Are Striped Bass Migrating North Early?

Anglers in Maine are catching high-quality stripers in larger numbers early in May.

The old saw has it that striped bass arrive when the lilacs bloom. That was mostly directed at Cape Cod. However, since lilacs bloom progressively up the coast, it is likely a good indicator of the arrival of an icon of sport fishing. Lilac time has always been anticipated as a harbinger of spring and the excitement of a new fishing year.

Along the coast of Maine in Casco Bay some anglers think that the arrival of striped bass and big striped bass came ahead of schedule this year. Why wouldn’t they? With earlier springs, the lilacs may also flower at an earlier date.

Striped Bass Migration

dead striped bass on Nova Scotia beach
Hundreds of dead striped bass were found washed up on a Nova Scotia beach by a pair of duck hunters last January. Port Morien Wildlife Association, Facebook

At the very northern end of striped bass’s range a massive winter kill of striped bass in the Dingwall, Nova Scotia area had some wondering if somehow this strange event was also linked to climate change. Perhaps warmer water temperatures kept the fish from moving to areas where they could survive the winter cold. Is there a connection?

It’s nice to think that blooming lilacs have some impact on fish migration, but the determining factor is water temperature and the temperature-driven migration of the forage base that fish and birds feed on.

In the last few years, my own experience indicates that one of the signals of winter’s passing, the arrival of ospreys for the nesting season, has been earlier and earlier. They are never too far ahead of their main food source, herring and menhaden. I asked for any information that the State of Maine, Department of Marine Resources might collect. They either don’t collect it or don’t care to respond.

“Stripers always show up early to mid may in Maine but quantity and quality seems to be up in past years,” says Joe Webster, a striper addict in southern Maine who spends way more time chasing fish than the average. “This year in particular definitely saw an early push of above average-sized fish and a lot of people putting up impressive numbers in the first couple weeks of May. I also think that there are probably more resident fish hanging in Maine waters than people are aware of.

“I don’t think there has been a significant timing change, maybe by a week or two, but I do think Maine sees a higher percentage of the big bass coming to our waters,” Webster continued. “There are several reasons, first and foremost is warming waters. I also believe the work Maine has done at protecting coastal ecosystems, including dam removals and restoring river herring runs, also has a big part to play in the equation.”

So, likely, striped bass are moving up the coast earlier, but are they bigger? Yes, however that is a normal trend when there has been low recruitment of young fish into the fishery. It will likely continue until the population falls off the proverbial cliff as we over-harvest the big old females. We need to see some very strong young-of-the-year numbers to have an influx of schoolies.

Nova Scotia’s Striped Bass Fish Kill Ramifications

striped bass
Striped bass are always a good time, whenever they show up. Joe Albanese

Is there a connection between the earlier migration and the Nova Scotia incident? There are no smoking guns, but I spoke with Alex Colford, a New Brunswick, Canada guide about what impacts he is seeing.

“I’ve seen no drop in the Miramichi Bay population of striped bass this year. If anything, quite the opposite.” Colford explained. “I honestly don’t know a lot about the Nova Scotia kill, but suspect it was an isolated happening. Haven’t heard of any others like it.”

Much to the chagrin of Maritime Atlantic Salmon anglers, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has been successfully re-introducing striped bass all along the Maritimes and the St Lawrence Seaway. It is likely that these fish will be estuarine-based and non-migratory.

Depending on local conditions, such as a radical temperature change as well as big run-off events which could impact oxygen levels, these populations will rise and fall. The two major connections are that these events both impact striped bass. One better than the other. Next, is that as climate induced temperature increases, it is likely to make life easier for those in northern climes and migration earlier for the US Northeast population.

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