Diminishing catches of glamour fish make rough sailing for charter boat fleet

OUTDOORS

July 21, 1991|By PETER BAKER

CRISFIELD -- At mid-morning, the engine of a small plane drones off to the south. It is the only unnatural sound to be heard aboard Capt. Butch Tawes' bay-built Prime Time in Tangier Sound.

The other sounds are what might be expected: the hum of the breeze, the muted slap of the bow in an almost flat sea and chuckles of satisfaction and giggles of delight as fish are hooked and brought aboard.

It is Wednesday. On land, the temperature will reach toward the middle 90s, and later in the day, crowds will gather at Somers Cove Marina for the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab/Clam Bake. Politicians will speak, voters will listen and the business of shoreside citizens will be carried on in sun dresses and polo shirts.

Near Island Rock, where Tawes has anchored Prime Time, the business of lower Eastern Shore charter boats is being carried on -- perhaps not as it always has been, but in a manner that could suit any fisherman.

Tawes and Capt. Doug Carson, who normally operates his own boat, The Fisherman, have aboard a party of media representatives and Department of Natural Resources staff for a four-hour trip. The fishing is mixed and fast enough to keep everyone interested.

It is, Tawes and Carson agree, what might be expected at this time of year these days out of Crisfield, a mixed bag.

Cobia. Spot. Sea trout. Spotted sea trout. Croaker. Bluefish. Porgy. Flounder. Blowfish. Sting ray. Bothersome toadfish and crabs.

"There were a few more species of fish that we could have caught that we didn't," Carson said. "We missed kingfish, black wills, sand perch and a sand shark every once in awhile.

"But there hasn't been as much of the glamour fish, the sea trout."

Sea trout and spotted sea trout catches have been diminishing and those brought aboard Wednesday were perhaps 14 to 16 inches.

Carson and Tawes remember when trout more than 2 feet long were plentiful. The trout seem to have been replaced by greater numbers of bluefish.

The big croaker and large blowfish that once also drew fishermen to the area aren't around as much, either. They have been replaced, Tawes said, by 5- to 6-inch croaker and greater numbers of spot.

"You just don't have some of the species now that you had then," Tawes said. "You don't have the volume."

Sitting on the edge of a slough with the tide well into ebb, it would have been hard to convince anyone aboard Prime Time that there was not a volume good sport to be had 20 minutes into Tangier Sound from the new Charter Fishing Center at Somers Cove Marina.

Along one side of the boat, Capt. Bob Spore and his wife, Kathy, were bringing in keeper flounder, a cobia and a porgy. Off the transom, William P. Jensen of the Tidewater Administration was catching bluefish and a sting ray.

Everyone aboard was taking spot.

"It was surprising to catch that many flounder," Tawes said. "We have been catching some right along but not that many. We probably had seven keepers and 10 throwbacks, and the throwbacks, a lot of them were close."

But in the minds of Carson and Tawes, it is not the kind of fishing that will make a group of six people want to pay up to $300 a day for -- especially in tough economic times, when feeding and clothing the family generally comes ahead of the recreation budget.

"I think the economy certainly has hurt us," Tawes said. "A lot of people don't have the money and they don't want to pay the money for this."

To keep the level of excitement up, Tawes has scaled down his fishing gear to spinning rods with 8-pound test. A 6-pound sting ray or a 3-pound blue will create a lot of sport on light line.

Carson and Tawes said there are some 30 charter boats operating out of Crisfield, and all are feeling the pinch -- as are charter boat operators around the bay.

"And it's not because the captains don't try," Tawes said. "There are fish to be caught if people want to catch them. They might not be sea trout or big black drum. But it is something out there to be caught and we can give them a good day."

Still, Carson and Tawes see the Crisfield charter fleet between a rock and a hard place.

In more northern parts of the bay, the Oct. 9-Nov. 11 rockfish season may eventually bail out some of the charter boat operators, but down Crisfield way that may be too little too late.

During the fall, charter boat season, rockfish will be moving south as the water temperature drops in the upper bay. A cold autumn will help the boats in the lower bay, a warm autumn may destroy them.

"If we can get our fishery down here and they don't limit us out up the bay, we should have some good fishing," Tawes said. "If they cut it off because the total weight has been caught, we won't get in on it."

Usually there are good runs of bigger sea trout in September, and the flounder that were an inch or so under the limit last week will be legal by then, too.

But Carson said the hard place for lower bay charter operators lies a half-mile from the southern edge of Island Rock -- the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

The small plane that droned overhead at midmorning was a spotter for a commercial seine netter operating in Virginia waters and capable of spotting, surrounding and netting 100 tons of bait fish -- and whatever predators are feeding on them -- in a matter of hours. Shortly after the scout plane passed, a seiner rose over the horizon below Tangier Island.

It is the commercial fisherman in Virginia waters, Carson says, who are demolishing Maryland's sport fishery on the lower Eastern Shore.

"I blame the netters in Virginia for a lot of these problems that we have," Carson said. "We just can't keep taking and taking by the ton, and a lot of fish that are illegal size in Maryland are legal in Virginia. Until Virginia starts getting some better laws on their fisheries, it is going to stay that way."

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