One rite of summer on the Chesapeake Bay for the past 10 years or so has been the pursuit and capture of hordes of big bluefish, one of the better fighting species on the East Coast and respectable table fare as well.
But last year there were fewer such rites after commercial fishing operations from elsewhere moved in on the lower bay and netted huge quantities of fish. Subsequent protests from this region resulted in regulatory action that has helped bring the blues back this year.
That became clear last week when Gov. Harry Hughes took a day to go bluefishing out of Solomons Island at the mouth of the Patuxent River. He didn't have to miss much work because after three hours, the fish box on the charter boat Kathy C was full with 31 big blues. "A year ago," Capt. Bunky Conner said, "we couldn't have done this. It's that simple. This time last year if you caught three or four fish, it was a good day."
No one knows for certain why last year was bad, but charter and private skippers are convinced a highly efficient commercial fishing operation in Virginia waters put the biggest crimp in their pleasure.
Last spring, a fleet of four 50-foot commercial fishing boats out of Florida invaded the lower bay. The owners had a contract with buyers in South America and the Mideast to provide hundreds of thousands of pounds of bluefish, and they intended to get them from the bay.
Using huge encircling nets 1,200 feet long and 40 feet deep, the gill-netting boats surrounded schools of blues as the fish entered the bay from the Atlantic and hauled them aboard by the ton, Virginia officials later reported.
The state officials estimated that by the time the four boats had moved out of the bay and into ocean waters in mid-July, they had caught 760,000 pounds of bluefish. On a single July day, the boats brought in 92,000 pounds of blues from the bay, Virginia records show.
Few sport fishermen think it was coincidence that, at the same time, they encountered a precipitous drop in their catch from the lower bay north to Baltimore Light.
Hughes, responding to sport and charter fishermen's complaints, urged Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb to stop the assault on bluefish. Last Aug. 2, Robb did so, through emergency fishing regulations promulgated by the state Marine Resources Commission.
The boats, which already had slipped out of the bay for better fishing in the ocean, never came back. Bay fishermen said they noticed a change for the better within a week after the commercial netters departed.
"The fishing got better right away. Then it slowly built to a crescendo in September and October," said Bill Brener, captain of the sport fishing boat Chum King, out of Point Lookout.
The regulations, which outlaw net fishing by encirclement, were made permanent this spring, and the good fishing is continuing.
Jack Travelstead, head of fisheries planning for the Marine Resources Commission, said his agency studied two separate complaints.
The first was that the operation could harm the overall Atlantic stocks of bluefish. "We think we proved that was impossible with just those four boats," he said.
The second argument was that the operation could deplete local areas of blues, and sport and charter fishermen in Maryland and Virginia "pretty much convinced us that was true," Travelstead said.
He said the boats' techniques put "clearly too much pressure on the resource, particularly if the tactics were to proliferate." The technique was "at least as efficient as a trawl, and we don't allow trawlers in the bay."
This spring, improved fortunes are making for busy fishing from the bridge-tunnel at Norfolk to the Bay Bridge at Annapolis.
If there is the usual midsummer lull in bluefishing this year, fisher folk will have only themselves to blame: Last year when they got skunked, they could blame it on the commercial boats and did.
This year, they'll have to take the heat themselves.