Volume XI, Issue 33 ~ August 14-20, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Is There a Pattern Here?
In Bay 2003, fish after fish isn’t where it’s expected.

Nothing endures but change.
— Heraclitus 540–480bc

Can it be that way with the mighty Chesapeake? I wonder. In more recent times, in some or many respects, we have a different Bay, rarely the same one year after year. Nothing endures but change.

Here we are going into late August, and so much remains unsettled on the sportsfishing front. Things are so different from last year — and so much more different than the year previous.

There are so many contradictions. We’ve been assured by coastal fisheries managers that bluefish stocks have rebounded sufficiently that states could increase their creel limit by 50 percent, from the 10 of the past couple decades to 15 per angler per day. Maryland is planning on taking advantage of liberalized regulations.

Yet what good is an increased creel limit if most Bay fishermen can’t catch the old limit of 10? Coastal stocks are up (Ocean City catches are the best in many years), but it’s the opposite in the Chesapeake north of the mouth of the Potomac. By now, blues should be available from Swan Point north of the Bay Bridge all the way down the Bay. Shoulda, coulda, woulda…

Two months ago came word that coastal stocks of flounder no longer were threatened, having made remarkable strides on their road to recovery. Mid-season closures were dropped though the legal length minimum was kept at 17.5 inches, amidst talk of liberalization in the not too distant future. So what happens?

Flounder fishing in the Chesapeake stinks, and in the back bays of Ocean City/Assateague it leaves much to be desired. Some Ocean City anglers blame rains and foul weather that have consistently muddied the waters, but the bottom line is flattie fishing is flat.

Sea Trout
Sea trout are another species figured to be responding well to tightening of regulations in recent years, enough that there were recommendations by fisheries managers that the minimum length be reduced from 14 to 13 inches. By mid- to late August, trout typically become more evident as far north as the Bay Bridge, even above there.

What do we have this year? A majority of Bay anglers (including charter skippers of the mid- and upper-Bay) have not seen a sea trout of any size, never mind a legal one thus far. More than a few of bragging size have been caught in the back bays of Ocean City, but among surf fishermen there and at Assateague, trout have been primarily small and infrequent among catches.

In the Bay in recent years, trout have been second only to rockfish in popularity from mid-September through early November. Hopes are fast fading for even a fair run this year in the Bay.

Sea Bass
Sea bass, not dependable visitors to Maryland’s Chesapeake, have had one of their greatest years since the 1960s for the headboat fleet out of Ocean City. They, too, appear to be bounding back under tightened regulations of recent years, but if any have been caught this summer in the Bay north of Virginia, I’ve not heard about it. With bottom fishing currently big in the Bay, some smaller sea bass should be evident.

One might be tempted to suggest a pattern: Can it be that the same fishes that traditionally frequent both Bay and ocean are faring better in the ocean? If so, why the difference? Can it just be that some of our more popular migratory fish aren’t around in originally expected numbers because of the cold and fresh waters rushing into the Bay from winter through late spring?

Norfolk Spot
One would hope so, but, again, contradictions arise. Currently, we are enjoying the peak of what has been the best Norfolk spot fishing most anglers can recall. Spot are migratory, and this year they are exceptionally big. In some areas, most are jumbos.

The spot fishing is so good that more than a few would-be chummers have turned to bottom fishing primarily to target big spot, which range from above the Bay Bridge to the mouth of the Potomac. With so much excitement about spot catches, I wonder if any fishermen are curious where the smaller ones are — or if there are any smaller ones. Now that’s something to be concerned about.

In much of the Bay, including Virginia, the hardhead fishing held up exceptionally well. Only recently have there been indications that these popular fish are about ready to pull up stakes. They’re among the earliest not just to start biting (in April) but also to depart. Not since the ’50s have hardheads been so big and plentiful, even in the upper Bay. But there have been some curious differences.

Hardheads are notorious for taking baited hooks in late afternoon, evening and at night, but in many places they have not lived up to that reputation. The usual evening bite has been a bust. When is the last time you recall so many hardheads being caught in daytime chum lines set up for rockfish?

Speaking of rockfish, in spring the fishing was the best in memory: big fish and plenty of them, some lingering well into June. Since then, undersized stripers outnumber keepers perhaps 10 to 1 in chum lines, though trollers and those fishing soft-crab baits find larger fish. Again, one wonders what’s ahead. Will there be the late blast of sea run rockfish of 20, 30, even 40 pounds or more? Last year, this run was great and continued into December. But this is ’03.

White Perch
White perch were slow to leave the tributaries for the Bay proper and the larger rivers, but they have made up for their tardiness in numbers and size. Current perch fishing is excellent, though at times it can be tough to get bloodworms, which are the favorite bait of perch and spot.

Methinks the bloodworm-pickers are picking too many bloodworms on the mud flats in Maine. If not that, there has been an awful lot of finagling up there in the Northeast to limit the supply of this popular bait until the price got right. Who’d have ever thought bloodworms would be marketed at $8.50 a dozen?

Spanish Mackerel
There’s one fish not mentioned yet in this curious year. Where are the Spanish mackerel? They should be plentiful in the mid- and lower-Bay by now, but they aren’t — and they are sorely missed. They’re the fastest gamefish of the Chesapeake. Their spectacular leaps thrill fishermen, and their taste is appreciated — or would be if some could be caught.

Is this the same Chesapeake as last year? Of course, but it’s so different. But then, what isn’t? At Ocean City, the warmer blue Gulfstream waters that historically bring billfish and tuna to within cruising distance of the docks have stayed a hundred miles or more offshore (mostly more), and big gamefish catches are off appreciably at what is touted as the White Marlin Capital of the World.

In fishing, one learns to take the bad with the good — and this year, there’s plenty of both. The next two months should be interesting indeed.



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Last updated August 21, 2003 @12:32am