-pounder. And I'm going toget this one the hard way—surf casting—if it takes me the rest of mylife!"

"He who knowsand knows that he knows is wise. Follow him."
OLD ARABIC SAYING

LURING THE STRIPER

The selective eating habits of the striped bass aresuch that fishermen are forever trying to devise new and more deceptive baitswith which to tempt him. On these pages SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presents some of theartificial poppers, darters, swimmers and jigs in current use

CREEK CHUB DARTER

HEDDON FLAPTAIL JR.

CREEK CHUB PIKIE SPECIAL

BUNKER SPOON

CREEK CHUB SURFSTER

CAPE COD SPINNER AND WORM

EEL SKIN RIG

DIAMOND JIG

GARCIA PLASTIC EEL

GOO-GOO EYES

BUCKTAIL JIG

MUSTANG MINNOW

TIN SQUID

STRIPER SWIPER

CREEK CHUB JOINTED PIKIE

MASTERLURE

PET SPOON

REVERSE ATOM

TASSELURE

FEATHER JIG

JIGIT-EEL

PHOTO PHOTOTOP STRIPER SCIENTISTS
DR. EDWARD C. RANEY of Cornell University is coordinator of U.S. striper research.
PHOTO[See caption above.]
DR. DANIEL MERRIMAN of Yale wrote the definitive Life History of the Striped Bass.
PHOTOTHE 'PROFESSOR'
JERRY JANSEN of New York City describes himself as a "professor of surf casting."
PHOTOTHE CAPTAIN
DICK SCHOLZ of Montauk, Long Island defied the skeptics and produced a striper.
PHOTOTHE INVESTIGATOR
GERALD HOLLAND is photographed at journey's end with the 47-pound quarry which he pursued from Chesapeake Bay to Bar Harbor, Maine to the tip of Long Island.
TWENTY ONE ILLUSTRATIONSHARRIET PERTCHIK

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)