Big, spawning rockfish greet kayakers


River: Stripers' unusual behavior a surprise for paddlers' annual wetlands pilgrimage in Dorchester.

April 15, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

I HAVE DESIRED striped bass ever since I learned to fish for them 50 years ago, but last week was the first time we'd made love.

The tryst began innocently enough. We awakened beside lower Dorchester county's Transquaking River to the gobble of wild turkeys and great horned owls' resonant hoots.

For 10 years, friends and I have made an early-spring, kayaking-camping pilgrimage across the trackless expanse of Maryland's Everglades (40 percent of the state's tidal wetlands are in this one county).

"There is nothing but endless blue water and endless green marsh, laced with creeks and ponds," Hulbert Footner described the region in his Rivers of the Eastern Shore 60 years ago.

It remains so today, though Footner, who feared mosquitoes and traveled by car, scarcely did justice to the life in those great marsh wombs.

Last Friday morning, an ebb tide propelled us down the lonely Transquaking. A fog was lifting, the air was still, and the water was, in watermen's parlance, "slick c'am."

Suddenly, dorsal fins and tailfins broader than a man's hand punctured the smooth surface. One look told us they were stripers, or rockfish as they're called locally.

It was a thrill, but no surprise. This is spawning season for rockfish. The big cows, gravid with eggs and weighing up to 70 or 80 pounds, congregate from coastal oceans as far away as Maine. They attract hordes of smaller males who fertilize their eggs in Chesapeake tributaries the bay's length.

We paddled closer, when suddenly the rudders on the sterns of our kayaks began bucking and jerking. Big rock were banging them, pushing them clear of the water.

Whenever the action slowed, we'd wiggle the rudders, actuated by foot pedals inside the kayaks, and the fish would thrash against them.

Then it began to get wild. Rockfish from a few to 20 pounds, and maybe larger, began bumping our slender, 17-foot hulls, rolling to the surface, nuzzling, butting, rubbing against us, literally shoving the kayaks this way and that.

I became literally engulfed by dozens of big rock. They were solidly pressed against both sides of my boat from bow to stern.

I had a fishing rod, rigged with a tiny bucktail for white perch. I cast and jigged and trolled, doing everything but inserting the lure in their mouths.

All to no avail. Eating was clearly not on their minds. Frustrated, I tried grabbing rock by the tail, but they were too strong and slick to hold. They showed no skittishness at all, turning and rolling right back against the boat.

This continued for perhaps an hour, along maybe two miles of the river, around half a dozen kayaks spread across maybe 50 yards of river. The density of rock there must have been incredible. You could stick your paddle deep in the water and draw the blade along the hull, bumping across rockfish all the way.

What was going on that day in the Transquaking? Though little-studied by biologists, the river is considered a very minor spawning area for rock.

Were the fish somehow mistaking our hulls for supersize females?

Was it, as one of our group suggested, the blessing we had secured for the trip from Winterhawk, chief of the local Nause-Waiwash tribe of Native Americans?

A number of rockfish experts I checked with said they'd experienced spawning fish bumping into their boats, but nothing of the intensity we described.

Perhaps, some said, we had just hit one of those magical moments in nature. A sharp rise in water temperature had occurred that week in Eastern Shore rivers, and that can trigger a peak of spawning activity.

Maybe the unobtrusiveness of our little paddle craft allowed us to observe the event without interrupting it, one said.

I said I hoped the males weren't wasting their precious sperm on our fiberglass hulls. Not likely, the biologists said. Rock use a number of cues, including sound and pheromones, to trigger simultaneous release of eggs and sperm. Indeed, the river's surface had an oily look, which comes from eggs being released.

So we weren't likely the actual object of fishy affection, though it sure felt that way. At one point a novice paddler with us said he feared the fish might destabilize his kayak.

It was intriguing to me that we've been on this very stretch of river about the same week of spring for 10 years now and never saw anything like this.

For me, last Friday will rank as one of the top natural spectacles I've experienced, along with the spawning of horseshoe crabs, the migrations of monarch butterflies passing through to Mexico, and the comeback of bald eagles.

It's also a happy closure. I caught rockfish as a boy in the 1950s as if they had no limit, then as a journalist covered their decline from overfishing until Maryland imposed a moratorium in 1985.

The season reopened on a limited basis in 1990, and by 1996, the bay's rock were pronounced fully recovered. And now, in 2005, this amazing outburst of procreation.

It was a tribute to the Dorchester spring, to the scientists and politicians who had the guts to impose that moratorium to let the fish recover, and to the rockfish.

Chief Winterhawk met us at the takeout Sunday, and beamed when we related our experience.

"Well, it's April, and everything's coming home," he said.

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