Classic Rock

 Vol. 10, No. 21

May 23-29, 2002

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Not-flumoxed for once, Bill Lambrecht weighs a trophy caught on an excursion from Harrison’s Chesapeake House.
This time of year, the hottest attraction on the Bay is a fish.
by Sandra Olivetti Martin

As we looked down on Chesapeake Bay one April evening, two stars were rising.

That night, the Volvo Ocean Fleet raced past. Following in that star’s wake were tens of thousands of people and millions of dollars.

Yet Volvo was a shooting star compared to the star at that same time returning to the ocean through the cool depths of Chesapeake Bay. On April 20, two days after the Ocean Race came our way, Maryland’s Trophy Rockfish Season opened. The star of that season is a fish so big that fishermen mount it on their walls to prove they’re telling the truth.

Avid to greet these big fish is a crowd whose enthusiasm shines brighter, lasts longer and rings the cash register louder than even the Volvo Ocean Race. Volvo fans are admirers, while rockfishermen are obsessed.

The attraction between fishermen — indeed, they are largely men — and rockfish is pheromonal. It may be stronger than mating. At least that’s what many a rockfishing widow will tell you.

“Rock is exciting to fish for. It’s a game fish in every sense of the word,” testifies Keith Walters, Eastern shore fishing columnist and author of the book Chesapeake Stripers.

This year, I’ll see for myself.

A-fishing I Will Go
But first New Bay Times had to be gotten back in the water. Chasing these big rockfish down the Bay takes a boat. These fish are not quite as big as cargo ships, but like the big ships, big rock make their way down the deep central channel of the Bay.

All winter, New Bay Times has been up on blocks while mysteriously awry parts were repaired. April she gets shipshape.

“She’s a keeper,” the guy working next to us at the boatyard told my husband. It wasn’t the boat or the anticipated fish he meant. It was me, 10 feet above them, hosing the deck with a powerwasher while the men watched.

For every hour you work, you get two free hours on the boat, my husband tells me. My account book is getting fat, as scrubbing and polishing are my jobs. Some of those banked hours, I tell him, I want to go chasing rockfish. He — who you may know as Bay Weekly’s Flummoxed Fisherman — doesn’t mind.

“I was so tired after fighting with this fish,” said Douglas Sur, center below, of the monster he caught aboard Capt. Jim Brincefield’s Jil Carrie.
In Season
What is the fish that arouses our ardor?

Morone saxatilis is really a bass, striped gill to tail with the seven or eight closely dotted lines that make it a striped bass everywhere except in Chesapeake Country.

Whatever it’s called, our rockfish cares nothing for the ardor of fishermen. It saves its ardor for growth — of itself and of its species. Ardor for its own kind has brought these April rockfish to Chesapeake Bay. From four years old into their teens — with a few even into their 20s — female rockfish return to the Bay of their birth to spawn new generations. Some two-thirds of coastal bass are Bay-born.

They have been to the ocean, perhaps as far south as Florida and as far north as the St. Lawrence River. But by the earliest stirring of spring, they’ve finned their way — swimming about their own length each second — back into the Bay. As the water warms, some turn into big rivers, the Potomac, the Nanticoke, the Choptank. Others continue high up the Bay. Still others have headed for North Carolina or New York’s Hudson River, for striped bass abound up and down the East Coast. Some 46 million last year, coastal fish-counters figure. For many, the Bay is one address in a wandering life.

Near their spawning grounds, they are joined by males, who’ve hung around their home waters many more years. Now the females drop their eggs. Millions of eggs. As many as three million for a mature 15-year-old down to half a million for a six-year old. The males shoot milt on the semibouyant eggs, and a new generation is conceived.

For fishermen, early-spawning rockfish are strictly out of season. But come the last week in April, spawning comes to an end, at least officially. As the big spawned-out fish head back to the ocean, any over 28 inches long is fair game for rockfishermen. This year, fishermen had 26 days, April 20 to May 15, when only trophy rock were legal. Now until December 15, they can also bring home smaller fish.

Size is one allure that draws fishermen to rockfish. Just ask Douglas Sur of Annapolis, who caught his first big rockfish — a 461/2-incher weighing 31 pounds — on May 3, fishing with Capt. Jim Brincefield. “I never could have imagined a rockfish so big or such a tiring battle to land him. We will be eating rockfish filets for many weeks,” exulted Sur.

That’s big, but it doesn’t take the prize. The largest rockfish brought to the Happy Harbor wharf this season was a 49-inch, 47-pound monster caught aboard Capt. Alex Williams’ Patrick.

“You don’t filet a fish that big. You butcher it,” the Flummoxed Fisherman warned me of our proposed translation of fish to food. Which, of course, was putting the fish before the catch.

The Lore of Lures
Preparing for the opening of rockfishing season, rockfishermen ready themselves like a bride for her wedding.

They have tested their rods and oiled their reels and likely added one or two of each to their collections. Reopening their tackle boxes, they have surveyed their collection of lures, no doubt finding the sum and total wanting.

Rockfish make their natural living off oily little menhaden, silversides and anchovies — plus anything else they can catch, including, in one recorded instance, a mouse. But to catch a trophy rockfish you do not bait your hook with flesh.

To catch a trophy rockfish in spring takes the lure of human ingenuity. The Old Man of our Bay, Bill Burton, has a library of some 250 lures to choose from as he goes out to fish.

Many of the lures in his library are history. “Ragmops were very effective at one time,” he muses. “Hootchies were popular, too, but like ragmop, they’ve gone out of favor. I don’t know why. But I don’t think fish change; it’s probably the fishermen.”

At Tyler’s Tackle in Chesapeake Beach, I saw what Burton meant. Shelves, pegs and rafters are packed with rockfish lures: umbrella rigs, daisy chains, parachutes, bucktails, sassy shad and spoons are the big guns of spring. So I’m told by Janet Campbell, who makes some of the lures.

The biggest gun of all is the umbrella, a contraption whose top resembles the spokes inside its namesake. A rockfishing umbrella wears no cover, but suspended from its exposed spokes are eight gold or green or silver rubber fish. Trailing them, at a distance, are a sassy shad and bucktail — followed by a bigger fish.

“The concept,” explains Burton, “is that a hungry big striper will be convinced it has come upon an edible fish of fair size that is chasing after a small school of baitfish.” An umbrella rig with 15-inch arms costs $16.

Too much? Try the daisy chains. These three-foot-long lures sport two levels of teasers — think of small hula skirts of shimmery white synthetic grass — trailed by a parachute of the same material enclosing a sassy shad and hook.

Parachutes themselves are bigger, denser hula skirts, used alone as well as in combinations.

There’s more in the arsenal. Many lures include sassy shad, which are wiggly plastic minnows in a rainbow of colors, many of them neon hot, with extra choices of iridescence and sparkles.

Bucktails, the dyed tails of real deer, play a big role in the catching. The simplest bucktail lure adds a minnow head, more or less realistically painted. Depending on the size of fish you want to catch, you can buy a bucktail lure at Tyler’s in sizes ranging from 1/8-ounce with a #1 hook to six ounces with a #10 hook.

There are also Bass Assassins, Crippled Alewives, Gotchas and Stretches, surgical hoses and Drones, plus Exploders, Cha Raiders (‘This Is No Game’ is their motto) and Squid Subs — as in submarine. Most are dry, but you can also choose a wet lure. This is not the language of flyfishing we’re talking. The wet Bass Assassin at Tyler’s is squishy wet when you buy it in its sealed plastic bag, enriched with both a mystery enzyme and hog lard.

Baiting My Hook
To lure a spring trophy rockfish, I consider looks: not only what I like but also my imagination of how this or that lure might look to a giant fish as it moves through the water. To increase my odds, I have also consulted the experts.

“Umbrellas work,” Burton wrote in his May 2 column in this paper, “Fishing Is the Greatest Sport of All.”

“Only trouble is, with all the paraphernalia involved in an umbrella rig, the catching is about as much fun as reeling in an old boot inside which is a cinder block.”

With lighter lures and line, says Burton, you get “the feel of the fish as it does battle, the meaningful and sporting joy of fishing as it is supposed to be.”

The lightest tackle belongs to the flyfishermen. Their lures are lightweight water-ticklers. They are at least as diverse as the heavy artillery we’re talking about and, flyfishermen will tell you, more artful, for often as not they have been home-tied. But that is another kind of fishing for another season.

I bet my $4.75 on sporting joy assisted by argodynamics. For the first lure I have ever bought for myself, I choose a nice #8 bucktail handmade by George Klein, who owns Tyler’s Tackle. It’s heavier than I wanted, but Klein says I had better not go lighter this time of year. Its white tail hairs emerge from the fluorescent green head of a surrogate minnow. Its neck is wrapped in red thread to match its gaping mouth and red-rimmed eye. Yum-yum, I think, thinking like a fish.

Alluring as it looks to me, it’s not nearly as big as an umbrella. So I hope that rockfish have good eyes to guide them to my bucktail in the heavy, bottle-brown waters of Chesapeake Bay.

Fish Have Ears
On the eyesight of rockfish, I’m in the dark. On their hearing, I am better informed. Back in the early 1990s, Arthur Popper, then chairman of the University of Maryland’s zoology department, studied the hearing of rockfish so that he could teach fish farmers to call their flocks. “Based on what I know about fish hearing, which is basically as much as anyone in the universe knows, these guys can hear,” he told the Associated Press.

About the same time, Popper’s colleague at the university’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, David Secor, was carrying on another study that suggests rockfish ought to be able to hear. He was counting the rings on their earbones. Fishermen were bringing him the otoliths so he could track, and ultimately prove, that a generation of striped bass was missing.

Also Appetites
Luremakers ply their trade by thinking like a fish. Except during spawning, the thoughts of a rockfish are all food. Rockfish are dedicated to transforming food into fish. From a transparent matchhead-size egg, the rockfish you’re after in spring trophy season has grown mightily.

That it’s lived for you to catch makes it one of the lucky few.

The two or three days of its egghood through its larval stage is its most vulnerable. Each egg is far more likely to feed other life than grow into a life of its own. A legal-sized rockfish has also beaten fluctuating water temperatures, starvation and pollution. It has survived metals leached into the rivers of its infancy and malathion sprayed, for example, to kill mosquitoes. And it found enough to eat, which gets harder as chlorine from sewage treatment centers and discharge from power plants knock zooplankton out of the rich stew of microscopic ingredients on which little fish feed.

If a striper survives to one inch, it swims from the open Bay into shallow water where food is abundant. There, if it does not become someone else’s dinner, it grows fast. By its first birthday, a big rock will be 10 inches long.

July, August and September of each year, Maryland Department of Natural Resources throws out its net, a 100-foot seine, to count the surviving fry. Juveniles are netted at 22 natural nursery spots in the upper Bay and its rivers. All the casts are averaged to figure the all-important Young of the Year Index, which shows how the fishery thrives and, ultimately, tells fishermen how many they can catch. Last year’s average of 60 was the second-highest catch ever. But compared to the number of eggs laid, it’s a drop in the bucket.

Past the fingerling stage, the rockfish knows no limits to its growth. By four, the average rockfish will be 18 to 21 inches long and weigh from two to three pounds — roughly one pound per 10 inches. Once it reaches that size, a rockfish is a keeper if you catch it in any season but spring.

By five years, rockfish are two feet long and pack about two pounds per 10 inches. By eight years, most female rockfish are trophy season keepers. At about 30 inches, they pack about three pounds into each 10 inches of length.

By 11 or 12 years, the average is a 22-pound, 40-inch fish, with about six and a half pounds packed into every 10 inches. Males, which stay smaller, lower the average.

Just how misleading those averages can be is proved by the stuffed rockfish hanging on the wall of the St. Michaels’ home of Chelsea Lynn charter captain Alan Faulkner. He claims it’s 50 inches and weighed 50 pounds.

The oldest recorded rockfish lived to 31 years. The size record is 125 pounds and about five feet. That’s a bigger fish than I hope to catch.

The Chase
As the sun rises, the fishermen are ready to go after ’em.

It’s not only eagerness that has them out so early. “Fish notoriously bite better at the edge of darkness,” says Burton, who at 75 still has the fisherman’s legendary stamina, partying into the wee hours on the night of a fishing trip, then rising at 5:30am for a day on the water.

Captains who make fishing their business leave the dock by 7am. If the fishing’s slow, they may not return until mid-afternoon.

A party of six — called a six-pack — pays $475 to spend a day on the Jil Carrie with Capt. Jim Brincefield. The price is not much different on any of the charter boats that dock at Deale, Chesapeake Beach, Kent Island, Tilghman Island or Solomons. To about $80 per fisherman, add the expected 15 to 20 percent tip for the mate, whose job is to relieve you of all the work of fishing but catching.

Pay your share to make up a party, and your captain, the mate and his boat do the work for you. They supply the tackle down to the lures, and they get the lines into the water. Then the boat does the fishing, for trophy rockfishing is a slow cruise, trailing stout line and fancy lures where you expect the rockfish might be. It’s reminiscent of teens in big cars on a summer Friday night.

Of course, with a boat, you could do this yourself, and the Flummoxed Fisherman and I intend to. We’ll pay a far higher price for our sport, but mostly in the hidden expenses of boating, so we pretend our days on the Bay are free. There’s another difference, too. A charter captain can usually find the fish.

We’re weekend fishermen, at best, but a charter captain does this day in and day out. Brincefield ran 235 trips last year, and 25 in this spring’s trophy season. Buttressing that wealth of experience is the modern captain’s high-tech array of electronics. Your average charter boat is not quite as well equipped as a submarine, but it’s got ears out for fish.

This time of year, when the big rockfish are on the move, ocean bound, your captain is likely to steer a course out to where the big ships steam.

Brincefield is different from many captains: He broadcasts his honey holes. “In trophy fishing,” he says, “typically we fish the shipping channel and the shipping channel edges. We usually start east or northeast of Deale in the spring. Bloody Point Lighthouse is one early spot. Buoy 83 is another. As the season goes on, we follow the mass of migrating fish south to places like Parker Creek, Cove Point to as far as 30 miles south of Deale at Hooper Island Buoy.”

Adds Burton, who’s fished four decades on Chesapeake Bay: “The trophy fish are not hanging out. They’re on their way out after spawning to go north up the coast.”

Fishing & Catching
“You just try to think like a fish and imagine where you would be under certain circumstances,” says Burton. “Like us, they like comfort: water that’s a good temperature, oxygen, a current.”
His guidance takes New Bay Times to the edges of the channel. With Deale on the Western Shore and Tilghman Island on the Eastern, we drop our lines in 35 feet of water. Approaching Buoy 83, the bottom drops to 50 feet.

Look for them “near the surface looking for warmth and comfort,” Burton has said, so my charter captain, the Flummoxed Fisherman, weights our lines with a bit of sinker. To one of his heavy poles he’s tied on my six-ounce bucktail decorated with a glittery green sassy shad. On his is a parachute and shad combination. He drops out the lines and we troll.

I expect I’ll catch one first. My confidence is buoyed by authority, for in choosing a bucktail I’ve unwittingly selected Capt. Brincefield’s favorite. The Flummoxed Fisherman’s choice, the parachute, is only Brincefield’s “second favorite.”

Big as this Bay is and scattered as its fish are, we may catch one. Everybody does.

In the 27 days of the 2002 trophy season, fishermen out with Brincefield caught 240 fish, averaging 33 inches and 18 pounds. Only seven fishermen missed their spring trophy rockfish. With 28 inches the smallest keeper, the “beast from the East,” as Brincefield titles the biggest of the day’s catch, usually measured about 37 inches.

On the charter docks at the end of a fishing day, the mates clean the catch. They slice giant filets from each side of the fish, yielding eight to 15 pounds of meat. Most of the skeletons, head and tail still attached, go to crabbers who use them in their live boxes to feed the crabs. Some anglers take their fish home whole to show their families and friends their trophies. Some have their fish scaled and gutted whole to cook on the grill or bake in the oven stuffed with crabmeat. Some take the carcasses home along with the filets and boil them to make fish soup. A few get tossed back in the water, and their huge, sorry skeletons wash up on Bay beaches all spring.

Last year, 381,095 rockfish were caught in Maryland waters, and 919,903 in the whole Bay. Rock, remember, are big fish. For Maryland sports fishermen alone, that catch amounted to 2,022,000 pounds of meat. Commercial fishermen added another 2,348,500 pounds to the massive harvest.

Fishing with Bill Burton’s famed Waters and Woods fishing party, Sen. Barbara Mikulski caught a striper nearly as big as herself.
Rocked Out
It has not always been thus.

When we came to Chesapeake Country in 1985, bluefish reigned as rock do now.

It was bluefish that stole my husband’s heart, as I’m reminded whenever I come upon the photo of him grinning foolishly at the camera above the biggest fish he had ever caught in home waters. He caught it his first day out on the Bay, and that 15-pound fish had him hook, line and sinker.

Hooked by the lure of Chesapeake sportsfishing, he equipped himself in a style to which Midwesterners are not accustomed. On top of heavy-duty rods and saltwater reels and a tacklebox full of lures came the boat, sold to us by the very homeboy (yes, they were emigrants from the same Midwestern city) who’d taken him fishing.

Every minute the Flummoxed Fisherman was not fishing, he was dreaming about fishing. Still, it was five years before he caught a rockfish.

From 1985 to 1990, not a single legal rockfish was caught in Maryland waters. After a record catch in 1973, 1981 produced the lowest number of juveniles in history: fewer than five fish per netting. Overfishing and all sorts of indirect human pressures on the Bay could have driven another species into memory.

Instead, the rockfish — the Bay’s signature fish, the fish George Washington caught and ate — became a federal case. First, in 1984, Congress approved the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act. Then in 1985 Maryland — eventually followed by Virginia — closed the fishery. With the moratorium came a heck of a fuss. Newspaper clippings from those days are full of the same kind of apocalyptic rhetoric you read last year, when declining numbers of blue crabs revived new talk of cutbacks.

About rockfish, the scientists were right. Give the cows time to mature to multimillion-egg layers and the fishery would rebound. The Young-of-the-Year measures climbed. The class of 1989 shot up to the magic number, and the moratorium was lifted.

“Hordes of baby rockfish in Bay,” The Sun trumpeted in September, 1993. “The biggest crop in 40 years.”

Rockfishing returned slowly, with careful seasons and limits until, in 1995, the species was declared recovered.

“Is it crazy, with all the Bay’s current problems, to think of returning to a golden age of fishing, an abundance and diversity of sport and seafood not seen for half a century? I say that as of May 18, 1994, it is not crazy at all,” Bay sage Tom Horton wrote in The Sun.

In the recovery of rockfish, he saw not only a golden age but a golden rule for saving species.

Coming Back
Today, Chesapeake Bay is more full of rockfish than it’s been in decades. Those fish mean hundreds of millions of dollars to the regional economy. But in the complex web of Bay ecology, ever more may not be ever better.

The dark lining in the silver cloud of rockfish recovery may be mycobacteriosis. That nasty infection of skin and inner organs, related to leprosy and tuberculosis in humans, loves a crowd. Increasingly, it’s being reported in rockfish. Whether it’s a blip or an epidemic in the making, nobody knows.

All that’s certain about such outbreaks as this, and pfisteria before it, is that there are more questions than answers in this living ecosystem we call Chesapeake Bay.

There’s time to meditate on such questions when you’re fishing. Most of the time spent trolling, nothing’s happening but the Bay. Minutes, and then hours, roll like water under your hull. Ideas, images, feelings ease through your brain the way these fish must slide through water. The fish are down there, fast and thick and elusive as your thoughts. Maybe that’s what it means to think like a fish.

Mostly, you don’t catch either one.

No, I didn’t catch a big fish in this trophy season. Yesterday morning I caught sight of an eagle. And I’ve had a fine time with wind and waves and water, which is what I’ve always liked best about fishing. That and the taste of a fresh fish dinner.

And, of course, the thrill of the catch, when all of a sudden you prove that there is life out there by pulling up a glistening, fighting alien that breathes water the way we breathe air. But I don’t mind the waste of my new bucktail. Nor do I mind missing the temptation to convert to food a fish with far better things to do in life than feed me. For it’s these big ones that support the species.

What I’m really up to out here, as I’ve learned from my mentor, Bill Burton, is fishing — not catching. So I’ll be back. This weekend, in fact, when I can cast my lure for the smaller fish 18 inches and up that are in season from now until December 15.

I like spin casting — which I learned luring pike in the lakes of Ontario — way better than trolling. Casting connects you with the water, and when you’re on a roll, you can feel right through the water to your fish. I’m learning now to cast flies, too, and that’s how I’m hoping to catch a rockfish this year.

The rock we’re after, the other fishermen and I, will be hanging out, not passing through, so we’ll look for them near structures, like bridge pilings, and in holes. One of those holes is just a line’s throw, by canoe, from the porch on which, mid-April, I watched two stars rising.

One of those stars, the rockfish, will illuminate our Bay nearly to Christmas. Surely I’ll catch one by then.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly