Angling to protect stripers

Striped bass is the Holy Grail of serious saltwater anglers in Connecticut, so it's not surprising that many of those fishermen were incensed this month when conservation police arrested two men in Stonington and charged each with taking four more fish than allowed.

The daily creel limit, or take, is two fish per angler, and the twosome came ashore with a dozen striped bass, according to Col. Kyle Overturf, of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's conservation police.

The two - David J. Hochman, 45, of Orange and John J. Warnock, 65, of Pawtucket, R.I. - who will appear in New London Superior Court on Nov. 14, are presumed innocent until the court determines otherwise, but that hasn't stopped everyday anglers from damning them. Their alleged misdeed has infuriated recreational fishermen who resent their disrespect of the revered fishery.

In the 1980s, overfishing had so depleted striped bass stocks that environmental regulators instituted a short-term moratorium on the fishery. Through a concerted effort of management and enforcement, the stock recovered sufficiently to allow the return of recreational fishing.

While there are more than 100 species of fish found in Long Island Sound, for the devoted fishermen striped bass, which are a challenge to catch and delicious to eat, are the pinnacle of the sport. While anglers snag more than 1 million each year, they keep just 10 percent, or about 100,000 fish. Fishermen release the rest, helping to ensure the continued vitality of the species.

Regulations still prohibit the commercial harvest of striped bass in Connecticut and recreational anglers are restricted to two fish per trip that must be 28 inches or longer. It is also illegal to spear striped bass in state waters, although fish speared in Rhode Island or New York waters (where it is legal) can be landed in Connecticut.

According to conservation police, Hochman and Warnock were reportedly spear fishing in Rhode Island (where there is also a two-fish limit) but landed their catch in Stonington. Other anglers troubled by their greediness alerted the conservation police to their activity, including the fact that they would set out from Barn Island but unload their catch at Lords Point, where Hochman's family lives. The conservation officers were waiting when they came to shore Oct. 4, and nabbed them as they moved the bass from their boat to a vehicle on Boulder Avenue.

If convicted, the two could be fined $100 each for the first fish over the creel limit, $200 for the second, and $500 each for the third and fourth, and/or face up to 60 days in jail. I doubt the court will incarcerate these guys, but if they did indeed go out of their way to cover their tracks after illegal fishing - they should face the highest fines.

Not every recreational angler agrees with all the state's rules for managing its saltwater fisheries, but they're applauding the state's efforts to go after these alleged lawbreakers and make them accountable for their indiscretion.

Overturf, the conservation police colonel, said while environmental officers are committed to natural resource protection, it sometimes requires a cooperative effort from sports enthusiasts. The state's hotline to turn in poachers is 1-800-842-4357, he said.

It's interesting that the arrest of the two men in Stonington came the same month as the International Game Fish Association sanctioned the world record for the largest striped bass caught - an 81.88-pound fish reeled up from Long Island Sound on Aug. 4 by a North Branford man.

"I knew it was a striper right away but didn't know it was as big as it was. Just knew it was a giant," Greg Myerson told The Hartford Courant, of his historic catch.

Myerson, who has documented catches of 11 stripers 50 pounds or more, including a 71-pounder, was fishing with an eel when he got his big bass. It took him 20 minutes to reel the fish in.

That's the news striped bass anglers want to read, not stories about sneaks trying to beat the rules. That's just the way it is with striped bass.

Ann Baldelli is associate editorial page editor.

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