ANNAPOLIS -- "What do you mean it's too small to keep?" Cathy Downey said as the rockfish was netted, unhooked and released in apparent good health. "That's the biggest fish I ever have caught and it's not big enough to keep?"
Sorry, ma'am, but that is what this fishery is all about.
During the fall season, when the minimum length is 18 inches, the striper would have been a fine catch. But in the spring trophy rockfish season that opened yesterday, 30 inches and perhaps 17 pounds was a half-foot too short.
The striper had been taken on a bottom bouncing bucktail with a red twister tail trolled from a sailboat in about 25 feet of water off the north end of Brickhouse Bar.
A seal in the lower unit of my boat's outboard motor had blown Thursday afternoon, and Ted Downey had been kind enough to add me to the family crew list for opening day, along with his wife and their two sons, Jonathon and Nathan.
Women and children?
Is this a fishing story?
Well, yes, even if it starts aboard a sailboat with women and children and orange juice.
Certainly we were a curious sight as a flotilla of powerboats came charging down the bay from Sandy Point State Park shortly after 7 a.m. to take their stations along the edges of the Kent Island drop-offs.
But there was at least one other sailboat trolling inshore of us as a parade of perhaps 150 boats worked south along Brickhouse Bar and Gum Thicketts.
Judging from the beeps of depth finders all around us, there were plenty of fish to be had, and certainly other stripers were taken by members of the parade. But we did not see any boated between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., when we set west-northwest from Bloody Point back across the bay toward the mouth of the Severn River.
By 9:30, the line of boats had broken up, heading for less congested waters or into the docks.
Judging from calls to various check-in stations in the bay area, anglers who headed for the docks early had little luck.
By 1 p.m., calls to Clyde's Tackle Shop, The Tackle Box in Lexington Park, Angler's, Tommy's in Cambridge and Sportsman's Service Center in Grasonville had turned up only two legal stripers reported.
An angler named Don Titus checked in a 38-inch, 21.5-pounder at Clyde's and another fisherman, whose named was not immediately available, had checked in a 40-incher weighing 22 pounds at Angler's. In both cases, the fish had completed spawning.
Titus caught his while casting bucktails at Hackett's Bar off thwestern shore just below the bay bridge.
Rockfish anglers must have a free special permit and stripers taken during the trophy season must be tagged through the gill when they are brought aboard and registered at a check-in station on the day they are caught.
The creel limit during the 17-day trophy season is one fish per angler per season.
Fishing for stripers is allowed from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., and probably a good number more trophy fish were reported last evening.
Dockside interviews with fishermen yesterday indicated that many fish caught and released were between 28 and 32 inches, minimum sizes that were discussed by the Striped Bass Advisory Board and rejected by the Department of Natural Resources earlier this year.
And that, too, is as it should be, because those 28- and 32-inch fish will be free to spawn again and continue the comeback of striped bass in Maryland waters.
Last fall was the first time in six years that a fishery for striped bass had been allowed in Maryland waters, but that season, with an 18-inch minimum size, is targeted at fish other than those legal in the spring fishery.
In the spring, the big rockfish come into the Chesapeake and head into the tributaries to spawn. By the end of June, these fish have left the bay and will not return until late the following winter, when the cycle begins again.
To protect these fish, the spring season is limited to the main bay below the Bay Bridge and to Pocomoke and Tangier sounds, and only artificial lures are allowed.
As for those among us who set out yesterday to catch a trophy and missed, look at it this way: If you had landed a trophy, there would be no reason to go out tomorrow.