Photo: Tony Friedrich and fluke
My boat sits on the Southern end of a decent-sized island in the Chesapeake Bay. When my bare feet touch the aging fiberglass deck, I feel at home. Securing the gear, warming up the engines, and throwing the lines is a cathartic experience. Basically, I can’t wipe the smile from my face. As my beard turns gray and my ability to grow hair on top of my head is a distant memory, my fishing goals have changed drastically. My thoughts no longer focus on “catching the big one.” Instead, I find myself just being appreciative of the opportunity to participate in the outdoors. Don’t get me wrong, catching fish is what it is all about. However, after decades on the water, you develop a kinship to the resource. The real magic is when you have enough experience to know at a certain water temp, on a certain tide, your favorite shoreline will come alive. When you get there and it all lines up, it is hard not to sit back and revel in the majesty of it all.
This year has been different. The April trophy season for striped bass was a bust. As an example, there’s a very popular catch and release tournament on opening day that draws a huge crowd. There were over 150 boats registered. At the end of the day, seven fish were checked in. To fully understand the extent of that statement, folks typically troll during the April season. Boats will pull well over 20 rods using planer boards to spread the lures out. It is an incredibly effective method and produces fish even under the toughest of conditions. Again, only seven fish were registered.
Charter captains struggled to put their clients on fish for the rest of the season. Many speculated that the water was too cold in the early season. Last year, the warm weather was blamed. Even as the water warmed this year, the fishing never materialized. Maryland charter captains are good at their jobs. They can normally limit out quickly, return to the dock, and get ready for the afternoon trip. This year, they spent a lot of extra time on the water burning fuel to find fish that just weren’t there.
In early May, the may worms hatch. This usually makes fishing very difficult for about a week. It was hardly noticed. Fishing was just tough and stayed that way. To compound the issue, many areas in Maryland are experiencing the wettest May on record. During the middle of the month, it rained for ten days straight. The runoff has contributed to the worst red tide I’ve ever seen for this time of year. We spend more time looking for clean water than fish. I can only imagine how the fish feel. They must find pockets of water that contain oxygen and forego the normal concerns of food and cover. Earlier this week, a good friend found stripers from 14 to 30 inches piled up with cow nose rays in about 20 feet of water. This never happens. Fourteen-inch stripers don’t like hanging out with 30-inch stripers. In general, stripers will leave an area when large groups of rays show up. This is a sign that marine life is being pushed into small areas, so they can breathe.
If you pay attention to social media, you might think I am crazy. People are posting pictures of good fish. What most folks don’t understand is that these fish are generally coming from a very small area. Just like in years past, there’s one or two good schools. Right now, the school is set up in the mid-bay on the eastern side. Everyone is hammering them relentlessly. If you go a mile above the Bay Bridge or south of the Choptank River, there’s nothing. Charter boats are moving up or down from their home ports to get closer to the concentration of fish.
What we have is a dwindling population that is being constricted due to water quality issues. What you see is anglers putting pictures up of good fish. What they don’t tell you is they are all fishing the same spot.
When fishing is like this, you have a lot of time to think on your boat. I’ve thought a lot about what we have lost and how things have changed. My boat flies over the flounder grounds now. I don’t even stop to check. They haven’t been there in years. When I tell guests on my boat that we used to catch 20-inch croaker on the fly, they don’t believe me. When I show them a spot that used to hold giant weakfish, they tell me they never caught one over 11 inches.
For better or worse, most of the fish can be found very close to my home. I see the fleet on the horizon every time I’m out. The trollers are doing concentric circles in a small area. The chummers are set up on the drop-offs. The light tackle guys are drifting through the melee. I turn the other direction and lower my expectations. Not because I think I’m better than the guys trying their best to satisfy their expectations. In fact, I have deep empathy for their current struggles. I go away from the fleet because my connection to the water is telling me the future is ominous. It is telling me that the resource is in trouble. I can’t shake the memories of weakfish, croaker, and flounder. I’ve fished long enough to understand what we have lost. I also know that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering lowering the bar on striped bass and opening the door for a greater harvest. My predatory nature is overridden by my concern for the future. Try as I might, I can’t bring myself to participate in the last buffalo hunt.