Chesapeake Outdoors by C. D. Dollar

 Vol. 10, No. 44

October 31 - November 6, 2002

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Rockfish Highs and Lows

You’d never convince the two guys from Delaware that Maryland’s rockfish population dropped sharply this year, the way the fish hit the olive-and-white Half-and-Half flies. Every second or third cast produced a hit, all in gin-clear water measuring no more than five feet deep.

By the end of last week, I estimated my clients caught 350 fish, almost all on the fly and nearly all rockfish. Several bluefish, some white perch and a few hickory shad rounded out the species list. And though the vast majority were under the legal limit of 18 inches, the sheer volume of rockfish was impressive.

Earlier this week, however, state fisheries officials released the 2002 rockfish juvenile index, which showed the average number of juvenile rockfish in the Maryland waters at the lowest in more than a decade. The index plummeted to 4.7 from the record 50.8 in 2001.

In recent months, Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists used a 100-foot seine to catch more than 600 young-of-year rockfish from sampling sites throughout Maryland’s part of the Chesapeake. They discovered reproduction near average in two major spawning rivers, the Potomac and the Nanticoke, but the Upper Bay and Choptank River saw steep drops. In fact, the Choptank River, which was an astronomical 201.9 last year, measured a feeble 0.7 in 2002.

Since 1954, DNR biologists have kept tabs on reproductive success and the population. But over-fishing and poor spawning habitat overcame this oversight and pushed the fishery to the brink of collapse in the early 1980s. A coast-wide moratorium, led by Maryland, is generally credited with bringing the rockfish back from the abyss. Despite the healthy population of rockfish, scientists and resource managers acknowledge that continued shortages of prime forage — chiefly large, protein-packed menhaden — and fewer adults are cause for concern.

State fisheries officials attributed last year’s strong index to favorable environmental conditions and to a large spawning stock. DNR officials noted that reproduction of most anadromous fish — ones that, like rockfish, migrate to fresh water to spawn — was low this year. The reproductive problems could be linked to the state’s months-long drought and the subsequent high salinity levels.

This year’s poor showing shouldn’t alarm us. Natural conditions undoubtedly had a major hand in it. In the last seven years, we’ve had good years and two incredible years. Now we need to fine-tune management of menhaden to enjoy healthy rockfish stocks for decades.

Fish Are Biting
I didn’t believe it at first, but apparently some fishermen are getting the sea trout to hit chicken breast. How the fowl is prepared — barbecued, Buffalo-style or sautéed — is beyond me. The shallow-water action is hit or miss in some areas. I heard the Choptank is on fire for legal rockfish, as are upper Bay western rivers. But some areas, most notably Eastern Bay and Chester River, have loads of fish but relatively few keepers.

The Gooses is still producing for chummers, though some lower Bay captains are trolling big lures in hopes of nailing some ocean-run rock.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly