When They Run, They Run - The Spring and Fall Striped Bass Run in Philadelphia

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There are many fishes around us! Follow my Statistical Chart for 2012, and see for yourself how many different Species of fish I've caught so far.

When I was still a kid, my father used to tell me all the time: "the first step in fishing is to find a good spot." At that time, all his thoughts were based on "field experience." In other words, he used the trial and error approach to determine which spots were more productive: if he caught a lot of fish in a certain spot, he would circle it on the map. If he ended up getting skunked, he would cross it. He was a man of Science, indeed. While performing this ritual, he took many dependent variables in consideration: topography, productivity, access, and so on. That was a very good approach, and it worked really well for us.

However, we are way past that "age." Many have already written down their field experiences and even shared it with the public in the media (as I do); therefore, there is more information available for the public now! Nowadays, there's an even better approach to that old saying: "the first step in fishing is to pick a good spot." Yes -- although the word usage is almost the same, the process is very different! Even before reaching out to the spot, this new process consists of gathering information, analyzing data scientifically, and then purposely choosing a spot/location at a specific time of the day for better results.

This process is very convenient for those who lack time in the sport. "Spot Hunting" is a very fun aspect of fishing -- it's very rewarding when you find a spot that is not fished by many; however, not everyone has the luxury to spend so much time to look for places to fish. For a father of two or someone that works full time, it's quite hard to spend so much time on the water!  

Using time efficiently is fundamental in life, and that includes fishing as well. It's very hard to know the "best time" to fish for a certain Species of fish, for example. In other words, for every Species of fish, there's a specific time when fishing is best! Some are active more during night time than day time. Other Species are most active only during certain seasons of the year!

As you can see, a "spot" is not everything you need to successfully land fish. Location is important; however, TIME is also a fundamental factor in the sport fishing. Being a Physics major, I understand that too well -- time and location are very important, guys! Therefore, let's reinforce our sentence: "the first step in fishing is to pick a good spot at a good time!" There we go. Now it's more complete!

One advice that I always give to my friends is to "think like a fish." If you were a certain type of fish, i.e. a Flathead Catfish, what would you do on a daily basis? What time would you feed? These questions would sound silly to a person without much knowledge in fishing. For those, the answer to this question would be more or less likely to be "I would swim the whole day" (I've gotten answers like this before). However, to a knowledgeable person, these are deep questions to be thought about!

For example: it's a fact that Catfish feed more at night time. Why? Because they rely mainly on their sense of smell and electro-sensing. Since every baitfish in the River has a beating heart, they are like little batteries for these huge predators! At night time, these little fishes are usually hidden in their natural habitats (between rocks, vegetation, etc); therefore, a big Flathead Catfish can find them by electro-sensing and just ambush them! There you go -- you just got yourself your meal of the day.

So, what about Striped Bass (a.k.a. Stripers)? What do they usually do? When do they feed? And, most importantly, when are they here -- in Philadelphia?
When it comes to Striped Bass fishing, it's no different: the first step is to find the fish. Unlike other Species of fish in Philadelphia, the Striped Bass are mainly a migratory Species of fish. I used the word "mainly" because there have been many recorded cases of Striped Bass that adapted to Freshwater; however, those tend to be much smaller than the ones that do migrate. In Philadelphia, there is a declining population of adapted Striped Bass in the Schuylkill River, for example.  

This step is often frustrating. So, don't let a couple skunked sessions discourage you! In order to find them, one must know what is the best time of the year to target them. In other words, the angler needs to study their migration route! I've attached a homemade map below, so you can have a better visualization of the route they take.  

Note that this map portrays the Striped Bass migration during Spring, when they travel from South to North. In the colder months, Striped Bass travel from North to South.
Map Legend:
1. Emphasis to Albemarle and Pamlico Sound. The Striped Bass run starts from as far as North Carolina and Virginia. For avid fisherman, keep in mind that Pamlico Sound is the biggest Lagoon along the US East Coast -- supposedly a very good fishing location.
2. Chesapeake Bay, where 70%+ of the Striped Bass population do their spawning in Spring. Truly a paradise for Striped Bass fishing!
3. This is the area we are most interested in. After all, it's the entrance to the Delaware River, and eventually the Schuylkill River. I'll focus on this section, of course, hence the Blog is mainly about Philly.
4. Emphasis to the Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay on the New Jersey side, as well as the Lower Bay on the New York side.
5. The Long Island Sound. Imagine buying a house around those areas, huh? I may consider that as a future goal! =)
6. Emphasis to the Cape Cod Bay. This is the last point that I've included on the map; However, the migration on the East Coast go as far as Maine.
For our luck, we have the migrators coming in during every Spring and Fall. Time is an essential factor if you are looking for those big ones! The earliest Species on the migration list is the Alewife. They start to move in in the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers as early as March. The Shad (Gizzard, American, Hickory) and the Blueback Herrings come after, as well as the Striped Bass.
I would say that the best period for the Striped Bass Spring Run in Philadelphia is during February-May. The big Stripers move in after the schools of baitfish, ranging in average from 25-40 inches. Then, during the months of September-November, there's a short Fall Run -- when the big ones migrate from the North to the South.
As I have mentioned before, we also have some "locals" -- Striped Bass that have adapted to our Rivers' environments. Those can actually be caught year-round in the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers; however, their population has been declining due to poaching and over harvest (see the green portion below).  
It's interesting to look at the map and just imagine the migration, isn't it? One question that many may wonder about is how far they travel every year. Well...that, I don't know. However, I do know by data that a Striped Bass can travel up to 500 miles in a month. That makes it an average of 16 miles a day, which would be the same as 25.7 kilometers. Considering that an average person can barely manage a couple miles a day on land, isn't that awesome?

Looking at the map, it's already evident that an avid (and rich!) fisherman can target big Striped Bass at any time of the year, just by following the migration. Also, it's evident that following the migration is the best idea in terms of locating fish -- it's no use fishing a certain spot when they are not there! It's truthfully a waste of time (remember: use time efficiently).

This is when someone usually jumps in, and asks me the golden question: "Why do they travel? Why can't they just stay fixed somewhere?" Well...think it this way: "Why do human beings migrate? Or why have they migrated over the years, back in the days?" As you may have expected, the accepted answer is that everyone has reasons. So, what are the reasons for Striped Bass to migrate?

1. Striped Bass migrate according to water temperature -- they like to stay in their comfort zone! Let's not forget that most fish are "ectothermic," meaning that they are "cold-blooded." In other words, their body temperature vary according to the ambient they are in. The Striped Bass prefer water temperatures between 55 to 68 Fahrenheit, which is the same as 12.7 to 20 degrees Celsius. If the water temperature around your place is between that range, and you have a body of water connected to the East Coast, you can certainly assume that there are Striped Bass swimming around!
Remember: 55 to 68. When water temperatures get a steady 70F+, it's almost certain that the migrators are gone. Locals will still be there to entertain, although, they are not as big as the migrators. 
The idea of water temperature is fundamental to us -- anglers -- mainly because we are suffering from weather change. All this business about climate change influences fish migrations; therefore, the Striped Bass migration's date may change over the years. However, as far as you keep your water temperature in check, you will know when they will arrive. 

2. Food is also a factor in their migration. They will go where the baitfish goes. In other words, the Striped Bass follow the Shad migration! If you are a perceptive person, you would eventually notice that the Shad migration route is very similar to the Striped Bass' route. They are almost identical! Time, however, is a factor that makes them different. Remember: it's always good to follow the "basics of fishing": follow the baitfish for bigger fish.

3. The last factor in their migration is spawning. Striped Bass spawn in Rivers and Bays during Spring. A curious fact is that younger Striped Bass usually "hangs out" at his birth place until he is strong enough to migrate with the group -- until he averages 25-30 inches. Next time you get a Striped Bass in Philadelphia, think about this: 25-30 inches is the range that they migrate!

This is a good moment to emphasize the catch and release of MINIMUM and MAXIMUM sizes of Striped Bass! Again, it's a shame that the PA Fish and Boat Commission only has a chart for minimum sizes and no MAXIMUM sizes. But anyways, it's good to catch and release Striped Bass depending on their sizes, if harvesting is an option. This is the concept of Selective Harvest. After all, as anglers, we should all be thinking about the sustainability of the aquatic environment, right?

By fact, an average 7 pounder female Striped Bass can produce up to 500,000 eggs in a single year. In comparison, a 50 pounder can produce 3 million eggs a year, which is a 2,500,000 eggs difference. Using ratio and estimation, this would mean that a 70 pounder can produce up to 3,662,790 eggs a year. This is for you guys -- the readers -- to have an idea on how many eggs a Striper can actually produce. Keep it in mind for now.

Eventually, only a small portion of the eggs are hatched. It's estimated that out of 600,000 eggs that an average Striped Bass lays, only 0.1% of it hatches (about 600). Due to many factors, out of this 600, it's estimated that only 3 will reach the age of 2 years, which is a small 0.5%. All the rest will die by getting consumed by other predators, etc.

The division of Fish and Wildlife in New Jersey started to tag Striped Bass in the Delaware Bay since 1989. At that time, a 23", 4 pounder Striped Bass was tagged. The same fish was fished again 11 years later at Massachusetts Bay, measuring 47", 36 lbs. Again, using mathematics, this would mean a 2.18" and a 2.9lbs growth per year. Let's take in consideration that a Striped Bass can live up to 30 years, by scientific data. Using this ratios (and discarding other dependent variables), a 27 year old Striped Bass would be around 78.3 lbs, which is close to the actual record! (81.8lbs) This is for the reader to have an idea of how long it takes for a fish to grow, and how our chances of catching a World record diminishes every year, as people keep harvesting in an unintelligent way. That's why there are laws in terms of harvesting: a fish doesn't grow as fast as people think.
The World record was older than I am (I'm 24, as for 2013)! Therefore, keep in mind that every time someone takes away a trophy fish, that same person is destroying part of the fish genetics that could have given us bigger generations of the same Species of fish.

When it comes to Striped Bass growth, it's no surprise: females grow more than males. Therefore, the ratio of females and males after 40lbs is not 1:1. It's not certain what the ratio actually is, but it's certain that the probabilities of a fish being female get higher as the fish is heavier.

Therefore, using facts and mathematics, the World record above was very likely a 81.8lbs female, around the age of 28 years and 3 months, who could produce up to 4,848,837 eggs. From these 4,848,837 eggs, 4849 eggs would hatch, and 24 would reach the age of 2 years old.

Even though these are just numbers; even though I'm excluding all external factors and possibilities, which makes this scenario only a probability and not a realistic and accurate picture, I hope you can see where unintelligent harvesting is leading us to. I only mentioned fishing genetics briefly, but that's another factor for why there should be a MAXIMUM size limit for all Species of fish. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not against harvesting; I'm against harvesting in an unintelligent way. According to the concept of Selective Harvest, small ones, extra big ones, and fishes that are rare in a certain body of water should always be released.

Anyways...back to the main topic! Below are some of the main factors that affect Striped Bass fishing:
1. Temperature
We already discussed this one. Preferable temperature is in the range of 55-68F (12.7-20C), and it's directly related to their migration from the South to the North; North to the South.

2. Finding the fish

Recall: find the schools of baitfish for the bigger ones. So, now we will be talking about finding baitfish! The best baitfish for Striped Bass is the Shad. Period. Even though the Striped Bass feed on Clams, Bloodworms, etc, Shad are still a preferable source of food. If you can find the Shad in the Schuylkill or Delaware River, there's a high probability of Striped Bass lurking around. You can often find the Shad by watching birds feeding on top water or watching fish jumping around.

Herons, Bitterns, Loons, Cormorants, Grebes, Terns, Mergansers, Bald Eagles, Kingfishers, Ospreys, Gulls, Egrets, Pelicans -- whatever it's...if you see them nibbling somewhere in groups, go there! I've seen birds nibbling close to the Fairmount Dam, and there are always monsters around when that happens. Believe me...the birds will lead you there! Who needs a sonar when birds are around, seriously. Nature is the best option.

3. Current
One of the main elements in fishing for Striped Bass is to find turbulent water. If you thought one day that they would be ONLY in calm environments, you were wrong. At the Schuylkill, for example, the best spot to fish for the Striped Bass is directly under the Fairmount Dam, where the current is strongest. You want to focus at the edge of turbulent currents, where bait fish often are disoriented; or the border between rocky and sandy bottoms, as the turbulence stirs up the bottom. Get that big Bomber out of your tackle box and go for it! =)

Just out of curiosity: the scientific name of the Striped Bass is actually Morone Saxatilis, meaning "dwelling among rocks." Well...I guess the name tells you something, huh?

4. Wind
Wind is not crucial, unless fishing shores. So, I'm not going to focus too much on it. However, if you ever said that "wind doesn't matter," you should keep in mind that it does! Just a little curious fact:

The East wind is the best wind when fishing at the shore, while the South wind is the worst. The reason behind it is simple: the East wind is an on-shore wind (surface water moves towards the land), and the South wind is the off-shore (surface water moves away from the land). One would expect the West wind to be the worst, but that's wrong! The rotation of the Earth makes the South wind the worst. I'm not going to explain the Physics behind it here. Hehe. 
So, the wind moves the water surface towards land. Here's where the Plankton comes in! Yes -- those microscopic organisms that bait fish just love to eat! There are two types of Plankton: Phytoplankton and Zooplankton. Phytoplankton are basically plants, and they process their food through photosynthesis (remember this word, back in school?). Zooplanktons are microscopic creatures that feed on phytoplankton. The phytoplankton needs light to do photosynthesis, so they are found in the upper layer of the water column. I guess you can picture the whole scene now, right?

Stripers! --> Bait fish --> Zooplankton --> Phytoplankton --> Sunlight

Nice food chain, isn't it? Basically, the East wind moves the Phytoplanktons closer to the surf, and everything else follows.

Keep in mind that the wind theory for fishing depends very much on location! This doesn't apply only for the Striped Bass. Wind also has a very important role in Crappie fishing, for example.
5. Tide
Finally, the last component is the tide! Stripers are smart -- they are cunning fish! They don't usually go after baitfish; they wait for baitfish to come to them. It saves them a lot of energy.

The best time to fish for them is when a current is present: high tide to low tide, and viceversa. The best time in my opinion is the first to third hour of "low tide --> high tide --> low tide."

As soon as the tide hits the maximum or minimum, you can expect them to stop biting (it doesn't mean that you won't get any fish, though).

Below are some Striped Bass caught from the Delaware and Schuylkill River during the runs:

Pictures of local Philly Angler -- Chris McIntee, with pictures of Striped Bass from the Schuylkill River. You can follow him on his fishing website -- Sea Money Fishing.
Pictures of Bass angler Mike H. with Striped Bass from Philadelphia. You can follow him on his Youtube Channel -- Extreme Bass Fishing.
Pictures of another local Philly angler -- Chris E, with pictures of Striped Bass from the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers.. You can follow him on his Facebook Page -- The Right Anglers.
Best of luck for all of us,

Long Days and Pleasant Nights,


Leo S.