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Maryland’s Rockfish Seasons

Why today’s forbidden fish are legal tomorrow

Maurice Klein releases a 31-inch rockfish. Had he caught it after May 16, it would have been a keeper.

The rockfish bite had been steady. We’d already caught and released a number of undersized fish when a big one hit Moe’s bait hard. The drag hummed as the fish ran, then turned to the side and — before I could clear the other rigs streaming aft — fouled two of the other lines. Dragging the accompanying baits and sinkers, the powerful fish continued to resist. Eventually Moe battled it to the boat and I netted it.
    That fish would have made a great morning if only it had bit after May 16, the start of the second spring season. We were just a few days shy, so the 31-inch fish went back over the side to go about its business while we sorted out the snarled mess left in its wake. All day we would not get a fish over the 35-inch minimum.
    To avoid harvesting fish carrying eggs, Maryland’s trophy rockfish season is timed by Department of Natural Resources to follow the bulk of the rockfish spawn. This year opening day (always the third Saturday in April) appears to be quite correct, for the vast majority of big females harvested this season have been empty of roe.
    Monday, May 16 begins the second phase of the spring season, when the minimum size drops from 35 to 20 inches and the possession limit increases from one fish to two, only one of which may be greater than 28 inches.
    This second phase of the spring season takes into account a couple of things. Migratory females leave the Bay for the ocean soon after spawning. Males, both resident and migratory, generally remain in the headwaters until the females stop arriving.
    That means that we’ll start seeing large (and smaller) males descending the rivers and the Bay in the next few weeks. Migratory males aren’t as big as the females, but there will still be some substantial fish in the mix. The regulatory provision for one fish over 28 inches allows anglers to bag a big striper without wearing too hard on the overall population of the fish.
    Phase two also targets our resident fish (minimum 20 inches). Rockfish born in the Chesapeake remain here for several years before becoming migratory; they are now also descending the tributaries to feed and school up in the main stem of the Bay. Their numbers are considerable and will constitute the bulk of the fish harvested by recreational and commercial anglers throughout the rest of the year.
    The last part of the rockfish season, the summer/fall season, starts June 1, when all of the tributaries are finally opened for rockfish. Creeks, streams and rivers stay off limits until June to protect both resident fish that continue to spawn through May and migratory fish that show up late (there are always a few). Rockfish season in the Chesapeake will then remain open this year through December 20.
    We caught no trophy-sized fish that May morning, but we had many encounters with lively stripers. Using large cut baits (to target big fish and avoid hooking smaller fish), we had lots of runs that resulted only in excitement. Rockfish, however, have large mouths as well as large appetites, and more than a few of the undersized fish managed to get hooked. We promptly released them, hoping at least some would grow up to be trophies.