Reef could be bridge to fishing hot spot

January 07, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

Remember fishing the Summer Gooses in its heyday? It wasn't that long ago.

Come the dog days each year, boats - up to 100 of them - used to sit atop one of the greatest hard-bottom areas on the Chesapeake Bay, chumming. Glistening, fat striped bass came over the sides of boats in nets held by straining anglers-maybe you were one of them about a decade ago.

But a slow-motion avalanche of silt buried that prime spot. Although boats still make a pass for old time's sake, in the eyes of most, the Gooses are cooked.

Restoring that hot spot isn't really an option, given the state's financial situation and all the other bay restoration projects on the wish list.

But creating a new one is.

On Tuesday, the Department of Natural Resources will announce an unprecedented reef-building program that combines the passion of more than 30 recreational fishing and conservation groups with the financial backing of a high-tech corporation, two oil companies and a Shady Side philanthropist.

The aim of the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative is to build fish-friendly habitats out of the remains of the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge, starting, perhaps at the mouth of the Choptank River.

Citizens will be invited to participate, donating $25 to pay for the moving of a ton of material from the Potomac River shore near Washington to the bay.

"Imagine this huge desert of sand and in the middle is an oasis teeming with life," says Bill Curry, president of the Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association. "There's no way to put a dollar figure on the ecological and economic benefits."

To save administrative costs, the CCA agreed to use its charitable status to administer the program.

"We're not skimming off the top and that's an important thing," Curry says. "A lot of people stepped up to the plate, and we don't want to diminish their efforts."

The spark came last fall, when DNR took a gamble and diverted $38,000 in funds from fishing license sales to pay for 50-ton bridge slabs to be hauled from the Potomac to the waters of Point No Point off St. Mary's County.

But after that pilot effort, the cash-strapped state agency was tapped out.

Luckily, Nancy Petersen read news accounts of the ambitious reef project and decided she could do something.

"We all hear so much about trying to save the Chesapeake Bay. Well, here's a really good idea and it seems like the only obstacle is money," she recalls thinking. "What do they mean they only have $38,000? I have $38,000."

Actually, as trustee of a small family foundation, Petersen, 58, oversees a little bit more than that, money she dips into for school environmental projects and programs for disadvantaged women and children. The Mitchell-Petersen Family Foundation has donated $100,000 to the reef project.

"The foundation itself likes projects where it can be a catalyst for a bigger result, to get the ball rolling," Petersen explains. "My passion has always been the environment."

As a long-time Alexandria, Va., resident and publisher who decided two years ago to start the retirement process with a move to southern Anne Arundel County, Petersen was a frequent user of the Wilson Bridge.

The reef project, she says, "was very appealing. It was kind of a cool connection between my working life and my new life, whatever that is."

She called the Wilson Bridge folks, who put her in touch with DNR's Marty Gary.

Gary, meanwhile, was looking for the mechanism by which donations could be collected and distributed to the reef program.

"We're not talking about a one-and-done project here," Gary says. "We'd like to see this take root and grow."

Recently, Gary and world-renown diver Nick Caloyianis peeked in at the Point No Point reef to see who was home. Already, Gary says, there are signs of new life.

There's plenty of clean bridge material left, and Gary says there are about a dozen accessible sites on the bay, including areas off Tangier and Solomons islands and at the mouth of the Choptank on the north side of the navigational channel in about 35 feet of water.

Long-time fishermen, charter boat captains and watermen say the Choptank bottom has the same characteristics as the Summer Gooses. If barge loads of construction materials from the bridge are dumped in the 80-foot-long trough, fish and oysters will take to it, they say.

Curry envisions the project growing to a point where clean construction materials from other projects can be used in the bay, off the Atlantic Coast and in freshwater impoundments.

"It may be a drop in the bucket, but it's a good drop," he says.

School's in session

Captain "Walleye" Pete Dahlberg is one of the best guides on the bay.

Captain Mike Benjamin knows every inch of the Susquehanna Flats and upper bay tributaries.

For $55, you can hear both of those experts plus guides Mark Galasso, Jimmy Price and Greg Bogdan on Jan. 27 at Salt Water Sportsman's seminar in College Park.

George Poveromo, the magazine's senior editor and ESPN2 host, says the seminar is a great way to shorten the learning curve.

School is in session from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Stamp Student Union. More details are at www.

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