Fishers Rejoice as Rockfish Season Returns
Through Murk and Cold, the Cycle Continues
by Ted Daly
They came in boats numbering in the hundreds, spreading out across the dappled surface of the Bay like kudzu, throbbing diesel engines pounding a rumbling cadence beneath the deck as anglers welcomed the first day of spring’s Trophy Rockfish season. A glance to either side of the Bay Bridge’s twin spans revealed a veritable chess game: lithe sailboats interspersed with sturdy fishing boats, all engaged in a game of politely staying out of one another’s way.
For many Bay area fishers, spring does not truly begin until the first 28-plus incher makes it safely onto the backyard grill. For others, the act of fishing alone enough to compel them to venture out onto the chilly, wind-whipped waters in search of the always plentiful but sometimes elusive rockfish.
“No sense looking for too many fish today,” said Capt. Buddy Harrison of Tilghman Island. “Unless you can hit one in the head [with a lure]. The water is too cloudy for them to see.”
This cloudiness of the water, described by one local mate as “coffee with three creams,” is the result of the rains and snows falling not only here in the Bay area but also in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Chesapeake Bay itself is actually the mouth — albeit a doggone-long mouth — of the Susquehanna River, which begins in upstate New York. The Susquehanna carries down silt and debris and washes them down into the Bay when the Conowingo Dam opens to control flooding. Satellite pictures show this water cloudiness quite clearly reaching down just past the Bay Bridge. Water clarity, however, was only one factor affecting the inaugural day’s catch.
Many fishermen have been prepared for frustration by the early spawning season. Beginning March 1, catch-and-release fishing is allowed on the rockfish spawning grounds of the Susquehanna Flats in the Upper Bay. There the migratory fish return every year to continue the evolutionary process and build their families. Captains fishing that area have reported the worst catch in years. But don’t panic.
“It just took a long time for the water to warm up enough to get the fish to come up here and spawn,” said Capt. Mike Benjamin of Herbs Tackle Shop in North East. “They won’t do it until the water is in the mid to upper 40s, and it’s just been too cold for that.”
Cold and murky water make for tough fishing.
Teased by Small Fish
To stave off cabin fever while awaiting the start of the rockfish season, many anglers fish for whatever species are available. After the year’s first full moon, it is common to see folks dangling their lines in small creeks and dropping dozens of white and yellow perch into buckets. Shad also precede the rockfish migration, and though they generally do not grow as large as the Bay’s signature species, they can provide a fight to exercise even the veteran catch-and-release angler.
If the rockfish aren’t biting, says Captain Pete Dahlberg, “I’ll go up near the dam and fish for shad. But when the water clarity is this bad, they move up into the creeks. If that isn’t working, sometimes I’ll fill a paint bucket with perch and have a fish fry. This year, because of the low water temperatures, both shad and perch have been slow to migrate.”
All the fish species are here now, but now it’s rockfish season, and for some, that’s the only season with meaning.
“I won’t even bother with minnows,” said Gibby Windsor of Columbia, who has been fishing for rock since he was small, along the banks of the Choptank River with his father, a waterman. “Ever since I caught my first rockfish, I knew that I’d never be happy fishing for anything else. We wait so long from the end of last year’s season to the beginning of this year’s season, why tease yourself with perch?”
Rocking and Rolling
Within fishing memory, this point seemed moot. Overfishing and the decline of certain underwater vegetation and baitfish species had pushed rockfish populations to unheard-of lows. Drastic measures were required to keep the Bay’s signature species viable.
In 1985, a moratorium on rockfish was declared. For four years, charter captains and recreational anglers endured withdrawal. The rockfish population rebounded, and the moratorium was lifted in 1989, with new fishing safeguards in place. Through careful fisheries management, the population has maintained steady if not untroubled growth. Rockfishing has been good not only for anglers but also for other Bay Country residents who rely on the revenue generated by fishers.
“This is our most closely monitored fishery, and we intend to do all we can to make sure it remains viable,” said Harry Hornick, a fisheries ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources.
One of the primary methods of determining the health and population of rockfish in the Bay is tracking the young-of-year index. Each year, DNR samples many sites throughout the Bay to estimate the number of young produced during spawning season.
“Seven of the last nine years have produced young-of-year indexes higher than our target number,” Hornick said, adding that early results from this year’s index point to another year of growth. “This indicates that the population that was once close to disaster continues to rebound and prosper.”
To demonstrate this one big Bay success, the department invited reporters on a pre-season sampler three days before opening day.
Tasting the Season
Of course the Maryland Department of Natural Resources cannot be held accountable for Mother Nature’s whims or for the need to open the gates of the Conowingo Dam. The fishing was tough, but Capt. Harrison managed to find a couple of trophy-sized fish for us to bring in (and release, because even DNR is not allowed to bend its own rules). Both were about 36 inches in length — monsters compared to the freshwater trout that I usually favor — and provided a good fight for the two fisherwomen who brought them in.
Some fishers feel the need to create a suitable end-of-winter party atmosphere after waiting all winter to land gigantic rockfish. Tournaments abound on opening day, few bigger than the Fourth Annual Boatyard Bar and Grill’s Rockfish Tournament. The bar and restaurant in Eastport has been named one of the world’s best sailing bars by Sail Magazine. Though owner Dick Franyo is proud of that fact, this tournament is not about sailing — nor just about fishing.
“We picked a tough day of fishing, but that can’t be helped,” said Franyo, whose tournament attracted a record 152 boats this year, carrying some 700 anglers. “People come here not only for camaraderie and competition with other fishermen, but for the charities.”
All proceeds from the tournament are donated to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association and the Annapolis Police Department’s Youth Fishing Camp, which is an outreach program wherein police officers take underprivileged children fishing.
So, said Franyo, “If they catch fish, great. If not, they drink beer and tell fish stories.”
Mark Cullember of the boat E’s Diamonds, had to settle for those consolations. “We didn’t expect much today. I question my sanity going out on a 20-foot boat in weather like this,” Cullember said. Then, after weighing his catch, he headed off to grab a beer and wait out the competition.
May the Circle Be Unbroken
Though the early catch and release season on the Upper Bay’s Susquehanna Flats was largely a bust, spawning has been active for a little over a week. So lucky anglers south of the spawning grounds will soon see increasing numbers of fish heading back into the open waters of the Bay proper.
The rockfish will complete their spawn, and many will return next year to the place of their birth just as they always have. If conditions are right, many eggs will hatch and many fry will survive. The fish will thrive. Fishing people will be happy again next year — even if conditions stink on opening day.
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Putting Corn to Work
For chicken feed, you can heat your house with chicken feed
by Bruce Allen Bauer
Plink, Plunk. Whirr, Whoosh.
That’s the sound of the cornstove heating your living room with chickenfeed for chickenfeed — four cents a pound — about half the cost of a hardwood fire. The yellow corn kernels are clean, easy to handle and the cheapest, cleanest-burning solid fuel you can find.
The environment is unimpaired by corn burning, and no creosote is left in the chimney. You’re also helping use up America’s huge surplus of “horse corn.”
About three winters ago, I decided that the wood for our wonderful fireplace insert wood stove was just too much trouble and toil. I found a company named Snow Flame down in Arden, North Carolina, that makes stoves and furnaces using feed corn for fuel. The cost is about $2,000, which is not out of line with pellet stoves or good wood stoves.
At the time, the nearest dealer where I could see one was in Pennsylvania, so we drove up and got an enthusiastic demonstration. Not long afterward, a pickup truck eased into our Mason’s Beach driveway and a cheery little, well-seasoned farm store manager wheeled in the stove on a dolly all by himself.
The black steel box fits half in and half out of the fireplace with a seal around the fireplace opening. The front door has a six-by-10-inch window on which the manufacturer saw fit to emboss Snow Flame without asking my preference. The brilliant flame needs no embellishment.
Through a little trapdoor in the flat top of the stove, about 60 pounds of clean corn kernels are poured from buckets handily filled and transported cheerfully by the husband, remembering all the while the wood-handling drudgery from which he has been liberated. A 20-pound bucket of corn will run the stove for about four hours for less than a dollar. The electricity cost for the three circulating fans and the feeding motor couldn’t be more than a dime or so.
From the storage compartment in the back of the stove, corn kernels are conducted to the six-inch stainless steel cube-shaped firebox by an inclined augur pushing the kernels down a trough and dribbling them daintily out a hole two inches above the firebox. A small but staunch fan blows air through holes in the inner wall of the firebox onto the corn, which wouldn’t ignite without the draft. The rate of the dribble is adjustable to vary the heat output.
There is almost no smell — certainly no movie lobby popcorn smell to this stove since it is sealed, and air from the room is sucked into side vents, heated in pipes above the firebox and blown back into the room. But the stove is somewhat noisy because the turbine circulating fans are much stronger and faster — even turned down to lowest speed — than necessary for a living room. They could heat a barn.
The outside of the stove remains no more than moderately warm, and some like to sit on top of the stove to enjoy the air blowing out the front heat vents. The only thing really too hot to touch is the front door with its viewing glass.
That thick pane of fireglass remains remarkably unsmoked because of a continuous air curtain protecting it on the inside — plus the fact that the corn burns almost smokelessly. Nothing can be seen coming out of our chimney top on the roof.
The corn also burns down to a small residue of ash, about two cups worth in an evening. The firebox comes out for easy emptying.
Buying the corn is fun. I haul a utility trailer over to the Perdue grain elevators on Route 4 and drive on a big scale and then under a chute. When the elevator operator pulls a lever it rains corn, most of which goes in the trailer. Reweighing your rig, you pay for the difference at the day’s commodity price plus a small cut for Mr. Perdue’s heirs, currently totaling about $2.50 for a bushel weight of 56 pounds.
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