The Scourge of Summer
Algae blooms mean red tides and stressed fish
We were already launched speeding toward our rendezvous as dawn broke on the Chesapeake.
Then the radio crackled with bad news.
“Don’t bother,” said a friend who had arrived on station first. “There’s a red tide pouring out of the river and the fish have left.”
Rockfish remain good, though algae blooms have made locating them more complicated. Love Point has been good for chumming, live lining and jigging, as have the Gum Thickets, the mouth of the Eastern Bay and the Hill. On the Western Side, Podickery and the Bay Bridge have been producing some fish. Hacketts has been off due to poor water, but south of Tolley down through Thomas Point Light has been proving decent.
It’s summer and, once the water reaches 85 degrees, algae blooms start. Though they are a naturally occurring event, the excessive discharge of nutrients into the Chesapeake from agricultural runoff, sewage treatment facilities and untreated urban stormwater have made the Bay particularly vulnerable.
Red tides, mahogany tides and brown tides are all terms to describe the various hues of this water-borne plague. Of the 700 or so species of naturally occurring algae organisms in the Chesapeake, a dozen or more are able to produce a toxin that kills aquatic life.
However, even the non-toxic varieties in unnaturally high abundance are harmful to feeding fish, shellfish and aquatic creatures that filter water to obtain their food. They also deny life-giving sunlight to submerged vegetation.
When the masses of algae encounter a lack of sunlight due to cloudy days, a cold rain or other sudden drop in temperature, they die and settle to the bottom, decomposing and consuming oxygen in the process. This creates the dead zones, deep-water areas devoid of oxygen and unable to support life.
Getting to Good Water
Since finding the fish is 90 percent of the task of catching fish, locating clean water is key. I don’t even attempt fishing in cloudy, off-color water. Instead, I keep moving until I find clear water then watch my fish finder to clue me in to an area’s potential and the depth where fish are holding. Presenting baits at those particular levels is another key factor to catching fish this time of year.
This is because algae blooms can cause significant thermal stratification or temperature layers in the Bay. The water below concentrations of algae does not receive warming sunlight, cools and becomes denser. The denser water sinks and often, since it has had no contact with the surface, oxygen content can drop to levels that fish find uncomfortable.
Fish will generally congregate at the most oxygen-saturated depth and refuse to move up or down, regardless of how attractive the bait is if it’s not at that level.
Maryland has plans in the works to reduce the nutrient pollution that is causing these problems, but it’s going to take time. Target dates for achieving acceptable levels are more than a decade into the future. It will be expensive, but it’s happening.
Fortunately for anglers, the Chesapeake is a large body of water with many areas of cleaner, clearer water that hold fish and crabs.