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Regulars (Sporting Life by Dennis Doyle)

Finding feeding seabirds will save you time and speed up your catch

The seabirds, scores of them about 100 yards away, were wheeling, screaming and diving. We could see the splashes of fish wildly feeding just under the surface. They were not the explosive strikes of the big stripers we had hoped for, but it was impossible to ignore them.
    Running ahead but well outside of the feeding school, I chopped the skiff’s throttle, turned and eased within casting range. My partner and I flung our lures just to the edge of the action. I was fishing a half-ounce Bass Assassin, and Moe, a half-ounce gold Red Eye Shad.
    Moe’s rod dipped down almost immediately from a strike, and I felt a sharp tap, tap, tap. “Bluefish,” I snorted, “small ones.” I could imagine the toothy little devils reducing my five-inch soft bait to a stub.
    My friend landed, then carefully unhooked a wriggling nine-inch snapper blue from the treble hooks of his crank bait and released it. I pulled the shredded remains of the soft plastic body from my jig head and searched in my box for another to replace it.
    “This is not going to get any better,” I said, looking across the acre or so of small splashes. “Let’s vamoose.”
    Putting the boat up on plane and scanning the horizon, I soon saw another group of working birds about a quarter-mile away.
    Bigger birds, bigger fish.
    “Those are bill gulls over there,” I said. “Maybe we’re in luck.” Ten minutes later we had two fat rockfish thumping on the deck, though neither was a keeper. A few more casts and a look at the fish-finder confirmed the absence of anything approaching the 20-inch minimum, so off we went again.
    Across the Bay and into the distance were several groups of birds working over feeding fish. We had a job to do, and I was glad that I had remembered to top off the gas tank that morning.

How to Catch Them
    Late August is the beginning of fishing for breaking rockfish under birds. A more exciting fishery just does not exist on the Chesapeake. We were following up on reports of a couple of acres of 30-plus-inch fish just off Love Point. We never encountered that school. We did, however, enjoy lots of hook-ups and releases.
    You can do a couple of things to make the most of these opportunities. First, you need a good pair of binoculars; models with image stabilizing are particularly helpful. Scanning the waters to find birds that have located the feeding fish will save you a good bit of time.
    Next, know your birds. Terns and young laughing gulls are the smaller birds you see wheeling about the Bay. They feed almost exclusively on silversides and anchovies. Bigger predator fish will sometimes key on the small baitfish, but this time of year these schools attract mostly smaller rockfish and bluefish.
    Mature laughing gulls are a bit larger, the ring-billed gull larger still, then the herring gull on up to the black-backed gull, the largest of all. When these bigger birds are on the feed, you can bet that the baitfish will be bigger and the game fish chasing them larger as well.
    The very best trophy fish-finders are pelicans and gannets with wingspreads of more than six feet. They’ll be working over the schools of the largest menhaden and the heaviest rockfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel.
    There are other protocols. Never run into the midst of a breaking school. That will put them down and anger anyone else trying to fish them. Turn off your engine while engaging breakers for the same reason, and don’t cast into their midst. You’ll avoid cutoffs from sharp gill plates of rockfish and teeth and abrasive tails of bluefish if you always work the edges.
    If the feeding fish on top are small, go deep. Bigger fish are sometimes on the bottom picking up baitfish injured by the frantic, smaller fish feeding on top.
    Squash your hook barbs if you’re doing a lot of catch and release. It will make things easier for you and the fish.

Gone all too soon

Dogs’ lives are too short.
Their only fault, really.

–Agnes Turnbull

As I watched her clumsy frolic across the yard, attempting to catch the stuffed bear she had just tossed into the air, it was hard to believe that we had met almost 14 years ago. My dog, Sophie, a particularly comely German shorthair pointer, was just seven weeks old then.
    Our family had been without a dog for some time. Noticing an ad for a litter of German shorthairs in the pet section of the daily paper, my wife and I impulsively took a ride to the Eastern Shore just to look. Of course we did far more than look.
    The breeder, a woman of great knowledge and affection for GSPs, ushered us to her back yard. There, the whole litter of pups, some 10 or so, were engrossed in a wild melee.
    We noticed a small female in the middle of the scrum using her stature to unusual advantage. As her littermates attempted to dominate her, she dodged under and around the outdoor furniture scattered throughout the yard.
    Then, as she threaded through the forest of rough wooden legs and low seats, twisting and turning, she would double back upon an unprotected rear, sending that pup sprawling and rolling across the lawn.
    The breeder and her husband, a fellow bird hunter, tried to interest me in one of Sophie’s stouter littermates. But after meeting and holding the affectionate pup, we were not dissuaded.
    On the ride back to Annapolis, Deb drove while I held the pup. Alert at first, she peered out the car window as we departed her birthplace. Then she looked around us, curled up in my lap, pushed her head against my chest and slept all the way home.
    Our first few months together were an exquisite adventure. On our first trips to the Eastern Shore to exercise in a large, overgrown field, I would purchase a half-dozen or so pen-raised quail to release for her to seek out. She loved the game and became adept at locating the birds, pointing, then chasing after them for a few yards when I flushed them into the air.
    I marveled at how she mastered the sport.
    We were approaching the edge of a grassy field near where I had earlier released a quail when she went on an intense point. Sometimes if a gamebird sits for a time in one location, then moves on, the scent that concentrates in that spot will cause a dog to false point.
    That seemed to be happening because, as I kicked just about every bit of nearby cover, no bird flushed. The edge of that field was bordered by another field of freshly plowed vacant ground.
    I tried to call her off, but Sophie would not move. For every bit of five minutes, she continued to hold her muscle-quivering point.
    It was only when I looked over the abutting expanse of turned and barren earth that a tiny movement caught my eye. The quail was sitting 50 feet away, virtually invisible among the clods of dark brown dirt but in a direct though distant line with Sophie’s quivering nose. I never again doubted her.
    Those memories crossed my mind as I watched her returning across our yard with the stuffed bear held proudly. Then she stumbled and, unable to catch herself, fell. Slowly and with some confusion she regained her footing and resumed her way back to me.
    Sophie was failing and had been for some time. I doubted she would see Christmas this year.
    A dog’s only fault, I’ve read, is their short lifespan and Sophie’s was reaching its end. With a catch in my throat I welcomed her back to me, holding her and telling her what a great girl she was. It was all I could do.

How else to explain such a catch?

Pulling on the trotline one final time to straighten it and ensure proper tension, we dropped the red trailing float and released its anchor into the water, completing the setup. It was just after sunrise, an early start being a necessity when hoping for a good catch of blue crabs. Still, we also knew our job was not going to be easy.
    There had been nothing but bad news this season on the local population of jimmies. My friend Frank had invited me on this trip with the understanding that he needed a basket of crabs for a gathering later that very afternoon. But, perhaps, if we caught enough, a few fat males might come my way.
    That possibility, I knew, was slim to none. But hope springs eternal on the Chesapeake. We also had two lucky charms with us: two of Frank’s granddaughters, Emma and Sydney, ages nine and 10.
    If anything tugs at the heartstrings of crabbing’s Lady Luck, it’s a youngster on board, and two female youngsters pull on them that much more. Frank and I, of course, had no idea how much good fortune the girls would bring.

Fishing a Trotline
    A simple crabbing trotline has the chicken neck baits tied directly onto the line, generally one every five to seven feet. There is a drawback to that simplicity. When the line begins to be pulled up off the bottom, the weight of the crab grasping the neck flips it over. Often that startles the critter enough to cause it to drop off.
    Our trotline, however, was rigged with snoods. A snood is a dropper line about six inches long knotted onto the main line and rigged with a slip loop to hold the chicken neck. This tends to keep crabs holding on all the way to the surface as the line is pulled up.
    Our first run was startling. In recent seasons, the number of crabs in the Bay has dropped significantly, to about half that of years past and worse in some areas. If a sport crabber nets just a few legal (51⁄4 inches) males off a trot line with some 200 baits, lately that’s considered a good catch.
    When we reached the end of the line and lifted it off the roller, we rushed back to the culling basket and counted. Fourteen keeper-sized jimmies crowded the bottom, fiercely brandishing big, bright blue claws and daring us to come closer. It was an awesome beginning, but, we feared, unlikely to continue.
    Then it did. Taking turns, the girls netted crab after crab. Occasionally, the girls relinquished their nets to do a share of the culling, allowing us adults to make the catch.
    Within an hour, keeper jimmies were filling the big orange basket, climbing up and over the top to scuttle into the confines of the boat. That wouldn’t do. So we put a lid on the first basket and pulled out a second.
    Well before the end of the morning, the impossible was accomplished: Two bushels of big, beautiful blue crabs, one for Frank, and the other, quite miraculously, for me. Motoring back to the dock we all congratulated ourselves and, especially, our lucky charms.

Recreational anglers deserve their fair share of the catch

Our white perch have long waited for Maryland Department of Natural Resources to give them a formal management program. A plan proposed in 1990 stalled over opposition from commercial fishermen. A 2005 effort failed again.
    Finally, an updated management program is under way and a draft released for comment. In reading the 2015 Review of the Maryland White Perch Fishery Management Plan, I was pleased and only a little disappointed.
    The good news is that DNR officials thought enough of the species for another attempt at implementing a management plan. Disappointing, however, are text and the tone, which indicate that all is well so nothing needs to be done: “Restrictive measures on either the commercial or recreational fishery does not appear necessary at this time.”
    One of the management plan’s goals is to “Provide for fair allocation of allowable harvest, consistent with traditional uses, among components of the fishery.” Yet no specific allocations have ever been established for either commercial or recreational fishing. Essentially, the white perch fishery remains a free for all.
    I fish for white perch a great deal, and over recent years the number of 10-inchers I catch has fallen significantly. My experience is confirmed in conversations with fellow anglers. There seem to be a lot fewer nice perch in the western mid-Bay.
    In updating white perch management, I wish DNR would note the imbalance between approximately 500,000 saltwater recreational anglers in Maryland and fewer than 500 commercial watermen fishing for white perch. Yet the commercials take is two to three times the recreational harvest.
    Springtime white perch is one of the most popular of the early-season recreational fisheries on the Bay. Yet as soon as commercial white perch nets go up each spring, the majority of the tributary sportfishing dies for good-sized white perch.
    Once commercial operators have removed their desired take (estimated at 1.5 million to 2 million pounds annually), the remaining white perch may very well not be worth the effort of fishing for them.
    Since Maryland’s recreational fishery generates about 10 times the income to the state (per NOAA studies) as the commercial fishery, and the dollars generated from the sale of recreational fishing licenses make up the majority of DNR’s operating ­budget, should not a priority be placed on more equitable scheduling aimed at providing a better quality experience for the sporting angler?
    Also problematic is by-catch, including the by-catch of perch during the rockfish gill netting season and the by-catch of rockfish, spot, croaker and young menhaden via perch netting. The waste of valuable marine life is lamentable and avoidable with proper planning, scheduling and the proper gear.
    The 2015 White Perch Management Plan has every potential for affecting all of these issues. I wish the plan all possible success.

A waterspout may get you if you don’t watch out

I focused on drifting the edges of a Bay Bridge pier, where I was hoping a big rockfish would inhale the chunk of soft crab I was presenting below. Conditions ­couldn’t have been much better, with overcast skies and a slack tide. Then my cell phone buzzed.
    I cleared my line and fumbled with my shirt pocket. Finally, freeing the phone, I heard a familiar voice, my neighbor Capt. Frank Tuma, who was fishing a party just to the north of me.
    “Did you see the big waterspout behind you, just south of the bridge?” he queried. “It’s gone now, but for a few minutes I was afraid it was going to get you.”
    I turned and eyeballed the large, dark and menacing cumulus clouds poised low and close to my position.
    “I wasn’t looking in that direction.” I replied. “Maybe I should have been. Those clouds look like they could make bad things happen.”
    It turned out that some nine waterspouts had been sighted in the middle-Bay that morning. Though I had no close calls with a waterborne whirlwind, Candy Thomson, spokeswoman for Maryland Natural Resources Police, had been caught up in that nearby spout while on board a patrol boat.
    It is fortunate that nothing more serious than some brief, brisk winds and a short burst of intense rain descended on the police crew. That is sometimes not the case with these mini-tornados.

Their Rise; Your Retreat
    Waterspouts — dark, whirling funnel clouds descending from stormy skies — form in the Florida Keys more than any place in the world. But the spouts are fairly common from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up Chesapeake Bay.
    Fair-weather waterspouts, such as we experienced that day, are spawned by dark, flat-bottomed storm clouds traveling at low altitude. Typically these waterspouts dissipate before causing damage or injury. Tornadic waterspouts borne of severe weather conditions can be more violent.
    During the hot days of summer, fierce late-afternoon and evening squalls often erupt across the Bay. These small, violent storms are capable of producing more intense waterspouts. Winds have been clocked above 150 mph in ocean-borne tornadic versions, often accompanied by heavy seas, torrential rain, hail and intense lightning. They have sunk or damaged watercraft of all sizes. Violent water spouts are suspected to be the source of some of the mysterious accidents in the Devil’s Triangle off the Keys.
    The primary defense while on Bay waters is keeping an active weather channel open on your marine radio. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard broadcast alert warnings whenever and wherever waterspouts are sighted.
    Avoid a spout by heading at a 90-degree angle away from the direction of the funnel. Evasion might not be possible in poor visibility or if a water spout descends from overhead, as apparently happened to the Natural Resources Police crew. So it is wise to steer clear of any area where the mini-tornados are reported.

Rockfish crave spot, but in a pinch white perch will satisfy

I strained to keep my severely arced rod from touching the gunnel as I plunged the tip deep into the water. A large and powerful fish about 20 feet down was intent on crossing under my skiff. Had the line, humming from the tension, contacted the hull it would likely have snapped. On the other hand, if the stressed graphite rod banged the gunnel, it could shatter. I was doing my best to avoid either catastrophe.
    My partner in the bow was handling his own critical situation. He had also hung a big fish that was running deep, equally out of control. Things would soon get worse.

Our Shared Affliction
    Mike Fiore and I often planned to fish together, but either the weather or our work schedules had cancelled out each attempt. This time we hoped it would be different. It was, and in more ways than we had imagined.
    Mike and I work together at Angler’s and often exchange information on where the rockfish are hottest, the best new baits and the hangouts for white perch. I knew the 18-year-old was a skilled angler for his age and that he fished the same kind of gear I did, bait-casting tackle, an affliction not shared widely in the Chesapeake. We wanted to compare techniques.
    Finally we were both free on the same day. Meeting in the early morning, we acquired ice and a bag of bloodworms. We’d agreed that we wanted to live-line for stripers, a technique special to the tackle we both favored.
    The problem with our plan was the scarcity of small Norfolk spot, the number-one bait to live-line for stripers. Once on the water we ­couldn’t find spot the right size anywhere. But we did find some smaller white perch.
    We reasoned that if the rockfish had as much trouble as we did finding spot, the spikey white perch just might work. A sharp-spined, thick-scaled perch is a distant second choice, compared to spot, for predatory striped bass. But if they were hungry enough they should eat them.

Bait in the Water
    With barely enough whities for bait, we headed for the Eastern Shore around the area of the Sewer Pipe. Running well out into the Bay a few hundred yards north of the Bay Bridge,  the pipe is the outflow from a sewage processing plant on Kent Island. Protected by steeply piled rock for the entirety of its length, it creates underwater structure that is a magnet for marine life. That marine life often includes big rockfish.
    A small, tight school of fish below produced marks on my fish-finder that strongly indicated striped bass below. Dropping down a couple of wriggling perch, we lightly thumbed our spools, feeding out line and feeling the actions of the baitfish as they strained for the bottom.
    Within seconds, we’d had that double hookup. We kept the big rock separated as long as we could, but as we drew them close the inevitable happened: Our lines crossed. Mike was fishing braid and I mono, so the situation was dire. Under tension, the ultra-thin braid will slice through mono like soft butter.
    Luckily for us the fish were played out and docile. Though we had a line tangle to undo, both stripers (twins at 34 inches) were quickly netted and in the cooler. Over the next hour we then enjoyed another double header (both released as too big) and then two 26-inch singles to manage our last two keepers. (The daily individual limit for rockfish is two fish over 20 inches, only one of which can exceed 28 inches.)
    That day, white perch were on the rockfish menu and rockfish were on our own.

We found success in a pair of fat stripers at the Bay Bridge

Drifting next to the towering structure, I eased my bait over the side. With only a quarter-ounce weight, it took the chunk of soft crab a while to near the bottom. Thankful that the slow tidal current allowed us to work close on the massive piling, I lifted my rod to be sure that my rig wouldn’t get fouled on the old construction debris below. It was irritating to find that my bait was already solidly snagged.
    I pulled harder in hopes that the rig would break loose but with no effect. Easing my skiff up-current to try for a better angle, I realized that my line’s position in the water was changing faster than the boat was moving. I lifted the rod firmly to test my suspicion. That was when it really bent down. My reel’s drag sizzled as line poured out following something big and deep and now headed in the direction of Baltimore.

Our Last Choice
    The morning for once had started exactly as the weatherman predicted. Overcast skies, light winds and moderate temperatures made a perfect day for fishing the Bay. Armed with a fresh supply of menhaden direct from the netter and a frozen bucket of chum, we were as prepared as possible for a good day. But just for insurance, at the last minute I had also packed a half-dozen soft crabs.
    Arriving on-site with my partner Moe, we noted a friend had beaten us to the fishing. The location, at the mouth of a nearby river, had had a hot bite for the last few days, and we expected nothing less than that this morning. However, our friend did not, have good news. Though the conditions were still superb and he had been grinding chum over the side and set up with bait as fresh as ours, he had not had so much as a nibble.
    Cruising the surrounding waters with my eyes glued to the electronic finder, I confirmed his results. Baitfish galore lit up the screen, but we could mark no rockfish or anything that might have been a gamefish. We headed farther south with the assurance that our friend would call us if the fish showed.
    But there were no stripers at our next spot either, despite the presence of a scattered fleet of boats already anchored and fishing. Venturing even farther south and with similar results, we hadn’t so much as wet a line as the morning wore on.
    Off in the distance I saw the Bay Bridge was not yet clustered with boats, a surprise with the holiday weekend so near. The lack of boats meant that either the structure was still empty of fish or that an opportunity was finally upon us.

One Big Pair
    Our first two tries at drifting soft crab among the pilings were blanks, but our next was golden. After finally spotting some good marks on our screen and dropping our baits, Moe was soon fast to a 25-inch striper. Five minutes later at the same spot, my rod was bent to the corks as my own powerful fish headed away deep.
    It took quite a while to get the fish under control and to the boat. At the last minute, it even looked like our net was too small. But Moe managed the hefty striper in and over the side. After that we boated two or three more rockfish that, while over the minimum legal size of 20 inches, looked meager compared to the beauties we already had in the box. We foolishly released them, hoping for more of the big guys.
    That was when a school of white perch arrived and began gobbling up our supply of softies. With our 6/0 hooks intended for stripers we caught few perch, but within 15 short minutes we were out of crab.
    Though we subsequently attempted to fill out our rockfish limits using our fresh menhaden, it was not to be. The bite proved dead wherever we tried. But with a really nice pair of stripers in the cooler it was hard to be disappointed.

If you want to catch fish, you can’t wait for a perfect conditions

Even as we headed out, the day already looked challenging. Wind predicted at eight knots was easily twice that, and my small skiff was rocking and rolling under overcast skies. Donning foul weather coats, we soldiered on, ignoring a chill spray blowing down the port side onto both of us.
    The day before in perfect weather, my short morning scouting run met defeat. In my hour cruise over recently productive areas I had marked nothing, no bait and no rockfish. Running out of time (I had to ferry some house guests to catch their planes that day), gloom settled over me. Where had all the fish gone?
    Now we were trying a more northerly area, heading out just after sunup with a good supply of chum and bait. At our target location, we saw that if the weather got any worse, we would have to pull the plug. Instead, it stayed only miserable.
    I had seen widely distributed marks on my fish finder as we arrived, but the boat was heaving about so that the screen got little detail. Were those marks scattered baitfish, rockfish or both? Were they even fish? I couldn’t even guess.
    The alternatives were simple: Keep looking for better marks or hunker down in the snotty weather (did I mention it was beginning to rain?) in hope the stripers would come to us. We threw in our lot with staying put.
    We finally got the anchor set, the chum bag over the side and our four rods rigged and baited and trailing out nicely in the swift tidal current. As usual of late, the currents seemed to be running at least four to five hours later than the printed schedules indicated.
    It took a long and uneasy half-hour for the first striper to find our baits. My rod tip dipped, then plunged down, and line began pulling off my reel. With the clicker making merry sounds, I dropped the reel into gear. My rod bent nicely as I set the hook. Within a few minutes we had a fat, healthy, 22-inch rockfish in the net. Breathing a sigh of relief, we declared the looming skunk banished.
    It didn’t take long for the next fish, but it was too close to the minimum size, 20 inches, to trust in the cooler (they shrink some once iced, and measuring was difficult in the heaving boat), so it went back over the side. Another throwback, then another came on board. Were we going to be swamped by shorties?
    The next fish answered that question. It was another 22-incher, followed quickly by a 23, then another 23 and we were done, two quick limits.
    Now getting our gear cleared became the problem. We had three rigs still in the water after netting the last fish, and two were bent over from fish running with our baits.
    Struggling to boat the extras, we had to face a disquieting trend. The rockfish now coming over the side were bigger than the ones in the box.
    Exchanging a rockfish already in your possession for a larger one more recently caught is called culling and is outlawed by Maryland Department of Natural Resources. It is also a death sentence for the fish. A significant percentage of fish released in this practise, even if they appear vital, expire from the stress, especially with the warmer water of summer.
    Shrugging off temptation we released the interlopers and headed for the ramp in victory.
    That’s when the sun broke through the overcast, the rain stopped and the wind died to a gentle breeze. As we arrived at the ramp there ­wasn’t a trace of the miserable weather we had endured. It was now a balmy, bluebird day.

Here’s how to make it work for you

Chumming has always been an excellent way to catch rockfish in the Chesapeake. It’s not particularly demanding in technique or equipment, so just about anyone with a boat who is willing to invest some time can consistently score some really nice fish with this method. As a bonus, it can be easily done with medium-weight spin or bait-casting tackle.
    The basics are simple. Anchored up in a moving tide, the angler suspends over the side of the boat a mesh bag that contains a frozen block of ground menhaden. Also commonly called alewife and bunker in the mid-Bay, menhaden are the favorite food of rockfish.
    The ground menhaden thaws and disperses into the tidal current, attracting rockfish sometimes from great distances. Cut pieces of whole baitfish are then hooked and fished suspended on the bottom for the rockfish to discover and eat. It is a very simple yet effective technique.
    There are, however, strategies that can improve your chances. The first and most important is locating and securing a supply of really fresh baitfish. Top-quality is evidenced by a minimum amount of blood in the bag and the high sheen of silvery white fish that are firm and have a good odor.
    That’s not to say you can’t catch stripers with a bag of two- or three-day-old fish that are off-color and a bit soft. All of us have. But the fresher the bait, the better the bite. Plus your chances of scoring bigger fish increase.
    Keep that bait buried in ice. Menhaden degrade rapidly. If not kept well iced, they immediately begin to soften and spoil. Leaving bait exposed to the sun or warming on the boat is self-defeating. Keep your bait cold, always.
    Buy plenty of baitfish. This is not the place to save money. The first vertical cut of the menhaden, just behind the head, is the prime piece. It contains the internal organs in the body cavity. In the middle of that gut will be the heart. Put that gob on your hook first (with your hook through the heart), then add the piece of fish. You will be surprised how often this draws the first bite and the biggest rockfish.
    Rockfish are a school fish, and when one fish begins to eat, it sends a signal to all of them to eat as well. Change your baits every 20 minutes; by that time most of the scent will have been washed out. Rockfish will find your baits and eat them much quicker when their scent trails are clear.
    The chum bags available today are generally made with a mesh size too small. Cut a few extra holes (about an inch wide) in the bottom of the bag to let the bigger chunks of the chum wash out. You want to attract rockfish, not make the chum last as long as possible.
    The last tip is to use a large enough hook and leave the point and barb well exposed. Hook the menhaden, not too deeply, near the spine at the top of the piece of bait. A rockfish is used to feeling sharp things in its mouth. Just about everything it eats has spines or hard points so the incidental prick of a hook will not frighten or alert it.
    Early in the season (until mid-July at least) a size 5/0 to 7/0 bait hook is not too big if you’re seeking fish in the 30-inch class. After that, as the bigger fish leave for the ocean, gradually reduce your hook size to match the schoolies that remain.


Conservation News

    Natural Resources Police received a complaint on May 12 concerning a large number of dead fish floating near Town Creek, a tributary of the Patuxent. Searching the area, officers saw a commercial vessel, the McKenzie Leigh, unloading fish at a nearby pier. The vessel was holding about 14,000 pounds of croaker and other species. Officers from four counties were assigned to measure the entire catch in an effort that took 12 hours. Approximately 3,500 pounds (about 10,000 fish) were found to be undersized. Charges are pending.

With only one flounder in the cooler, it’s a good thing we could count on it for four fillets

Feeling the undulations of the sandy bottom telegraph up my graphite casting rod, I kept a cautious thumb on the reel spool. Our day drifting live bull minnows for summer flounder was starting slow. My son Harrison, his girlfriend Jerica and I had hoped to score enough fish for a family dinner. We hadn’t yet risen to the challenge.
    The fishing boats we had encountered had all given us the thumbs down when we inquired as to their luck, so we had redoubled our efforts. Jerica was particularly focused on hooking one. She had never caught a fish, nor even been fishing, and today she intended to rectify that void in her life.
    There is nothing on board luckier than a beginning angler, and a new woman angler is double lucky; it isn’t by accident luck is called a lady.
    I was ruminating on that thought when I saw Jerica’s rod dart down.
    She expertly lowered her rod (it’s always amazing when someone does something right the very first time) to allow the flounder to get the bait well back into its mouth. Then she raised the rod slowly and, when she felt resistance, pulled back hard. Fish on!

Floundering Again
    We have been going to a beach house in Bethany every summer for more than 30 years. In the earliest days I fished frequently, but that was during the time of the big trout, bluefish and flounder runs. Fishing slowed down after that, mostly from commercial overharvest, and so did my oceanside efforts. With my wife and me, three kids and many of their friends, the amount of gear got to be too much. It had been a long time since I fished the back bays of Ocean City.
    This year turned out to be different. The boys had grown and were coming down on their own, so my wife and I had to pack only for ourselves. Life had become simpler.
    I decided to fish again, particularly for flounder, for there are mighty few fish that can compare on the dinner plate. The flounder is also an interesting fish. A member of the flatfish family, it is born looking quite like every other fingerling with an eye on each side of its head and swimming upright. But soon it turns to swimming on its right side. That side of the fish becomes its bottom, and the right eye gradually migrates next to the left, now top, side of its head. Its new belly becomes stark white while the upper side takes on a mottled, dark green hue that the fish can modify at will to match the surrounding terrain.
    On our bait-fishing rods were flounder rigs composed of an in-line sinker, three feet of No. 20 fluorocarbon leader, a 4/0 Kahle flounder hook and brightly colored bucktail attractors. Then we lip-hooked a bull minnow on each rig, lowered it to the bottom and drifted on a smartly running tide.

Jerica’s Fish
    I didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who lost Jerica’s first fish, so I took great care in netting that flounder, especially since they can also swim backwards. Once safely on the deck, it measured well over the 16-inch minimum and went quickly into our cooler.
    A few minutes later Harrison and I hooked up with skates that had us both fooled for big flounder right up until they were at the net. We threw them back, then caught a few shorts. Then the brief bite died.
    Lucky thing a flounder has four fillets.