ANNAPOLIS -- Even in the best of times, it was a chase won by a relative few, and there is little reason to believe that Maryland's trophy rockfish season, which opens Saturday at 5 a.m., will be much different.
Still, the Maryland waters south of the Chesapeake Bay south of the Bay Bridge are expected to draw a crowd before first light on opening day.
Trophy rockfish, as defined by the regulations for this first, 17-day spring season, are those striped bass that are 36 inches or longer, and, in the best years on record (mid-1970s), less than 64,000 pounds of similar-sized fish were caught in a six-month season.
In the mid-1970s, citation or trophy fish were 32 inches or longer and about 15 pounds or heavier. According to Department of Natural Resources statistics, the target fish in this spring season will weigh at least 24 pounds for males and a few pounds heavier for females.
Regulations for the season, however, have set up a fishery that is expected to do the least damage to the stocks of fish, even though the spring spawning migration brings great numbers of anadromous rockfish under 36 inches into the bay and its tributaries.
"We have done all that we can to minimize [damage to stocks] by limiting the fishery to the saltier waters," said Harley Speir of the DNR's rockfish program. "But there will be some by-catch mortality."
By-catch mortality means those fish that die from the result of hooking or handling.
To reduce that mortality, fishing for rockfish has been limited to the main bay and sounds south from the Bay Bridge to the Maryland line. Live baits and gaffs have been excluded.
According to charter-boat captains, experienced recreational fishermen and DNR biologists, there is no sure-fire way of targeting only trophy-sized rockfish, especially when much of the fishing effort will be aimed primarily at trolling for big bluefish.
"You can catch rockfish withoutcatching bluefish," said Ben Florence, an avid sportfisherman who heads the DNR's rockfish hatchery program. "But it's really hard to catch bluefish without catching rockfish.
"You can catch rockfish by shortening your lines, getting your lures close to the boat, and bluefish won't bother you as much, because large bluefish seem to be a little more wary than rockfish."
But an effort aimed at big blues probably also will turn up some stripers, Florence said, because long and high trolling lines hit the zones where both kinds of fish are likely to be.
Florence said that the larger rockfish will be in the upper third of the water column, because they are either en route to the spawning grounds or beginning their return to the ocean.
And the big fish will be moving alone or in small groups, rather than milling around in large schools, as smaller fish do when feeding.
The bigger fish, Florence said, are likely to be on the Eastern Shore side of the bay, because the waters there are saltier and it is the shortest return route to the ocean.
Unlike smaller resident rockfish, the migratory fish are not oriented to smaller underwater structure, Florence said, but may be partial to temperature gradients, such as might be found along the edges of the ships' channel in the bay.
"Really, that is what you are looking for," Florence said. "I think what happens is that the way the currents line up on those major channels, there probably is a temperature break and they are likely to follow those."
Should you be lucky enough to have a rockfish encounter of the large kind, your catch must be tagged immediately through the gill and reported to a checking station on the day of capture.
Checking stations are located wherever trophy striped bass permits were obtained, excluding DNR service centers.
Should you catch a striper that is below the limit, release it in the water if at all possible, even at the expense of cutting the leader.
If the fish must be brought aboard, Florence recommends covering the fish's eyes with a wet towel or your hand to calm the fish and prevent injuring it.
"It sounds a little silly," Florence said, "but it works 90 percent of the time."
What: Trophy striped bass season
When: Saturday-May 27, 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Where: Main waters of the Chesapeake Bay from the Bay Bridge south to the Maryland line and Pocomoke and Tangier sounds.
Limits: Minimum size of 36 inches with no maximum. Creel limit of one fish per angler per season.
Lures: Artificial lures only; live and cut baits prohibited.
Special regulations: Fishermen must obtain a free trophy striped bass permit from area tackle shops or the DNR. Catch must be tagged and reported to a checking station on the day of capture. Possession of striped bass while fishing between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. is prohibited.
State sportfishing record: 55 pounds, by Eric Shank, May 6, 1978, off Holland Point