ANNAPOLIS -- A 16-day spring rockfish season has been scheduled by the Department of Natural Resources for the main Chesapeake below the Bay Bridge.
In final deliberations, the DNR decided against a full month's fishing as had been urged by the Striper Bass Advisory Board and charterboat skippers.
Instead, the May 11 through 26 season, which includes three weekends, will offer recreational anglers opportunity for large rock at the peak of the post-spawning run.
And big fish it will have to be. The department stuck with its original minimum size limit of 36 inches, which represents a fish of nearly 20 pounds. There will be no maximum size, which offers the potential for a record.
The existing state mark is 55 pounds for a fish taken in May more than 20 years ago in waters between Tilghman Island and Chesapeake Beach by Eric Shank of Hanover, Pa., who was on the first bay trip of his life. The world record is 78 1/2 pounds taken in New Jersey in 1982.
During the rock moratorium there were reports of larger rock taken and released by bluefish trollers. Among arguments pressed by charterboaters for a spring season was the possibility of a record to create publicity for the Chesapeake.
"We are giving them [fishermen] the opportunity to go fishing, not necessarily to catch a keeper fish," said DNR secretary Torrey C. Brown, who again assured bay watchers that regulations will be sufficiently restricted to ensure no harm to brood stock.
"We are playing it conservative," added Brown. "It's not what everyone wants, but we are selling hope."
Fishermen will be allowed one fish a season, and before going out will be required to have in possession a free permit and tag. Upon landing a legal fish, the tag must be affixed to it and the permit destroyed. Details for obtaining permits will be announced later.
To protect rock that still could be on spawning grounds of the upper bay region, and more southern tributaries, fishing effort will be restricted to the main Chesapeake below the Bay Bridge.
The special season is expected to give the troubled charterboat industry a much needed shot in the arm -- especially if early and large bluefish fail to make a good showing for a third consecutive spring.
The DNR's decision is a sound one; allow fishermen a chance to take a big fish when they have the best opportunity without compounding problems endured by the troubled species. Though last year's young of the year index was a disappointing 2.1 there was an abundance of cow bass on spawning grounds.
The trouble was not in a lack of brood fish available, instead there was a still undetermined post spawning problem involving the subsequent hatch.
Bay fishermen were the first to make the big sacrifice, and lost six springtime runs of trophy-size rock. Now it's payback time.
Two Maryland charterboat skippers who are also members of the advisory board fought hard to win support of their colleagues in deliberations over a spring season.
Capt. Ed O'Brien, who fishes out of Chesapeake Beach, has seen his bookings drop nearly 50 percent since the moratorium; Capt. Buddy Harrison, whose Chesapeake House operation at Tilghman Island reflects the same percentage of loss, said his loss was $112,000 last spring alone.
LTC A Saturday at Chesapeake House when rock were available in May had 33 boats booked; with no rock and few blues last May and June, an average of 13 boats sailed. Meanwhile, dockmaster Shaker Black of the Rod and Reel Docks at Chesapeake reported business off 50 percent.
Last October when rock were available for nine days, business for the month featuring mostly blues -- sea trout were disappointing -- jumped 71 percent, said Black.
The charter industry must remain viable. Its patrons are not for the most part fat cats; they are anglers who don't have boats, or if they do, lack the know-how, or the appropriate boat to catch the more game fishes of the bay.
Mackerel have arrived off Ocean City earlier than usual. This morning the headboat Miss Ocean City radioed from not far offshore it was making good catches, and its owner, Jack Bunting, said he will sail. Call 1-301-289-7238 for information.