For Massachusetts Fishermen,
A Weighty Debate About Fair Play
'Yo-Yoing' Is Irresistible to Striped Bass,
But Technique Can Fill Them Full of Lead
By STEVE STECKLOW
August 22, 2008; Page A1
EDGARTOWN, Mass. -- When Lev Wlodyka reeled in a massive 57-pound striped bass one evening last fall, it looked like he'd caught the biggest fish in the annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby. Then judges cut it open.
Yo-yoing is a fishing method that involves putting lead weights into bait fish to make it sink onto the ground for catching striped bass. The technique has stirred debate among New England anglers. WSJ's Steve Stecklow reports.
Inside the striper's stomach they found 10 bullet-shaped lead weights weighing nearly two pounds -- surefire evidence of "yo-yoing," a baiting technique banned from the high-profile event, which will be held again next month. Mr. Wlodyka was disqualified. "I was extremely happy and then extremely perturbed, disturbed, sick," he says. The judges exonerated Mr. Wlodyka several days later, after deciding the weights had been lodged in the striper's stomach for some time. After the weights were subtracted, his fish finished second.
But the incident stirred a fierce debate here about yo-yoing, a technically challenging but potent technique that involves stuffing a bait fish with lead weight so it will sink to the ocean's bottom where big stripers lie. Popular in this corner of southeastern Massachusetts, yo-yoing is reviled by many sports anglers as unsportsmanlike and a potential source of toxic lead contamination to the fish -- and the people who eat them.
Unlike metal or plastic artificial lures, which are rarely swallowed by fish, critics say yo-yoing's bait too often leads to lead-filled stomachs. "There's just a cleaner way to catch striped bass...something that doesn't pollute the environment, that doesn't contaminate fish and doesn't represent a health hazard to the consumer of this fish," says Ronald Domurat, a beach ranger and derby committee member.
[Striped Bass Fish]
Last November, both the derby committee and the 150-member Martha's Vineyard Surfcasters Association called for Massachusetts to ban yo-yoing altogether. This year, "On the Water," a New England-based fishing magazine, banned yo-yoing in the annual fishing tournament it sponsors, the Striper Cup, which is currently under way and draws about 3,000 competitors from New Jersey to Maine.
A Veiled Attack?
Yo-yoing practitioners, mostly commercial fishermen, insist such concerns are overblown and say the assault is really a veiled attack on their livelihood by recreational anglers. Fishing for stripers has become a major sport in recent years, as conservation measures boosted the species' population.
Fear-mongering about lead poisoning "is sensationalism at its finest," charged a letter in the Martha's Vineyard Times by Scott Terry, possibly the only commercial fisherman who defends the practice publicly.
Yo-yoing is legal -- for now. Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries passed on instituting a ban and decided to discourage the practice through education instead, says Michael P. Armstrong, the state's program manager for recreational fisheries.
Dr. Armstrong says the division hasn't received any complaints of lead-filled fish showing up at restaurants or fishmongers, and that enforcing a ban would be difficult. He also noted that the lead used in big weights tends not to be absorbed by fish. "We've looked into it," he says. "I can't tell you that without any doubt that there's not a health hazard problem, but the literature says there isn't."
Yo-yoers stuff lead weight -- the metal is commonly used in fishing because of its density and affordability -- into a bait fish called a menhaden. Then they stick a barbecue skewer along the fish's spine, clip its mouth closed with a "hog ring" and attach the top of the fish to a hook. The weighted fish is then dropped near the ocean's bottom and slowly yanked up and down. Done properly, proponents and opponents alike say yo-yoing can be diabolically effective at simulating live quarry and luring the biggest stripers.
The origins of yo-yoing are steeped in lore. Mr. Terry, the commercial fisherman, maintains that the technique was pioneered in the 1970s by striped-bass fishermen in Rhode Island, who managed to keep the secret to themselves for two decades.
Once word got out, it quickly spread. Mr. Terry says commercial fisherman around the Vineyard were forced to adopt the practice or lose giant striped bass to yo-yoing rivals. "You've got to do that in order to catch the fish," says Everett "Porky" Francis, owner of Captain Porky's Bait & Tackle shop in Edgartown. "There are a lot of recreational guys who do it as well."
Admiration From Critics
A salty, 56-year-old Cape Cod resident and accomplished painter, Mr. Terry agreed to demonstrate yo-yoing to a Wall Street Journal reporter to show that it could be done responsibly. Proper yo-yoing is not easy; even some critics express a certain admiration for the arcane art.
Standing in the back of his boat, Mr. Terry removed a menhaden from a bucket and took out a homemade lead sinker with a small eyelet on top. Before inserting the weight into the fish, he cut a short length of monofilament and tied one end to the eyelet and the other to the fishing line above the hook. The idea: If the fish steals the bait, the lead sinker will pop out of its mouth.
To keep the menhaden straight and natural-looking, Mr. Terry inserted a wooden barbecue skewer -- which he says is safer than metal -- through one of its eyes and along its spine. "Tell me that doesn't look like a live fish," he said as he jiggled the bait in the water.
Mr. Terry powered the boat out to Vineyard Sound and began fishing. The secret to yo-yoing, he says, is to keep the bait fish about one foot off the bottom, where big stripers like to rest when they aren't feeding. The technique acquired its name, he says, because "you're always lowering the rod to feel the bottom and lifting it up a foot."
After a few minutes of yo-yoing, Mr. Terry felt a big tug. "We've got a fish!" he shouted. He had hooked a large bluefish, but as it hit the surface, it got away. All that was left was an empty hook -- the bait, including the lead weight, was gone.