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Articles by Dennis Doyle

When fishing is good it is very good; When it is bad, it’s still pretty good

     I’ve suddenly run into a problem I haven’t had in quite some time. I’m having the devil’s own time catching good rockfish. During the long lulls between bites, an explanation has emerged for my difficulties and disappointments.
    I blame it all on last season. Last season was phenomenal. Big fish in quantities rarely seen around the mid-Bay remained all the way through the year. I could rise at 9am, get on the water by 10am and most always have my limit of 10-pounders by noon.
    Last year, the chum bite was astoundingly effective until late June, when live-lining took over and was even better. This year is developing much differently. The schools of big fish that settled all around the mid-Bay are gone.
    Chumming is already dropping off. Live-lining has not developed, what with the dearth of small spot and rockfish being both scarcer and more finicky.
    My attempts to find them where I did last season have wasted a lot of fishing time. Likewise, my insistence on behaving as if they would eventually show up has led more poor performances than I would like to admit.
    Sticking to my schedule of rising late and still expecting to find good fish is proving to be another major error. The summertime heat is apparently shutting down the bite after 10am. My unreasonable expectations (again, based on last season) are causing me unnecessary emotional trauma.
    A smaller quantity of rockfish and the many anglers searching for them means that to be successful one must achieve ideal conditions, fishing better times of day and night plus making it a priority to find where the fish are located. Wait for them to come to you, and they most likely won’t.
    The few rockfish frequenting last year’s traditional locations do not remain long once discovered. Avoid areas of high fishing pressure to get fish in the box.
    In other areas that have proven productive in the past, stripers gather during the dark, quiet hours to feed but flee as soon as the sun rises or boats arrive. Being the first to fish any particular structure or holding area counts.
    To catch fish consistently this year, you’ll want to start very early or very late. I’m talking about being on the water nearer 5am or starting at sundown and fishing into the night. You will encounter more fish at these times, and when you do find them they are much more likely to take your bait or lure.
    If you’re fishing structure by casting or drifting baits, sound discipline is critical, especially in shallow water. Consider electric power or turning off your engine while working an area. Another good tactic is to sit quietly and do nothing for a good five minutes after arriving at the location you intend to fish. You’ll be surprised at the results.
    Fewer fish are in residence this year. The stripers that are here are under heavy pressure, spooked and uncooperative. Anglers will have to be at the top of their game and using every trick in their arsenal when pursuing them.
    On the Chesapeake, when fishing is good it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it’s still pretty good.

Blue crabs at quarter-century low

     The 2013 Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvest was the lowest in 25 years. The 2014 numbers look to be at least as bad, perhaps worse.
    How could this happen?
    Maryland Department of Natural Resources has had some of its best scientists and managers working to conserve this keystone species, one of the most revered (and consumed) in Maryland.
    Despite this concentration of talent and effort, the female blue crab population has decreased by 80 percent within the last decade. Thus, the overall population of blue crabs has fallen to the edge of collapse once again.
    Officially the crisis has been blamed on unforeseen environmental factors such as severe cold, natural predators, parasites, unusual weather and unpredictable ocean currents. Those forces do inevitably impact the overall population of our blue crab.
    But there is one reliable and utterly controllable tool available to resource managers that can ultimately protect the population levels: varying female crab harvests and, in particular, the commercial female crab harvest, as the recreational harvest of females is already prohibited.
    Almost 20 years ago, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation began a vigorous campaign to reduce the female blue crab harvest, arguing that females were critical to the health of the species. The immediate results were death threats to some of the staff and the burning of a Foundation education center.
    When decisions have to be made that can affect the commercial fishing industry and the livelihoods of individuals, emotions can run high. Nothing came of the campaign to protect the female crabs. The harvest continued unabated.
    The blue crab population subsequently collapsed to a declared federal crisis level by 2008. DNR finally had to acknowledge that the female crab harvest levels were based on flawed science: Female Chesapeake blue crabs do not spawn just once in their lifetimes; many spawn multiple times.
    The ecological emergency had one positive effect: Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia began cooperating to rebuild the depleted species. Unprecedented protection for the females was put in place by all. The result was an extraordinary and rapid resurgence in blue crab numbers. Within two or three years, the population rebounded to pre-crisis levels.
    Unfortunately, so then did the resumption of the commercial female crab harvest — with predictable results.
    We are in crisis again. This recurring situation is a strong clue that officials charged with the management of the blue crab have failed to account for unanticipated and uncontrollable mortality events that inevitably happen in a large, open ecosystem like the Chesapeake. We have continued to harvest too many crabs, especially females.
    Recently, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a 2014 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report urging minimizing risks to crab populations by immediately protecting juvenile female blue crabs while state agencies consider future changes to regulations to rebuild the population.
    The Foundation also called for creating sanctuaries in different parts of the Bay to further protect females; improving on the accountability and reporting of both commercial and recreational harvests; and moving agency management review cycles to better (and more promptly) respond to natural population fluctuations.
    Part of the problem remains unaddressed: How to rebuild blue crab numbers and maintain the population of both males and females at a healthy level without hurting the incomes of the many hard-working watermen that bring them to market.
    Assuming Maryland intends to continue the unofficial policy of providing stability to the commercial crabbing industry, some mechanism other than the exploitation of the blue crab had better be devised.

Fish recipes from the Chesapeake

Catching a fish from the Chesapeake leads to a seafood dinner beyond the reach of most mortals. The fish has come directly from your own hand. It is fresher than anything available to those not thus connected to the water. Freshness is really the defining quality, the gold standard, of seafood cuisine: same-day catch to table. Buying fish from even the best seafood markets will net a catch that is at its freshest three days old: a day from catch to the dock; another day from wholesaler to retailer, then a day (at the least) to the purchaser and to home. As to later than three days, keep in mind the old Benjamin Franklin dictum: “After three days, a fish and a house guest begin to smell.” Rockfish, the most treasured fish of the Bay, is not at all difficult to prepare. It is a dense, white-fleshed creature that responds exceptionally to herbs and spices, assuming they are not overdone. The distinctly fine flavor of striped bass can be easily overwhelmed, which is why my favorite recipe is simplicity itself. Starting with a boneless, skinless fillet, dry it with paper towels, slather with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and place it in a hot cast-iron skillet until it is well browned on one side. Then turn the fillet over and slide the skillet into a 350-degree preheated oven for 15 minutes. Test with a fork to be sure it’s done all the way through and serve. A simple lemon butter sauce with fresh-chopped dill or fennel is enough to lend rockfish all the sophistication that a fine palate could demand. My favorite accompaniments are Eastern Shore Silver Queen sweet corn and some thickly sliced fresh tomato from the same locale, dressed with olive oil, salt, ground pepper and fresh basil. A bottle of chilled champagne would not be gilding the lily. White perch is another seafood treasure from the Bay. Seldom encountered in area markets, white perch caught commercially in Maryland are mostly sent out of state. Apparently the Maryland markets are skewed toward rockfish. However, if you are even a modest angler you can secure yourself some of the finest frying fish in existence. The perch are small; a 10-incher is a big one. However, they are found in great numbers in the Bay and tributaries and, allowing for three fish per person, the average angler usually can secure a fine dinner in no time at all. Carefully fillet and skin the fish, cutting each fillet into two equal-sized portions. Blot the fish pieces dry with paper towels and dip in a mixture of two beaten eggs, two tablespoons flour, salt, pepper and a bit of beer (enough to create a syrupy mixture). Then roll the coated pieces in a shallow dish heaped with Japanese panko crumbs. Accumulate the prepared fish pieces on a large plate. Then heat a heavy skillet — again I prefer cast-iron — with about an inch of peanut oil (corn oil works almost as well) to about 350 to 400 degrees. With tongs settle the pieces of fish in the hot oil, turning them when they are golden brown. Hold the completed fish in a warm oven while you make a simple tartar sauce from chopped cornichons (about eight or nine), olive oil mayo (I like Hellman’s) and the juice of one-quarter lemon. You can also provide some dipping sauces. Texas Pete Buffalo Wing Sauce is a good one if you like it spicy, lemony vinaigrette if you’re of a gentler palate. I prefer an India pale ale to accompany the meal, but ice tea or a good, chilled white wine will go well. Provide plenty of napkins as this feast invites hands-on dining.

White perch are ready to bite

White perch are ready to bite

The day had turned ideal, overcast with virtually no wind and a full flood tide. I was busy tying on a bright-colored, one-sixth-ounce spinner bait and, while I couldn’t see my buddy Moe in the bow, I could hear him grunt, “Another one … bigger than the last.” I hurried to pull my knot tight. Of course in my haste I botched the operation and had to cut the lure off and start over.
    After getting the knot right, I was soon tight to a spunky white perch, the most delicious fish in the Chesapeake. The day had instantly become much brighter in spite of that thick cloud cover and our earlier experience.
    The trip we had planned, chumming for rockfish, had become impossibly difficult despite a good start. We had a nice fish in the box in the first 15 minutes; then the bite had died. For a long while we were patient. Then the tide went weird.
    Three hours after the turn was scheduled, the current continued to come in at a dead crawl. Our anchored skiff wandered. Meager, gusting winds sent us first one way, then another. The lines tangled and our baits went unmolested. We tried to persevere, but the awful conditions persisted.
    “Welcome to the Chesapeake Bay, home of the impossible tides,” I said as we separated the intertwined lines of a couple of outfits. Most other boats had gone.
    “You suppose they know something we don’t?” I asked.
    “You mean, like this is a total waste of time?” Moe answered.
    He suggested heading for a more southern shore, a place where we had in previous seasons enjoyed some good fishing for white perch.
    “I’m not sure they are in the shallows there yet,” I said. “The frigid winter made everything so late this year.”
    “So how could that be worse than this?” he asked, as we pulled our Danforth and put our chumming gear away.
    The couple of perch rods we had packed now looked like our salvation.
    After a bit of a run we moved, as quietly as we could go, within casting distance of a rocky, tree-shrouded shoreline studded with stone jetties. I spiked my Power Pole shallow-water anchor into the bottom, and our skiff skidded to a stop. My partner had his rod already rigged so he was quick into action. His first cast answered the big question: The perch are here.
    Just about all white perch feel big for the first few seconds after hooking up, but after that it’s only the larger, thicker, black-backed perch that can keep a sustained bend in a light rod and make the battle a test of wills. With the perch’s delicate mouth structure, an educated hand becomes very helpful in getting a big one into the boat.
    There were lots of throwbacks but among them enough 10-inchers along the shoreline to accumulate a decent-sized fish fry.
    We ate well the next afternoon.

Tie right to stop losing big fish

In the decade-plus I have worked at a local sports store, I have swapped many yarns about losing big fish. The recurring theme is broken lines.
    Odd, I once thought. Of all the fish I’ve lost, and believe me that number is considerable, there have been very few that simply broke me off. Now I’m not counting the rascals that cornered the line across a concrete bridge pier or a barnacle-studded dock piling, threaded themselves through submerged rubble or wrapped off on my engine. I mean fish that broke the line by hard pulling.
    How long had the line been on their reels, I wondered. The short story is monofilament line in use over two seasons is not to be relied upon. The line might still seem stout enough, but knot strength is always the first thing to degrade and the main culprit in any break-off.
    If the line was fresh but the setup had been used a number of times, had landed a lot fish and had always held up, I had an easy answer: Your setup just wore itself out. You can’t expect those knots to last forever. Repeated stress will eventually weaken the line‘s structure. The knots have to be renewed, and the more frequently you stress your line, the more frequently the knots should be retied.
    If the angler had freshly made the setups, I would inquire if the end of the line where it failed had a little curlicue shape, like a pig’s tail. That curlicue is the sign of an improperly tied knot slipping free. If there was a piece of mono handy, I could even duplicate the event.
    If none of the above, I would ask the angler to tie the knot for me. Then I would put the hook in a vice and give the line a substantial pull. The connection would usually fail far below the breaking strength of the line. Or it would simply slip out.

Knot Up
    If your knots are in danger of failing, the solution is simplicity.
    Attempt to learn a dozen good knots at once and you’ll remember none.
    The better way to begin is by choosing just one knot, practice tying it several times and stick with it until you can do it without thinking.
    The knot I suggest for starters is the improved clinch knot, sometimes called the fisherman’s knot. It is the knot I most frequently use for tying my line to hooks and lures, and it is probably the most popular knot in use today.
    Only after mastering this knot should you progress to learning others. I suggest the Palomar next. It is one of the stronger and easier-to-tie connections, but its application is limited. The shortcoming will become obvious as you learn to tie it.
    The next in importance is the barrel knot for tying two sections of line together, a leader to the main line for instance.
    Others knots are useful in certain circumstances, but the point is to learn and master one at a time.
    One more thing: Always moisten the line with saliva (for lubrication) when pulling it tight. Otherwise heat from the friction of the knot tightening will weaken the line.
    Another thing: If you’re intent on landing the next big fish you hook, replace your line often and begin each outing by cutting off the hook or lure, discarding the first 15 feet of line (it gets the most wear), replacing your leader (if you use one) and retying your knots. Examine each bend closely upon completion. If they don’t look perfect, cut them off and tie them again. Your lost fish ratio due to break-offs will plummet. I guarantee it.

Sometimes it takes fish to catch fish

Chumming is one of the simplest and most effective methods of getting a limit of rockfish this time of year. The fish have just schooled up and are hungry from spring spawning. Here’s how it worked for me one recent June morning.
    I try to be careful when I get a bite when chumming, immediately easing the reel clicker off to eliminate any resistance on the line, thumbing the spool lightly as I remove the rod from its holder and letting the fish run off a bit before setting the hook.
    But this guy just grabbed my bait and ran, setting the reel to screaming and hooking himself before I could even touch the rod. By the time I got the rod under control, the powerful striper had the line over its shoulder and was headed for the horizon.
    As we arrived at Hackett’s Bar at the mouth of the Severn, 30 or so boats were scattered off the big green can marking the edge of the channel, waiting for the bite to begin.
    We had already investigated a number of alternate locations (Podickery, the Bay Bridge and Dolly’s Lump) after launching our skiff at Sandy Point State Park that morning. Having found no promising marks on our fish finder, Hackett’s was our best and last hope.
    I wanted to be off the water before 11am, when the mass of non-fishing recreational boaters shows up on weekends, turning the waters into a washing machine of conflicting wakes. It would turn out to be very close.
    Dropping anchor, we noted the charter boat Becky D sitting nearby. That was a good sign. Ed Darwin is an experienced skipper, and if he was in the area, we probably couldn’t have chosen any better.

Setting Up for the Chum Bite
    Setting up in 35 feet of water, I lowered our weighted chum bag — a gallon of frozen, ground menhaden — over the side and tied it off on a cleat at about the 15-foot level. Many anglers hang their bags over the stern near the surface, but I’ve found that having the chum source nearer the bottom can bring the fish in closer so that they can more easily find our baits, particularly when the current is running strong.
    Our rods are rigged with fish-finder rigs, sliding nylon sleeves on the main line with an integral snap for our two-ounce sinkers. The main line is tied to a swivel that acts as a slider stop, followed by three feet of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader tied to the hook.
    We used 7/0 Mustad super sharp live-bait hooks. That large size is necessary because we were using big pieces of bait. Our menhaden were cut in vertical pieces about two inches wide, from large, fresh fish. When a striper picks up the bait and moves off, the line will slide through the sleeve where the sinker is attached. The fish will not feel its weight.
    For a good, solid hook set, feed line into the run and give the fish a few seconds to get the meal well back in its mouth before striking. Striking too early will often pull the menhaden chunk out of the fish’s mouth, especially with the large baits we use to attract larger fish.
    Change baits every 20 minutes to keep the scent trails fresh and the baits attractive. Rather than discarding the old pieces of menhaden, we cut them into smaller chunks and distribute them widely into the current to further encourage the rockfish to feed aggressively.


•   •   •
    Our first fish that hit that morning turned out to be the largest of the trip, a fat male that weighed about 15 pounds. We limited out by 11:30am with three more fish in the 10-pound range.

Some days, they listen
It was an ideal morning at Hacketts Bar (38° 51'; 76° 25'). A flood tide was just making up, a gentle southerly wind caressed the waters and the sun was hidden by a thin cloudbank that permitted just the right amount of warmth to permeate the air. 
 
The anchored fishing boats were strung out more or less in a line from just off of the green can in 25 feet of water due east to depths of 40 or more feet. We had anchored up in the middle, our chum bag trailing from a stern cleat and our baits settling nicely. Within minutes, we had action. 
 
My fishing partner was Vince Ransom who had accompanied his wife, Tarin Fuller, down to Annapolis from their art gallery, Iandor Fine Arts, in the Ironbound area of Newark, New Jersey. They were spending a few days with my sculptor wife and me in an artists’ meeting combined with a bit of fishing.
 
Vince once lived on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, becoming an insatiable angler, but he had been unable to continue his sport since moving to New Jersey. I hoped to help him remedy that.
 
We had four rods out using cut menhaden for bait. His was the first to go down. I netted a nice seven-pounder for him a few minutes later, and his long fishless spell was finally broken. “You don’t know how much I’ve missed this,” he said. His demeanor had changed, his whole frame relaxing, his face beaming.
 
Usually when you’re trying to show someone an especially good time on the Bay, things don’t go the way you planned. This time was different. Vince must have had a pile of charitable acts banked in his karma bin because his baits were seldom without some kind of attention from the rockfish.
 
We had several throwbacks and a few shorts, but we released all the fish under 23 inches and little by little we accumulated some very nice rock in our cooler. For the last fish, we chose to hold out for over 30 inches. That strategy is often self-defeating and this time appeared no exception. The bite stalled. 
 
We made to pull up our gear when I had a good run. I missed the strike, but we stayed put, thinking a new school of fish was arriving. But nothing happened until we made ready to move yet again. Vince immediately had a strong fish on, but the hook pulled.
 
Our remaining bait was running low with all the attention from the throwbacks, and we were also running out of time. But I believed Vince had some special juju, and we were going to capitalize on it or go home short a fish.
 
By this time getting a bite with every decision to move had become a running joke. We began threatening a move whenever we had gone a while without something nosing our baits. Eerily, a bite or a fish (though not a keeper) was almost always the result.
 
Finally, with just a chunk or two of menhaden left, I called out over the stern: “This is the very last time. We are going to go, and we need a big fish, not one of these little guys you’ve been sending us. And we need it right now, or we really are going home.”
 
I know that sounds silly. But what is more preposterous is that Vince’s rod promptly bent over in the holder, line screaming off the reel. Fifteen minutes later I netted a gleaming, 34-inch striped bass fat as a fireplug, the biggest fish landed on my boat this year.
 
If you’ve been on the water long enough, you know that peculiar things can happen.

When you get your fish, all’s right with the world

When you’ve gone through a long series of skunks — as anyone who has fished much has — you start questioning your skill. Where were you going wrong? What else could you do? Serious uncertainties also creep in: Was the past season’s long string of successes real?
    That’s about the way I was thinking the other day, anchored a bit south of Hackett’s with only one other boat near. The finder screen was lit up like a fireworks display, but once again my baits went untouched.
    After almost an hour, one of the rod tips began to twitch. It stopped. I lifted the rig and moved the bait just an inch or two but felt no resistance. My heart was heavy. It had been a long spring with virtually no success chasing rockfish. Either the weather or the bite — or both — had been consistently horrible.
    The morning had started badly. Having gone to bed with excellent weather and good tides forecast for dawn, I opened my eyes at the appointed hour to the sounds of an approaching jet. Then I realized that it wasn’t airplane noise at all, it was thunder, lots of it.
    Another fishing trip scratched, I feared. Would things never go my way? Then, as if in answer, rain drummed down on the roof as if being poured from a giant bucket.
    I got up, reluctantly, to call my partner to cancel. But by the time I had a cup of coffee and picked up the phone, the skies had cleared and the sun was bright. Could lady luck be smiling at last? Or was she toying with us?
    Once on the Bay, we looked out over calm waters and a nicely moving incoming tide. It was looking good, but I steeled myself for more disappointment, reminding myself that dry spells make the good bites that much more enjoyable. But it was getting to be a very difficult sell.
    Then a rod tipped down with a serious run, the reel chattered as line poured out and all of those dark thoughts vanished. Feeling the weight of a good fish heading off against the drag, I smiled.
    It was a lively fight for a few minutes before my partner slipped the net under the six-pounder — and just that quickly our day had changed.
    As I buried the thick fish in ice and gave my buddy, Moe, a fist bump to celebrate the end of our rotten luck, another rod slammed down hard in its holder, and a 10-pounder took off for the other side of the Bay.
    With a couple of throwbacks and a pulled hook or two, we collected our limits in short order. The summer had officially started, and that miserable series of fishless days receded into the dim and forgettable past.
 

Many virtues make it my favorite sweetwater fish

This is a special time of year for me. There have been a number of 80-degree days, trees are filling out nicely and the strawberries in our garden are ripening. The day lilies are blooming, brightening the landscape, and birds are busy, singing their songs and building nests just about everywhere.
    Our freshwater ponds and lakes are also awakening. Water lilies are reaching up and extending their green pads and white blossoms above the surface. The frogs are croaking and peeping amorously, and along the shallow, tree-shrouded shorelines, saucer-sized beds are beginning to be scraped out of the bottom by a small but mighty fish.
    Each spawning site will be guarded with singular ferocity by a brightly colored male. His profile is as saucer shaped as the spawning site he has just created, and the little bull is relentlessly intent on attracting a mate. These fish are bluegills. A good-sized fish is only 10 inches long, but it is my favorite species in all of the sweetwater.

Hooked on Fishing
    Perhaps it’s because the bluegill was the first fish that ever pulled on the end of my line. I was about six years old and remember that tug as if it was yesterday because it was followed immediately by a bigger tug. Then the small, bamboo pole I held bent over in an acute arc.
    It was all I could do to hold it upright as my heart raced like never before. Somehow managing to get the brightly colored fish up onto the old wooden dock, I watched as the furious rascal beat a reckless tattoo on the weathered boards.
    My father was careful to subdue it without getting spiked by the critter’s sharp fins, and we soon had it back in the water on a stringer, which I checked every 30 seconds for the remainder of the trip. I didn’t catch anything else, but it mattered not a bit to me in my first flush of piscatorial victory.
    For the next two days, I paraded that bluegill about the neighborhood on the stringer, eventually boring all but my mother with repeated descriptions of the grandeur of the moment. The ’gill was a big one, I was told, and without anything else to compare it to I accepted that judgment unequivocally.
    By the end of the second day my parents convinced me to give the deceased a proper burial, explaining that it was gathering an odor and we had perhaps waited a little too long to serve it as supper. But I knew there were others out there, and I solemnly dedicated myself to their pursuit. I have held to that promise for over 60 years.
    These days I have exchanged the simple cane pole for a fixed line; a hook and a red worm for a light graphite fly rod adorned with a small black reel, a floating line and a little popping bug.
    In years past I have consumed at least my share of the tasty devils, but lately I have taken to releasing almost all of them. Each of my catches, I have come to realize, are either too small to eat or too large and grand to kill.
    Over the years, pursuing these bold swimmers while wet wading, from the shoreline, from canoes, kayaks, skiffs, bass boats, dingys and even inner tubes, I have found all of the experiences the same: fantastic. There is no other fish as willing to do battle, as eager to strike in hunger or defending its territory and as energetic and resolute in continuing the fight all the way to my hand.
    These fish are a model of life lived to the fullest. Each time I pursue them, I feel blessed to experience their fiery hearts and exceptional attitudes. My rod and reel are standing at the door as I wait for the wild springtime winds to die down. The ’gills are on the beds, I have an old promise to keep, and I can’t wait to fulfill it yet again.

The female harvest is the ­tipping point

Maryland’s favorite crustacean is in serious trouble, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ 2013 Winter Dredge Survey for blue crabs. Once again, the species is teetering at the edge of collapse.
    The numbers approach population levels in 2008, when the feds labeled the fishery a disaster.
    DNR reads this year’s numbers differently: “crabbing is at safe levels,” according to a recent press release. “The crabbing harvest remained at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year.”
    That interpretation begs comment.
    During the six-year period of presumably safe harvest levels, the overall crab population plunged by at least 70 percent. Is that not alarming?
    Commercial and recreational harvest limits are the primary management tools for controlling crab populations. But they went virtually unused for six straight years.
    Anson Hines, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, confirms fears about continuing difficulties with Chesapeake blue crab populations.
    In the 2008 crisis, part of the problem was harvest quotas based on flawed science. DNR had long claimed that the female blue crab spawned only once in her lifetime, so any size mature female could be taken without reducing the species’ ability to reproduce.    
    When that science was revisited, it was found that mature females spawn again and again. The overall female population, quite possibly, was the key to blue crab stability.
    By then, crab numbers were so low that the natural resources departments in both Maryland and Virginia — plus the Potomac River Fishery — began cooperating to rebuild the devastated species for the first time ever.
    In 2008-2009, winter dredging of dormant females in the Virginia portion of the Bay was halted. Maryland attempted to reduce fishing of females down the Bay in the fall. These actions achieved unprecedented protection for females throughout the Bay.
    These moves were a particularly big deal for Virginia because the crabbing industry in the lower Chesapeake depends significantly on female crabs. As the females prefer the higher salinity of the southern waters, their numbers are densest there. That’s also where all blue crabs spawn. This sparsely populated area relies on commercial fishing for jobs and income. Most of the cost of the fishery reduction was absorbed by Virginia watermen.
    The cutback led to a swift and extraordinary population resurgence. Within two years, the blue crab population rebuilt itself. The Bay saw some of its best recent crabbing seasons.
    But with that population build-up came commercial demands for renewed access to the females.
    During all of these periods of crisis, harvest of females continued under varying degrees of limitation throughout the Bay.
    The harvest of immature female blue crabs by the soft crab industry has never abated. Tens of thousands of small (three-and-a-half-inch minimum size), immature, never-spawned peeler and soft-phase females are harvested with scant control over limits.
    Just four years ago, recognizing at some level a population decline in progress, DNR made keeping female hard crabs by recreational crabbers illegal.
    That move generally transferred that portion of the recreational harvest over to the commercial sector. DNR did little else to abate the harvest of the sooks. What followed was the ecological crisis of 2014.
    This situation points to a serious and continuing shortcoming in the philosophy and management of the species. Based on DNR’s own statistics, from 1990 to 2000 the population of reproductive females in the lower Bay declined by more than 80 percent during the spawning season. The population remained at record low levels until 2008 and triggered the declaration of disaster.
    Now again in 2014, populations are back to seriously low levels, quite possibly because of the continuing and substantial commercial harvest of female crabs. Is that policy wise?