SI Vault
Gerald Holland
September 03, 1956
After a 2,000-mile quest the investigator finally comes to grips with the truth—and a striper
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September 03, 1956

The Striped Bass: A Detective Story

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

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

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

The striper is a self-made fish. Man has done nothing for him and neither have fish. He is born without 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 procreative consequences. After the splashing ritual both males and females forget the whole 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 of bass.

The striper's most spectacular theater of operations is that area of the Atlantic coast extending from Chesapeake Bay in Maryland to the coast of Maine. Every spring millions of bass swim out of Chesapeake Bay and move up the coast, past New Jersey, along the south shore of Long Island to Montauk, then out across the open ocean to the coast of Rhode Island, on up to Cuttyhunk, the westernmost island of the St. Elizabeth chain off the south-east coast of Massachusetts. Cuttyhunk is the great crossroads of striper traffic. Some stay right there for the summer, some peel off and swim down Vineyard Sound to the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Millions of others swim past Cuttyhunk into Buzzards Bay, through the ("ape Cod Canal up the Cape to Province-town and perhaps on to Maine. After summering in the north the great majority of the stripers begin a return migration in the fall (starting in a few weeks from now) and it is during these north and south migrations that the striper addicts go noisily mad. They fish for the striper from the shore and boats; they put on skin-diving outfits and go below the surface, some to spear, some just to watch the striper. One man has designed a rubber suit which he inflates and floats around in, casting for the striper the while.

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

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

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

Mr. Scheer, a lean, tanned man of 72, said that people are continually asking him to write a book. "I won't ever do it," he said, "because what is true today may be ridiculous tomorrow. I remember when fresh-water plugs were adapted to salt-water fishing. I said they would never do. And they got the fish like crazy."

Mr. Scheer's father, William Scheer, founder of the jewelry firm, was a fisherman before him. Together they perfected certain techniques that made them the envy of striper fishermen up and down Long Island.

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

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