Pennsylvania has 160 species of fish. Like many of them, the striped bass has an identity problem.
Stripers are big, hit voraciously and are an outstanding game fish, and if you caught one in Western Pennsylvania, well, you didn't.
"[Anglers] kind of always have thought that," said Fish and Boat biologist and area fisheries manager Rick Lorson. "It may just be they're giving the wrong name for this fish, or they may not be identifying the difference between white bass, striped bass and hybrid striped bass. We don't have striped bass in Western Pennsylvania. [Anglers] use the name 'stripers' universally for hybrid and white bass."
Karen Gainey, fishing instructor at the Community College of Allegheny County and host of PCTV's "Karen's Fishing Corner," said the colloquial use of "striper" for white bass and hybrids is common. She hears it all the time.
"I have not seen stripers ever on the [Ohio] river," she said. "The thing I've seen are striped bass and hybrid striped bass."
When a muscle-bound 20-incher is bowing your rod at Lake Arthur, or you've just released 80 big fish on an Ohio River tributary, maybe the name doesn't matter. Whatever you call them, they're feeding heavily now in pre-spawn mode in Western Pennsylvania waters.
Largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass are members of the panfish family. Like white perch, the striped, white and hybrid striped bass are considered "true bass" from the family Moronidae.
The striped bass has a slim, streamlined body. Its most identifying feature is seven or eight distinct unbroken dark stripes that run laterally along its side. To be certain what you have, carefully open its mouth. Stripers have two tooth patches at the back of the tongue.
Striped bass are anadromous, meaning they spend most of their lives in the ocean and run upriver to spawn in fresh water. Stripers are native to the Delaware and Susquehanna river systems, and are successfully stocked in several Pennsylvania lakes as far west as Raystown.
Stripers are not native to Ohio, but occasionally runaways from Kentucky stocking programs make their way to Ohio's lower Ohio River. Lorson said he has no knowledge of the big fish passing into Pennsylvania.
Frequently mistaken for stripers, white bass have an arched back and deep stocky body. The sides are silver-white to silver and pale green, with a yellowish coloring on the lower edge. Four to seven gray-brown or black continuous stripes run laterally across the body. Unlike the striped bass, it has a single tooth patch at the base of its tongue.
White bass grow to about 16 inches -- an 18-incher is about 10 years old and very big in Western Pennsylvania waters. They spawn in Ohio River tributaries, but reproduction is inconsistent and some year classes are unsuccessful.
The hybrid striped bass is an artificial cross between a striped and white bass. It has a deep stocky body and arched back like a white bass, and double tooth patches at the rear of its tongue like a striper. The hybrid's seven or eight lateral stripes are faint and broken.
Hybrids are almost always sterile. They grow in a quick three years to lengths exceeding 20 inches, and are more tolerant of warm water than stripers. Hybrids are typically cultured outside of the state and stocked as fingerlings in waters including the Ohio River and Lake Arthur, Butler County.
White bass are triggered to spawn by extended hours of daylight and water temperatures reaching 60-62 degrees. Lorson said the spawn is expected in about a week. Stocked hybrids don't reproduce, but they're instinctually driven to pre-spawn activity at about the same time as the white bass.
"They're beefing up on food at this time," said Lorson.
Last week, night fishing from shore at the mouth of an Ohio River tributary, Bob Wasileski III of Ingomar witnessed a spectacular pre-spawn with fish that were "very, very aggressive."
"My son and I fished ... and the hybrid striped bass bite was phenomenal," he said. "Eighty fish between the two of us would be a conservative estimate -- likely it exceeded 100. The larger females are shaped like footballs right now."
The biggest, he said, was a 25-inch, 7-pound hybrid that took a 1/8-ounce jig and 3-inch soft plastic smelt pattern on 10-pound Berkley Fireline.
At the 3,225-acre Lake Arthur, schooling pre-spawn hybrids gather over humps and near shore in frenzied gorging of alewives.
"They're just turning on now. We're catching more of them in the daytime, but that will change," said Bob Sarnese of Prospect. "The majority of guys fish at night. Once the sun goes down it's a different ball game -- I've caught 20 of them, so many my arms were killing me."
Sarnese throws a Bomber with a spinning rod, or rigs multiple poles with live alewives. Bait shops don't sell alewives -- anglers catch them with cast nets, which are legal on Lake Arthur with a $10 permit.
"And you'd better hold onto your pole," said Sarnese. "Every [hybrid] fisherman I know has lost a rod over the boat."