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Trophy Rockfish Season Opens

Bad weather, bad news

      The opening day of Maryland’s trophy rockfish season was a bust, principally because April 20 was a windy mess with southern gusts to 30 knots. A quick survey of the Sandy Point Marina, where hundreds of boats are usually launched on the first day, revealed only two boat trailers in that enormous parking lot. A drive by the most popular shore-based fishing area, the Sandy Point Beach, showed a similar lack of anglers.
     The Boatyard Bar and Grill Opening Day Tournament, one of the most attended catch-and-release events on the Bay, had scant rockfish entries from more than 100 boats on Saturday, so tourney organizers expanded the event to include Easter Sunday as well. With a return of milder weather, the fishing improved substantially. The overall winner turned was a 47-incher caught by John Oechsle below the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant on Sunday followed by a 43.5-inch fish caught by Janine Samuel and a 42.25-incher by Pete McDaniel.
     Though a much better number of fish were landed on the second day of the season, once again this year the situation of our beloved rockfish has become one of despair. Rumors that both Virginia and North Carolina are poised to close their seasons to many types of rockfish harvest, both recreational and commercial, are rife. And neither of these states are models of conservation when it comes to the striped bass.
     I can’t help but feel betrayed once again. Thinking back to the past few years — when suspicious findings of the Young of Year studies, year class imbalances and other monitoring efforts both federal and state, indicated potential problems — we were assured that all was well. Then it ­wasn’t.
     Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials have warned of potentially reduced rockfish harvests and seasons for next year but little else. 
     Let me be explicit here. DNR scientists and naturalists, off the record, have been well aware of the failing situation. But appointed and elected officials have crafted feel-good scenarios and decisions that led to this sorry state.
    The only good news of course is in the category of the unexpected. Despite efforts by Maryland conservation agencies to eradicate the invasive snakehead fish, they are apparently flourishing. On our very first foray into snakehead territory, bankfishing along the Blackwater River in Dorchester County this spring, our small group landed almost two dozen of the tasty critters up to six pounds and witnessed fish over 19 pounds landed nearby.
    The next most numerous fish and, overall, the most common species landed by salty anglers the latter part of the previous season and so far this year are channel catfish. Just about anyone soaking a bait on the bottom and some anglers trolling smaller lures down deep have been scoring these fish regularly. Filleted, coated with cracker crumbs or Panko and fried, they are an excellent meal. 
     As the season unfolds, we could see a much rosier picture. The Chesapeake is nothing if not a resilient body of water, and it is quite likely that we will experience another fantastic season. Time will tell.
 
Fish Finder
    Some trophy-sized rockfish are being found around Chesapeake Beach, Calvert Cliffs and below by trollers dragging umbrellas and big tandem baits in white and chartreuse. Above 15 feet and just off the bottom (30 to 50 feet) are the prime depths.
     There have been some knockdowns reported off the Chester, but I haven’t heard of much large-fish activity above or around the Bay Bridge. Small craft warnings have limited the number of boats in active search, however. When the weather lays down, we should get a more accurate picture of the bite.
     In the meantime, the snakehead action on the Blackwater River remains torrid, and channel cats seem everywhere. Bull minnows under bobbers and soft plastic jerk baits in white and chartreuse are working well for the snakeheads while worms, cut bait, chicken livers and minnows and those same jerk baits will attract the cats.