Experts say rock are there--just find them


October 07, 1990|By PETER BAKER

At 5 a.m. Friday, from a bluff overlooking the mouth of the Severn River, the Chesapeake spread in riffles beneath a moon almost full. To the north, the number of running lights of fishing boats were easily counted beneath the Bay Bridge. To the south, a handful of anchor lights shone at Thomas Point Lighthouse.

Although still almost two hours before dawn, it was the opening of striped bass season, Maryland's first opening of the fishery since December of 1984, and the expanse of the bay lay largely quiet in a light wind and a slow tide.

Not until first light did the parade of boats start out the Severn River and the bank fishermen begin to come to the sea wall along Tolly Point.

Out the Severn past the lines of crab traps came several commercial crabbers, with groups of four or five people trolling and casting the shallows for stripers.

Small skiffs -- with one or two people aboard and outboards racing with throttles wide open -- cut the point and headed for the lighthouse.

Out beyond the ships channel, sportfishermen more suited to Baltimore or Poor Man's canyons than Gum Thicketts or Brickhouse Bar paraded in stately fashion.

People along the sea wall came in as many styles as the boats in the bay -- a wonderful, fifty-ish woman with a pail of clams and peeler crabs, one middle-aged man who used to fish Tolly Point for rock with his father, a few businessmen intent on making a quick strike before making their commutes to Baltimore or Washington, a few teen-agers with similar intentions before catching the bus to school.

Certainly it was like this throughout Maryland's Chesapeake, wherever there was an available pier, sea wall or promising shoreline -- and certainly there were those businessmen who managed to avoid making their commutes and those teen-agers who managed to miss their buses.

Opening days will do that to people. Huck Finn had nothing on a fisherman with a shot at a rockfish, and, after a five-year moratorium, it was a shot everyone with a fishing rod seemed to want to take.

By 8 a.m., the waters near the bridge were clogged with fishermen in boats of virtually every description. By 10 a.m., even with the early fishermen leaving, the number of boats had more than doubled.

The numbers were similar at Thomas Point. In the Choptank River, they were, too. In the open bay, fishermen seemed to be working every lump in the bottom contour.

Several professional captains who have been on the bay all their lives said they never had seen so many boats out.

But those same captains also said they had seen far better fishing days.

So, where were the rockfish? Have they really recovered enough to allow a fishery? Is it possible that people have forgotten how and where to fish for rock? If catches are sparse throughout the season, will it have an impact on next year?

Buddy Harrison, the entrepreneur who runs restaurants in Baltimore and Tilghman and a large charter-boat fleet, says the fish are numerous in the shallows, where large boats have trouble getting at them and too many small boats spook them.

"It's plenty of fish out there," Harrison said. "But there's lots of traffic on the weekends, and those fish get spooked, they're gone. Next week should be better when there aren't as many people after them."

Capt. Ed Darwin says the fish are there in good numbers but fishing for rock never has been like dipping into a bucket and requires an acquired skill. Friday, Darwin said, was an exploratory day even for him.

"When it [the season] was announced, I said there were going to be a lot of surprised people," Darwin said. "I have been fishing the bay all my life and even I didn't know where to find them for sure anymore. People are just going to have to learn it all over again."

The biologists who study the bay and its striped bass population also say the fish are there. On Friday, lots of people simply weren't finding them.

And that is good for this year, for next year and the years to come.

At a meeting last week, the Striped Bass Advisory Board invited the public to a discussion of preliminary plans for the 1991-1992 seasons.

Their tentative recommendations indicate that the fish are responding and that next season the fishery may be expanded.

On the drawing board, at least, are proposals that would separate the charter and recreational seasons, consider a May charter season on premigratory fish and a recreational trophy season in May as well.

"This a a draft product, a rough sort of consensus," said William Goldsborough, chairman of the advisory board and senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We don't have a final product by any means."

But here is the reasoning of the board on all points:

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