Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 37
Sept. 14-20, 2000
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A New Dish on the Table
(Rockfish Table, That Is)

What goes around, comes around Or vice versa.

-Old yet frequently spoken adage.

And so it is with fishing on the Chesapeake these days. What went around has come around: has come back, and rockfish appear to appreciate the return of and offering that was both popular an abundant 40 years back.

Once again, an increasing number of Bay anglers are chumming with clams. A couple years ago, clams reappeared on fishing boats. They caught rockfish, and we all know that fishermen will turn to anything that lures their prized fish, striped bass.

The fish are the same, so is the shellfish technique though out of economic necessity, the clams are different. But the rockfish of the Chesapeake obviously will take any clam - oft times in preference to ground-up menhaden, which in recent years has been the main fare on chumming boats.

Perhaps, after all, rockfish are like us: A steady diet of one entree gets a bit boring after a while. Who among us can dine on roast stuffed pheasant day after day, week after week? Eventually, the taste buds demand a change.

In much of the Chesapeake, chumming is the most popular, as well as a very effective, route to catching rockfish, but with ground-up menhaden, a small, oily fish rich in fatty nutrients.

The menhaden represents the basic diet of many game and panfish of the brine. It is abundant, though not so much as it once was, and to a hungry fish it is an easy snack. Just swim into a school and grab a few mouthfuls: breakfast, dinner and supper with snacks in between on the run. Filling, but eventually boring.

A Short History of Rockfishing

Back before the mid '50s, chumming for rockfish wasn't done much on the Chesapeake. Most anglers trolled for their rockfish.

They dragged lines rigged with small to medium spoons and bucktails, which represented small baitfish: silversides, Bay anchovies, immature menhaden, Norfolk spot, maybe even white perch or any other finfish small enough to swallow. Hardly enough to taste.

There weren't nearly as many huge rockfish back in those days. Or were there, but fishermen didn't attract them with the smaller baits trolled at the time? What would make a striper of 40, 50 or more pounds, with a mouth big enough to hold an underinflated football, interested in something about the size of a sardine? Hardly enough to taste.

Anyhow, there wasn't much interest - other than for bragging purposes - in big stripers. Any of this delightful species more than 15 pounds had to go back into the brine pronto. Maryland state law, though not so in Virginia.

Thinking was that by protecting the larger females (it's the cows that grow the biggest), the future of the species was assured. Foolish thinking.

Here we were, keeping smaller fish - the legal minimum was 12 inches, for a time it was even an inch shorter - and we were keeping them while fishermen in most other states from Maine to North Carolina where rockfish roam were tossing them back. Tossing them back, while keeping the larger fish that were denied to us by law.

The big fish we spared here were caught and kept elsewhere. In many other states, they caught too many of the biggies. Meanwhile, we caught too many of the smaller ones, commercially and recreationally, and we need not be reminded that eventually it was necessary to implement a moratorium of five years' duration.

There was another distressing and curious aspect of our 15-pound maximum law. To determine whether a rockfish exceeded that mark, it had to be weighed - and not plunked on a set of bathroom scales as we do to ourselves when we find trousers of 36-inch girth become a bit too snug. Boats weren't equipped with such scales.

Instead, after a long fight, too often landed via a gaff stuck into its stomach, back or side, that trophy fish had to be hung by mouth or gill on the big hook of hand scales in a rocking boat long enough to read the arrow that slid vertically on rusty and often inaccurate weighing device.

If stress of the fight, hooking injuries or handling the fish once over the transom didn't inflict lethal consequences, not infrequently the weighing process did. That's why we measure fish big as well as small these days - and one wonders why our guardians of the Chesapeake didn't realize that measuring big fish meant less stress and injuries.

But, we're straying from the original topic. Other than trolled lures, rock of years past were targeted with crab baits, drifted live eels, grass shrimp, occasionally cut spot and bloodworms. Hereabouts, plugging for rock hadn't arrived, though it was popular in states to the north.

Big baits weren't needed here. The fish were small. A rock of 18 inches (our current minimum) was considered a nice catch, one of 28 inches (our current minimum in trophy season) was exceptional. One 15-pound throwback - and not all were released - in a season made the year for Bay anglers, at least a few of whom risked prosecution to keep "the biggest rockfish I ever caught."
What's for Dinner?

It was at this time the clam dredge came on the scene to enable Bay watermen to dig into the Chesapeake's bottom and suck clams onto a conveyor belt to be culled by hand and transferred to bushel baskets. Many ended up on the New England market for chowders, steamers and clamcakes. At first, clams sold for as little s $2 a bushel, but that didn't last long.

Gradually the price rose, and gradually there were less clams to be taken. These days a bushel of traditional soft shell (manninose) clams can sell for well more than $100, a hefty price considering many fishing boats used a couple bushels a day to catch and keep a couple hundred rockfish at a time when there were no creel limits.

If a charterboat skipper didn't produce 200 fish a day, one switched to captains who found more fish. Eventually, skippers added clam costs to chumming fares, and when fishermen rebelled at the price, clam chumming was history. Those chumming switched to ground-up menhaden. Only trouble was that menhaden also attracted bluefish, much less popular on the table.

And now the menhaden appears to be enduring population woes, and prices are rising.

Enter the razor clam, a species lacking market value and delicate flavor (to humans, that is), though abundant, easily caught and presumably as tasty to rockfish as the traditional soft-shell variety. Skippers- including Capt. Buddy Harrison of Tilghman Island who will host our annual Bay Weekly fishing junket Oct. 8 - experimented to determine whether they would catch stripers. They did.

Not only do they catch rockfish, they catch less bluefish. "When we want rock, we use a bushel a day for chumming and bait," says Buddy. "The rockfish want them. If our parties also want blues, we use menhaden."

So clams are back in chum lines, also on hooks for bait. At first they brought $10 a bushel; earlier this year it was $15 a bushel; today it's $25 a bushel. Still reasonable, but where will it end?

Will razor-clam chumming costs eventually approach the cost barrier that ruled out the manninose 25 years ago? If you think drifting soft crabs for rockfish can be expensive what will it cost down the road to chum razor clams - if rockfish want them?

Is the old adage, What goes around, comes around, still appropriate? Time will tell. Enough said

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly