With a flip and a splash, 21 robust striped bass with neon-green tags - one worth $15,000 - were released just off Annapolis yesterday to kick off the richest portion of the state's summer fishing contest.
The fish in the spotlight, nicknamed "Diamond Jim," will net an angler $10,000 cash and a $5,000 diamond if caught by midnight on June 30. Anyone who lands one of the 20 "impostors" will win a $500 gift certificate to Boater's World.
No one has caught "Diamond Jim" in the previous three years of the Maryland Fishing Challenge, but anglers have won Toyota pickup trucks, boats and trailers, tackle and gift certificates.
Although the "Diamond Jim" quest is exclusive to the Chesapeake Bay, the fishing challenge is a statewide contest that includes more than 60 species found in ponds, lakes, rivers, coastal bays and the Atlantic Ocean. The event began April 12 and ends Sept. 1.
So far, more than 800 anglers have registered their catches.
"It is a way to show the diversity of Maryland's fishing experiences and hopefully attract new anglers and renew the interest in those who may have forgotten how much fun it is," said Marty Gary, a fisheries biologist at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
The state launched the contest after a June 2004 summit with anglers, fishing clubs and industry representatives to look for ways to stem the decline in fishing license purchases. The consensus was that a contest modeled on the "Diamond Jim" tournament of 50 years ago might help generate interest.
Eligible fish must equal or exceed the minimum sizes listed on the DNR fisheries Web site. Anglers must register their catch at one of the state's citation centers, usually a local tackle shop
The agency will release 21 similarly tagged "Diamond Jim" striped bass in each of the next two months, one group in the upper bay off Fort McHenry and another off Solomons in southern Maryland.
This year, youngsters are being encouraged to participate through a series of five fishing rodeos, including June 14 at Baltimore County's Hillcrest Park and June 26 at Patterson Park.
"It's a wonderful introduction to the sport," said Eric Schwaab, DNR deputy secretary, "and anything that gets them out from in front of the video screen in this day in age is a good thing."