The Atlantic striped bass (Morone saxatilis) is a large anadromous schooling fish native to the East Coast of North America. The striped bass is named for its distinctive dark stripes along its sides, which is why it’s also known as a striper. The fish also has regional names like rockfish or linesides and can reach sizes over 50 pounds. Striped bass with their seasonal migrations along the coast have been commercially important since colonial times and is the official fish of several states.
Stripers mature fairly young and can live for decades, reaching incredible sizes. Most of the wild fish spawn in lakes and rivers of the Mid-Atlantic states and can migrate as far as Canada. There are other local population groups, that also migrate withing a segment of the striper’s total range. In the late 19th century, the striped bass was introduced to freshwater lakes, reservoirs and the Pacific West Coast.
How Stripers Are Caught
The striped bass is an important and very popular sport fish, wherever it is found. The larger specimens make for an impressive catch, while the smaller “schoolies” can put up a short but entertaining fight. All along their range the striped bass can often be caught right off the shore in the warmer months.
Striped bass are also harvested commercially. The majority of the commercial catch comes from the Mid-Atlantic states, where the best fish are caught in the early winter. If not caught by hook and line, wild striped bass are harvested in pound nets or in the gillnet fishery.
After stock collapses in the 1980’s the striper has, for the most part, rebounded. However, wild caught populations are heavily dependent upon spawning success within a very limited area. The wild population has seen pretty drastic swings in the last few decades, with fishing pressure just one of several factors to consider.
As of 2021 the Atlantic Striped Bass is labeled as “overfished” and catch limits for both commercial and recreational fishing have been drastically reduced. As of 2021 there is also a moratorium on striped bass landings in federal waters. However, there are still wild fish brought to market in season, along with other sources of striped bass.
Buying Striped Bass
About half of all the striped bass (sometimes sold as rock fish) in the United States is farm raised. Some are raised in ocean pens on the West Coast. However, some farm-raised fish are known as hybrid striped bass and are mostly raised in ponds, which can affect the flavor. These hybrids are also a popular freshwater sportfish, sometimes called a “wiper” due to them being a cross of striped and white bass.
The peak availability of fresh, wild caught striped bass can run from spring through the summer, depending upon where you live. Striped bass is a common sight on New England menus during the summer, often caught that morning by recreational fishermen or even the cooks themselves. I worked at seafood restaurants in the ’90s where the owner caught the fish in the morning for the daily special. On one occasion my fellow cook dropped a line into the Essex River right out the kitchen door and under the streetlights of the bridge he caught a 30-pound striper.
Striped bass are mildly sweet tasting, with a high oil content for fish not considered “oily” from a cooking standpoint. The fish pairs well with a variety of sauces but is also flavorful enough to be enjoyed simply. The smaller fish, just at the legal limit tend to taste better than the big “slobs.” However that is not always the case, those big ones tend to eat a lot of lobster during their summer migrations.
On the grill, in either steaks or fillets, marinated in oil and vinegar reminds me of summers in my teens. Striper can also be blackened, baked, broiled or pan sauteed. Any fish, bass or otherwise, with firm, white meat without a mild to sweet flavor will work as a substitution. Snapper, grouper or barramundi are good alternatives.
Historic Recipe for Striper
Stewed Rock-Fish ( 1854 )
Take a large rock-fish, and cut it in slices near an inch thick. Sprinkle it very slightly with salt, and let it remain for half an hour. Slice very thin a dozen large onions. Put them into a stew-pan with a quarter of a pound of fresh butter cut into bits. Set them over a slow fire, and stir them continually till they are quite soft, taking care not to let them become brown. Then put in the sliced fish in layers; seasoning each layer with a mixture of white ground ginger, cayenne pepper, and grated nutmeg; add some chopped parsley, and some bits of butter rolled in flour Pour in a pint of water, and, if you choose, a small wineglass of vinegar, (tarragon vinegar will be best. *) Set it.
To make this vinegar, —half fill a bottle with tarragon leaves, and fill it quite up with the best cider vinegar. Cork it tightly, and do not remove the tarragon, but let it remain always at the bottom The flavour is very fine.