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There's absolutely no mistaking an adult striper for any other game fish in New Mexico. Their long, silvery sides, which flash a sheen of iridescent greens and golds against the series of dark, unbroken "stripes," can stretch upward of 3 feet. They are by far the largest bass in the state, and when they reach the 20-pound-and-up class there's not many fish in the world that can compare with the challenge they offer to anglers.

It takes six or more years for a striper to grow into the heavyweight division of sportfish, and only a very small percentage of fish born in any given year are able to make it. That's why not very many anglers have been lucky enough to say they have tasted the feel of a striper on the line. Or have they?

Like I said before, "there's no mistaking an adult striper," but in their first year of life they can be easily confused with their close cousins, the white bass. Similar in length, weight, appearance, and coloration, it can be an easy difference to miss. This is especially true when young stripers school with white bass, as they often will in those first years of life. An angler who's not looking for the differences could easily assume that the fish he's just caught is another white bass and throw it in the basket. And that's the problem.

There isn't any size restriction on striped bass, which means that those little yearling fish are legal to keep. But it's important to note that the limit on stripers is one per day and only two in total possession. So on those good days of white bass fishing when the bigger fish start getting thrown into the live well there's a real potential to be in violation of the law if a couple of stripers find their way into the icebox. An "exceeding the bag limit" citation is reason enough for caution, but taking stripers at that age is a quick way to guarantee yourself a future of fruitless casts.

So how can you be sure that what you caught is an abundant (and tasty) white bass and not a valuable young striper? Well, the surest method is also the quickest. When you're getting the hook out, just look at the fish's tongue. Striped bass have two distinct patches of teeth that run parallel to each other down the middle of the tongue. White bass have just one patch of teeth in the shape of a U that lies in the center of the tongue.

Identifying and protecting those young stripers is going to be more and more important in the next few years. The Department of Game and Fish intends to increase the number of striper fingerlings it stocks from 60,000 to more than 200,000.

It is hoped that this increase in young fish and some better awareness and conservation on the part of anglers will produce the kind of trophy stripers we can all enjoy.
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