George Krantz can remember a time in the 1960s when anglers stood shoulder to shoulder along the South River in Anne Arundel County, filling washtubs with yellow perch that had returned to spawn.
"For most people, this was the first fish you caught as a kid," said Krantz, the state fisheries director in the mid-1980s. "Now it's almost nonexistent on the Western Shore and struggling to hold on on the Eastern Shore. All of the sites in Baltimore County used to be loaded. Today, there's nothing."
The state Department of Natural Resources enacted emergency regulations last month that limit the size of yellow perch that can be caught. It will conduct a hearing next Thursday in Annapolis for public comment.
Krantz and others say the regulations don't go far enough to protect and restore the panfish that has become synonymous with spring. They want the state to take a hard line with the 35 commercial netters scooping up yellow perch to satisfy demand in Canada and the Midwest.
Unfortunately, DNR and Krantz might have a tough time selling their gloomy assessment to the hundreds of anglers who are still marveling about this month's spawning run up the Chesapeake Bay's rivers and tributaries. Cars and pickup trucks lined U.S. 50 and side roads on the Eastern Shore for two weeks running, as fishermen jockeyed for position to snare their limit.
But Sherman Baynard, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, said a tremendous spawning run doesn't automatically translate into a bumper crop of fish. The mortality rate is above 50 percent for each year's class, as development and pollution wreak havoc with the habitat.
Regulations prohibit recreational anglers from keeping perch shorter than 9 inches. Commercial netters have a slot limit of 8 1/2 inches to 11 inches to protect females. Hook and line limits, the same for recreational and commercial anglers, remain at five fish a person per day.
Krantz, who holds a doctorate in zoology fisheries, said nothing in the state regulations prevents the commercial netters from catching all the large yellow perch females, which produce the most eggs.
"If we're in such dire straits that these people are limited to five fish," said Krantz, gesturing at the families along the banks of Wye Mills Sunday, "why are we allowing the commercial operations to exploit and overfish?"
Eric Schwaab, director of DNR fisheries service, said the emergency regulations are just the first step in updating the yellow perch management plan for next season.
"We didn't want to wait and allow another year of overfishing. These [regulations] will get us in the ballpark," he said.
Schwaab warned that if the commercial operations increase, the state would not hesitate to toughen its regulations.
What DNR learns about the yellow perch season this year -- especially on the commercial side -- will be helpful in drafting permanent regulations, he said.
Krantz, Baynard and other volunteers with the Coastal Conservation Commission are gathering data, too, standing up to their ankles in mud, counting the number of yellow perch egg masses in the traditional spawning areas.
CCA hopes the state will find ways to protect stream banks from development, promote a grass-roots stocking effort, and set rules that ensure the future of the yellow perch.
"This is the people's fish," said Baynard. "It's the fish that introduces young people and families to recreational fishing. You don't need a boat or a lot of fancy equipment. For a lot of people, fishing started with a $10 rod and yellow perch."
What: Department of Natural Resources yellow perch hearing
When: 7 p.m. next Thursday
Where: Tawes State Office Building cafeteria, 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis
Information: 1-877-620-8367, ext. 8307