PORT DEPOSIT -- Susquehanna River rockfish guide Earl Ashenfelter is no farmer, but the drought has got him down -- and almost out. The fall rockfish season is on, and he can't fish it.
The Susquehanna River where rock just could be schooled up the thickest anywhere they swim doesn't have enough water to do more than wet the bottom of his glorified mahogany rowboat. Looking upriver, the Susky appears like one big stone wall.
Fishing the river for nearly 60 years and knowing it like his palms, Ashenfelter can't work a boat to the Pool, Lee's Ferry and his other favorite spots. But, little can be done for him or other Susquehanna regulars who prefer the swirls and pools north of Rock Run Landing where he met Scott Sewell and I for a day's try.
We were only his second party in the season; he scrubbed all the rest because of low water, though he has paid his $200 fee for participating. And things don't look too good for getting many days of sufficient water to troll or cast in the traditional haunts.
Only one small turbine is open at Conowingo Dam where the flow is often less than required in an agreement with the Department of Natural Resources, but there's more to it than just opening a floodgate or two. Conowingo Reservoir is also low, Conowingo Electric is obliged to keep sufficient water in the pool north of the dam to permit fishing -- and to allow more through the dam would leave upriver facilities high and dry.
What's needed are heavy rains in Pennsylvania and New York to raise the river hundreds of miles north of here.
Our only alternative was to fish off Rock Run where some fishermen scored the evening before. Sewell quickly got two strikes on an Atom Popper surface plug, but being unfamiliar with rockfish plugging failed to drop the plug back after a missed strike to give the fish another chance while thinking it stunned its target.
Next we tried Idiot's Alley, waters nearer the Kennedy Expressway Bridge where rock have been taken on red surgical hoses to which a bloodworm is added. It drew us nothing other than clumps of watermilfoil, which is on a growing rampage here.
We next headed upriver as far as Wagontop, where Ashenfelter caught his biggest rock more than 40 years ago -- a 34-pounder while trolling a River Runt for walleyes. Our surface poppers picked up a few smallmouth bass, but no rock. Not far from there, Sonny Pierce got a 4-pound 2-ounce smallmouth while plugging for stripers.
The milfoil disrupts trolling, but it is promising for bass who need the cover. The river is full of small bass, said a glum Ashenfelter, who would trade one rock for 100 bass.
In the end we set a record for the crusty old-timer. Never before had he failed to catch a rock in two days on the river. This year, the opener and our trip a week later left his fish box empty.
* The Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Council has voted to tighten regulations for flounder that will create a season for states -- including Maryland -- from May 15 through Sept. 30, with a daily creel limit of six at least 14 inches long.
It would apply in waters from three miles offshore to 200 miles but following Atlantic States Fisheries Commission action, individual states are obliged to implement similar regulations within that distance. Maryland's Department of Natural Resources will probably act in midsummer for ocean waters and then in 1993 for Chesapeake waters.
In addition, the commercial fleet faces net mesh reductions nex year and catch quotas in 1993. On the brighter side, flounder populations, which have displayed serious drops in recent years, are expected to bounce back quickly, possibly in three to four years. Flounder are prolific, and grow fast and, granted protection, are expected to respond.
A Sept. 30 cutoff in the Chesapeake could be disastrous fo upper Chesapeake anglers, who seldom have an opportunity to catch flounder before September, with the best fishing usually in October. Perhaps, the season can be adjusted accordingly.