'Good old days' may not return, but Chesapeake is rebounding


May 26, 1991|By PETER BAKER

A neighbor of mine who moved to Florida a year or so ago, had lived along the Chesapeake Bay for close to 70 years. His needs were simple -- the opportunity to earn a living, the ability to feed and raise a family, and a chance to crab and fish whenever the fancy struck him.

By the time I met him, eight years ago, he had been retired for several years, his family had grown and fishing no longer excited him as it once had.

"You show me enough fish to catch in the bay, and I will go with you," he liked to say. "Ain't no fish out there anymore.

"We used to be able to wade out Thomas Point and catch rock, croaker and trout. Bring 'em home in bushel baskets set inside a floating inner tube.

"Same with soft-shell crabs. Hell, we never had to buy 'em. We'd just wade the shallows and net 'em in the grass.

"Bluefish? We didn't even bother keeping them."

The times Jimmy Jones remembers might never be matched. There are too many unnatural influences on the estuary now and too many people crowding its shores.

But marine biologists say that we have begun to turn the corner, begun to effect a recovery of the resource and the rebuilding of its species.

"How far have we come?" William P. Jensen, chief of fisheries for the Department of Natural Resources' Tidewater Administration, said recently during a charter-boat trip out of Chesapeake Beach. "We have come a long way in a short time.

"We are preserving habitat with the wetlands programs, we are rebuilding the rockfish population and as we go we are learning more about how to protect and manage other species -- both in commercial and recreational fisheries."

But how far have we come?

"That is a question that is asked often because so many people are curious where all the money goes, but it is hard to quantify," Jensen said. "It is hard to put a number value on it because a recovery like this is so complex. But to know that we are making progress, all you have to do is look around."

During the 16 days since the spring trophy rockfish season opened, I have made eight trips of varying lengths in the Chesapeake from the Bay Bridge almost to Solomons and done a lot of looking around -- from Dolly's Lump to Brickhouse Bar and Gum Thicketts, from the Wild Grounds to Franklin Point Bar, Holland Point, The Hook, the Diamonds, the Gooses and points south.

I have not caught a trophy, but have brought in nine stripers between 26 and 33 inches, all of them bright, robust fish that took green or white, 7/0 bucktails with 6-inch twister tails and were quickly turned loose. But what I have seen among the fishermen is encouraging.

In spite of the fishing effort and the number of rockfish under 36 inches that have been caught, I have seen only one dead striper in the water, a fish about 20 inches long with a gaping wound in its belly. In contrast, I have seen many fishermen handling under-sized stripers carefully and expeditiously, unhooking them while still in the water or holding them for a minute or so while taking photos of their catch.

If there has been a disappointment, it has been that the run of big blues did not materialize fully. But there were more in the bay this spring than in some years past, and perhaps the class of 1989 will add a good number of slammers to next year's run.

Aboard the charter-boat trip out of Chesapeake Beach, there was talk among some outdoors writers and DNR officials that perhaps the great numbers of rockfish in the bay have chased off the blues. Both species are at the top of the food chain and feed on the same bait fish, but it is more likely that poor year classes of bluefish through much of the 1980s has more to do with it.

"A lot of what we are learning about bluefish, sea trout, croaker and others is due in part to the intense effort that went into the rockfish program," Jensen said. "Now that we pretty much know what to do with the rockfish, maybe we can spread our efforts to bluefish, shad, herring and so on. They are all interlocked, and we want to bring them all back."

Bringing them back probably will mean regulations that may become as restrictive as those that allowed relatively few trophy stripers to be caught this spring.

For example, night fishing has been prohibited, and big stripers feed more aggressively at night. The use of live baits -- especially eels -- also has been prohibited. Fishing has been restricted to the bay and sounds from the Bay Bridge south, and, quite frankly, a striper of 3 feet or longer is a hell of a fish in any time.

The scarcity of trophy fish and more restrictive regulations, however, did not seem to daunt many anglers.

On opening day there was a 2 1/2 mile backup of boats and trailers waiting for the launch ramp at Sandy Point State Park. At the start of the long holiday weekend, the bay was littered with boats along the Eastern Shore and at the Bay Bridge.

In tackle stores, the business was brisk and many places sold out of green and white spoons.

The charter-boat business was good, too, and perhaps they benefited most from a spring fishery that was designed to promote an anxiousness in fishermen the way deer seasons make hunters itchy.

After several years of slow spring fishing for blues, what in effect was a hook-and-release season on rockfish provided a boost to at least one section of the economy.

But what the trophy season did most was to prove that there are enough spring stripers to be fished under controlled circumstances and that one can have a lot of fun catching stripers -- even if they have to be released.

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