Recreational anglers and state fisheries managers struck gold — literally — a few years back when they decided to work together to coax the first fish of spring back to its rightful place at the front of the calendar. Saturday, they celebrated their success.
At North East Town Park, a waterfront spot in Cecil County with plenty of piers and shoreline, anglers of all ages reeled in a mess of yellow perch. These golden fish with distinctive black markings are welcomed at any fish fry.
As the sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds, little guys barely bigger than a bait bucket, fashion-conscious teen-aged girls and senior citizens cast and retrieved, laughed and teased, and knocked the rust off fishing skills that most of them had put on the shelf before Thanksgiving.
"This is the way it's supposed to be," said Mike Benjamin, guide, barber, tackle shop operator and provocateur who helped nudge the state into protecting yellow perch four years ago.
Yellow perch fishing was a tradition for lots of families that would bundle up and head for the South and Severn rivers, to Allen's Fresh off the Potomac or cross the Bay Bridge to fish the Tuckahoe, upper Choptank or Wye rivers. Once back home after a successful day on the water, tasty fillets the size of your hand would get a quick dip in an egg and buttermilk wash and a dredging in breadcrumbs before being popped into a hot skillet. Good eating.
For eight years, Benjamin and others complained that commercial netters were getting up to 90 percent of the spawning fish each spring, leaving little for recreational anglers. When the pace of the Department of Natural Resources wasn't quick enough, they took their case to state lawmakers.
The General Assembly approved the Yellow Perch Restoration Act, sponsored by state Sen. Roy Dyson, that curtailed commercial netting and set a framework for a management plan. This year, DNR's attention to detail and ability to shut down the commercial harvest with just 24 hours notice (vs. 48 hours in the old days) meant that the upper bay catch exceeded the quota by just 23 pounds.
Last spring, Coastal Conservation Association Maryland and DNR celebrated the revived fishery with a Yellow Perch Appreciation Day that attracted more than 100 anglers. It went so well that they threw another party this year.
DNR Fisheries Service Director Tom O'Connell hopes someday the celebrations will spread.
"With all the excitement up here, people are going back to some of the historical spots in the watershed to see if yellow perch are coming back," he said. "We're hoping for other success stories."
For the red-knuckle, red-nose crowd, the first big spring push is on. The catch-and-release season for striped bass opened last Tuesday and will run through the third Friday in April.
The open areas are posted on a map at the DNR Fisheries Service recreational fishing website. A few reminders because I don't want to be seeing any names in the police blotter: stinger hooks and eels are out; barbless hooks are required for trolling; bait anglers must use circle hooks or J hooks with a gap of less than ½ inch; and no matter how many folks you have aboard, no more than six lines can be deployed when trolling.
If you're new to the sport, have taken some time off or are looking for an edge, you might want to consider signing up for the annual day-long seminar with Capt. Richie Gaines on March 19 at Chesapeake College.
Gaines is well-known on the water, at outdoors shows and in Annapolis hearing rooms and knows how to catch striped bass in all seasons in all portions of the bay. He'll describe the best techniques for trolling, chumming, live lining and light tackle and also discuss rigging, knots and gear choices.
The course costs $52. Participants should bring a brown bag lunch. To register, contact Marci Leach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-827-5833.
But before you get all matriculated with a degree in fishology, be sure to sign up for the Boatyard Bar and Grill's 10th Annual Opening Day Rockfish Tournament.
The April 16 tournament is strictly catch and release. Anglers "weigh-in" their catch by bringing in a digital camera or flash card or print of fish measured with an official 2011 Boatyard yardstick.
The entry fee is $200 per boat of four anglers, with $40 for each extra angler. The tournament is limited to 200 boats. Proceeds benefit the Annapolis Police Department's Youth Fishing Camp, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland.
Register at http://www.boatyardbarandgrill.com or pick up registration forms and rules at the Boatyard or Anglers Sports Center on U.S. 50. Questions? Give a holler to 410-336-8880.
Fresh talk, fresh fish
Finally, if all this stuff about tidal fish is too much for you, consider two trout talks.
Jim Gracie, chairman of the Sport Fish Advisory Commission, will discuss trout fishing at a meeting of the Northwest chapter of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association on March 8 at 7:30 p.m. The meeting will be held at Dimitri's International Grille, 2205 Frederick Road in Catonsville.
Everyone knows the springtime hot spots of the Gunpowder River, Morgan Run, Hunting Creek and the Savage River, but on March 16, Tom Starrs will talk about Maryland trout streams that don't draw crowds at a meeting of Trout Unlimited.
The 7:30 get together will be at Towson's Odd Fellows Hall, 511 York Road.
If you need details, give Doug Brown a shout at 443-812-8603.