Trophy season anglers merit no prize

October 01, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

Here we go again.

The folks who do the counting have told Marylanders who do the fishing that they've taken too many striped bass out of the Chesapeake Bay. Way too many.

Later this month, state officials are going to have to submit to the spanking machine - a meeting of regulators in North Carolina - and accept punishment for having too much fun during the so-called spring trophy season.

How sad that the dirty deed will go down in North Carolina, where winter anglers never met a striped bass they wouldn't reel in. The only thing worse would have been a meeting in Virginia, where the boats are so thick around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in winter that they should have a traffic cop.

The best guess is that the minimum will get goosed again - probably another 5 inches or so, to at least 38 inches. As well it should. A trophy fish should be like a trophy buck or trophy spouse - worth the effort to get the bragging rights. These days, a 28-inch fish is no trophy and apparently neither is a 33-incher.

But it's time to look at other measures with an open mind. That means maybe rolling back the start of the season, restricting catches to a slot fish or eliminating planer boards until May 1.

What it shouldn't mean is recreational anglers using this predicament as a way to push the old agenda of making the striped bass a game fish and off-limits to watermen. This mess isn't the fault of commercial fishermen and they shouldn't be forced to pay the penalty.

Before he steps into the line of fire, state fisheries chief Howard King will have a series of meetings at DNR headquarters in Annapolis to decide the best way to stay within the quota. The Sport Fish Advisory Commission will convene Oct. 16 at 6 p.m., the Ad Hoc Striped Bass Advisory Board at 7 p.m. on Oct. 19, and the Tidal Fish Advisory Commission at 7 p.m. on Oct. 26.

The only good news last week was King's promise to give the upper bay fishing community some equality, with anglers in the area above Tolchester getting to keep one fish between 18 inches and 25 inches after May 16, instead of forcing them to wait until June 1.

But the story remains what to do about the spring trophy season. We laid out the details of the spring striper census and its implications in Wednesday's Sun, but they're still hard to swallow days later.

However, few people who read this column should be surprised.

The whispering started in spring that for the second year in a row, Maryland was going to exceed its allotment. The only question was by how much. Last year, it was 33,000 fish, or 60 percent too many. This year it was 25,000 fish, even though state fisheries managers raised the minimum size 5 inches to 33 inches for the first two weeks of the season that began April 15 and delayed tournaments until May 1.

But here's what I don't get. Last year, the explanation for missing the target was that the cold spring kept migrating rockfish in the bay longer and gave anglers more time to chase them. But this year, the weather was beautiful, the second-warmest April ever recorded. Opening day was in the 80s. In theory, migrating stripers should have been beating feet (or fins) out of the bay.

When you add in that the number of sportfishing licenses continues to decline, it seems we should be seeing at least a tiny drop.

King believes that factors such as multiple trips per day by charter boats, planer boards and boats sprouting rods like Sputnik are putting a hurting on the spring rockfish population.

"These days people go out and expect to come back with a fish," he says.

Of course he's right. But there are two other things to examine: the way we've strayed from the original intent of the spring season, and the recreational fishing survey embraced by the federal government and dismissed by everyone with more than a hamster's brain.

First, the season.

After the five-year moratorium ended in fall of 1990, everyone was walking on eggshells. A legislative committee approved an initial spring 1991 season of 17 days, from May 11 through May 27. Anglers were limited to one fish a day, 36-inch minimum. "The department [DNR] estimates that no more than 3,000 fish will be caught," said a news story announcing the season.

But pressure from folks who make their living on the bay - charter boat captains and guides - slowly got the season and the creel liberalized to a point where the spawning fish and trolling rods are finding each other too often.

Now, let's look at the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, or MRFSS.

What bozo decided that the best way to get an accurate picture of fishing effort was to open the phone book and randomly select folks? That's right, one of the major components of MRFSS is no better than those stupid pre-recorded political endorsements that fill up your answering machine and interrupt your dinner this time every four years.

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