Headboat fleets are running into sea of problems, both technical, personal

Bill Burton

May 07, 1991|By Bill Burton

OCEAN CITY -- What a difference a day makes.

Saturday, the 80-foot headboat Miss Ocean City loaded up with 66 fishermen, who in turn loaded up with a couple thousand sea bass and 50 or so fish of assorted other species. Sunday, in ideal weather and sea conditions, three anglers showed at the docks before the scheduled 7 a.m. sailing.

A puzzled Capt. John Bunting scratched his head, then scratched the trip, and went crabbing.

Feast or famine. So it goes with the headboat business here. Some fishermen avoid Sunday fishing at OC to avoid traffic on the way home, but there must be something else involved in such erratic patterns.

After the great fishing the Miss Ocean City had the previous day there should have been enough patrons to sink the boat the next day. And that's only one of the problems facing the OC headboat fleet that now numbers 10 craft.

Recently, from his perch at the pilot house, Bunting spied an angler toying with an electric gadget he assumed was a radio or tape player, but it was a hand-held Loran unit. He was punching in the coordinates of wrecks the boat was fishing.

Later, he would use them to return in his own boat. Sometimes brazen patron climb the ladder to the pilot house to out-and-out ask the coordinates.

It isn't passing on the info that bothers Bunting, it's the subsequent traffic and associated problems it generates.

Then there's the incident we experienced as we approached a distant wreck Saturday. Tailing us was a small outboard Chris Craft by the name of Sea Hawk.

When Bunting's electronics indicated we were over the wreck he intended to fish, the intruding craft pressed in alongside our marker -- and before we set the anchor it had a big dogfish, better known as dog shark.

As soon as our lines were dropped we started catching fish, mostly sea bass with a few nice tautog and a pollock of close to 5 pounds taken by Bo Mayfield of Woodbine.

Within half an hour, some fellows had their coolers almost filled. The fishing slacked, Bunting figured a changing tide was easing us from atop the wreck so he tried for another anchor set. The smaller boat moved in closer. And closer.

Only when Bunting warned the intruder over the loudspeaker that he would be reported to the Coast Guard, did its skipper back off a respectable distance. "That's only part of the problem," said a glum Bunting.

"We're getting more and more small private boats crowding on the wrecks -- and not only are they

crowding us out; they're fishing the wrecks out. There are only so many sea bass on a wreck, and when you catch them you have to wait until a new population moves in.

"And there are only so many wrecks."

The competition is getting so tough that headboat skippers who once shared their spots with each other now frequently keep new ones -- or long-forgotten old ones -- to themselves. A productive wreck can mean $5,000 to $10,000 in business during a week, Bunting said.

Sea bass are the big drawing card for headboats because of their fight, their numbers when a wreck is right, and the taste of their firm white flesh. They're biggest in early season -- which is now -- and again in late fall.

Most of our catch was of pan size, but there was a fair representation of 2- to 3-pounders, among them one taken by Tom Ellison, who had a smaller one on the other hook. Some fishermen used three hooks -- and at times got three fish at once.

A few fellows who brought along crab baits got nice tautog; ling cod, bergalls, sharks and pollock were also taken -- along with a most unusual catch.

Ed Wenzlaff, Francis Connor and I figured our lines were snagged in the wreck, and yanked hard to free them. Our lines came up together; all were hooked into a large ball of discarded fishing line.

Snagged in the glob was a 4-pound lobster. Much as we like fresh sea bass, boiled lobster was the dinner entree that evening.

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