Volume 14, Issue 16 ~ April 20 - April 26, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Catch Them While You Can

Early rockfishing is at its short best; many other fish are coming our way

God gave us memories so that we might catch big fish in winter.

—Joe Brooks

It was on a winter day at my then home in Baltimore in the early 1960s when Joe Brooks put a new twist on J.M. Barrie’s oft-quoted thought on memories and roses and December. I was rather surprised seeing that Joe, remembered as one of the world’s top 10 Izaak Waltons of all time, was touting fishing memories in winter when the clients of his promotions were located in climes where fishing is promoted year ’round.

When I pointed that out to Joe — who could and did go fishing anywhere on the globe at any season and sometimes with kings — he smiled, then said there had to be a break sometime in the year so an angler could reflect on the past and look ahead to a new season. Memories and anticipation, said Joe, were second only in pleasure to actual catching or trying to catch.

Among many fishermen, a few fish that did or did not get away will be remembered as long as a friend. The anticipation of a season or just a junket on the water rivals that of planning anything short of a wedding. Memories and anticipation are what fishermen are made of.

Here in Chesapeake Bay Country we’ve had our winter of memories, and much anticipation was spent leading up to the past Saturday when spring trophy rockfish season opened. Now we go forth for the rockfish we anticipated, one or two of which will find a niche in our memories.

Let’s look ahead to what we might expect in the season of ’06 — as well at what is going on behind the scenes with fisheries scientists, who manage our waters so that we continue to anticipate challenging a fish we will long remember.

Now’s the Time for Rock

The rockfish trophy season is in its infancy, but already there are ominous indications that this year’s run of big spawning cow rock will not last long, perhaps another week to 10 days. Go fishing now. When fish of 18 to 24 inches have been caught — as a few have — the trophy season is winding down.

Waters have been warming quite fast the past several weeks. The temperatures are now right, and the cows are impatient to drop their eggs in the tributaries, then head up the coast to summer in the ocean from New Jersey to Maine. The younger fish will stick around and be the backbone of our warm-weather fishery. Occasionally, for reasons unknown, a few biggies stay in the Bay to surprise us.

Trolling large baits is the preferred technique for luring a trophy, but on opening day some fishermen scored chumming cut menhaden. Casting into chum offers the excitement of light tackle versus big fish. Give it a try. But however you want to try for rock, don’t procrastinate. With some fish, the exodus is already underway.

Despite dead-water zones, blemishes on more than a few stripers and a disappointing fall run of sea-run fish, counts of Young of the Year 2005 fish were up 40 percent over the long-term average. Those fish go in the bank for future seasons. But not infrequently I ponder what happens to all those new fish.

Year after year with few exceptions since the moratorium, the Young of the Year index has been exceptionally promising. Yet a few years later, the catchable abundance is not in keeping with the hatch. Are those fish leaving the Bay sooner in life? If so, why? Is the Bay hostile to young stripers?

Many Fish in Our Bay

As the fleet was heading out on opening day for stripers, hardheads were beginning to show up in nets as far north as near the Bay Bridge. There have been unconfirmed reports of a few taken via hook and line. The warmer weather should prompt their movement up the Bay; look for some to be caught within a week in the lower Bay, another week or two up this way.

Hardhead stocks have been high for five or six years now. Heartening is Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ survey data that the mean length of these fish is 12.5 inches, which is better than average. Figures aren’t available for last year, but over the preceding eight years fisheries managers tell us the Maryland recreational catch has been from 866,933 to 2,674,800 fish, all well above the 775,000 average.

These fish have cyclic patterns of abundance. The good catching won’t last. So plan on some bottom fishing this year to fill the gap between when the big stripers depart and the smaller ones become dependable. Fish fry anyone?

It has been a long time since fishermen hereabouts thought of shad, but this year on the Susquehanna and the Potomac, they’re biting almost like the good old days. It could be like the good old days on our Patuxent sometime in their future. DNR’s hatchery-based shad restoration program started a dozen years back is paying off. Now some of those fine fish are returning to spawn. The same on the Nanticoke and Choptank. We are building up a reservoir of truly wild shad.

Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake is primarily a nursery for bluefish, the species many of us turn to on days when rockfish have lockjaw. Methinks we’ll see a continued, though not swift, increase in their numbers and size. Fish examined from pound nets indicate an average size of 12.75 inches, second best in the past dozen years. If only some of the lunkers from the ocean move in (a few did last year), we can expect good fishing.

Second only to rockfish in popularity are sea trout, but there’s not much we can hope for this year. The estimated coastal recreational catch plunged from 2,089,202 in 2000 to 769,793 in ’04. Last year it was even worse. There is no explanation. The species is under study, but any findings won’t help us this year.

We keep hearing the year of the flounder is coming. The species is responding well to intensive management in both the ocean and the Bay. But when will that year come? Flatties averaged a high of 14.75 inches last year, but the catch of 67,858 was the third lowest since 1981. I’ll go out on a limb; improvement will be noted in the Bay this year. At the ocean, things will remain pretty much the same.

Fishermen talk of the rockfish, blues and trout, but the fish caught in the greatest numbers and by the most Maryland anglers is the white perch. Over the past decade, the catching has increased in both numbers and size in the Bay and tributaries. The recreational catch has averaged 565,000 pounds, which means more than a million and a half fish kept. There’s no end in sight for the population explosion.

Spanish mackerel could come early this year. Norfolk spot catching should remain about the same, possibly with more jumbos. Forget about black drum.

All of them are good fishing. Catch them while you can.

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