Chesapeake Outdoors

Wise Words for Angling's Future

by C.D. Dollar

The tide roared past me as I sat on the dock at the ramp, holding the bowline to the small jon boat waiting for Chuck to bring the trailer around. Our day ended early, but we were still fortunate enough to catch some fish for the rockless winter, mostly on jig heads dressed with Bass Assassins. The 1998 rockfish season had been swept away as quickly as the ebb tide now before me, and with the morning sun making the clear, green water flex like plate glass, it seemed as good a place as any to reflect on the fishing year.

The overall fishing season was magnificent, a testament to the vitality and diversity of the Bay's waters. Beginning with a strong trophy rockfish season, fishing success rose to dizzying heights throughout the summer into early fall before tapering off, at least in the upper portions of the Bay. The areas around Point Lookout crushed rockfish until the end. Various methods were successful in their own way, be it trolling, chumming or plugging the shoreline.

Croaker, big, fat, eager and obliging, exploded all over the Chesapeake. Sea trout followed up the banner year of 1997 with another great showing this past season. Flounder clearly benefited from offshore regulations (as did croaker), which allow the young to better avoid ocean netters. The numbers of flatties that barely missed the legal limit bodes well for the 1999 angling season. Even bluefish, whose populations have been sagging in recent years, made a decent showing, particularly larger blues, though still not in numbers we might like. As usual, the dependable and hearty white perch pulled on lines and filled coolers.

Yet we would be remiss if we didn't temper our enthusiasm with a realistic eye to the future. You don't get something for nothing. We face problems on the horizon that need immediate attention - hard questions that need sound answers. For example, though there are more rockfish in the Bay than at any other time in the past 100 years or so, an unacceptable number of them are skinny, underweight and have skin lesions (particularly those in the 14- to 28-inch range, from what I have seen).

To address this problem, many of the best minds in fishery science came together. The Coastal Conservation Association chapters of Maryland and Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay Acid Rain Foundation and Chesapeake Bay Foundation co-sponsored a forum in November to look for answers.

Some scientists and anglers point to a decline of Atlantic menhaden in the Bay, a favored rockfish food. Menhaden, also called bunker, have a wide variety of uses - chum for fishermen, bait for watermen's crab pots, as well as industrial oils and animal feed. The harvest for commercial interests is measured in hundreds of millions of pounds. But just as importantly - if not more so - they are the primary food source (high in protein) for rockfish and many other Bay predators like bluefish and sea trout. Some birds, like pelicans and loons, also depend upon bunker to supplement their diets.

Some marine scientists suggest environmental factors, such as poor spawning conditions for menhaden and changes in the food source for young menhaden. Others offer that perhaps the rockfish population is so large that they are out-competing each other for menhaden. There is also the indisputable reality that the Bay's underwater grass beds and oyster reefs - vital habitat for feeding and growing fish - have diminished significantly. We won't see healthy populations of crabs or fish if these vital habitats aren't protected and restored.

These reasons not withstanding, a factor that immediately comes to mind is fishing pressure. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering a catch reduction under its menhaden fishery management plan. And though scientists believe there is still enough brood stock to produce a strong year class of menhaden under good conditions, without proper management, the worst case scenario is that the menhaden fishery could crash. We have been there, done that with rockfish, and no one wants that again.

Even if it is a combination of all of these things, the problem still remains and must be addressed. So, as we put away our fishing rods, reels and related gear and revel in memories of the year's fine fishing, let's do what we can to ensure that the fishing in 1999 is at least as good.

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VolumeVI Number 48
December 3-9, 1998
New Bay Times

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