A choppy opening day

On the first day of rockfish season, anglers endure wind and high gas prices.

April 17, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

The opening day of striped bass season began at dawn yesterday with hopes as high as the 20-knot winds that raked the faces of fishermen and rattled boats from Kent Island to Chesapeake Beach.

Thousands of anglers across the region awoke to alarm clocks set for "oh-dark-30," abandoned warm, soft beds and headed for a choppy Chesapeake Bay to take part in a Maryland ritual as sacred as a mid-May horse race at Pimlico.

That weather elements and high gas prices conspired against a good time mattered not. After a long, dark winter, opening day on the bay is to fishermen what shore leave is to a sailor.

Some anglers fished from the beach at Sandy Point State Park, not far from the Bay Bridge, where on a normal opening day hundreds of boats would be jockeying for position. This day, there were no more than two dozen rocking in water the color of chocolate milk and searching for striped bass - or rockfish, as the fish is called in Maryland.

"They're desperate, and that's worse than crazy," said William Horn of Kensington, gesturing at the small boats sliding from wave to wave.

With little to cheer about, anglers on the beach embraced any success. After hauling in a 33-inch fish on an impossibly small rod-and-reel, In Hwang received hugs and high-fives from his fellow sufferers.

"I'd like to stuff it with crab meat, but it's a little too early in the season for that," said a grinning Hwang, who lives in Upperco.

"We could grill it or bake it, but there's enough to do both," said his brother Mike Hwang of Columbia.

Twenty years ago, the striped bass season in Maryland was closed after regulators estimated the population had dropped to 5 million fish along the Atlantic Coast. Biologists blamed decades of overfishing for bringing the species to the brink of collapse. The Chesapeake Bay produces more than 75 percent of the coastal population.

After five years, the season reopened, and anglers have not taken it for granted since. Last year, biologists placed the Atlantic Coast population at 58 million. Maryland recreational fishermen caught 31,000 rockfish during the April to December season.

"Opening day wasn't a big deal until the moratorium. ... But rockfish gained new significance when we finally could fish for it again," said Jim Brincefield, a charter boat captain, who hasn't missed an opening day since 1990.

At 4:30 a.m., the dock outside the Happy Harbor Inn in Deale was silent, the 20 charter boats tied up side by side, bobbing to the rhythmic slapping of halyards against masts. Within minutes, the marina sprung to life with the thrumming of diesel engines as captains sorted through gear and greeted customers bundled against the cold.

"This is a special day," said Brincefield, standing aboard the Jil Carrie. "After so many years, you may have slipped into a routine, but you still feel a tingle in your belly on opening day."

Brincefield's customers, known as "the Legends," have fished the first day together since the early 1990s. Several of them are in their seventh and eighth decades, physically slowed by surgery and age. But none of them would miss opening day.

"It's not about the catching, it's about the catching up," said Ed Mechlinski, 77, who drives down from Pennsylvania.

As the sky brightened from black to indigo and stars winked out, the parking lots at gas stations and convenience stores near the bay filled with guys in big vehicles hauling big boats. For many, the first shock of the day was when gas pumps automatically shut off at $75 - a decent level last year but not this year, at $2.25 a gallon.

"There goes tuition," said Peter Solomon of Crofton, who had to reactivate the pump three times at a suburban Annapolis gas station to fill his boat's tanks.

By 5:30, it seemed every other vehicle on Route 2 between Deale and Annapolis was pulling a boat.

At Angler's Sport Center on U.S. 50 just west of the Bay Bridge, the lines were three deep as customers signed up for fishing licenses and grabbed bags of ice, bait, nets and foam coolers to hold the catch of the day.

But when fishermen finally got a glimpse of the bay, some of their enthusiasm waned.

Forecasters who had predicted 10-15 knot winds and 1- to 2-foot seas Friday night had revised their estimates yesterday morning to 15-18 knots with 2- to 3-foot seas.

Natural Resources Police Officer Stacey Hunt decided against an early-morning patrol to check the licenses of anglers in boats under the Bay Bridge. Tough currents would make such "traffic stops" too dangerous. Instead, she checked licenses and boat equipment as anglers returned to the Sandy Point Marina.

Some anglers hadn't gotten the word or assumed the situation might improve.

The Flemings of Stewartstown, Pa. - a father and his two sons - motored out of Sandy Point Marina in their 17-foot boat and came back in.

"We need a bigger boat," said Bill Fleming, 31, echoing a sentiment once expressed by a character in the movie Jaws.

"A 1- to 2-foot chop we can handle, but not this," said his father, William. "I've been 30 years on the bay. There will be other days."

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