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Accounting for Rockfish Tastes

No perch will do if spot’s around

A friend and two buddies started their rockfish expedition by catching four, rather large, (for live lining), eight- to nine-inch spot and about a dozen, perfectly sized, six-inch white perch.
    Cruising to the Bay Bridge and starting with the big spot, they caught four nice stripers within 45 minutes. It took the rest of a long and frustrating day to manage the last two of their six-fish limit with perch as bait.1

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    The Western Shore continues to wax and wane in terms of rockfish availability, but the Eastern Shore holds steady. Love Point is still the place to go if you like to chum and fish cut bait. All along the eastern side down through the Gum Thickets into the Eastern Bay and onto the Hill, trolling and light-tackle jigging as well as bait fishing catches nice fish.
    Big croaker (to 20 inches) are suddenly showing up in the mid-Bay, perhaps fulfilling the promise hinted at in that early initial onslaught of the hardhead back in May. Perch are swarming all over, but many are small. Spot, some of them good sized but no jumbos yet, are beginning to arrive. As south as Chesapeake Beach, the Norfolk are far more numerous and moving north. Crabbing remains decent but not nearly as good as last year. Another summer slough should begin to provide better-sized jimmies.

    Since early June, small live perch have been the go-to bait for seducing rockfish in the mid-Bay. Once the Norfolk spot arrive, striped bass turn up their noses at a white perch no matter what size it is.
    There are a number of possible reasons that rockfish prefer Norfolk spot to white perch. Perch have sharply spined dorsal and anal fins, while spot are a soft-rayed fish, meaning its fins are not prickly. That means the Norfolk can be grabbed any which way and quickly consumed by predator fish. With its spiny defenses, perch are more difficult to seize, manipulate and swallow.
    Perch are also protected by armor in the form of relatively large, thick scales, while spot have tiny scales and are a much softer-bodied. All this makes spot more easily killed and quickly digestible for a rockfish.
    Normally this change of dietary preference up the food chain would not present much of a problem to Bay anglers. There are usually scads of spot of all sizes by this time of year. But last fall was warmer than usual, and the Chesapeake’s yearling spot stayed around much later than they should have.

A Scarce Year for Spot

    A sudden fall temperature drop trapped the fish in deep-water pockets, and they couldn’t escape to the ocean. By late December, falling temperatures killed the trapped yearlings by the millions throughout the Bay.
    Then this spring a massive influx of fresh water from the constant rains lowered the upper Bay’s salinity significantly and delayed the annual migration of mature spot returning to us from the Atlantic.
    The two events have combined to make getting a good supply of smaller, live-lining sized Norfolks a real chore. But spot fishing should improve as salinities continue to rise and more of these baitfish finally complete their migration into our area.
    Of course there are complications other than scarcity that come with using spot for bait. Norfolk spot are much less hardy than white perch. While a five-gallon bucket full of perch can be maintained by occasionally adding some fresh Bay water, spot require a well oxygenated environment such as a live well with continuous water influx or a large live bait bucket equipped with a high capacity aerator.
    Spot will also not stand much crowding. A dozen medium-sized (seven-inch) swimmers is about max for a five-gallon bait bucket, as one frisky spot is far better than three that are exhausted by stress. A big handful of ice added to the live well or bait pail from time to time also helps to keep baitfish livelier.
    If you’re unsure of being able to reliably catch a good supply of live spot for your fishing trip, you have an alternative this year. Both Anglers Sport Center (410-757-5318 on Rt. 50) and LJ Marina (410-757-4166; next to Cantler’s on Mill Creek) plan to keep bait spot for the rest of the season. Be sure to have a good aerated bait bucket to carry them off.


Conservation Alert: $382k Wisely Spent?

    The Department of Natural Resources is paying $382,000 to the Marine Stewardship Council, a non-profit organization (originally started by a giant commercial seafood retailer), to certify Maryland’s striped bass as a sustainable fishery.
    The certification is primarily a commercial marketing vehicle.
    A sustainable fishery designation apparently would affirm that the striped bass in Maryland’s sector of the Chesapeake (and Atlantic Ocean) are abundant, well managed and caught in environmentally friendly ways. A bad review might provide leverage to pressure legislators into putting more money into research and resource management.
    If commercial poaching scandals over recent years, the steadily decreasing resident population of stripers in the Chesapeake, rampant pollution and an unmonitored wholesale marketing system aren’t cause for legislative alarm, the results of this (yet another) expensive paper exercise will do little to improve the situation. The $382 grand would be better spent on additional Natural Resource Police, whose numbers have been halved in the last decade in spite of oyster poaching, illegal netting and crabbing violations.