Little more than a decade ago, on Jan. 1, 1985, Maryland closed its fishing seasons for rockfish in the hope that the species would rebuild its dwindling population, which for the decade previous had been severely threatened by overfishing and pollution in the tidal rivers of the Chesapeake Bay.
On Jan. 1 of this year, the rockfish was declared a recovered species, and tomorrow Maryland recreational and charter boat fishermen begin the longest rockfish seasons since before the 1985-1990 moratorium that closed all fishing.
The reason, of course, is that Chesapeake Bay and coastal management plans have protected the rockfish, recreational and commercial fishermen have cooperated, and the species is flourishing.
Harley Speirs of the Department of Natural Resources' Tidewater Fisheries division, said that virtually all indicators show tremendous growth. For example, Speirs said, in 1986 the spawning stock index was 16. In 1994, it had grown to 55.
In 1985, a seine survey turned up rockfish eggs on only 40 percent of the spawning grounds. Last year 80 percent of the areas surveyed turned up eggs and this year, Speirs said, the figure should be about 85 percent.
In 1986, the spawning females in the Choptank River represented only five year classes. In 1993, 10 year classes were represented.
Spawning females are the key to rockfish management, and the moratorium was designed to protect the spawners until enough year classes were present to ensure propagation.
"There are more rockfish out there than I have seen in my life," said Capt. Buddy Harrison, who has run a fleet of charter boats out of Harrison's Fishing Center on Tilghman Island for nearly 40 years.
"They are bigger in average size, too. When I was a young adult we made our living off 12- to 14-inch fish, and a 24-incher really would be an oddity."
In this year's spring season, which opens tomorrow and ends May 31, the minimum legal size of rockfish will be 32 inches. From June 1-July 4, the minimum size will be 26 inches and in the fall season, which begins Sept. 1, the minimum will be 18 inches.
Only the spring season targets a limited number of spawning-age fish, which come into the bay in late winter and move up the rivers to spawn in early to mid-spring. This year's spawn, according to DNR, peaked last week in many areas and the spawners will be moving down the rivers and out toward the Atlantic Ocean over the next several weeks.
To catch the large spawners, said Richard Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, fishermen may have to break with traditional methods, because rockfishing no longer is the business of catching those 12- to 14-inchers.
"We're targeting much larger fish in general," said Novotny. "That means larger lures, because the old adage that larger lures catch larger fish is pretty much true.
"In the spring season, for example, I don't fish anything smaller than an 8/0, 9/0 or 10/0 bucktail because I don't want to hook smaller fish. Catching the smaller fish is what got us into this mess in the first place."
As the fishing has changed, many fishermen are changing, too, learning techniques to protect undersized fish that have been caught and must be released.
"No one knew years ago what damage we were doing to the rockfish -- and other species, too -- when we might handle a fish with a dry towel or remove the hook wrong when a fish was deep-hooked."
Studies by the DNR, other governmental agencies and environmental groups have shown that rockfish, especially, can die from hook wounds when the bay waters are at summer temperatures and salinities are low. Rockfishing is closed during August and most of July to lessen the number of deaths by hooking.
But during the open seasons care should be taken to avoid undue harm to rockfish that will be released, Novotny said.
"Use a de-hooker, wear wet gloves or use a clean, wet rag to handle fish," Novotny said. "With a de-hooker there is minimal injury, and with wet cloth you are less likely to remove the slime or mucus on the fish, which is its immune system.
"The moratorium allowed the rockfish to grow up, and we, as fishermen, have come along from the moratorium, but there is still a lot of learning and teaching to be done."
When: April 28-May 31
Where: Main-stem waters of the Chesapeake Bay from Brewerton Channel south to Maryland-Virginia line, including Tangier and Pocomoke sounds.
Special regulations: $2 striped bass permit, plus Chesapeake Bay Sport Fishing License. Fish must be tagged, catch must be reported (1-800-999-2800). No gaffs or live eels. Fishing hours are 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.