Apr 13, 2016 @ 09:50 AM 967 views
Author And Conservationist, Brad Burns, Talks Striped Bass And Atlantic Salmon
by Monte Burke
A year or so after I moved to New York City—a disorienting experience for this obsessed fly fisherman—I came across a book called L.L. Bean Fly Fishing For Striped Bass Handbook. It wasn’t until then, I guess, that I fully realized that these great fish are abundant in the waters surrounding the city. This book became pretty much my manual for pursuing them. It was written by a man named Brad Burns.
A few years later, Burns co-authored another book, Fly Fishing For Saltwater’s Finest, with the late, great John Cole. And just last year, he published his first book about another great species, the Atlantic salmon. Closing The Season is a beautiful tome about salmon fishing on New Brunswick’s Miramichi and Cains rivers, where Burns happens to have some water.
But angling writing is only part of the equation for Burns. He also puts his money—and heart—where his mouth is, for both of his favored fish species. Burns is a board member of both the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Miramichi Salmon Association. And he is one of the founders, and current president, of Stripers Forever, a non-profit that has become a critical voice in the ongoing battle to conserve the striped bass.
With the striper and Atlantic salmon seasons just around the corner, it felt like the perfect time to ask Burns a few questions, about fishing and conservation.
Let’s start with striped bass. We hear many different things about the health of East Coast striped bass stocks these days. In general, are you optimistic about health of the stock? Or pessimistic? And why?
In the short run there is little to be optimistic about. The number of 3-to-8-year-old stripers that we are now fishing on is relatively small compared to 15 years ago. Nothing can change that; they came from small year classes. At Stripers Forever we frequently hear from some very experienced, long-time striper fishers, and the story is always the same—2015 produced the lowest catches of the last 20 years. One Rhode Island angler with many years of very detailed records from daily fishing showed a catch that was just 10% of the numbers he caught in the peak years of the early 2000s.
A lot of hope was pinned on the 2011 year-class from Chesapeake Bay because it had a relatively significant young of the year counts. Those fish simply did not materialize, though, and that is now being recognized by the management officials. Whether those fish were just inaccurately counted or died from myco bacterial infection we’ll probably never know. We had quite a large year class reported in 2015 too, but will it meet the same fate as the 2011 year-class? Even if it does give us a shot in the arm, it is surrounded by some very weak years, and those fish won’t be 28 inches long for another 8 seasons. Clearly striper fishing is going to go through some tough times over the next few years.
In an ideal world, what would you like to see happen for stripers? In the so-called “real world” are there some practical solutions that can happen?
We need to completely stop commercial fishing for striped bass, and we need to stop everyone from killing the big, old breeder fish. We have tinkered with the regulations in recent years, but the changes we have made are relatively small and will not stop the spawning stock biomass from shrinking further. Our fishery managers were manipulated by commercial interests and allowed the East Coast’s world-class striper fishery to slip through their fingers. It is really a tragedy.
The best chance of the needed regulations taking place is if things get so bad that the commercial fishery is reduced to a meaningless level and is finally closed. It is relatively likely that the recreational fishery will be further reduced—as it also must be—but it will probably be ratcheted down too slowly to have the maximum benefits. Once we hit bottom perhaps we can then set some rules that will keep this debacle from repeating itself again should the stripers recover. My fear is that instead we will continue to just dumb-down this fishery with anglers being forced to accept a continuously declining level of quality in the fishery, but the situation never being really terrible enough to force the needed action.
If we could find a shining white knight in the form of a forward thinking politician, that person could ride in and write legislation that would make striped bass a federal game fish, sell a stamp to fish for them, and use some of that money to buy out the very few legitimate commercial interests still left in the fishery. That is really what needs to be done. At this point, though, no one knows who that might be.
Without burning a spot, give us one or two of your favorite places for striper fishing. Do you like the flats? Or do you prefer to chase the blitzes?
I have never really been a serious flats fisherman, though I understand its appeal. I very much enjoy seeing the fish on the surface, and I also enjoy probing the tide rips for big fish with sinking lines and large flies. My favorite spot in the whole world is Sow and Pigs Reef off Cuttyhunk Island. That is the Promised Land for medium and jumbo-sized stripers. For a fly fisherman, it has moving water, structure, and the relatively shallow depths that make it fishable. On many summer mornings during the great years of the late 90s and early 2000s, acres of fish would be on the surface down on the Pigs. The sky was full of birds, including gannets dive-bombing the schools. It was really heaven itself.
I was on the Margaree River last fall, fishing one of my favorite pools, and I caught striper after striper, all schoolies. I didn’t hook one Atlantic salmon. I have to admit, it was pretty disheartening. You fish the Miramichi, where some say a rejuvenated population of stripers is possibly eating salmon smolts. Do you see this as a problem? If so, as a fan of both species, how do you reconcile it?
It may be true that the Miramichi stripers are being too tightly protected. I would like to see a more reasonable, season-long opportunity to harvest a bass or two to eat from the river. I’m sure that stripers eat some smolts, and there is some evidence that it is a very significant amount. The two species have, though, been coexisting in that river probably since the last ice age. I hope that nature will find a tolerable balance between the bass and the salmon.
My main river camp at Campbell’s Pool is about 14 miles above tidewater on the Main Southwest Miramichi. We have only caught one or two stripers there in each of the last few seasons. It seems to me that there have been less stripers there than 5 or 6 years ago. I hope that trend continues.
Tell us a little about your annual Atlantic salmon-fishing itinerary.
Having your own salmon camp is a mixed blessing. For a number of reasons, you tend to go there instead of fishing in other places that might be better at any particular time. One thing that I do love about the Miramichi, though, is its long season. We don’t have as good an early run as some of the Gaspe Rivers, but there are bright salmon to fish for from Memorial Day on. We have a better “back end run,” as the Scots would call it, than almost any river in the Maritimes. The Miramichi has some of the best summertime dry fly fishing for large Atlantics that exists anywhere.
So my 2016 salmon season will probably be like most others of recent years: I’ll follow the fish through the natural cycle of their run up the Miramichi. That will mean early June with big water and big flies, being on hand for what is statistically the first big push of both salmon and grilse during the first week of July, watching the weather carefully during mid-summer for rain and cool weather and being prepared to head up to New Brunswick BC -0.83% on short notice, and then spending most of the last month of the season at camp fishing the fall run on both the Miramichi and the Cains and just enjoying the autumn season.
Do you have a “bucket list” Atlantic salmon spot that you’d like to fish one day? How about a favorite river?
I love wild places. The George River in Quebec is one place I’d like to fish for salmon. I also find some of the small spate rivers of Scotland to be very compelling. The River Dionard up by Cape Wrath in the north west of Scotland is a place I hope to visit. I’d also like to fish in Russia someday, but I’m not going to worry about it too much if I don’t get around to it. I don’t think that I have quite as big wanderlust as some salmon fishers.
No, I don’t really have a favorite river. I like almost any river with salmon in it, but one that I try to make sure I spend a few days on in most years is the Matapedia. The Matapedia is about the size of the Cains, which means it is small enough to be relatively intimate, but it has the large fish of the Restigouche system. The river is fairly quick-flowing and filled with big rocks structures that make it interesting to fish. The steep hills and spruce forests give it a very lovely backdrop.