Burton on the Bay:

On the Patuxent, A Tale of Two Bass

Maryland's Dead Sea Resurrected

In these days when everything is being filled in, cleared, drained, paved or dredged to make way for everything from boat docks and super highways to stadiums and condominiums, it's refreshing to learn of an environmental success story. That's just what we have in the Patuxent River, much of which flows along Anne Arundel and Calvert counties.

With definite signs of rejuvenation of both rockfish and largemouth bass populations, the good news from the Patuxent is at least two-fold.

Could this mean shad and herring might also be headed back on the menu one day? How about pickerel, or improved angling for white and yellow perch? There's much room for improvement for all of them.

The upper Patuxent is a fisherman's kind of river: lazy, wide in some sectors, narrow in others and accessible. Once it had good fishing; more recently little came out of it other than catfish and carp - and for the latter, a few world-record spinning-tackle marks were set by Jean Ward, who fished out of Dunkirk in Calvert County before heading to West Virginia, where there are waters in more trouble than the Patuxent.

As for the lower middle and lower Patuxent, there were some good rockfish to be caught by rod and reel when I came to Maryland in 1956, and many a landowner set short nets out in the spring to catch them for the family table. So it was said.

Whether that was how it really worked was controversial at the time. The old Maryland Rockfish Protective Association - which realized rock were headed for trouble long before state fisheries administrators and politicians - argued vigorously against short nets. Its members claimed they were used primarily not to put fish on the table but as a commercial sideline.

Eventually, as the rockfish situation got worse, the short-net fishery was closed down, but at about the same time so was the Rockfish Protective Association, leaving a void in aggressive activity on the sports fisheries front until the formation of the Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishing Association about 15 years ago.


How's This for Success?

Enough for history. Today is the first day of the future, and the future looks good for both rockfish and largemouth bass on the Patuxent. So good I don't know where to start, but a recent conversation with Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Tim Groves will do.

Tim said his monitoring studies on the Patuxent this year indicate that progress noted in the past several years appears to be continuing. And best of all, he came across some small rocks that obviously were from natural reproduction, not from hatchery stock.

The news on the rockfish front is the same farther down the Patuxent. Ben Florence, DNR's jack of all trades who has specialized in everything from rockfish to hatchery operations, told me recently that stripers are turning out enough young now that there's no longer the need to bolster populations with hatchery-reared fish.

For many years, the Patuxent's contribution to the rockfish population of the Chesapeake's complex was nil. It didn't turn out enough stripers to supply a one-man fish fry.

Along came Florence with a hatchery program. For years, the Patuxent was stocked with fingerlings. DNR monitored progress, which came slowly. Now the river that not too long ago was considered the Dead Sea of Maryland has come to life.

The department is now taking Young of the Year samplings of the river; this year's index was 13 (the Bay index 12.7). On the Patuxent last year it was 7, while as of 1990 it was zero.

It has reached the point that stocking of rock has ceased on the river. Offspring of fish stocked there by Florence's crew are now coming back to do naturally what had been done in the hatchery system.

That program has recreated a resident spawning stock, and once again the Patuxent is a self-producing striped bass fishery. How's that for a success story?


Bass'n Waters

Now let's look farther upstream, from Waysons Corners south to Jug Bay. There haven't been too many bass fishermen working those waters; the word hasn't got out yet. Time will take care of that.

To bass fishermen, the upper Patuxent doesn't look bassy. Bass hang around cover, and without cover where would you send a plastic worm, popper, crankbait or spinnerbait?

Water is water, fish live in water, bass are fish, so why not bass in the Patuxent? That's the way thinking went back when Harry Hughes was governor. The Maryland Bass Federation was pushing for more bass'n opportunity, and Ben Florence's hatcheries were available to turn out the baby largemouths.

Tim Groves said that at first bass fry were introduced, but they did little more than fatten hungry white perch. Bigger stock of two to three inches fared better; at least they were big enough to strike out on their own to find enough cover to survive amidst old fallen and submerged trees.

What happened next is a story familiar on some Eastern Shore bass rivers, such as the Pocomoke. Natural production is relatively pathetic, but food is more than sufficient for prosperity in growth and numbers.

The Patuxent still can't be classed up with the Potomac, where Mama and Papa bass churn out offspring, but it has become a nice bass fishery.

Periodically, Groves checks it. The numbers keep growing; so do the size of the fish. Last year, some of four and a half to five pounds showed up, and not just a few.

In the early '90s, many bass measured in samplings had been sub-legal. Last year, surveys turned up four of over 18 inches, 17 of better than 17 inches, 52 of from 14 to 16 inches and 96 of 12 to 14 inches. A few bass have weighed more than six pounds.

The Patuxent is still an overlooked bass fishery. Groves estimates that a good bass fishermen could catch 50 bass on an outing, which would put it up in the class of the Potomac.

There are indications grasses are taking hold in Patuxent tributaries, also in the river itself, and any bass fisherman knows what that means: ideal habitat for the fish, not to mention a target for casting.

Grasses could also play a role in natural bass reproduction, though Groves still classes hatchery fish as the backbone of the budding fishery. Put and take, let's call it, but not like with trout where fish of legal size are dumped and anglers reel them in.

That's expensive: the trout have to be reared and fed. In the Patuxent, they arrive soon after hatching and feed themselves, requiring no more costly and time-consuming assistance from DNR.

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VolumeVI Number 44
November 5-11 , 1998
New Bay Times

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