At dusk Monday, Maryland's first trophy rockfish season closed after a 17-day run. And, a trophy of a season it was in every sense.
No new record striper was caught as many -- including this writer -- had predicted. But the Department of Natural Resources owes no apologies for any aspect of the season, which rejuvenated interest in bay angling at a time when early blues went into hiding and sea trout failed to arrive.
Reports will be dribbling in for several days, but last night the running tally stood at an even 100 rock of 36 inches or better. If you figure that for every legal trophy another 99 went back into the brine -- which appears to be the approximate ratio -- 10,000 rock were caught.
The 100th fish was one that just made it: 36 1/2 inches and 18 pounds. Kenny Leweven checked in at the Angler in Annapolis after taking it off Solomons on a large Crippled Alewive of chartreuse.
There are no DNR estimates yet on the number who participated in the season that covered three weekends, but eventually we'll probably learn 25,000 or more anglers sailed to try. Many realized the odds were almost prohibitive, but there was that chance -- and there was also the fun of legally catching rockfish and putting them back.
And put them back they did. DNR police encountered few violators on the bay. Our anglers were good sports. They didn't try stretching to gain an extra inch or two in fish that came close.
The rock, in most instances, were released expeditiously. Few were seen floating after succumbing to stress and hook injuries from their encounters with large hooks.
Some fishermen diverted their attention to other species the last several days. They were lured to the upper bay to try for big white perch from the mouth of the Magothy to Craig Hill Light, or to waters from just below Chesapeake Beach southward where blues of about 2 pounds erupted.
Others joined the madhouse at the Stone Rock off Tilghma Island where big black drum have taken up early residence. That's where Norman Gilden got a 73-pounder aboard Capt. Ed Darwin's Becky D. Six others were released.
Then there were other fish that no one wanted to see. Cownos rays have invaded waters at the mouth of Eastern Bay down to Poplar Island. Some of them took spoons and bucktails, prompting excited fishermen to momentarily think they had latched onto their trophy rock.
So, it all ended at 8 o'clock Monday night, and already ther were rumbles from some -- mostly charterboaters -- to lower length limits for the next trophy season in May of '92. Success doesn't please everyone.
For the time being, why not leave well enough alone? We had a great season, and we didn't hurt the rock population. Sure there appears to be an abundance of stripers; those who sailed recently in waters above the Bay Bridge saw them in huge mixed schools of 1- to 15-pounders breaking water.
But rock have endured hard times, and we can't assume they are out of the woods yet. That some other states to the north allow the catch of one a day 365 days a year is insufficient justification to loosen the reins.
We fish in proximity of the spawning grounds; we have enjoyed
its advantages yet we must also accept its responsibilities. Maybe shaving a couple of inches off the length minimum next season is worth considering after all the statistics are in and next year's stock is evaluated.
But let's not rush into anything. Show me a fellow who didn't appreciate the opportunity he had, and I'll show you a fellow we can do without on the Chesapeake.
We must realize the days of yore are no more.
DNR secretary Torrey C. Brown summed it up beautifully moments after the season -- which he described as fabulous -- closed. "We promised them a fishing season, not a catching and keeping season."