IF ANYTHING, the dramatic reopening of the rockfish season earlier this month emphatically proved the economic value of the sports fishery. It's impact from bait and tackle to charterboats and associated businesses was overwhelming.
Forget the old malarkey that the commercial fishery has the economic hammer; that we sportsfishermen are on the sidelines. Business generated in the sports season ridicules the claim of Maryland Watermen's Association president Larry Simns that the commercial fishery is the way to go with rock.
It is obvious the sports fishery has more Bay Country economic impact, not to mention the unlimited joy of more than 50,000 hook and liners seeking rock in a sporting way.
The Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association is once again pressing legislation to give rock gamefish status. If it does its homework, it should have a strong case.
Baltimorean Roger Williamson, as an example, spent $300 to charter a boat to fish the upper bay for rock on the season's opener -- only to learn where the fish were, and how to catch them. He took his wife Laura and two sons along because they would be with him on subsequent trips aboard the family's 23-footer.
He planned to fish several days a week as long as the season lasted, he said when the family stopped at a McDonald's at Grasonville a couple days before the Department of Natural Resources closed the season prematurely when the recreational 318,750-pound quota was reached.
For the short season, Williamson had bought two boat trolling rods and reels, two dozen expensive lures, not to mention dozens of live eels at $1.50 each. He said rockfishing would cost him $750 -- including fuel for his boat.
Of 27 autos parked at that McDonald's, 13 contained fishing tackle of the type used for rock. McDonald's was just one of many businesses profiting from sports fishermen chasing striped bass.
By midafternoon, 1,000 customers shopped at the Angler on Route 50 on this side of the Bay Bridge the day before the opener. In one hand, they lugged out bags crammed with baits, reels, and other gear, while in the other hand they carried a rod or two.
"Some days we sold more than 1,000 eels," said proprietor Charlie Ebersberger. Eels were rationed at many shops -- six to 10 per angler.
Any fears that a bait wholesaler had when he purchased 8,000 eels the very afternoon DNR announced it would close the recreational fishery early, quickly vanished. He sold them all in a day; 3,000 of them to the Angler, which in turn sold out quickly -- and re-ordered for charter skippers.
One charter skipper said that despite his shortened season, which closed Saturday, his bookings meant $5,600 in charter fees alone -- much needed business after a slow year. The Rod and Reel at Chesapeake Beach booked 500 rock parties worth more than $150,000, not to mention associated restaurant and tackle shop business; Chesapeake House at Tilghman Island had its entire fleet booked daily.
The only gripe many skippers have is they must return hundreds to thousands of dollars in deposits.
Fred Meers, owner of Crippled Alewive Lure at Severna Park, said increased orders for spoons meant business equal to a one-man yearlong job. Nick Ellingson of Nick's Stix, his wife and staff tied bucktails almost around the clock making daily deliveries to tackle shops. It was the busiest they had even been.
Day after day, Tochterman's on Eastern Avenue broke sales receipt records. Customers lined up outside the store cheered when it opened in the morning. Some purchased four new rods and reels for rock chasing, said Tommy Tochterman, who added bucktails went out the door as fast as they came in.
Launching ramps, dockside fuel stations, soft crab and eel catchers, and mates needing the extra income for school expenses were among countless others to profit. For many in the sports fishing industry, rockfish business just about wiped out losses blamed on the worst bluefish run in more than 20 years.