Groundhogs, Rockfish and Conservation

Rejoice, Punxsutawney Phil has predicted an early spring. The great oracle of Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Penn., has declared that winter will be banished early this year. Though the famous groundhog’s accuracy remains somewhat in question over the 134 years that he and forefathers’ predictions have been recorded, there is no need to allow that to interfere with a benign celebration. 

While Phil has been fashioning his prognostication in Gobbler’s Knob, something important is also going on around us in the Chesapeake Bay. Quietly and with little obvious evidence the annual striped bass reproduction is beginning to take place in the headwaters of our vast estuary. Our rockfish are producing offspring again, and hopefully, lots of them. I say hopefully because our overall rockfish population is down—way down.

Since we have been experiencing a constant and gradual global warming trend since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago, it’s probably safe to say that spring will be coming sooner rather than later this season. And we are also safe in assuming that rockfish will carry on as nature intended and as they have done for many thousands of years.

I recently spoke with fisheries biologist Harry Hornick, manager of the Annual Striped Bass Spawning Survey. The conversation held a singular optimistic note for the coming year—the number of adult female rockfish in recent years was consistent with the years the right conditions resulted in some outstanding spawns. 

But what are the critical conditions that create those great spawns? No one knows. Despite the collection of countless data and endless scientific conjectures compared against weather patterns, rainfalls, moon phases, planet alignment, and wind directions, it’s always a mystery.

   Now the odds that 2020 is a good spawn year aren’t exactly encouraging. There are more poor years than good on record from the Young of Year Striped Bass Survey and even fewer great years. However, fisheries scientists agree that spawning success is mostly a mystery in the hands of Mother Nature.

This year’s harvest restrictions should help rebuild the overall rockfish population. The goal is to protect an additional 18 percent of the striper population from harvest by recreational anglers.

Our elected officials have decided that commercial fishermen need not share in the reduction and have been granted their usual access to over half of the annual quota of rockfish allowed to Maryland by the ASMFC, the federal group charged with the management of migratory fish. 

During the conversation with Hornick, who has been overseeing the arduous task of netting, measuring, recording, tagging and releasing thousands of fish on spawning grounds every year since 1985, he noted that though the numbers of our spawning age females have fallen they currently still exceed the numbers recorded in the Chesapeake when the nationwide moratorium on rockfishing was lifted.

It is certainly comforting to realize that the striped bass is capable of bouncing back so promptly (the moratorium lasted five years) and that we are taking some definite steps in protecting the fish that do remain in our ecosystem. That is as it should be and patience is necessary as stocks are brought back up to the numbers our fisheries scientists have determined are necessary for our rockfish to flourish. Let’s hope their efforts again yield prompt results.



Winter weather is the principal impediment to good fishing of late but the yellow perch bite is slowly developing as February begins. Pickerel, of course, are the mainstay of fishing efforts in the Tidewater and tautog and stripers are the headliners along the coast. For yellow Neds, it’s small minnows, worms of all types and grass shrimp when you can find them. Fished on a shad dart or small jig under a bobber these basic baits will do the job for the next 60 days when the white perch run should begin to peak. At the seaside, it’s sand fleas and small crabs or pieces of crab and clams fished on top and bottom rigs. Stripers will take eels, big bloodworms, big minnows, and smaller jigs and crankbaits. Fish inlets, surf sides, especially on the inshore and outshore sides of sandbars, plus near-shore holes.