Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 41
Oct. 12-18, 2000
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It's a Fish-Eat-Fish World

It's a dog-eat-dog world, and I'm wearing Milk Bone shorts.

-Kelly Allen

I don't know much about Kelly Allen, but I know of many sea trout of the Chesapeake who will agree with that line from The 2,548 Best Things Ever Said published by Galahad Books of New York. Many a truth has been spoken in jest.

I thought of that Sunday as I looked into the dark and bumpy waters of the Chesapeake at a fishing spot referred to as the Hook while participating in Bay Weekly's annual fishing affair out of Harrison's Chesapeake House on Tilghman Island. Piranhas, sharks, crocodiles, alligators and barracudas have no monopoly on cruel and voracious feeding habits.

Those who might think that it can be hell living in some of the more notoriously unsavory and crime infested sectors of Baltimore, Washington or other cities of the world torn asunder by political, ethnic, religious or racial strife might ponder what it's like to live underwater.

Whether or not fish sleep has been debated within and outside the angling community since humans first noted that marine creatures don't have eyelids. I'd say, considering the world in which they live, they don't need eyelids, whose most useful purpose it to keep out light and visual distractions to enable the owners to catch a snooze now and then.

If I were a fish of the Chesapeake or any other waters - with the lone exception of a fish bowl with only one resident - I wouldn't dare blink an eye. It's accepted that most fish rest - sort of half-sleep at least - to restore or conserve energy. But if I were a fish I'd prefer insomnia, the tortures of which pale in comparison to the alternatives.

No matter how big a fish can be, there's always something hungrier around - and if it's not bigger, then it hunts in packs. A lot of small bites from small predators has the same bottom line as one big gulp from one big predator.

Hell for Trout

For instance, if sea trout of the Chesapeake could talk - which, like sleep, they can't do - they'd tell us about the hell of their environment, especially at this time of year.

Talk about being between a rock and a hard place: How'd you like to be a trout with a hook firmly set in your mouth by a hungry angler, while all around you are even more famished and greedy bluefish anxious to take advantage of your predicament?

If I were that fish with a hook in my jaw, I'd root for the fisherman to crank the reel faster. I'd even be cooperative, go with the flow and take my chances that he'd throw me back. Sometimes there's an advantage to being small.

That's the way it is in the Chesapeake these days for trout. Many either end up atop ice in a fish chest or in bits and pieces inside the stomachs of bluefish, which appreciate the juicy, white flesh of trout about as much as do the humans with rods and reels.

Both humans and bluefish are on the sea trout. Trout are schooling in incredible numbers, almost always on the floor of the Bay, sometimes as far down as 75 feet or more.

They're peppy fish, streamlined and otherwise equipped to fend for themselves when bluefish invade their domain. Their eyes, always open and aware, contribute to their longevity.

They also have numbers in their favor. They're packed like sardines, which means there are countless other trout nearby - and one of them might be an easier target for a lurking, merciless predator. Theirs is a unique twist in safety in numbers.

Rock or Hard Place

But way down there in Davy Jones' Locker, a bottom-hugging sea trout has to eat to satisfy its hunger and fatten up for the winter. And sea trout, like many marine species, will eat just about anything that swims - as long as it's small enough to fit within its mouth.

There's not much light, if any, in deep waters of our not-so-pristine Bay, so it's easy for a trout to mistake a feathered or metal jig for a Bay anchovy or other small creature. Which can be disastrous.

Once connected to a fisherman, it is yanked from whatever safety was granted by being just one of many thousands of other schooled trout. What's worse, it no longer has control of its mobility. Its movements are dictated by the angler with rod and reel.

The caught sea trout would have a fair chance of evading the razor-sharp teeth of a bluefish - if not encumbered by a hook, bait, sinker and all the pressure applied by an angler anxious to reel it in. A sea trout on its own is a swift and maneuverable swimmer capable of taking flight in a course to safety - say like Louis Farrakhan would take through Tel Aviv.

But this isn't a perfect world, and seeing that sea trout often swim below bluefish to feast on the byproduct of the latter slashing into schools of small baitfishes on or close to the surface, the two species are in the same areas. They'll remain so until the blues depart the Bay, most by the end of the month.

The schools are constantly on the go, the blues following the baitfish, the trout following beneath the blues, which feast voraciously in big bites. Scraps fall, making easy snacks for trout.

Most of the blues are small, nine to 14 inches, but there are some bigger. Have to be because I fought a hefty sea trout for several minutes, felt a slack in the line, then reeled in just a head-to-gill section that was five inches long - indicating a trout that was at least 16 inches when hooked moments before.

A bluefish big enough to do that must be three pounds or better. I and other anglers cranked in many a mutilated trout, some just minus tails, others only half there. We reeled fast, trying to safely pull the trout through the blues. Johnny Marple had a doubleheader, two trout on a two-bait rig, but when he got his fish to the surface, he had two heads only.

It's a tough world down there beneath the surface of the Bay and other waters where every member of all species has to eat - and is not immune to being eaten. Hardly a moment of security for the smallest, not much more for the biggest, no time for sleeping. And we dry-land humans complain of troubled times in our dog-eat-dog society on the shores of the Chesapeake. Enough said ...

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly