Even shad fishing pays price for Sept. 11



January 20, 2002|By CANDUS THOMSON

It's not too early to start thinking about shad fishing. And it's not too early to start thinking about where you're going to fish now that security restrictions have put one of the prime spots off-limits.

A guard shack sits at the end of Shure's Landing Road below the Conowingo Dam, blocking access to Fisherman's Park and the Mason-Dixon Trail that follows the Susquehanna River shoreline.

Thousands of anglers who don't own a boat used the popular park for access, as did all the folks with car-top boats to launch.

"I've been fishing up there since I was old enough to get a driver's license," says angler Roland Roberts, 71, a retired Beth Steel guy who lives in Pasadena. "I'd hate to lose that spot."

But after the attacks of Sept. 11, lots of places that used to be favorite fishing holes became security risks.

Baltimore's reservoirs were off-limits, as was the Chesapeake Bay around the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant and a big chunk of the Potomac River near Washington. At some of those spots, restrictions have been loosened.

But Fisherman's Park remains closed, with a capital "C." As Rich McLean, the Department of Natural Resources expert on hydroelectric and nuclear power plants, notes, "I don't see it changing."

The anglers are not alone. Closing the park and trail is hurting the birding community, as well.

From mid-October through mid-March, bird watchers use the area to watch dozens of eagles feeding on carp, channel cats and gizzard shad. The food supply also attracts thousands of gulls from as many as 15 species, some quite rare.

Birder's World magazine fairly gushes about the site as "a true winter hot spot," and bird clubs from all over the region used the park for field trips.

Contrary to some tackle shop rumors, McLean says the dam owner, Susquehanna Electric Co., is not using security as an excuse to run off anglers.

"The SECO people don't mind fishing. As a matter of fact, they like it. It's a promotional thing for them. It shows the utility can co-exist with another use," he says.

McLean is an avid angler who represents Maryland's interests in the effort to restore the long-endangered shad population. He worked closely with the utility during the installation of fish lifts at the dam.

Although the hydroelectric plant's permit requires public access when feasible, "all bets are off" when the issue is safety, McLean explains.

Dams everywhere are getting closer scrutiny. Although security people are reluctant to discuss specifics, there have been some concerns at Conowingo. Breach security at the dam, the thinking goes, and it potentially compromises the Peach Bottom nuclear plant upstream.

So Fisherman's Park becomes part of a "better safe than sorry" scenario.

But folks such as Roberts and birder Les Eastman, a member of the Harford club, find fault in the logic.

"There's no danger below the dam," says Eastman. "If they want to increase security, they should check the trucks going across the top [on U.S. 1]. They're not doing that."

Says Roberts: "I'm an ex-Army man myself. I could see closing the catwalk over the dam for security, but I don't understand closing Fisherman's Park. Nobody's going to swim upstream to harm the dam."

And, a quick drive-by indicates, there's very little visible security at scout camps and boat ramps above the dam.

McLean understands angler angst.

"It takes an ID and official business to get past the guard shack, and fishing isn't official business," he says, laughing. "Even I can't go up there and show my ID and go throw a shad dart into the river."

Appeals of the decision to DNR won't work.

"That decision is outside our scope and influence," says Bob Lunsford, the director of freshwater fisheries with the Department of Natural Resources. "It belongs strictly to the utility."

McLean suggests anglers with boats put in at Port Deposit or Susquehanna State Park and motor upstream. But for safety's sake, stay on the south side of Rowland Island to avoid the turbulent discharge.

For shoreline anglers, there's still Deer Creek - as popular with shad fishermen as Disney World is to kids, and just about as crowded. That might mean Roberts' 4 a.m. alarm to beat the crowd won't be early enough this year.

McLean predicts that the rebounding shad population will mean the creation of new hot spots upstream at York Haven and Safe Harbor. "Unfortunately, those are in Pennsylvania," he says. Our best shot is within a mile below the dam, and unless things change, and I don't see that happening this year, it's not going to happen."

Black bears/Sunday hunting

Bills that would extend the deer-hunting season and authorize Sunday hunting and establish a lottery-style black bear season will be heard Wednesday by the House Environmental Matters Committee.

House Bill 9 would increase the deer firearms season from 13 days to 21, including as many as three Sundays.

House Bill 10 gives DNR Secretary Chuck Fox until Oct. 1 to set the regulations and conditions for a black bear hunt.

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