Chesapeake anglers ready to rock in '05
By Bill Burton, For The Capital
Fellow rockfish chasers, which do you prefer? A multitude of smaller fish, or a goodly number of big hefty fish?
Hang onto your hat; this year just might be the occasion when both are available. One is fairly certain, the other depends to a great degree on the weather in the next month to six weeks. Keep your fingers crossed.
The other day, Department of Natural Resource's Marty Gary and I had a long chat to review the striper outlook for '05, and we both agreed the stage is set for a good season - though the summer will probably have us griping day after day about the number of pesky throwbacks that mess us up when chumming.
But, by season's end, things should improve appreciably. Also, the outlook is heartening for the spring trophy season that opens April 16 - that is if we don't experience a lot of balmy weather between now and then. What we have at present is two great year classes of rockfish coming up.
But, as we all know in fishing, there are no guarantees. Anything can tip the apple cart, we can only hope that things fall into place. If they do, the hunt for stripers could be gangbusters - especially during late April and early May.
For what it's worth, here's the situation as we see it: The '93 Year Class of rockfish will be available, fish that will be in the upper 30-inch to lower 40-inch class - and mixed in, among others, will be those of the '96 Year Class.
The 1996 Rockfish Index based on spawning success was 59.39, the highest on record. And, fish from that year class are preparing to enter the bay on their spawning mission, which will be carried out generally late next month through April, possible into early May depending on water temperatures and weather conditions.
Most of these fish should be of 30 to 36 inches, easily topping the 28-inch minimum length regulations.
"There's a tremendous bio-mass out there; without question a great potential, it all depends on the weather," said Marty.
Weather rules supreme. If weather and waters warm quickly, the fish will spawn earlier as they have more than a few seasons in recent years.
Once they spawn, they waste no time in leaving the Chesapeake. When waters and other environmental factors are unfavorable for an early spawn, the hatch is late and protracted, which is good for fishing. In years of early spawns, many big cow rock leave the bay by the early days of the trophy season - and once they're gone, they're gone 'til next year.
Of course, mixed in with fish of these two year classes will be others from other years, some of them of 50 inches or more, thus there's the potential for quite a smorgasbord in trophy season. Then, we also have the fish that have remained in the bay, not yet big enough to make the migration up the coast.
Among them are fish of the '01 Year Class (second highest on record), for which the index was 50.75 (the long term average is from 8 to 12), and they will probably be of 16 to 17 inches depending on how well they have fed and other bay environmental factors. Chummers will find them troublesome for a time seeing they fail to make the 18-inch regular season minimum, but by fall many will become of keeper length. Look for great catching 'n keeping.
Meanwhile, the commercial gill net season continues through the end of this month, which primarily involves fish of 18 to 25 inches. And the catching has not been as good as watermen hoped - due to weather.
When waters are not as cold as usual, many fish are in more shoal waters where gill netting success leaves much to be desired - and though we had a real cold snap earlier this year, overall many fish are in the more shoal waters. As of, Feb. 15, the net catch was running 145,655 pounds shy of the quota for this fishery - and can't possibly catch up in the time remaining.
Incidentally, when Gary was briefing members of Pasadena Sportfishing Group last week, a commercial fisherman approached to tell him of some very good catches off Rock Hall, fish of up to 25 inches, fat and chock full of forage. Where were these fish when upper bay anglers were plagued with throwbacks much of summer and well into fall last year?
Well, they were around; maybe some (or many) were in the tributaries, but at that size most of them were still bay residents - and they went where the forage was, which obviously wasn't where the fishermen went. There's a lesson in all of this. Anglers have to go where the fish and the what they feed on goes. And at times (many times) that wasn't at the popular fishing holes of long standing.
As has been written so often in this space, fishermen are obliged to explore; go to different areas and try to find fish and baitfish, get off the beaten path. Those larger fish caught off Rock Hall were in the bay when we were looking for something we could keep last summer and fall, but many Izaak Waltons couldn't locate 'em. Keep in mind, to catch fish they must first be located.
OTHER FISHES: Blues.
Up in the air though we might find them a tad bigger this year. We can only hope for a return of the big slammers of 20 years or more in the past. They were abundant off Ocean City and points to the north last year, but only the rare ones turned west into the bay on the April migration in '05. No one knows why they no longer come into the Chesapeake (something wrong environmentally, or with the availability of menhaden?).
Last year, we had mostly fish of 1 to 3 pounds, but some of 4 and 5 pounds showed up in scattered areas especially in late season. Maryland, for the time being at least, has chosen to stay with a creel limit of 10 though National Marine Fisheries Service is offering a creel of 15, which most other states have taken advantage of. We play it conservative hereabouts, which probably is the reasonable way to go.
A relatively mild winter bodes well for these short-lived fish that are exceptionally temperature sensitive. Survival has probably been excellent. Year classes have been stable, and though there was a big kill involving large fish in the Atlantic off Delaware and Maryland in summer of last year, things shape up well for the bay in '05. Can environmental factors be playing a role in why the upper bay and upper-mid bay runs have not been like they were in the good old days?
Not promising - and that's putting it mildly. Coastal fisheries scientists are trying to determine what's wrong.
The past couple of years has turned up many jumbos, look for the same.
(also called scup): For the first time in ages, many arrived in the lower bay last year. They're making a comeback in the southern reaches of their range, and maybe the bay will see more this year - surely there will be more on the ocean front.
The bay fishery though disappointing last year should show improvement. As for keepers, much depends on what anglers want and DNR gives 'em - and there are four options: 16-inch minimum, five to eight fish a day; 16-inch minimum, three a day; 15-inch minimum, three or four fish a day, and 15-inch minimum, two fish a day. DNR will monitor angler preference as the decision is made for these fish that are responding favorably to recent management curtailments.
No one knows, things have been real bad - and there's no evidence the situation will change.
Everything depends on how many decide to make a left turn into the bay as they move up the coast in midsummer.