For forward move, leave blues behind

On The Outdoors

September 13, 1998|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

All week, gusty winds had made fishing from a small boat tough on Chesapeake Bay, but by sunrise Friday the northwesterlies had subsided and by midmorning a large cooler might have been expected to be filled with bluefish.

Instead, all of the few dozen 1- and 2-pounders caught from various breaking schools between the mouth of West River and the Farewell Buoy at the Severn River had been released. They are, after all, the future of a capricious species that could be making a minor comeback along the Atlantic Coast and in Chesapeake Bay.

"I haven't had anyone say to me that there are tons of them out there all of a sudden," Harley Speir, chief of DNR's Biological Monitoring and Analysis Program, said Friday afternoon. "However, there are some minor signs of a recovery."

Bluefish are a hard species to manage; far harder than, say, rockfish, the great majority of which spawn and mature in Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

With rockfish, which have been studied intensely since they were listed as a threatened species in the 1980s, the spawning reaches of bay tributaries and the upper bay are closed to anglers during the spring to protect the spawners.

Seasons, size and creel limits, too, have been set to ensure the vast majority of rockfish survive to join the coastal migration each summer and can return to the Chesapeake each spring to spawn.

Bluefish, on the other hand, spawn offshore and move inshore to nursery areas in the Chesapeake and coastal back bays.

"The first glimpse we have of them is as juveniles as they move into shallower water," said Speir. "We know their numbers have been down for a number of years, but we don't know why reproduction has fallen off as far as it has."

Fisheries biologists along most of the East Coast, however, are beginning to bring a tighter focus on how to manage bluefish, and larger minimum-size limits and smaller creel limits will be discussed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Council. New regulations could be considered for next year.

"You have to look at bluefish as a whole from Georgia to southern Maine," said Speir, "because it is a single stock and it could be abundant in one area and not another."

Off Ocean City this spring and early summer, for example, big bluefish were numerous, and in Chesapeake Bay large and small schools of 1- to 3-pound blues have roamed across the Middle Grounds, past the mouth of the Patuxent River and to points north as far as Still Pond.

But, scientifically, the schools of blues that have been roaming the bay and off the coast apparently are an anomaly because fisheries managers don't yet know how widespread any resurgence by bluefish is, Speir said.

But, Speir added, the coastal bluefish catch allotment is 80 percent recreational and 20 percent commercial, and larger size limits and smaller creels should benefit the stock.

Bluefish grow quickly, reaching 6 to 8 inches in their first year and 12 to 16 in their second, while a 3-pounder might be in its third or fourth year, Speir said.

At the current 8-inch minimum, blues can be taken out of the population before ever moving offshore to join the spawn.

While it is hard to pass up an opportunity to cast into breaking schools of blues and rock -- catching them easily and often as they slash at bucktails and spoons -- take a moment to crimp down the barbs on your hooks (better yet, start out barbless) and carefully release the future.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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