Menhaden feed fishermen's hopes Fish is favorite of blues and rocks

OUTDOORS

April 20, 1993|By PETER BAKER

You won't find many people fishing for them, but, nonetheless, the menhaden is a fish of tremendous importance to sportfishermen and crabbers in the Chesapeake Bay and the lower stretches of its tidal tributaries.

Menhaden are the preferred food for rockfish and bluefish and a popular bait used in the pots of commercial crabbers and sport crabbers.

And menhaden are plentiful in the bay again this year.

"Menhaden went through a pretty bleak period back in the 1970s, but two things have happened since," William P. Jensen, director of tidewater fisheries for the Department of Natural Resources, said yesterday.

"The stock has stabilized, but it also is not under as much pressure because a number of plants along the coast that used to catch and process menhaden have closed."

Jensen said all plants in New York, New Jersey and Delaware have closed, and "there might be one left in Virginia."

Menhaden still are taken in pound nets and then sold as crab bait, but the large plants that processed the oily fish for cat foods, fertilizers and a slew of other products are gone.

And with the pressure off, there should be more menhaden moving up the bay into Maryland.

The importance of menhaden to the sportfisherman is that if baitfish are present, then predators, such as bluefish and rockfish, often will be around to forage on them.

Learn the habits and sizes of the menhaden and you probably will find the game fish and know what size lures will match up.

"Generally what will happen, the [menhaden] spawn in the near-shore areas, bays and rivers, and then they will grow up and migrate out at the end of the year, in late summer and fall," said Jensen, whose staff monitors the menhaden population and catch reports for the East Coast through reports from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

"The young start out very small and school all season in the bay and that is what a lot of the food source is for bluefish and rockfish," he said. "The bigger fish, really big fish of 15 to 18 inches, come here in the spring."

The younger fish will hold in relatively shallow water until they reach 8 to 10 inches and then will move into deeper water.

Menhaden feed on nutrients they strain from the water by swimming with their mouths open. They usually travel in large schools and often cruise close to the surface, where they are easier to spot than the predator fish below them.

As the season moves into warmer weather, breaking schools of menhaden often will signal a group of predators feeding heavily below -- and if they are blues or rockfish, the larger predators often will be the deepest.

In the spring rockfish season, which begins May 1 and during which only lures will be allowed, keep in mind that the larger menhaden are in our waters then, and don't hesitate to troll a spoon 9 inches or longer.

If there is a hitch to the spring trophy season, which allows one striper 36 inches or longer per angler, it is that the larger females travel alone or in small groups and rarely feed heavily enough to make the menhaden break the surface.

When they do feed, however, menhaden is the food of choice.

According to a 1952 study of food items found in striped bass stomachs during the spring, 60 percent of it was fish off Tilghman Island, and 100 percent of the diet was fish off the mouth of the Potomac River.

In a study from 1954 through 1964, the diet of striped bass over 15 pounds was more than 90 percent fish, and menhaden was far and away the most common meal.

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