MAY 1 IS TRADITIONAL opening day for Chesapeake fishing in Maryland waters -- the waters closest to Washington -- because for decades Maryland law permitted sportsmen to keep one trophy rockfish (striped bass) per day after that date. But this year there is a moratorium on catching rockfish in Maryland waters. Should we still go fishing May 1?
The answer, based on the old maxim that the best time to fish is whenever you can, is yes, though the rewards will be different.
For years I was part of a group that took an annual Bay charter just before opening day for rockfish. Our hope, frequently realized, was to catch a few large chopper bluefish and, if we were lucky, hook one or two huge "cow" rockfish heading up the Bay to spawn.
What we did with the chopper blues was take them home. What we did with the big rockfish was get them back into the water with their egg cargoes fast. One April 30, my wife boated a 42-pounder, and I still can see Capt. Dick Houghland rushing to get the formality of a photo out of the way so he could turn the great fish loose.
This year, everyone fishing Maryland waters of the Bay gets the pleasure (and duty) of turning his rockfish loose, if he should hook one while bluefishing. (It gets really complicated in Virginia, where anglers can keep five rockfish a day in the main stem of the Bay but cannot keep any in certain spawning tributaries until June 1.)
"I'm telling my parties to bring a camera," said Capt. Robbie Robinson of Solomons Island, a charter skipper who already has made one spring bluefishing trip and who swings into full gear next week. "I'm comparing it to big-game safaris where you shoot pictures."
Robinson's fellow captains worry that the loss of rockfish will damage their business, but it needn't. Rock have been scarce for a decade, and while the prospect of catching one may have lured anglers out, it was the catching of bluefish, trout and the occasional spot, flounder, croaker and drum that lured them back. These species remain available in the Bay.
There's more to charter fishing than catching, anyway.
Charter skippers, like their waterman kin, are characters. They often have odd ways of looking at the world, like the old Tilghman Island captain who purportedly kept a huge trash can in the stern of his boat and demanded that all refuse be tossed into it, rather than into the water. Then when he turned for home, his puzzled ex-customers say, he would hoist the can and dump everything overboard.
The wooden, Bay-built charter boats indigenous to the region are unimaginably beautiful, their lines having evolved over hundreds of years from the original log sailing canoes. The cockpits are huge, the cabins tiny; the beam is narrow, the freeboard gracefully low and the hull shape a shallow "deadrise" for access to quiet creeks and shoal water; and the boats are ship- shape in a way that characterizes the need for order when tackling the unpredictable, which is to say any large body of water.
Their home ports can have a special call. I've always enjoyed Chesapeake Beach, about the closest charter fishing center to Washington, and continue to go there even though the fishing has dropped off over the last decade. What I like is coming over the last hill on Route 260 at dawn and seeing the Bay sprawled out, glittering in the red sun, and Tilghman looming far away across the water.
And now it's time to head that way again. For a guide to Chesapeake Beach and other charter centers, and a seasonal look at Bay fishing opportunities, read on.