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Volume 14, Issue 25 ~ June 22 - June 28, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Reefs Are Where the Action Is

Beneath the surfaces of bays, oceans, lakes, streams, rivers and creeks, it’s a game of hide ’n’ seek — the smaller fish hide, the bigger fish seek.

If you think living in Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, New York or Los Angeles can be hazardous, for a few days try being a Chesapeake silverside, which is too close to the bottom of the Bay’s food chain for even a moment of carefree existence.

From Norfolk spot and perch of ounces to rockfish of 50 pounds or more, you’d highlight the menu. The smaller the fish, the more predatory species on the hunt for it. Other than fishers with hooks and nets, the big rockfish need only worry about the porpoises that enter the Bay in springtime for a brief stay as far north as the Hooper Island complex, or the occasional shark that might also stray from the ocean, sometimes even north of the Bay Bridge.

Ah, but if you were a little silverside of a few inches, you’d have so much to hide from: practically any fish bigger than you, plus loons, ospreys, cormorants, gannets, sea gulls and such as well as fishermen with cast nets seeking bait. Sanctuary would indeed be difficult to find.

Something for Everybody

Only some humans would be on your side, though admittedly as a matter of self-interest more than concern for your welfare. The humans who create artificial reefs want to catch eating-size fish, and to do that effectively, you, as a silverside, play an important role in the game plan.

An artificial reef can be anything, anything from cement balls with holes to weighted tires to chunks of old bridges and buildings replaced by newer ones — even sports facilities such as Memorial Stadium, made famous by the likes of Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson.

If you were a silverside, you would head for an artificial reef for a couple reasons. Reefs not only have many hiding places from bigger fish but also aquatic growth that catch on like barnacles on a boat. Aquatic growth provides food for you, but, alas, you provide fodder for any bigger fish, which in turn do the same for even bigger fish and so on.

It’s a chain reaction, a game of marine dominos — and as a silverside you’d be the domino with two blanks on the playing side. Fishermen with nets and hooks have this figured out, so even the huge fish that rule in the food chain are vulnerable. They have the fishermen to worry about. The wise fishermen know the reefs are where the action is.

To the non-fishermen, most reefs also have value. Where else can the top of the very top of all food chains, we humans, dispose of bridges, stadiums, old tires, derelict boats and rubble? Without reefs, dry land would become giant mounds of junk; wait long enough and they’ll rise to mountains of the same.

Not all reefs are composed or cast-offs; in some Bay locations — including the Magothy, Solomons and the Bay off Tolchester — hole-riddled cement balls as big as large pumpkins or larger are manufactured commercially and by conservation groups and dropped to the bottom. The holes are so smaller fish can dart into the center, out of reach of larger fish.

When they come out to eat or whatever, they’re liable to be lunch to bigger fish, which not infrequently are lunch to even bigger fish. But if you were a tiny silverside, you’d be at the very bottom of the food chain, fair game for all.

Fish for Reef Relief

Down Solomons way, for a decade, two large reefs have been under construction by the Solomons Charter Captains Association. One is a half-mile east of Little Cove Point; the other about the same distance off Drum Point in 35 to 45 feet of water. Fish are beginning to use ’em. With many reefs it takes time; aquatic growth is needed to lure tiny fish that feed, so the tiny fish can attract bigger ones.

Saturday and Sunday of this week, June 24 and 25, the Captains Association holds the first of a planned annual $68,000 Reef Relief Tournament, benefitting reef additions. Building a reef can be costly, for heavy equipment is needed to load and transport its makings. Capt. John Mayer of the Marauder says many thousands of dollars have been spent on the two reefs of acres and acres, with much more needed.

Fish eligible for prizes in the tournament are hardheads, rockfish and flounder. If you hurry you can still sign on; 240-417-2406. Whether you’re a silverside or a fishermen, this is a project that will benefit you. Weigh stations are out of Calvert Marina, Solomons and the Rod ’n’ Reel docks, Chesapeake Beach.

Reefs from Wrecks

Incidentally, not all reefs come about via building by man; some were created by nature — and others weren’t planned. A sunken skiff or a much larger craft eventually becomes an artificial reef. Soon after it’s on the bottom, fish show interest.

I know more than a few Bay fishermen who spend much of their effort jigging lures of drifting soft crabs to reefs made up of just one small boat that they have found. They keep the sonar coordinates to themselves.

Know what the biggest artificial reef complex in Maryland is? Take a guess. The pilings of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Over the years, they have accumulated much aquatic growth, which has attracted the smaller fish and so on up the chain.

Off Ocean City there are hundreds of artificial reefs from old sailing craft, submarines, tankers, freighters and other commercial vessels that had their May Days, many of them during World Wars I and II. They are the targets of the busy headboat fleet of Ocean City.

Among the reefs off Ocean City is the African Queen, which broke up after running aground in an Atlantic storm nearly 50 years ago. The bow section broke free; a man whose name I can’t recall soon afterwards boarded the bow and claimed salvage rights.

While returning from an offshore marlin trip one afternoon, the late Capt. Reese Layton and I took a detour to look her over; she was jutting high out of the sea. As we approached, the salvager appeared on the tilted deck carrying a menacing shotgun, and we kept our distance.

But the bow section was not to be his. Not long after, another storm took his part of the Queen to deeper water, where it sank below the surface to create a fishing reef still popular to this day. He was never heard from again.

As I recall, the stern section was salvaged. I also recall before the second storm that headboats fished by day for sea bass and porgies, then headed back on the Atlantic in the evening carrying sightseers to see the wreck. Fish gained a reef, but gone was what promised to be a revenue-raising attraction.

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