Burton on the Bay:
How They Bit:
The Fishing Year in Review

It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.

    Robert Frost: Collected Poems, 1939


And that, my friends, is fishing. As men and women with hooks go forth, there are always surprises - though their meanings are not always unfolded. Take the year of '99 as an example, and the surprises galore that erupted on the waters of the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

Forget for the moment such curious and isolated catches as a tarpon in the Potomac, a bonito at Point Lookout, a cobia taken from shore in Southern Anne Arundel County or the pompano reeled in at the mouth of the Choptank. They involved wayward fish that somehow went off course in a Bay packed for much of the summer with high salinity due to the drought.


Amazing Grace

Let's take a peek at a couple of the usual species that did unusual things. As I write, it's the night of Tuesday, November 30, and the rockfish season of '99 has just closed. Too bad it's not running through December as it is in Virginia. Too bad because there the fish are still available, hungry and legal.

Yesterday, at the Stone Piles of the Bay Bridge, those of us aboard Capt. Ed Darwin's charterboat Becky D caught about 50 sea trout on feathered jigs. We could have caught more, but it was blowing hard and the tide wasn't right. And it was cold. These fish averaged three pounds and were stacked more than five feet thick on the Bay bottom.

By the calendar, they should have been on their way south weeks ago, but curiously they're staying around. It's not unusual for some to remain, but this was an awesome school of fish.

The day after Thanksgiving, I fished Capt. Johnny Motovidlak's charterboat Dawn Marie out of Tilghman Island, and we took 11 rockfish, which isn't unusual, but their size was. The smallest was 28 inches; the largest 42 inches.

Where did fish like that come from at this time of year? They were of the size we hope for in the spring trophy season. At a time when we figured fish like this should be leaving the Bay, they obviously were coming in from the ocean because clinging to their pink gills were fresh sea lice.

Some fishermen figure they came up the Chesapeake from the ocean. Others think they could have come down the C&D Canal. Still others won't venture a guess other than to speculate they came in chase of menhaden.

They've seen a few big fish in late season before, but this year they were in abundance - and as far up the Bay as the Patapsco River practically in back of my home at the mouth of Stoney Creek. I've fished Maryland's striped bass regularly since I arrived in the summer of '56, and as this past season was drawing to a close, we had the best fishing for rock since I've been hereabouts.


The Fish that Were

So what better time to review angling success and its possible relationship with the environment of rockfish, trout and other species than while the past season is still fresh in our minds?

Following severe storms - of which we had more than our share in '99 - species always on the move, such as stripers, try to get away from the sediment load following foul weather. They prefer as little grit as possible passing through their lungs.

After Hurricane Floyd, some areas of the mid- and more confined upper Bay weren't fairly clear for two weeks, while in the wider lower Bay, within a week things were pretty much back to normal.

Anglers who scouted for the clearest waters following storms caught best. However, fish also wanted to remain in proximity to their food source - and in much of the Bay, the prime source was menhaden.

Salinity isn't as major a factor with rock as it is for hardheads. Maryland Department of Natural Resource's Marty Gary was tracking hardheads last year and in the lower Bay observed the more salinity, the more fish and the better bottom fishing. In one observation following a storm, salinity nose-dived - and all the fish moved off overnight.

Rockfish are anadromous species and range in both salt and fresh waters. Thus they are not affected as much.

Last year, many chummers read huge schools of rock on their electronic fish-finders but couldn't get them to bite. Examination of the few fish they caught indicated their bellies were already filled with chum.

Full stomachs and all the commotion associated with boats and fishermen don't make for good catching. Capt. Bruce Scheible, who charters out of Ridge, insists the best day to schedule a chumming trip is on a Monday, the least busy day of the week.


Baits that Got Bites

Another observation of last year: The Umbrella rig still outcatches other artificial lures in spring and fall, but this fall many trollers switched to large bucktails with Mister Twisters or Sassy Shads added and did as well on the bottom at channel drop-offs.

Drifting eels made a big comeback in '99, especially at the Bay Bridge. Razor clams and frozen chicken livers used on hooks drifted in chum lines were very effective. The best bait of all was soft crabs, but one needed to get a loan from the bank to buy them as spring and summer crustacean runs flopped.


What's Ahead

So the catch-and-keep rockfish season is over in Maryland. Some anglers and skippers are doing what Capt. Motovidlak has done. He has moved his operation to Hooper Island from where he can run to Virginia waters and troll for big stripers. That season closes Dec. 31.

Some others talk of fishing rock via catch-and-release in Maryland while the big fish are still around. Those who want fish for the table can challenge the laggard sea trout or the white perch that remain hungry - though usually at this time of year they're not plentiful.

I pity those who have put their boats up for the winter. They're missing some dandy catching.

Come April, most anglers will be on the rockfish chase again as the spring trophy season opens. Regulations will be a little tighter as all coastal states try to abide by the decision of Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to reduce the harvest of fish 28 inches or longer. There are fears anglers are catching too many of the larger rockfish from North Carolina to Maine.

This is how fishing shapes up for 2000:


Chesapeake Bay

Trophy Season: April 29 through May 31, one fish a day, 28-inch minimum. No fishing north of the mouth of the Patapsco.

Regular Season: June 1 through Nov. 30, two fish a day under a slot limit in which one can be 18 inches or longer, no maximum, and the other of 18 to 28 inches.


Ocean City-Assateague

Same as this year: No closure, 28-inch minimum, two fish a day.


Susquehanna Flats

Catch-and-release only from April 1 through April 30, then no rockfishing until June 1. Next year, the Susquehanna River will be closed to fishing for rock during the catch-and-release season.


| Issue 48 |

Volume VII Number 48
December 2-8, 1999
New Bay Times

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