Striped bass populations in the lower Savannah River are moving in the right direction - but for the wrong reasons.
A decade of intense management has restored high numbers of the giant predators, but - according to biologists - the fish still cannot sustain themselves without annual stockings.
And until they do, anglers must continue to release any stripers caught in a river once known as Georgia's premier striper ground.
"There are lots of big fish out there, but 80 to 85 percent of them are stocked fish, not natural fish," said Ted Will, a Wildlife Resources Division fisheries biologist in Richmond Hill, Ga.
Historically, there were so many stripers in the river between Augusta's New Savannah Bluff and the coast that wildlife authorities caught broodfish there to use in stocking projects elsewhere.
The freshwater estuaries that attracted spawning stripers had functioned just fine for millions of years. At some point in the 1970s however, something changed. The stripers vanished.
"In the late 1970s we were still in good shape," Will said. "After that, we were in trouble."
In 1977, after a tidal gate and diversion canal were installed in the Back River where striped bass spawned, the fish began to disappear. Scientists believe the changes increased salinity in freshwater spawning estuaries and rendered them unsuitable for striper reproduction.
At first, the problem was undetected. "Striped bass are long-lived species, so it took four or five years to see the problem," Will said. "Then, all of a sudden, our broodfish collection plummeted."
By 1989, the problem was severe enough that a moratorium on taking striped bass from the river was adopted by both Georgia and South Carolina. Two years later, the tidal gate was removed and the canal filled in.
Since then, it has been an uphill battle to restore stripers to the river. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
State authorities continue to add 40,000 stripers per year to the Savannah. The hope is that the percentage of naturally occurring stripers will continue to grow until the population can sustain itself.
Only then can authorities consider lifting the ban on harvesting the fish.
"We know there is a healthy population of adult stripers in the Savannah River now, and many anglers are anxious to harvest a large striped bass," said Georgia fisheries management chief Chuck Coomer. "But before the Division can allow the harvest of striped bass, we have to figure out if the population can maintain itself without our help."
In the meantime, it is acceptable for anglers to utilize the river as a catch-and-release fishery.
"Even though harvest is not allowed, anglers are encouraged to enjoy the current catch-and-release regulations for these fierce opponents," said Col. Ron Bailey, Georgia's wildlife resources law enforcement chief.
Some law enforcement officials, however, take a different view. Wildlife Resources Capt. Philip Moss of the Thomson district said he prefers that anglers not intentionally fish for stripers.
"We don't go over there and cite people for fishing for striped bass," he said. "But I'm not going to open the floodgates by telling everyone to get a striper rig and go down there and start catching them either."
Anglers rarely pursue stripers in the river, partly because of the moratorium and the perception that intentional fishing for stripers is illegal, said Ed Lepley, president of the Clarks Hill Striper Club.
"Not many from our club fish in the river, but some of them do quite well," he said. "It's difficult to catch one and have to release it. I think if they ever lift the ban it will be so big you could walk from boat to boat."
Thurmond Lake, which receives almost 400,000 stocked striper fingerlings each year, is an excellent area for anglers who wish to catch - and keep - big stripers.
"Most people there do keep them, as it's a put-and-take fishery," Lepley said. "They catch three to four fish, and they like to take them home. Some of us practice catch and release, though, particularly with the smaller ones."
Scientific name: Morone Saxatilis
Common names: rockfish, lineside, striper.
Average life span: 15-years (record is 31 years)
IGFA world record: 78 1/2 pounds, 1982, Atlantic City, N.J.
Georgia record, 63 pounds, 1967, Oconee River.
Most fish over 30 pounds are females.
Males mature in two years; females at six years.
Play and release fish quickly.
Avoid taking fish out of water.
Wet hands before handling fish.
Remove hook with needlenose pliers.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or email@example.com.