Bass Notes

Striped Bass caught by Lauren Hepplewhite

Spring is striper season on the Hudson River — a time of joy for fishing enthusiasts and biologists alike.

From early April through the end of May (and, if anglers’ luck holds, into early June), striped bass will continue their annual spawning run, turning the Hudson into a fishing frenzy. What makes catching one so special?

One, their size: Stripers can weigh upwards of 75 pounds (the largest ever caught in the Hudson tipped the scale at 60 lbs.). And two, their feistiness: Stripers put up one hell of a fight when hooked. To take on this challenge, author and Riverkeeper founder Robert Boyle once said, “There are anglers who will sacrifice their jobs, their marriage and even their sacred honor.”

Migrating Up River to Spawning Grounds

For scientists, the homecoming of striped bass in the Hudson provides excitement enough. Named for the 7-8 dark horizontal lines running the length of their silvery sides, stripers are anadromous — they live in saltwater (in their case, the Atlantic Ocean) but migrate to freshwater to breed. They don’t commence their upriver journey until they gauge that the Hudson’s water temperature is just right—58-60 degrees. Their annual spawning destination remains the same throughout their reproductive life. To locate it, they rely on a superior sense of smell (keener than a dog’s).

Upon arrival at their traditional spawning spot, a female will release up to 3 million eggs for males to fertilize. Both their jobs complete, they soon head back to the Atlantic. The eggs drift with the current and hatch (if lucky) within 2-4 days. Juvenile stripers will mature in the Hudson for as long as 2 years before following their parents to the ocean, where they are the mainstay of a substantial sport-fishing industry spanning from New England to Florida.

Trouble From Toxins and Overfishing

The interaction between Hudson Valley residents and striped bass has taken many turns since Native Americans caught and ate them. In the 17th century, the fish were so plentiful that colonists used them as fertilizer, until overfishing caused such a decline in this important food source that lawmakers banned the practice. As late as the 1930s, some 300 commercial fisheries along the Hudson netted striped bass (along with shad and sturgeon). The industry came crashing to a halt in 1976, when New York State banned it because of PCB pollution.

Since then, populations of striped bass in the river have seesawed, from a low of 5 million in 1982 to a high of 56 million in 2006. Responding to the conclusion of a 2018 study by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center that striped bass populations along the Atlantic Seaboard have “declined below the threshold for a sustainable level,” the state this year instituted stricter fishing regulations. Anglers may keep 1 striper/day ranging in length between 18-28 inches. They must return all fish outside that limit.

The Fish that Helped Found Scenic Hudson

Striped bass proved an essential partner in Scenic Hudson’s founding campaign to stop a hydroelectric plant from defacing Storm King Mountain, which sits next to one of the river’s prime striper spawning grounds. Scientific analyses showed that the facility would kill striper eggs and larvae by the millions. This dire news drew fishing organizations throughout the Northeast to the campaign; in essence, it wound up sounding the project’s death knell. Scenic Hudson has repaid the favor by conserving more striped bass spawning and nursery grounds at Haverstraw Bay, Esopus Meadows and Stockport Flats.

River Skating

Ice Skating on the Hudson River (Photo courtesy of Hudson River Maritime Museum)

Back in the winters when the Hudson River regularly froze over, ice skating on it was a major craze — especially in Newburgh, where the Donaghue family won national and international medals for their speed and endurance. But no feat could beat this one undertaken (and recounted) by patriarch Timothy Donaghue, Sr.:

Timothy Donaghue, Sr.
Timothy Donaghue, Sr.

“The fastest long-distance skating I ever did was in 1872, when Aaron Wilson and myself skated to Poughkeepsie and returned to Newburgh (30 miles) in two hours. We then, with Charles F. June, started at 11 a.m. for Albany, and arrived there at 5 p.m. We lost 15 minutes crossing the ferry track which was open at Poughkeepsie; and at Rhinebeck the ferry was also running, and we had to walk about half a mile. Then we got our dinner, which took us 45 minutes.   

“That left 5 hours running from Newburgh to Albany. The distance to Albany is 84 miles by the Hudson River Railroad. As we had to cross the river from one side to another a number of times, looking for good ice, I think it made the distance more. The ice was not good, but we had a strong wind.”

Wind or not, here’s one record unlikely to be broken.

The Starry Poughkeepsie Regatta (and the Real-Life Boys in the Boat)

It’s common to see rowers on the Hudson River these days. At least a dozen local high schools, as well as Marist and Vassar Colleges, have competitive crew teams that practice in the picturesque stretch of the river from Newburgh to Poughkeepsie. In addition, community rowing programs for adults and juniors have been growing rapidly since the Hudson River Rowing Association opened their doors in 1998. 

But many people don’t realize that Poughkeepsie was once the “Rowing Capital of the World,” inspiring a story that’s just hitting the big-time again with the opening of the major new movie The Boys in the Boat on Dec. 25, 2023.

Rowing in the famous Poughkeepsie Regatta. (Photo: Archives and Special Collections at Marist College)

In 1895 Poughkeepsie hosted the first Intercollegiate Rowing Regatta. Only three schools competed: Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania. But the annual event, which was soon dubbed the Poughkeepsie Regatta, continued until 1949 and grew in size and stature, attracting the best college teams from around the country. 

These races also drew tens of thousands of spectators annually. The luckiest traveled alongside the rowers. They sat on grandstands attached to flatcars chugging down the rail line on the Hudson’s western shore. The crews raced downstream from today’s Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park to Poughkeepsie’s Mid-Hudson Bridge (passing under the railroad bridge that is now the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park).

The who’s who of the Hudson Valley — including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Astors, and the Vanderbilts — turned out to watch the races. Hundreds of boats and yachts, and occasionally even Navy destroyers, sailed to Poughkeepsie to watch the event. World War II interrupted the Regatta, but afterwards it returned, bigger than ever — prompting massive celebrations, parties, and even the crowning of the Poughkeepsie Regatta Queen.

Lucky spectators followed the rowing action on a moving “Observation Train” that ran along the west side of the river. (Photo: Archives and Special Collections at Marist College)

In the early years, elite Eastern schools dominated the Regatta. But in 1912, Western schools started getting in on the action. After winning at Poughkeepsie, the University of California crews of 1928, 1932, and 1948 all went straight to the Olympics.

But no team received as much attention as the nine scrappy men from the University of Washington who swept the Poughkeepsie Regatta in 1936. The story was gripping: They overcame a world of adversity to upset the Ivy League establishment, earning them a team boathouse on Poughkeepsie’s “Regatta Row,” as well as their own dining hall.

As working-class products of a public school, the team represented such a big win over the elite private-school set that their story resonated nationally. And since their story captured the public imagination, part of their legacy has been expanding the appeal of the sport to the more diverse crews that row today, including many women.

The sport’s appeal has expanded to the more diverse crews that row today, including many women. (Photo: Jason Torres / Hudson River Rowing Association)

Prior to winning their race here the “boys” also rowed upstream to Franklin Roosevelt’s house, hoping to visit with the president. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in (although his son, himself a competitive rower, reportedly invited them in for a happy evening of chatting about the sport).

Later that year, they had better luck at the Olympics in Berlin, narrowly beating out Italy and Germany to snag the gold medal. Their rags-to-riches story was chronicled in the 2014 bestseller The Boys in the Boat, which has just been made into a movie directed by George Clooney and starring Callum Turner.

In September 2021, the Hudson River Rowing Association and the Mid-Hudson Rowing Association hosted a historic, 5,000-meter race along the course used from 1895 to 1949 by the Intercollegiate Rowing Association. It marked the first time in more than a decade that boats competed for the fastest time on the route. The race was so popular that it has now become an annual event.

Rowing in the modern-day Poughkeepsie Regatta. (Photo: Jason Torres / Hudson River Rowing Association)
Olivia Abel is a staff copywriter at Scenic Hudson. A former editor-in-chief of Hudson Valley Magazine, she also teaches journalism and communications at Marist College. An avid hiker and biker (and new pickleball junkie), she never tires of searching for the Hudson Valley’s best cup of coffee.
Reed Sparling is a retired staff writer and historian at Scenic Hudson. He is the former editor of Hudson Valley Magazine, and continues to co-edit the Hudson River Valley Review, a scholarly journal published by the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College.
Footage of competitors and spectators at the 1934 Poughkeepsie Regatta. (Video: British Pathé)

Cruising History

hudson river day line steamer

For a little over a century — from 1863 to 1971, in fact—a cruise on the Hudson River Day Line was a must-do Hudson Valley experience. The side-wheel steamships that plied between Manhattan and Albany offered passengers live music, a couple of restaurants and even a barber shop along with magnificent views. No wonder the boats were called “floating palaces.”

hudson river day line steamer
Painting of Hudson River Day Line Steamer by Alexander Hamilton

For many, the Day Line provided transportation to vacations in the Catskills, or a daytrip to amusements at Bear Mountain or Kingston Point. At its high point in 1925, the line’s seven ships carried two million passengers.

The boats are long gone — travel by car and airplane did them in. The Alexander Hamilton, the last of the Hudson River Day Line fleet, ended its 40-year run on the Hudson in 1971. Today it rests in a watery grave off New Jersey.