Rockfishing returns, but with caution


September 30, 1990|By PETER BAKER

It used to be that Earl Trott and his friend Tall Jean would bring the old, flat-bottomed skiff back up the West River on June mornings -- back through the early light, with Cap'n Earl sitting in the squared stern and Tall Jean pulling on the oars.

They'd travel west on the river past Cheston Point and Scaffold Creek and then southwest past Popham and Tenthouse creeks and Councillors Point, while Tall Jean pulled long and easy on the oars and the late spring sun took the wetness from the air and the ribs and floors of the skiff.

In the bow of the skiff on those mornings, there generally was a box or two of rockfish fresh-caught from the nets that Cap'n Earl and Tall Jean had set downriver the day before, positioned so as to capitalize on the tide as it changed from ebb to flow and flow to ebb, bringing the rock into the traps.

It used to be that Cap'n Earl and his friend Tall Jean sold their catch from coolers along a rickety dock across from the public pier in Galesville. Fifty cents per fish. What they didn't sell, they ate, and often the smells of fried fish carried across the small anchorage wedged between the Pirate's Cove marina and restaurant and Steamboat Landing.

It was a piece of the world that Cap'n Earl had squatted on and claimed as his own, a houseboat raised on stilts, the tumble-down dinghy dock, a handful of moorings that he charged a minuscule fee to watch over and the fish, oysters and crabs of the river, which he harvested with little regard for the preachings of biologists or the rules and regulations enforced by the Natural Resources Police.

Yet even then, Cap'n Earl and others like him who long had harvested the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries were afraid that their resource was failing, silting up and being poisoned by urbanization and overrun by fishermen who caught more than they needed and discarded the excess.

Cap'n Earl has been dead about eight years; the houseboat and the rickety dock are gone, replaced by a simple, antiseptic park. And rockfish, those sleek, tasty fish that biologists refer to as striped bass, have declined and apparently are making a comeback after a five-year moratorium.

But never again is it likely that rockfish will be there for easy taking, that anyone will have the freedom that Cap'n Earl and his friend Tall Jean had for all those years on the West River. The fishing pressure is too great -- whether by commercial, charter or recreational means -- and the power and reason of the conservationists is too formidable to overcome and too sensible to ignore.

On Friday, Maryland reopens its rockfish fishery to recreational anglers and charter-boat customers under a management plan foreign to everybody, whether they have been fishing the bay long enough to remember wading off Thomas Point for stripers in the '20s, or know only of powering out to the dumping grounds or the rockfish slaughterhouse at the Bay Bridge.

This first season is a testing ground for fishermen and fishery managers alike, a part of a new, coastal plan intended to allow sportfishermen to enjoy their fishing and commercial fishermen to complement their earnings from other fisheries.

Sportfishermen probably will never again be sated on rockfish as they might have been in the past, when size limits were four or six inches smaller and creel limits did not exist.

Commercial fishermen probably never will make a fortune -- or perhaps even a living -- solely from rockfish, a species almost as predictable as the vernal equinox: Come spring and the stripers will be moving in from the Atlantic and up the Chesapeake to spawn.

It is this predictability that allowed Cap'n Earl and many others to set their nets and haul them regularly from April through June -- the same, timeless cycle that takes the rockfish up past the Bay Bridge slaughterhouse and brings them back down once their spawn is done.

But it also is the cycle that may allow the species to be managed successfully coast-wide.

The recreational season, from Oct. 5 through Nov. 9, is set virtually opposite the spawning season, when the sexually mature fish are vulnerable in the upper tidal reaches of the bay and its tributaries.

Maximum and minimum size limits (36 inches and 18 inches) have been set to protect the younger and older fish in the resource and enhance reproduction and development. In theory, during the season, the larger fish will have left the estuary, and the developing young fish will be able to grow unhindered.

Creel limits (two per day per recreational angler and five per day per charter-boat customer) are being instituted to discourage over-zealous fishermen.

Night fishing will not be allowed, and possession of rockfish while fishing -- whether from shore or aboard a boat -- will be illegal between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Stripers prefer to feed at night.

Fish may not be landed by gaff, a limitation that is expected to increase the survival of fish hooked and released or hooked and lost before being brought into the boat or onto the bank.

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