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WILTZ: Maine stripers - Scratch 'em off my bucket list

I had little idea of how this latest adventure would go. On TV fishing shows, I’d watched surfcasters go after stripers from shoreline rocks and beach. I had also seen anglers troll for them around bridge supports and concrete abutments. How Don, my brother-in-law, fished for them, I didn’t know.

For Wessington Springs readers, Don Hodgson grew up on a farm southwest of town. His grandparents were George and Blanche Hodgson, and his parents are Evelyn and the late Merlin Hodgson. I first met Don when his older sister, Betsy, brought me home the night before the 1962 pheasant opener. I’ll never forget that pot luck supper in the basement of the Templeton church. To say that Blanche gave me the once-over that night is an understatement. Since then, Don and his wife, Merryl, have lived in Maine for the past 39 years. In those years Don has become a master angler.

A tinge of skepticism might have flowed through my veins when I first viewed Don’s boat in the garage. An inflatable 14-footer with a 25 horsepower Evinrude outboard motor, it wasn’t exactly what I imagined would ward off great-white sharks and high seas. Wasn’t that Amity Island’s Quint and Sheriff Brody out there beyond the breakers? However, it turned out to be the perfect craft for what we were going to do. For this South Dakota angler, anticipating the high tide was a new experience. We launched the boat in Portland’s Casco Bay around 9:30 a.m. According to Don, the 11 a.m. high tide would push the baitfish right into us. I just loved Captain Don’s confidence. While we trolled along a shoreline, the rising tide was apparent as exposed rocks disappeared beneath the surface and beached seaweed was met by rising water.

About our Atlantic Ocean striped bass or stripers: These fish have made a dramatic comeback in the past 30 years thanks to sound management. They range along our east coast from northern Florida to Canada. A striper can live for 30 years, reach 75 pounds in weight, and attain a length of 60 inches. Stripers have done well in inland freshwater lakes, and a hybrid has been developed by crossing the Atlantic striper with our own freshwater white bass. You might recall my fishing for the feisty hybrids in Arizona’s Lake Powell two years ago. The hard-fighting stripers are excellent table fare.

Our tackle included medium weight spinning rods, open-face spinning reels loaded with 25-pound test monofilament line, and a red soft plastic 19 inch eel or worm-like tube lure that was 3/8 inches in diameter. A single hook protruded from the tail with a swivel on the tip. Don threaded a live sand worm onto the hook. The sand worms looked much like our night crawlers.

The possession limit was one striped bass per angler. It had to be 20 to 26 inches in length, or more than 40 inches. While none of our fish were less than the 20-inch mark, we did not catch a bass more than 40 inches in length, and we kept two slot fish that the seven of us ate for supper that night. More on Don’s fish preparation later.

We began by trolling the baited red tubes along a shoreline in six feet of water — my line out the port side while Don fished the starboard. Little time had passed when Don hooked our first fish. He released it after a determined tussle and a few photos. Though it was a Saturday morning, I’d call the fishing pressure light to moderate with the other boats respecting us and fishing outside of us.

During the next 90 minutes, we boated another half-dozen fish and put two, our limit, on a metal stringer. I’d call the strength and stamina of the stripers amazing. The regulations allowed us to continue fishing. When the action had noticeably slowed, Don began to talk about trying another area. At this same time I happened to look down at the water in the area of our stringer. I saw some large swirls and wondered about the strength of our fish, when I noted a very large brown seal attacking our fish! I leaned over the stringer and the seal, but before I could chase him off, he disappeared into the deep. Don had never before encountered a seal attack.

When we reeled in our lines and headed toward the open water, Don let me take the helm, a job that required constant attention as Casco Bay was full of lobster traps. En route, we pulled up to a lobster boat and watched and photographed as the crew baited and dumped their cage-like traps.

An old Civil War fort on House Island, still standing and apparently in good condition, had at one time protected Maine’s Casco Bay from would be confederate invaders. We maneuvered up close to the fort where I got some great pictures. I don’t believe that any Civil War cannon fire ever echoed in Casco Bay. With the day heating up, we loaded the boat and were back home by early afternoon.

Like their white bass first cousins, saltwater stripers have a layer of oily red meat between their skin and white meat fillet. Over the years, I have learned to remove the undesirable red meat from white bass fillets by pressing lightly with my fillet knife when I separate the skin from the fillet.

Don did our four striper fillets on his grill after marinating the fillets that had the skin left on. The red meat under the skin had turned gray after grilling, and was very easy to remove with a fork prior to eating. They were delicious. Hey, Don and Merryl, thanks again.

Now that I’ve encountered the stripers, I’d like to go back when the blues or blue fish are running.

When you read next week’s column, I’ll be in the air as we approach the African continent. The column will chronicle what I anticipate on this latest African adventure.