Whew—what a winter! Dry cold in the teens and wind chills in the single digits, interspersed by powdery snows; the most ice on the Bay since 1977; then a major slush storm in mid-February. What comes next is anybody’s guess. Will there be any good fishing opportunities when the weather finally turns? Sure, but 2014 looks like a year to treat the Chesapeake ecosystem gently. Here’s why >>>
» Our rockfish stock has declined from the peak in the last decade. It’s time to adjust our harvest. In May, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) will begin the process of developing a new addendum to the coastal striped bass management plan that will incorporate new reference points for harvest mortality rates and some options for reducing both commercial and recreational harvests in 2015. This is exactly the kind of process envisioned in the 1984 Striped Bass Conservation Act for adjusting harvests during inevitable periodic stock declines. It seems slow, but it is driven by far better science than we had when the stock crashed in the 1980s, and it is kicking in with a much larger stock of fish than what was out there in 1985. One point of concern is that tagging programs are indicating higher natural mortality rates than those of 10 years ago. The scientists working on this issue believe this worrisome increase may be a stress response to a generally degraded environment—a good reason for anglers to get more involved in Bay restoration programs.
» As we put this forecast together in mid-February, there are troubling reports surfacing that the cold weather has killed overwintering speckled trout from the Rappahannock’s tributary Corrotoman River to the Lynnhaven River and into the North Carolina sounds. During the past two mild, dry winters, specks have turned up in surprising places, spreading out their winter range in the Chesapeake’s tributaries. This year, though, winter caught them. Everyone who loves these beautiful fish hopes that they are gradually increasing here in the Bay. But their current progress is definitely two steps forward, one step back.
» At least two important forage species are not doing well in the Chesapeake. There’s hope that the limits that the member states of the ASMFC placed on menhaden in late 2012 will begin to bear fruit, but we may have to wait a couple of years to see improvement in the stock of this very important species. Bay anchovies, also known as rainbait, are also very important, especially to rockfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel. The anchovys’ numbers have also been down in recent years. There is some research in progress on these nearly transparent little fish, but we are only just beginning to pay serious attention to our Bay’s forage species.
» The health of the Chesapeake is still delicate. While nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from wastewater treatment plants and agriculture are steadily dropping, the levels of those same pollutants coming from runoff are still rising. New programs to deal with polluted runoff in Virginia and Maryland, (and, to a lesser extent, Pennsylvania) hold promise, but they will take several years to come online and begin to show results. Meanwhile, algae blooms fueled by the pollutants continue to cause oxygen-depleted dead zones. One result is damage to the benthic (bottom-dwelling) Bay communities of worms, anemones, sponges and small shellfish that play critical roles in the food web, especially for blue crabs and bottom-feeding fish like spot and croakers.
» Finally, 2013 was a poor year for several important recreational species. In the lower Bay, spadefish never appeared for the summer. The Virginia Salt Water Fishing Tournament issued only two citations (both released), and they came from the Atlantic, outside the capes. The fish were absent from traditional spots around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and the Cell. The tournament also registered only three croaker citations, and none at all for gray trout (weakfish). Shallow water fishing for rockfish was poor during Virginia’s seasons, and though an amazing number of 25- to 32-inch fish turned up between Poplar Island and Baltimore in Maryland, the area from Poplar Island south all the way to the mouth of the Potomac had very few.
So how should Chesapeake anglers respond to these changes? First, be positive. There are still some great fish available, but this year promises to put a premium, more than ever, on being opportunistic and versatile. Second, consider learning to catch new species, like sheepshead in the lower Bay or catfish in the upper tidal rivers. Both are strong fighters and great to eat. Third, if you do catch rockfish and specks, think carefully about how many you want to harvest and be careful to release them gently. There will be good opportunities for anglers from April all the way through December, but this will not be a “business as usual” season. Exercise your inventiveness, though, and you may find that the changes make you a more skillful, and even more enthusiastic angler.
FORECAST BY SPECIES
These long-lived fish seem to travel around the Chesapeake according to their own schedule and itinerary, turning up not only in traditional spots like Cape Charles and the Stone Rock at the mouth of the Choptank but also on live bottom reefs all the way up to the mouth of the Chester. Most are caught on bait, but every year several anglers jigging with light tackle get surprised by one of these 40- to 90-pound behemoths. Most are released, but a few smaller, tastier blacks have turned up recently in places like the Cooks Point reef-ball field in the mouth of the Choptank.
Once again, last year there were very few large bluefish in the Chesapeake, but 3- to 6-pound fish made for a reasonable incidental catch at the mouth of the Potomac, and smaller ones came all the way up to the Bay Bridge late in the summer. These smaller blues are great fun on light tackle, and they taste much better than the larger ones.
These whiskery critters are finally getting some respect in the low-salinity and tidal fresh portions of the Chesapeake and its rivers. The James, the Rappahannock and the Potomac are action central for huge blue catfish, while the head of the Bay (the tidal Susquehanna) is growing a lot of flatheads. Both are invasive species that have sparked controversy, but they are here to stay, so we might as well learn to live with them. Tournament anglers and guides tend to release the large specimens unless they are records, and these huge apex predators have undoubtedly “bio-accumulated” enough pollutants to make most catfish connoisseurs think twice about eating them. Better to target abundant cats in the 2- to 10-pound range for good sport and excellent eating. Other rivers like the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Patuxent, Nanticoke, Choptank and Chester have channel cats that will eat both bait and lures. They are arguably the best eating fish anyway. Have some fun with them this year!
These big fish, which tagging studies tell us winter along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, seem to be holding their own. Most of the fishing for them occurs in the lower Bay, especially from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Cell, but a few cobia have been showing up around Tangier Bar and even up into Maryland. Look for them from June to September with cut bait and eels, attracting them to your boat with a chum bag. At each end of the season, they will tend to be around the bridge-tunnel and nearby shoals, but in August, they will spread out along the buoys of the Baltimore Channel running along the Bayside of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where they will strike lures like bucktails and even flies.
Along the Atlantic Coast, summer flounder have gone through a painful rebuilding process, but the stock is now rebuilt. The largest fish that spend the summer in the Chesapeake still favor the cooler water and rough bottom of the bridge-tunnel, but there should be reasonable numbers for anglers who target them along channel edges with cut and live bait and jigs all the way up to Poplar Island.
Growing numbers of both big “bull reds” and “puppy drum” have been a good story over the past several years as the fish have expanded their range north in the Chesapeake. Like specks, these “redfish” tend to favor warmer waters, but historically they ranged as far north as New Jersey, and conservative management along the coast is allowing the stock to expand. Like black drum, reds live for many years, and throughout their range on this coast, they are exposed to harvest for only about 18 months of their lives. Big fish enter the Bay in late April and stay into October, wintering in the Atlantic off Virginia and North Carolina. Last year, the Virginia Tournament issued more than 900 citations for large red drum, all of which were released, and some trollers in Maryland caught (and released) them while searching for rockfish. Meanwhile, puppy drum have become a happy staple for inshore anglers in Virginia, and more are showing up in Maryland, mixed in with rockfish and speckled trout. Some of these smaller drum have been wintering in the Bay, and they appear to have survived the winter better than the specks. Look for them in the lower sections of Virginia’s rivers, in Tangier Sound, and along the Bayshore up into the Choptank.
The large 2011 year class that we have been catching and carefully releasing since late in the summer of their birth will reach legal harvest size (18 inches) this year, and there should be plenty of them up and down the Bay, available to catch by all of the usual techniques. This year’s class, however, is the only strong one in the past few years; the following year (2012) was a bust, while last year was only fair. Right now, the “spawning stock biomass” (fish old enough to breed) is above the ASMFC’s target for management, and one possible silver lining of this nasty winter is that its weather may produce good conditions for rockfish fry in April, May and June. But for the moment the 2011 fish really do represent the future, so we would do well to go easy on them voluntarily. The Coastal Conservation of Maryland (www.ccamd.org) offers a new approach called “My Limit is One” which involves keeping only one fish a day and setting a voluntary minimum size limit of 24 inches to avoid killing any 2011 fish. Again, this program is strictly voluntary, and concerned Bay anglers are certainly free to develop their own voluntary conservation programs (within the legal limits, of course)—like harvesting a pair for a family dinner one day and releasing the entire catch on another trip. Either way, think through your needs and manage your fishbox accordingly. And be sure to use the best release techniques possible for any fish you return to the water. Careful Catch, a joint CCA/MD/Chesapeake Bay Foundation/BoatU.S. program (www.carefulcatch.com) offers good scientific information and best practices for returning fish to the water with minimal damage.
Last year, the Virginia Salt Water Fishing Tournament issued one or more speckled trout citations for every day of the year, as it did in 2012. That won’t happen this year, because of the winter conditions. North Carolina has already closed its commercial and recreational fisheries until June to allow the remaining stock to spawn, and at press time, both Maryland and Virginia were considering the same action. There will certainly be specks out there this year, but as with rockfish, this is a good year to be careful with harvests. By all means fish for them, and, when legal, keep a few, but invest in their future with careful releases.
Bless ’em. They are abundant, ecologically tough, feisty on light tackle and great to eat. This is a good year to appreciate them by catching them as many ways as you can think of—keeping an appropriate number for your needs, and exploring new ways to cook them. Amazingly versatile and omnivorous (like their cousins, the rockfish), they will respond to a range of bait and jigs in 10 to 20 feet of water (deeper in cold weather) around bridge pilings and over oyster reefs in both the upper Bay and its rivers. At the same time, look for them in shallow water around rock breakwaters and underwater grass beds with spinners, spoons and flies. Keep the lures on the smaller size, though a 10-inch perch is perfectly capable of eating a 1/4-ounce Johnson Silver Minnow spoon (great grassbed lure), a #3 Blue Fox Vibrax or MEPPS spinner, a 1/3-ounce Acme Little Cleo spoon, a 1/4-ounce, 3-inch Rapala X-Rap jerkbait, or a 2- to 3-inch Clouser Deep Minnow tied on a 1/0 hook. Look for 9- to 12-inch perch to keep. Release the smaller ones and the 12- to 14-inch “bricks.” We want those genes to stay in the gene pool!