Undersize rock reflect recovery

OUTDOORS

November 17, 1994|By PETER BAKER

If for the past eight weeks you have been angling for rockfish with limited success, worry not because you have not been one among thousands not catching stripers that measure up to the legal minimum of 18 inches.

William P. Jensen, chief of tidewater fisheries for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, said yesterday that the catch by non-charter-boat recreational fishermen has been off significantly since the season opened Sept. 24. The recreational season closes on Tuesday.

"We have been keeping a close count on all the fisheries -- recreational, charter boat and [commercial] pound netters," said Jensen, who with his staff has been the prime architect in the recovery of striped bass populations from Maryland to New England.

"The recreational catch has not been as strong as in previous years. It stands at about 700,000 pounds, which is well below their quota of about 890,000 pounds."

The charter-boat catch, in which anglers are allowed two keepers per day compared to the private recreational angler's one, stands just under 300,000 pounds. The charter-boat quota is 315,000 pounds.

The pound net fishery also is down slightly, taking about 240,000 pounds of its 250,000-pound quota, Jensen said.

So what has been happening with the rockfish in Maryland waters? Jensen said there are two major parts in a complex answer to that question.

"First we saw early in September, even before the fall fishery began, that the larger fish were moving down the bay, that they were not as abundant farther up as in previous years," Jensen said. "That has been somewhat confirmed by the Virginia fishery, where numbers are up somewhat."

It also seems to be backed up by the excellent fishing that has been available through the season in the lower Maryland waters of the bay -- on the Middle Grounds, off the mouth of the Potomac River, near the Virginia line and in Tangier and Pocomoke sounds.

The other major factor, Jensen said, "is a change in the population dynamics [of the rockfish]."

Jensen said that change can be documented in part through the annual juvenile index survey of rockfish, which has averaged about 20 over the past three years.

"We have had three excellent years in a row," Jensen said, "and now that we are in the fourth year after the moratorium, we think we are seeing a change, a reordering of the biomass toward smaller fish."

And while a change in the numbers and weight of rockfish may seem detrimental to angling success, it bodes well for the future.

Simply, if those hordes of 12- to 17-inch rockfish are allowed to reach sexual maturity and spawn at least once, the recovery of the species will continue at a splendid rate.

But for this year and perhaps next year as well, the fall fishery might remain more fishing than catching.

"It is beneficial in terms of growth of the stocks," Jensen said, "and we don't know if great numbers of 18-inch fish will be available [over the next few years in the fall fishery].

"This year, for example, the charter-boat people have told us that they have gone through catches of 16- and 17-inch fish before they get a keeper. "

Jensen said that larger fish tend to move out earlier than smaller fish, which leaves smaller fish the dominant catch in colder weather.

A harmful byproduct of catching smaller fish is hook-and-release mortality, which is less prevalent in the fall than in the late summer, when water temperatures are high.

Moving the fall season earlier in September, Jensen said, might result in increased hook-and-release mortality, and extending it into late November or early December creates an overlap with hook-and-line and gill net commercial seasons.

"So one of the alternatives we are looking at is the possibility of a June season," Jensen said. "But we want to avoid July and August because hook-and-release mortality can be very high in those months."

Rockfish will assume recovered status under Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission guidelines on Jan. 1, 1995, and Maryland can expect to expand its rockfish seasons next year.

HOT SPOTS

ROCKFISH: The fall season for rockfish will end on Tuesday at 8 p.m., but the final weekend may not hold any greater prospects than the last few. While bay water temperatures have dropped toward the preferred 55- to 58-degree marks, catches have not improved much.

Best bets in Maryland waters are the Middle Grounds and Mud Leads in the lower bay, where trollers and chummers still are doing well and breaking fish still turn up some keepers for casters.

In the middle bay, the Stone Rock, Diamonds, Gooses, Chinese Muds and the deep flats between Poplar Island and Bloody Point Light continue to be good choices for trollers, and chummers will do well when the boat traffic is light.

Evening fishermen using cut baits may do well at Hackett's, Brickhouse Bar and Thomas Point.

The bay above the Bay Bridge remains inconsistent, but bottom fishermen have been doing better at Poole's Island, Hart and Miller Island, the lumps off the south shore of the Patapsco just outside Key Bridge, Love Point and Belevedere Shoals.

CALENDAR

Saturday, Sunday: Hunter sight-in days at Baltimore County Game and Fish Protective Association, 3400 Northwind Road, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

Saturday, Sunday: Patapsco River Power Squadron craft fair, Riviera and Greenway Roads, Pasadena, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call (410) 789-3386.

Sunday: Mountain Club of Maryland hike on Massanutten Mountain in Virginia. For more information, call (410) 740-9754.

Sunday: Sierra Club Baltimore Group hike in the Loch Raven watershed. For more information, call (410) 574-1453.

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