I had a little conversation last week at the Maryland Watermen's Association Christmas party that kind of sums up what next year might look like. It went something like this: "Bob, we really need the May rockfish, especially if we have another bluefish season like the last two."
"George, if the biologists were running things, there would be no problem. Right now the rockfish issue is tied up in politics and everyone is afraid of bringing this controversial issue to the governor. They're afraid they might get their head chopped off or, at a minimum, lose their job."
George is George Prenant, president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association. He sails out of Deale, one of the largest fishing centers on the Chesapeake Bay.
The holiday social is an interesting get-together that places many strange bedfellows within speaking distance of each other. It is not unusual to see a politico in a corner talking with an oysterman or a state bureaucrat and a lobbyist chatting over the smoked bluefish. They even invite a few charter boat captains like George and myself.
The MCBA has been pushing hard for a spring striped bass season targeted at the migrating stocks that have already spawned and are on their way back to the ocean. It would give anglers their only opportunity to catch big rockfish and also get anglers on the charter boats early in the year. The spring fishery on migrating stocks would have no impact on the fall fishery of premigratory striped bass.
Charter captains have learned if they can get the folks on board early in the year and show them a good time it is possible to book them once or twice more before the season is over.
Without a charter early in the year, you sometimes don't get the party at all; they may decide to go to the ocean or do something else. The possibility of a trophy rockfish is an excellent draw to get the anglers on board early.
On the opposite side of the issue is Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association management and some conservationists who believe striped bass stocks have not recovered sufficiently to warrant a fishery.
Caught in the middle are the biologists and fishery managers, who generally agree that there is no reason why Maryland anglers should not harvest their share of the migrating stocks. I have talked to one senior biologist who says he holds a minority view. He does not support the spring season, not because the stocks could not support the fishery. He feels that for the sake of conservation, Maryland anglers should wait a year or two before catching the big fish.
To get a better handle on migrating stocks and pre-migration stocks, consider that striped bass spawned in the Chesapeake Bay spend two to five years here before the majority of them join the migrating stocks that swim along the coast from New England to the Carolinas. In March a portion of these fish return to the Chesapeake Bay to spawn. Spawning activity takes place from April to late May in major tributaries throughout the estuary and in the upper bay. The spawned-out fish return to the ocean in May and June.
A spring season would be targeted toward the fish that have already spawned and are on their way back to the ocean. Biologists say few rockfish about to spawn feed or would take a lure. The minimum size would probably be 28 inches and the creel limit would probably be so many per boat rather than so many per angler. That would mean a creel of less than one big fish per angler.
The fall season is targeted toward pre-migration stocks, or fish that have not yet joined the coastal stocks. Minimum size is 18 inches. A high percentage of the Chesapeake Bay striped bass migrate to the ocean when they are 16 to 18 inches long. Consequently, many fish join the coastal migration stocks before they are fished on.
The commercial fishermen have gone on record saying that their share of any spring fishery should go to the recreational and charter boat anglers.
The rockfish continues to be a complicated and emotional issue. As I told George: "You may lose by default. If the governor doesn't make a decision on a spring fishery in the next few weeks, there may not be enough time to get the regulation through the red tape unless they make it an emergency regulation."
I suggested that George and a group of Deale captains get together to send the governor a letter expressing their views. The spring season is in his hands.
Bob Spore is a Coast Guard-licensed charter boat captain from Pasadena.
His Outdoors column appears every Friday and Sunday in the Anne Arundel County Sun.