Rockfish Prospered, Trout Too
All things come round to him who will but wait.
"Tales of a Wayside Inn," Longfellow: 1863.
Well, we waited and we waited, and things came around - and continue to come around. Rockfish are back, they're prospering. The wait was tough to endure, but it was worth it.
The wait was five years for Marylanders, a moratorium from 1985 to 1990 - and lean days on the Chesapeake they were without stripers in the box. The fish needed a respite, got it, and they have since thanked us by turning out magnificent hatches, which in turn promise us good fishing.
Once again this year, the stripers of the Chesapeake have turned out a better than average hatch, Department of Natural Resources tells us. The Young of the Year Index was 13.8, about 30 percent better than the 47-year average of 10.9.
However, in its announcement of the 2000 figures, DNR skirted the facts. The department has been defensive lately; thus it neglected to mention that hatching success - though better than average - was down about 30 percent from '99 when it was 18.1. In '98, it was 12.
So we're down a bit; why skirt the facts? Fishermen of the Chesapeake know the index fluctuates considerably year to year.
They also acknowledge that the department has done a good job in rockfish restoration from the time the moratorium began in 1985. They backed the ban, then the regulations that followed when fishing resumed in 1990.
Anglers deserve a better shake - the full story if they are to be expected to continue their support of DNR in rockfish matters. Heavens, with an index appreciably better than average, DNR has nothing to hide.
But of late, the agency seems bent on putting the best twist possible on any announcement it makes, trusting no one will ask questions - even when there is nothing to hide.
That said, let's take a gander at the index - but first an explanation of what it really means.
Young of the Year
To get a handle on rockfish spawning, each year since 1954 the department has made counts of the young of the year with 100-foot beach seines. They cast their nets from July through September in the same areas of the most important spawning tributaries: the Potomac, Nanticoke, Choptank and the upper Bay complex.
The fish taken in the nets are counted, and the index is calculated on the average catch of small stripers hatched in a given year. This year the seines averaged 13.8. In the dark years that led to the moratorium, there were times when the count was below 5.
Incidentally, an index target of 10 or above over a three-year average was established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission as essential for lifting the moratorium - and for keeping the fishery open once fishing resumed. The fish have since performed admirably; we've had nothing to worry about.
So where are our rockfish coming from? The Choptank River had the best index this year: 21.2 as compared with 48.2 in 1999.
The Nanticoke River's index was 17.6, a slight dip from the 18.7 of last year.
The Potomac River took a deep dip, dropping to 7.8 from 15.7. This year's count was the lowest in the Potomac for six years.
What saved the overall Year 2000 index was the upper Bay, where the index was 13.3, triple the 3.1 of '99.
The fish reflected in these indexes won't be catching size until 2004 at best. But we have countless other fish to work on until then. Just consider this year.
The Catch of 2000
The Bay was loaded with rockfish; no one had trouble catching them. The only trouble was that in summer, and thus far in the fall, most have been throwbacks: less than the 18-inch minimum.
As Bay waters chill, many stripers are leaving the tributaries, and the average size is better. But until recently, there were days when those chumming were obliged to release as many as 10 to 25 rock for every one that stretched to legal size.
Trolling took bigger fish on average, though many of those weren't long enough either. But there's a silver lining in the cloud: Most of those fish that were returned to the brine will be available again and bigger in 2001. Fishing, especially chumming, should be excellent.
This was a curious year, indeed. Not only were many rockfish undersized, the better fish were in what we might call new areas, areas not fished much in previous years. Some of the traditional hot spots were duds. Point-No-Point north of the mouth of the Potomac for years was the best chumming grounds in the entire Bay, and you could hardly buy a fish there this year.
Hacketts Point, off Annapolis, was another big disappointment. Rockfish of any size were relatively scarce there. The Hill, near the mouth of Eastern Bay, was fished heavily, but generally few of the stripers taken there were legal.
On the flip side, the Patapsco, which incidentally I can see from my backyard, was the biggest surprise of all. Long overlooked, last year it turned up a fair number of fair-size fish. This year, from late August on, it was one of the best nooks in the entire Bay for fish of respectable size, many of them 24 to 32 inches.
In the past month, catches have been made as far upriver as the Hanover Street Bridge, practically in downtown Baltimore. The channel of Stoney Creek, just a long cast from my porch, is currently turning up fish from 22 to 30 inches for trollers - something I hadn't enjoyed since I moved here 27 years ago.
It was the same inside the Chester River, where big fish were available as far upriver as the mouth of the Corsica. The fish weren't as big in Eastern Bay, but much of the rockfishing there was better than in the Bay proper.
It appears in this wet year, the best of the rock have stayed in the tributaries, even places like Back and Middle rivers on the outskirts of Baltimore, where few fished previously. The Susquehanna River also had some of the best stripers in ages, and they're still there - much later and bigger than usual.
It has been a year in which to score, fishermen have had to move to new areas. Or try different techniques. Something new there, as well.
Sometimes unable to get soft crabs and sometimes unwilling to pay the prices asked, many fishermen found the key to legal fish was live-lining white perch or spot for rockfish. It had been done before, but this year it really took off, becoming more popular and effective than drifting live eels. It will be the way to go in 2001 - especially if crab supplies and prices remain the same, which they probably will.
But there is another aspect to this season of small rockfish in the Bay and better ones in tributaries. Many fishermen haven't griped too much these six months. The Bay became filled with sea trout, the most even old-timers can recall. Many who would normally be chasing rockfish now are jigging and trolling for trout, with a creel limit much more liberal, 10 a day. The minimum size is 14 inches, they're practically everywhere and easy to catch.