It's a sad refrain heard up and down the bay.
"Bob, I've been in the charter boat business for 45 years, but another year like this one and I'm hanging it up," said Capt. Bruce Scheible. "I'm being over-regulated to death by both the feds and the state. If the Coast Guard gets this proposed new inspection fee [$820] for 'inspected vessels,' it's all over."
"Has the fishing picked up any?" I asked.
"We've got rockfish, rockfish and more rockfish. There are a few 1- to 2-pound bluefish splashing around on the surface, a few cigar trout, some hardhead and a few flounder. But there's no charters to speak of. Almost all of our business is on weekends."
Bruce owns and operates Scheible's Fishing Center in Ridge, near Point Lookout. His 16 fishing boats, including the headboat Bay King, are known primarily for chumming bluefish. Catches of more than 100 were commonplace on most of his trips.
Bruce said the bureaucratic mess of new regulations, user fees and licenses has caused many to give up fishing. I told him we see the same thing in the Upper Bay.
Pete Jensen, chief of the Fisheries Division for the Tidewater Administration, said the same thing when I called to ask him if he had any ideas on how to save the charter boat industry from going down the drain.
He said that he drives the Bay Bridge every day and he sees very few fishing boats. No, he said, he did not have any ideas, but he was aware of the problem.
Kathy Conners of Bunky Charters said charters were very slow. They have plenty of rockfish and a very few false albacore and Spanish mackerel, some flounder and good numbers of medium-size Norfolk spot. Bunky's Charters, previously Woodburns, is on Solomons Island. Kathy -- who is "Mrs. Bunky" -- said they have begun a headboat service on Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
The Rod 'n Reel in Chesapeake Beach is a fishing center for 25 charter boats and one headboat. In this area, you can catch a ton of rockfish, one or two bluefish if you are lucky, or make a good catch of medium-to-large Norfolk spot. During the week, two to five charter boats may be out each day, plus the headboat. Most of the anglers have opted for spot. Headboat action, both in number of anglers and number of fish caught, has been good.
In the Upper Bay, we have rockfish and more rockfish, and a very few bluefish. The bluefish are either 10- to 15 pounds or 2- to 4 pounds. I hear some 10-inch bluefish are on the way. Trollers are getting cheap thrills from the many cownose rays in the area. Charters are extremely scarce.
So are the white perch. For some reason, they have not begun their annual late-spring, early summer run in the Chesapeake. A few nice perch are being caught near the Coast Guard Station in Curtis Creek, and some small to medium-size perch are coming from the oyster bar just outside the Tolchester Marina. We are still waiting for the big run of perch in the Gibson Island-Snake Reef area.
Why the lack of charters? One, the economy is still quite sick. Two, there is little the charter boat patrons can take home with them. Open the rockfish season for one striper per person per day, with a 22-inch minimum size, and most of the problems would melt away. Charter captains might not make a fortune, but they could go out and catch supper.
One thing the Department of Natural Resources has never done is ask a small group of biologists to keep track of what is happening -- a dynamic study of the fish populations that may require a biologist jumping on a charter boat to see what is being caught in certain areas of the bay. I know of very few captains who would mind carrying a biologist along on a charter.
The DNR has little idea and no record of what the drum, sea trout, Norfolk spot and sea bass are doing in the bay. They will study the rockfish to death, but they do not take a look at the entire fishable population and its impact on the fishing public.
And the patterns are changing. Bluefish may be things of the past; rockfish appears to be the present and future. The DNR must be more attentive to the fishing public. Fishing regulations for the recreational, charter and commercial fishermen must be flexible, in order to take advantage of the situations as they arise.
Bob Spore is a Coast Guard-licensed charter boat captain from Pasadena. His Outdoors column appears ever Friday in The Anne Arundel County Sun.