|Catch & Release
|The early season “is the best opportunity to catch big fish on light tackle,” says charter captain Mark Galasso of Tuna the Tide Charters.
Monsters Lurk in the Depths
But if you catch one, let it go!
by Ted Daly
I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but there are monsters lurking beneath the surface of the Bay.
I’m not referring to Chessie, but to the numerous finned giants that have been the traditional table fare of Bay Country residents and that continue to delight sport anglers from this region and beyond.
One way we traditionally mark the seasons here is by the rockfish migration: the practical, if not chronological, start of spring. As water temperatures rise to the mid 40s, rockfish make their way up from the Atlantic Ocean to the top of the Chesapeake to spawn.
This annual pattern has long suited traditional fishermen, who can take home and eat their catch come mid-April (the season opens April 16 this year), when the spawning run is complete.
Lately, this migration supports a new breed of fishermen who release what they catch. On the Susquehanna Flats, as the spawning grounds at the head of the Bay are known nautically, Maryland Department of Natural Resources now starts the catch-and-release season on March 1.
Why the extension? Perhaps wishful thinking that we would have some warm weather in March; as we all know, that was not to be. The other reason for the extra early month is the increasing popularity of catch-and-release fishing.
The early season “is the best opportunity to catch big fish on light tackle,” said charter captain Mark Galasso of Tuna the Tide Charters.
To the sport angler, this is the essence of addiction: always wanting to catch something bigger while tilting the balance of advantage ever more toward the quarry. The sport angler is not looking for a meal but for a challenge, and careful catch-and-release fishing offers this challenge while doing little or no harm to the fish.
Such a sport may seem counterintuitive to longtime Bay residents. Why would anyone bother to go out on the Bay in late winter to catch fish only to let them go? Who are these people?
“We see a lot from Pennsylvania,” said Captain Pete Dahlberg. Based in St. Leonard, Dahlberg is one of the few charter captains from the mid-Bay who ventures north to the Flats during the catch-and-release season. Proximity goes far in explaining the prevalence of Pennsylvania anglers, but conservation plays its part as well in who fishes here.
Catch-and-release fishing has been gaining popularity since the early 1980s, when fisheries managers and farsighted anglers in western states sought to maintain trout populations decimated by disease and encroaching development while continuing to give anglers enjoyment.
One of the leaders in the movement was Bud Lilly, a native Montanan whose lifelong love of fishing convinced him that the species and the sport were endangered. “That trout has more value in the river than out of the river. Put it back in the river and you can keep catching it,” he argued to subscribers to the religion of bulging creels.
The notion that fish can provide this enjoyment without being harmed has brought new fishers to the sport.
“A lot of these people don’t keep fish in any season,” Dahlberg said of those fishing the Flats.
Guides agree that when the rockfish arrive, the fishing is easy, since the water is shallow and many fish are spread out across the area. “It’s smaller water [narrower and shallower than the rest of the Bay], so smaller boats can fish up there. I’ve caught large fish in one foot of water on topwater plugs,” Dahlberg said.
Captain Tom Cross of Grasonville also ventures to the Flats when the rock arrive. “The clients I see typically are fly fishermen and light tackle fishermen, and aren’t generally interested in the heavy tackle involved in trophy season,” Cross said.
If you have never witnessed the explosion of a 30-plus-pound striped bass striking a lure on top of the water, you have missed a singularly spectacular experience.
The Art of Catching to Let Go
Catching a fish you intend to set free takes special equipment as well as a special way of thinking. Hooks, for example, are bought or adapted to do the least harm.
The chief bait of the season is artificial lures. Galasso said he “uses lures exclusively,” during this season, as does Dahlberg. “We crimp all the hooks [remove the barbs] to reduce the chances of a bad hookset and to make it easier to release the fish,” Dahlberg said.
Bait fishing is allowed in catch-and-release season but only on special circle hooks. As opposed to the traditional J-shaped hook, circle hooks are bent nearly into a circle, with the point facing the shaft rather than upward. Since 1996, studies by Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Fisheries Service have shown circle hooks do indeed lower fish mortality.
“There are two main factors influencing survival of fish that are caught and released: physical injury and stress,” according to DNR’s Rudy Lukakovic.
Injuries to fish typically occur when the fish swallows a J-shaped baithook. The upward-pointing hook lodges in the fish’s esophagus, causing an oft-fatal wound. Because the tip of circle-hooks point back toward the shaft, they will usually come back up into the fish’s lip when the line is pulled taut. Circle hooks lodge in the lip rather than the esophagus in some 81 percent of fish, according to Natural Resources’ studies.
Galasso, a former fisheries biologist who took part in some of the first catch-and-release studies on the Bay, said that in his experience, careful catch-and-release tactics result in very few injuries to fish. “In the eight years I’ve been going up there for the early season, I’ve seen exactly two dead fish,” he said. He and many other charter captains consider the catch-and-release season a success not only in sportfishing opportunities but also in helping manage the fishery.
Don’t Stress the Fish
Not everyone is in favor of catch-and-release fishing. Critics say that no matter how careful an angler is, sometimes that just isn’t enough to save a fish.
On that side is Glenn James, a charter captain out of North Beach and past president of the Maryland Charterboat Association and a board member of the National Charterboat Captains Association. “I fought adamantly against catch and release,” James said. “We don’t think the fish should be disturbed on the grounds or the spawning reaches.”
Other captains stand with James. “We’re opposed to the fishing in Susquehanna Flats because you’re not allowed to fish there in trophy season,” said Captain Kerry Muse of the Darlene II. “Since it’s the fish’s spawning grounds, they should be left alone to spawn.”
No matter how delicately fish are treated, some will not survive release. In DNR studies, Lukakovic and others report that a mortality rate of eight percent is factored in when developing regulations. Studies of striped bass catch-and-release fisheries in nearby states have suggested a much lower percentage, with one study listing a mortality rate of 4.6 percent in the Roanoke River of North Carolina, another catch-and-release fishery.
Keeping the death rate as low as possible is in everybody’s interest. “If the DNR sees that a number of fish are not surviving, they will no longer allow this,” said Glasso, a captain who charters to the fishery. “This early season can be taken away from us at any time if we are not careful.”
Careful Catch-and-Release Practices
- Crimp the barbs off hooks. This makes it easier to release the hook when the fish is landed. Crimped hooks also make it easier for the fish to escape while being fought; you can counteract this by keeping a tight line.
- Cut two hooks off a treble set, or consider replacing the treble hooks on a lure with single hooks.
- Do not play the fish to exhaustion. Use tackle heavy enough that the fish can be brought in quickly. If the fish is tired out, its chances of surviving decrease.
Handling the Fish
- Keep the fish in the water as much as possible. If the fish must be lifted from the water, wet your hands first to help prevent wiping off the fish’s protective slime.
- Use a knotless or rubber net.
- Calm the fish by covering its eyes with a wet towel.
- Do not touch the fish’s gills or eyes.
- Return the fish quickly to the water. The fish should not be out of the water for more than 15 seconds.
- Have your camera ready so that you can get that picture quick before releasing the fish.
Releasing the Fish
- Carefully return the fish to the water. Release the fish upright and head first.
- If the fish does not immediately swim away, hold it by the tail and gently move it forward and backward in the water until it revives and can swim away
To Catch a Fish