Bait threatens to land circle hooks

OUTDOORS

Outdoors

April 13, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

There may come a time - perhaps as early as next year - when anglers will be required to use non-offset circle hooks when bait fishing for stripers on Susquehanna Flats during catch-and-release season.

During a recent Flats trip, I noticed with surprise what appeared to be a lot of folks casting bait rather than artificials, a tactic that conflicts with what the March 15-May 3 season was supposed to be about.

Others concerned about the survival of pre-spawn fish have noted it, too. The issue is likely to come up at the Ad Hoc Striped Bass Advisory Council meeting at 6 p.m. tomorrow at Department of Natural Resources headquarters in Annapolis.

"We are committed to doing something," says Marty Gary of DNR. "We need to address this by the 2004 season."

When Flats catch-and-release was established in 1999, it was with the understanding that gear would consist of a single hook with artificial lures. That was the method used during the 1998 mortality study that cleared the way for the season.

Bob Bachman, who headed the fisheries service back then, believed in "educate, don't regulate," so the single-hook, artificial-lure proviso was never cast in regulatory concrete.

But times have changed. High discharge from the Conowingo Dam this spring churned up the Flats, and some anglers responded to the increased turbidity by switching to bait, which has a higher success rate. Unfortunately, bait also increases the chances of deep hooking.

"There's a ton of bait fishermen up there," says Richie Gaines, a guide on the upper bay who participated in the 1998 study. "I'm not happy about it, but I've resigned myself to accept it."

George Bentz, a charter captain and president of the Pasadena Sportfishing Group, calls the bait switch "wrong, just wrong."

The change caught DNR managers by surprise, says Gary. "I don't think anybody imagined that some people would resort to bait fishing. It just wasn't on the radar screen."

So what's a regulator to do?

DNR doesn't want to penalize white perch and catfish anglers who fish the same area with bait.

The answer, it would seem, is mandating the use of non-offset circle hooks, which decrease mortality by hooking the jaw, not the gut. Studies show circle-hooked fish have a much greater likelihood of survival.

New Jersey has gone that route for all bait fishing in the Delaware River and its tributaries during the striped bass spawning closure. North Carolina and New Hampshire recommend circle hooks for bait fishing.

However, there is no standard circle hook definition or configuration. Hook size, radius and degrees of offset differ for each manufacturer.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has established a committee that includes biologists, law enforcement officers, anglers and hook manufacturers to help clarify some of those matters. It is led by Harley Speir of Maryland DNR.

"Everyone recognizes that there is a problem and a solution," he says. "We hope to settle on something that's enforceable."

Gaines says there's growing support for a regulation requiring Flats anglers during catch-and-release season to use a non-offset circle hook if they're fishing with a hook with a gap wider than three-eighths of an inch. Anglers targeting white perch could continue to use baited J-hooks.

With 11 months until the next season, there's plenty of time to regulate and educate.

Meet the man

"I got a good catch coming," Bentz told me on the phone last week when we talked about tomorrow night's Pasadena Sportfishing Group meeting.

Indeed, he does.

New DNR secretary Ron Franks will talk to anglers and answer questions. Something tells me you have a lot of them.

The meeting, at the Earleigh Heights Fire Hall at Route 2 and Earleigh Heights Road, will mark the group's 12th anniversary. Free coffee and cake will be served.

Doors open at 6. Dinner is for sale. The meeting will begin at 7:30.

Fuss over flounder

Some folks are pleased that the summer flounder season will run this year uninterrupted. Others are annoyed that anglers have not been allowed to tap into the unused portion of last year's harvest quota.

Whether you're tickled or steamed, DNR fisheries folks want to hear from you at one of two meetings this week.

Biologists are wrestling with how to manage fluctuations in the flounder harvest. In 2001, Maryland was over its recreational quota, which required the state to shut down anglers for two weeks last summer to make amends. But at the end of that year's season, Maryland was 40 percent under quota.

This year, state biologists decided to have an open season and stay the course on size (17-inch minimum) to see which year is the anomaly. But they also decided to ask anglers how they would like to see the fishery managed down the road.

The first meeting will be Tuesday at DNR headquarters, 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis. The second chance will be Wednesday at Ocean Pines Library, 11107 Cathell Road, Ocean City. Both meetings will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Crossbow proposals

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