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September 1, 2005

Labor of love thrives on the Chesapeake Bay

By Bill Burton, For The Capital

 

I can recall the days nearly a half century ago when around Labor Day weekend, fishermen of the upper bay started to think about putting their boats up for the season. There weren't that many blues and sea trout around, hardheads were just about gone, perch weren't nearly as plentiful as in recent years and rockfish were quite small by standards of today.

A few fishermen found a better class of stripers drifting eels, mostly at night, at an old wreck off Love Point where more than a few fish had to go back - and not like today because they were too small. Rockfish of more than 15 pounds were valued as spawning stock and had to be released.

For a few years, the old Tidewater Fisheries Commission lowered the legal minimum size to 11 inches from 12, still there were many throwbacks of small fish. Clam chumming was just coming onto the scene, so most boats were trolling - trolling deep around the lumps with small bucktails or spoons.

Wire lines were on most rigs, sinkers were big and heavy, and the standard routine was bottom bouncing under diving gulls and breaking schools of menhaden. Belvedere Shoals and Snake Reef were among the hot spots and fish averaged 13 to 15 inches. and it was keep as many as you want of legal size.

How times have changed. As we approach the Labor Day weekend of '05, any fishermen thinking about putting his boat up for the season would be daft. A great two months if not more of fishing is ahead of us. We'll take a look at how things shape up for the long holiday weekend in a moment, but first:

A SUCCESS STORY: The rockfishing we have today is due in great part to the campaign in the '80s to save the species. Stripers were in big trouble, fish populations were sliding fast, so was angling success, and everyone was reluctant to bite the bullet - many speculated that unless dramatic and meaningful action was taken there wouldn't be enough rockfish around to support a viable fishery, sports or commercial.

Torrey Brown was at the helm of the Department of Natural Resources at the time, Harry Hughes was governor, and Lee Zeni headed fisheries - and also headed those who claimed nothing was really wrong on the rockfish front. It would be mended, he said, no need for severe curtailments or a moratorium. New Englander Dick Russell also was around, and thought otherwise.

Russell was a fishermen, a striper fisherman, and organized a national conference in Washington on striper woes, a meeting I attended - and it became obvious at that session that fishermen and conservationists along the coast not only demanded action, but had become organized and were ready to fight on the state, coastal and federal level to curtail striper catches.

The sports and commercial catches were decimating rockfish stocks - and this stopped when Secretary Brown decided a moratorium was necessary, told the governor, got the green light and the rest is history. Russell covers all of this including the striper battles in other state in his hard cover new book "Striper Wars", which is a good read for those interested in the fishery we have today - and how it got to be as good as it is.

Among Russell's heroes is Bob Pond, who originated the Atom Plug, but spent more time pushing for curtailments of catching than making his popular baits. Pond also founded Stripers Unlimited that joined in the battle.

This book is a Who's Who of those who can and should be thanked for saving the rockfish - also those whose complacency would have allowed them to be wiped out had not Torrey Brown made his fateful decision contrary to the thinking of the upper echelons in fisheries management at the time - and had a governor willing to back him up.

The only thing lacking in this book is the real beginning of the fight to save rockfish that started in the '50s when George Gambrill, president of the Maryland Rockfish Protective Association; Gardner Hoerichs, his veep, and secretary Archie Cohen, fought an uphill battle with the Tidewater Fisheries Commission to curtail commercial catches. They, too, are heroes of the "Striper Wars", but aren't mentioned.

That omission aside, "Striper Wars" is a good volume, well worth reading - and a reminder that the battle to save our fisheries is never over.


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