In Trial's Dark Shadow, Opening Day Of Fishing Provides Hope


April 19, 2009|By CANDUS THOMSON

ABOARD NRP 141 -Beautiful day. Boats with fishing rods sprouting from their tops and sides cutting deep white V's into the water. People smiling and waving.

It's opening day of the spring striped bass season, the end of winter and the beginning of another wonderful run of fishing.

So why am I so bummed out?

Because this week starts the sentencing in federal court of five watermen who admitted they stole millions of dollars' worth of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River over five years.

Oversized, undersized, out of season - let's count the ways they cheated all of us out of rockfish. And indications are it doesn't end with these guys.

Then there's the photo posted on on Friday along with an account by a Kent Island woman about a guy filleting a rockfish on her community dock and heaving the carcass into Thompson Creek. The bozo insisted the season had already begun.

So I'm riding with two Natural Resources Police officers, hoping to see lots of law-abiding people doing the right thing.

Officer First Class Norris Shannon and Officer First Class Cindy Kondo, both with more than a decade on the force, understand my funk. As part of a stretched-thin force, they employ experience and smarts to keep order on the water.

That means stopping boats to see whether they have required safety equipment and a sober operator in addition to checking the size of fish.

NRP 141 is a 25-foot, closed-cabin Sea Ark. With an array of electronic gear, including an infrared camera to spot illegal action at night, the year-old boat is a marked improvement over the Boston Whalers that make up the bulk of the fleet.

"The dumbest things I've seen?" Shannon asks, grinning. "How long you got?"

The officers usually work alone, making boardings impossible. On opening day, however, NRP is showing the flag as a way to remind anglers and boaters of their responsibilities.

Most anglers are happy to see the officers on patrol. But several complain that the stops are interfering with their fishing. "I'm legal," one hollers, hoping to persuade the officers to go away. Nice try.

Luckily, we pass the morning without running into a single scofflaw.

Mood improving, I wander from the NRP Annapolis office at City Dock across Spa Creek to the Boatyard Bar and Grill in Eastport, where the only tournament in the state is attracting a crowd.

To take the pressure off migrating rockfish, the Department of Natural Resources three years ago delayed the start of tournaments until May 1. The Boatyard contest, which raises at least $25,000 each year for charity, is the exception because it is strictly catch-and-release.

Anglers get a 48-inch ruler and must take a digital photo of their catch before returning the fish to the Chesapeake Bay. Judges view the entries and declare a winner. The first fish in that's longer than the ruler wins.

On Saturday, Andrew Wendell of Pasadena arrives with his camera's memory card before 1:30 p.m., before the judges' monitor was set up.

"We got a fish that's off the stick!" John Page Williams of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation declares as he peers at the image.

"It's a winner. That's the rule," Boatyard owner Dick Franyo says.

At a plump 48 1/2 inches, Wendell's fish is Chesapeake Bay beautiful. And knowing she will continue her swim to the upper bay to spawn makes it even prettier.

"You know the big ones from the little ones. The rod was going bump, bump, bump, bump," Wendell explains, his hand bouncing up and down. "I've never caught one this big."

DNR biologist Mary Gary, another judge, guesses that the fish came from a year-class before 1993, perhaps as early as 1989.

Wendell caught the fish on a chartreuse parachute just south of the Bay Bridge in the middle of the channel.

"There was a lot of traffic," says Wendell, who had lines in the water at 5 a.m. and caught the fish at 10 a.m. "I was struggling. But it felt good to release that fish. Good karma."

He's right. I feel better now.

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