Fishing for Perch, Casting for Consolation

Some years ago we were wandering around Ireland on vacation and stopped in the little town of Cahirciveen on the coast of County Kerry. The proprietor of our bed-and-breakfast mentioned that a big sea-fishing tournament was underway, so we went down to the harbor to watch the weigh-in.

The competitors had come from an angling club in the Netherlands and seemed pleased with themselves, so it was quite a shock when they produced their catch, which consisted almost entirely of dogfish (sand sharks) and slimy eels.

I asked one Dutchman why anyone would go so far to catch such humble stuff? “We have no choice,” he said. “There’s nothing left to catch where we live.”

Marylander Sherman Baynard, with a pair of plump perch caught on a flyrod in the Choptank River, blames overfishing and a lack of food for vanishing legal-size rockfish. (By Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)

So goes the tyranny of lowered expectations. I was reminded of that experience last week on an excursion to the Choptank River with Sherman Baynard, fisheries chairman of the Maryland Coastal Conservation Association.

Baynard is a dedicated, shallow-water flyrod and light tackle angler who retired from farming to devote himself to fishing tidal rivers around his home in Centreville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He and his wife, Diane, used to go several times a week, trailering their 17-foot Mako wherever the fishing was hot. They love to catch striped bass (rockfish), the Maryland state fish.

But every year Baynard finds it harder, to the point where he now says, “If you gave me a whole day to take you out and all you wanted to do was catch one legal [18-inch] rockfish, I’m not sure I could do it.”

Baynard knows hundreds of shallow-water spots where he used to catch legal-size rock all summer. He still goes out and tries them and finds fish there, but they aren’t legal rockfish, they’re either little ones of eight to 12 inches or white perch about the same size.

“If you want white perch, I can get you a bucket full,” said Baynard.

I’ve been around the Chesapeake long enough to know few fish are tastier, filleted and fried, than white perch, which are from the same family as rock, only smaller. They’re fun to catch on ultra-light tackle or flyrod, too, so off we went last week to load up for a fish fry. We were not disappointed.

Baynard launched at the Talbot County ramp in Bellevue, just across the Tred Avon River from Oxford, and headed out onto the broad Choptank and over to the Dorchester County side. It was a hot summer day, muggy and calm, and the fast ride in an open boat was refreshing. We stopped first at a submerged rock wall near shore, one of dozens he’s mapped over years of exploration, and tossed small spinner baits along its outer edge.

Bang! Plump white perch charged out of the rocks to smack the lures. It was a preview of the day ahead. We roamed from spot to spot around the southern tip of the mouth of the Choptank and down to the Little Choptank, at each stop finding concentrations of hungry perch along with a few throwback-size rock. All were eager to attack spinner baits or Clouser-minnow flies.

The rocks, Baynard explained, were old riprap barriers designed to protect points of land that had long since eroded away. Most were barely submerged, making them hazards to navigation for the unwary but excellent habitat for fish.

Baynard regaled me with tales of big rock he’d caught in the old days five, 10 or 15 years ago. He showed me a spot where Diane had been reeling in a 19-inch rockfish when a 26-incher rushed up and knocked the bucktail lure out of the smaller fish’s mouth and snatched it away, right before their startled eyes.

As fisheries chairman at CCA, Baynard thinks he has a good idea why legal-size rockfish are vanishing from their old haunts. He blames it on overfishing and lack of food. CCA is on record as favoring designating rock a game fish, off-limits to commercial exploitation, and is helping lead the fight to protect menhaden, the bay’s principal baitfish, from massive industrial exploitation by the Virginia-based factory fleet at Omega Protein in Reedville.

While he, like everyone who spends time on the bay, is concerned about declining water quality and its effects on fish, Baynard reckons if the water is clean enough to support big populations of white perch, it’s still clean enough to support similar stocks of rock.

He blames Maryland for not adequately protecting rockfish. “I was talking to Howard King [fisheries chief for the state’s Department of Natural Resources] the other day,” said Baynard. “I asked him why, if rockfish are a ‘recovered species,’ as they say, I can fish all day and not catch one?”

He blames the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal oversight board, for failing to protect menhaden, the principal forage for rockfish, blues, sea trout and other prime game fish. CCA and other conservation groups are tackling ASMFC this summer at a series of public hearings, calling for action to restrict the plunder of hundreds of millions of pounds of the oily baitfish to make cat food and fish oil.

Meantime, for all its problems, the Chesapeake remains an alluring place for a couple of anglers willing to lower their sights. As we sped from one perch hot spot to another last week, Baynard spied a school of rockfish breaking the surface, tearing through a mass of peanut-size menhaden. He stopped to cast into the mayhem, catching and releasing a dozen or so throwback rock in the 10- to 14-inch range.

Things could be worse. “Thirty years from now, when there’s nothing to catch here but catfish and eels,” I said to Baynard, “our kids will probably say, ‘Remember when we used to catch big perch here, and schools of little breaking rock?”

Those were the days . . .