Reaffirming faith in the bay at Crisfield

On the Outdoors

November 02, 1997|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

CRISFIELD -- Inside the cabin of Curtis Johns' new 50-foot charterboat, the air was warm and thick with cigar smoke and conversation, while outside, Tangier Sound was roiled by a cold northwest wind into a display of raw power and brutal beauty.

Johns and Keith Ward, two Crisfield charterboat captains who have felt the economic pinch caused by the pfisteria outbreaks this summer in a handful of tributaries off Tangier Sound, had organized a fishing junket to get out the word that fishing in the Crisfield area is safe and fruitful.

pTC But, as on other days during this season of hysteria, the day seemed to be going wrong, slapped down by 25 and more knots of wind and a contrary tide.

"On another day, we'd run out to the Middle Grounds and chum for rockfish," said Johns, as the twin-diesel Karen Ray II worked easily through sharp, three-foot seas. "But you have to know we're in protected water here, and out beyond Smith Island it would be unmerciful."

Ward, who runs the charterboat Prime Time out of Somers Cove Marina, and Johns said fishing for rock in Tangier and Pocomoke sounds and the Middle Grounds is very good now and will improve as the Maryland season progresses through November.

"We get the rock in here a little later than people up the bay," said Ward, who has plans to buy a Carman 45 similar to Johns' for next season. "When the water is getting really cold up there, it's still warm enough to fish down here. And when the Maryland season ends, we can go into Virginia waters for their December season.

"We'll fish until the fishermen stop coming."

The lower bay does offer a different setting than the Dumping Grounds near the Bay Bridge or the flats and edges of Sharps Island at the mouth of the Choptank River.

The sounds are cut with deep channels and broken by humps and flats, spits of sand and hard ground surrounded by marshes. And through the year a number of species come to feed -- rockfish, blues, sea trout, speckled trout, cobia, sea bass, channel bass, spot, croaker, flounder.

"I've always felt Crisfield is a gem, in terms of sport fishing," said Department of Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin, as Johns worked the Karen Ray II into position against wind and tide at the Puppy Hole on Tuesday. "It is true that it is out of the way and not as easy to get to as other fishing centers, but once you're here, the possibilities are incredible."

An angler can slide a small boat up a tidal gut and cast a lure or fly or head for deeper water to troll, chum or bottom fish. Crabbers can works legal traps or lines for hard crabs or walk the marsh edges and net peelers or soft crabs. A cast net thrown in the shallows can bring up enough baitfish for a day of fishing.

But the specter of pfisteria has put the kibosh on Crisfield and other fishing centers, even though the number of menhaden killed was extremely small compared to the millions of the oily fish that went untouched.

"We were never totally concerned with the fish kills per se," said Griffin, as Ward and Johns set out trolling lines at the Puppy Hole, where the bottom of Tangier Sound rises quickly from 60 feet to 20 and then rolls away toward Crisfield in depths from 12 to 16 feet. "What concerned us most was the public health issue. Menhaden kills are not unusual -- in fact they are part of the life cycle on the bay -- but when people began to be infected, the issue became very important."

Griffin said a state and federal task force hopes to have an updated plan in place by next spring to respond to and research causes of pfisteria outbreaks.

"The problem, it seems, was sick people, not sick fish," said Ward, adding that "rampant" news coverage "scared the whole world. People I know who hunt geese in Canada said people up there want to know if the entire Chesapeake Bay is infected. Well, I can tell you it's not."

In fact, the fish and wildlife at the Puppy Hole seemed healthy enough. Brown pelicans and gulls lifted on the wind, circling a 20-foot hump, waiting for fish to feed. On the color depth finder, a loose school could be seen hugging the bottom, presumably feeding on the buffet scoured from the bottom of the sound by wave action and the swift flooding tide.

A half-dozen anglers emerged from the cabin to bounce bucktails along the bottom, and quickly there were fish on the lines -- keeper stripers free of lesions.

"This," Johns said afterward, as he headed the Karen Ray II downwind to Crisfield. "is nothing. Come back on a day when the wind lays down, and we'll do some real fishing."

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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