Captain Butch Sweet motored the Chesapeake Lady out from Havre de Grace Thursday morning, following a well-marked channel through the Susquehanna Flats, where the state has opened a controversial and largely uncharted rockfish season.
Aboard Sweet's bay-built charter boat was a group of fisheries service personnel and a handful of media members, all interested in what the fuss is about on the flats this spring.
The shallow flats and its cuts, sloughs and grass beds is a popular fishing area for a number of species, including largemouth bass, white perch and rockfish (striped bass). But the area has been closed to rockfish anglers each spring since the early 1980s to protect spawning stocks.
As a result of overfishing, rockfish numbers plummeted in the early 1980s, and in 1985 a moratorium on commercial and recreational fishing was declared. The five-year closure and tightly regulated seasons in this decade have allowed rockfish to recover, and fisheries biologists say striped bass numbers are at all-time highs.
On April 10, DNR opened the flats for an experimental, catch-and-release rockfish season after a study last year determined there was little chance of harm to the striped bass population.
"This is an opportunity to give upper bay fishermen a chance to catch [and release] the fish they have here," said Eric Schwaab, director of the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service. "However, we have to monitor it to be certain we are doing no serious damage to the fish."
The monitoring program includes aerial surveys, creel surveys of anglers leaving and returning to launch ramps, a measurement program among MSSA fishermen and a fisheries biologist working with a local guide, measuring and checking the sex of each day's catch.
The Natural Resources Police maintains tight patrol schedule on the flats, checking boats and fishermen for possible violations of catch-and-release regulations.
"By the end of the season [May 2], we will have good data on size and sexes of the catch," said Phil Jones, director of the Fisheries Service Resource Management Division.
Sex and size are important, he said, because the season was approved after DNR had determined the flats upstream from Sandy Point and Turkey Point was mainly a resting area for male rockfish, rather than an area used by large females.
Last year's study also found that fewer than 2 percent of rockfish died after being hooked and released when water temperatures ranged below 59 degrees. The water temperature was 55 degrees on Thursday.
"Whether this fishery can continue is going to be determined by the mortality rate and what effect it has [on the fish]," Jones said, noting that the acceptable mortality rate through all rockfish seasons is 8 percent.
Several fishing groups opposed the catch-and-release season, arguing that it is wrong to fish in or close to spawning areas, the season will draw high numbers of anglers to the area and this is the first step toward opening all the tidal tributaries in the state for a spring catch-and-release rockfish season.
"I don't see that as a direction we would be inclined to go anytime in the near future," said Schwaab, adding that the short flats season is but one of several major changes among commercial and recreational rockfish regulations this year. "We need to look at all these changes for a few years and see where they are leading."
The regular rockfish season on the main stem of the bay opens next Friday and will stay open under varying size and creel limits until the end of November.
Since rockfish seasons were reopened at the start of this decade, DNR had enforced closures in late summer, when high water temperatures contributed to high mortality rates among hooked and released fish.
Jones said the economic impact of the flats season should be positive, bringing in more fishermen, who will spend dollars at gas docks, tackle shops, restaurants and motels.
"In freshwater fisheries, we openly strive to bring in people from other states to fish in Maryland," said Jones. "As long as it doesn't harm the fish, we should encourage people from out of state to fish the bay."
But in the early days of the season, fishermen, NRP officers and Fisheries Service personnel said there has not been a stampede of anglers to the ramps and marinas in Cecil and Harford counties.
On opening day, an aerial survey counted 109 boats during one pass over the flats, and DNR officials said perhaps as many as 330 boats were out through the day and anglers caught and released some 10,000 rockfish.
Jones said preliminary estimates from the first six days of the season showed some 17,000 rockfish have been caught and released -- even though several days of poor weather kept many anglers at the docks.
During a few hours of fishing aboard the Chesapeake Lady on Thursday, 16 rockfish were caught. Sizes ranged from 15 to 26 inches, with most between 17 and 20 inches.
"If people come up here with expectations of catching big fish, it isn't going to happen," said Jones. "There are just not that many really big fish up here."