The Susquehanna Flats: what fish call home again


April 22, 1992|By PETER BAKER

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Looking out from Concord Point, one can see much of the Susquehanna Flats, which spread for roughly a five-mile radius before the head of the Chesapeake Bay becomes the mouths of three rivers and a half-dozen creeks.

The flats are an intriguing place, rimmed by two deep channels that carry the rivers' flows toward the Atlantic while the sediments, herbicides and pesticides from Cecil and Harford counties, Pennsylvania and lower New York settle into the shallows.

The flats once teemed with fish that grew fat and fast in the beds of underwater vegetation that spread over thousands of acres.

But at the beginning and end of the 1970s, hurricanes Agnes and David battered the East Coast, and in a fraction of a decade the Susquehanna River disgorged the sediments and chemicals it might ordinarily have passed on during several centuries.

The result was that the grass beds silted in and the fish either moved on or died. Mostly, they died.

In the years since, legislators, biologists and sportsmen have been trying to put the flats, the lesser tributaries and the lower Susquehanna and Northeast rivers together again. Leon Fewlass, who heads the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' tidewater bass program, said last week that the pieces scattered in the 1970s are nearing a close if still imperfect fit.

"We have some 4,000 acres of vegetation up here now," Fewlass said. "And even now the Susquehanna looks great. We have big bands of vegetation all the way down the Susquehanna."

And all along the western shoreline from Concord Point to Swan Creek and out to the Fishing Battery, close to the southwestern rim of the flats themselves.

"But once you get into the flats," Fewlass said, "there still are only patches of it."

In Furnace Bay and Mill Creek, both of which lie north across the mouth of the Susquehanna from Concord Point, the underwater vegetation was thick a couple of years ago, but thinned last year.

In the Northeast River, at the eastern top of the flats, the vegetation still is slow to fill in. But, Fewlass said, if the Northeast can support 1,000 acres of vegetation, "we are really going to have a fishery up here."

"The vegetation kind of goes up and goes down," Fewlass said. "Last year, there might have been a little less in some areas and more concentrations in other areas. But the same thing happened in the Potomac. It wasn't all one surge to greatness."

Comparisons to the rebirth of the Potomac come up often when Fewlass talks about the upper bay, the lower Susquehanna and the Northeast rivers and the flats.

When I was a youngster in Washington, large areas of the upper tidal Potomac were virtually open sewers posted as a health hazard to boaters and those foolish enough to swim in it or eat fish taken from it. Today, as they have since the second half of the 1980s, those same portions of the Potomac offer wonderful bass fishing.

"The best thing that came in there [the Potomac] was the milfoil and the water celery," Fewlass said. "That is what really gets a population going."

The importance of water celery, milfoil and water stargrass, in areas where tides and current can have a scouring effect on the bay or river bottoms, is that they are sturdy enough to break the force of the water, keep the spawning beds free of siltation and give the fish security.

Tommy DiFrancesco, a resident of Port Deposit in Cecil County and a member of the DuPont Bassmasters, was helping Fewlass' crew with a radio tagging program. DiFrancesco said he fishes the upper bay frequently for bass and has noticed a great improvement in the past two years.

"The milfoil that is out there on the Susquehanna now is just fabulous," DiFrancesco said. "There is one grass bed alone there I know is two miles long. . . . The fish just relate to that grass so much that you can pull in there pretty much any time and catch a couple of good fish."

That fish are there is due in no small part to sportsmen such as DiFrancesco and legislators from the Chesapeake watershed who enacted strong legislation dealing with pesticide and herbicide use, wetlands protection and waste-water treatment.

"What is largely responsible is the whole Chesapeake Bay initiative," Fewlass said. ". . . Where chemicals had killed plants when they applied herbicides, they have changed the herbicides and the applications, and now we are getting vegetation growing in streams where 10 years ago it was all gone."

And bass fishermen in tidal rivers throughout the Chesapeake area have had a vital impact through conservation practices and volunteer research efforts coordinated with DNR by the Maryland B.A.S.S. Federation and other bass clubs.

"These fisheries wouldn't be what they are now without catch-and-release," Fewlass said. "Up to 90 percent of the fishermen are putting the fish back, and that causes a fishery to build -- without a doubt."

Fewlass' program also must be credited for an aggressive stocking program, up-to-date equipment and an unabiding interest in what makes tidal bass tick.

"The way things are going," Fewlass said, "in the next few years, if the vegetation continues to increase there is going to be a whole lot bigger fishery here. This looks now like the Potomac did in 1986 or so."

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