In five weeks, Maryland's fall striped bass (rockfish) season will begin.
W. Peter Jensen, the Department of Natural Resources' director of fisheries, said at a recent news conference: "Charter and recreational season will start Saturday, Sept. 24. Other than the change in starting date, everything else is the same.
"The size limit is still 18 inches or larger, creel limit is one fish daily for recreational anglers fishing from private boats or shore, and two fish daily for charter boat customers."
Jensen said the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is putting together "Amendment Five," a coastal striped bass management plan that will establish fishing guidelines for states from North Carolina to Maine.
The ASMFC recently issued a statement that striped bass stocks will be considered recovered by Jan. 1.
What this means to Maryland anglers is that over the next few years, they could double their take of striped bass.
"In plain terms, the fishing rate, which we use as a guidepost up and down the coast, can be doubled," Jensen said.
Under current guidelines, Maryland anglers can harvest approximately 22 percent of the rockfish stocks, a level Jensen said still permits excellent growth of the fishery. Under Amendment Five, Maryland fishermen could harvest approximately 44 percent of the rockfish stocks.
Statistics from an ongoing tag and recapture survey in the Chesapeake Bay showed that the population of rockfish larger XTC than 18 inches is approximately 3.5 million fish in Maryland waters.
When this figure is divided by the state's half-million recreational fishermen, the numbers are not encouraging.
However, the number of striped bass anglers, those obtaining a striped bass stamp, is approximately 80,000. If each angler caught 44 fish during the six-week season, the stocks would be exhausted.
Apparently, individual success is not as high as some would like us to believe.
Jensen said Maryland anglers only catch approximately 12 percent of the bay's striper stocks annually, half what they are allowed.
Even if the catch effort and rate were to double, he said Maryland anglers still would be well below a level that would inhibit recovery of the fishery.
At a recent ASMFC meeting, its scientific committee agreed with Jensen's figures, approving a 60-day fishing season that would have begun Sept. 17.
The board of directors, consisting of one member from each jurisdiction, defeated the measure, with all states above the Mason-Dixon Line and Washington voting against a 60-day season. Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina voted for the proposal.
Jensen said the DNR will go back to ASMFC later this month and again petition for a 60-day season. However, if it is rejected, we will have to live with the abbreviated version originally approved.
The big change in striped bass management policy will come next year, when, Jensen says, recreational and charter creel limits will be equal and the season will likely be extended.
The effect an earlier season will have on Harford County anglers should be dramatic. An earlier opening day allows fishermen fishing from Conowingo Dam's catwalk to get in on the action.
Normally, most legal-sized stripers begin migrating downriver toward the upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay by the first week in October.
If the weather becomes cool prematurely, the fish could begin migrating in mid-September.
Another area that frequently experiences good early-season fishing action is the Susquehanna Flats, a vast tidal delta situated at the confluence of the Susquehanna and North East rivers.
Dense patches of submerged aquatic vegetation hold huge numbers of striped bass, largemouth bass, white perch, catfish and yellow perch throughout the warmer months. However, when the grass dies off, usually in mid-October, most of the fish migrate to deeper water, where they'll spend much of the winter.
When water temperatures dip below 65 degrees, the stripers will migrate to deep areas adjacent to Pooles Island and along the main shipping channel edges.
Trollers using small bucktails, Mr. Twisters and 6-inch surgical hose eels lure rockfish to 20 pounds from these locations.
Jensen said this year's striped bass young-of-year index looks very promising.
"We're in the middle of the second round of rockfish sampling, and so far, the average is 20, which is pretty good news," he said.
Last year's index set a record for successful reproduction, and although the final tally will not be complete until early September, there's an even chance the overall index will be in double digits. A juvenile index of eight is considered average.
For information on the striped bass season, call (800) 688-FINS.