SOLOMONS, MD. -- Chris Sullivan surveyed the scene Wednesday -- wind-whipped waters, whitecapped rollers barreling down from Baltimore and beyond, a bright, high sky, a frosty nip in the air -- and pronounced it rockfish weather. So it proved to be.
"When we turn the corner and start running with the seas we can steady the boat," he said. "You watch -- that's when every rod goes down."
Sullivan's father-in-law, Jack Northedge, eased the family charter boat into a wide arc off Cove Point lighthouse. The big bay-built was running dead slow a mile off the beach with seven lines streaming off the stern, each trolling a bucktail or spoon halfway down in 45 feet of clear, brackish water.
Even before the arc was complete and the stern came square to the rollers, lines started going off. "Stripes," said Sullivan, identifying each strike by the herky-jerky way the fish at the far end fought. (Charterboat men call rockfish "stripes" these days to differentiate them from "greenies," their current nickname for bluefish, or "yellows," the insiders' tag for sea trout.)
All the lines didn't go off, as it happened, but five of the seven did, each responding to the strike of a spunky, healthy rockfish 6 to 12 pounds. Sullivan and I battled them to the boat as quickly and gently as possible, handled each with care and returned them to the water without evident injury.
It has been a decade and a half since anyone has seen this sort of abundance in Maryland waters. At Point Lookout, at Solomons, on the pilings of the Bay Bridge, up the rivers, in any of the old, habitual haunts of the prized state fish, the rock are rolling in, beneficiaries of Maryland's four-year ban on fishing for them.
The not-entirely-unexpected phenomenon is causing state officials some concern as anglers accidentally hook protected rock by the thousands while plying the bay for blues or trout. Despite the new abundance, rock technically remain a threatened species in Maryland, off limits to fishing until the long-awaited end of the ban arrives in October.
Meantime, "under current regulations it's illegal to fish for striped bass and someone trying to catch them is violating the law" even if he releases alive all he catches, said Steve Early, head of state fishery stock assessments.
Early conceded there's not much the state can do about folks such as Sullivan, who earns a $350 daily charter fee to take anglers in pursuit of blues and trout. Unfortunately, at the moment the bay is almost devoid of blues and trout, which evidently were put off by the wet, cold spring. But it's so jammed with rock, the angler who wets a line is almost incapable of avoiding them.
Last weekend, Sullivan fished the three-day Solomons Island bluefish and trout tournament. Saturday he caught four bluefish and 50 to 60 rock; Sunday he boated 60 to 70 rock and no blues or trout; Monday he caught the day's winning bluefish, an 11 1/2-pounder worth $1,500, and yet another five dozen rock.
"You don't want to keep rolling in the rock," he said, "but you have to stay in there to get a shot at the blues because they're all mixed together. What are you going to do?"
One thing Sullivan does is handle every stripe with maximum care, carrying his safekeeping efforts to extremes by heaping kisses and whispering endearments upon each rock before turning it loose.
"Seriously, though," said Sullivan, 26, who learned his trade from his dad, veteran bay charter man Mike Sullivan, "I try to get the hook out as gently as I can and keep the fish from banging around on deck. I handle them as little as possible and when I put them back, I drop them in head-first so they don't hit the water too hard.
"Every once in a while one will lie on the surface for a few seconds, but then they flip their tails and are gone. You hardly ever lose one."
If Sullivan, with his kisses and whispered sweet nothings, seems oddly sanguine about the bizarre fishing circumstances on the bay this spring, it's partly because he can afford to be. He runs a printing business and doesn't need charter fees to make ends meet. But even he admits the absence of "keeper" fish is holding business down in a big way.
Charter skippers who make their living at it are less cheerful. As we trolled, Sullivan gabbed on the VHF with colleague Bunky Conners, fishing with a party of three nearby on his Kathy C.
"Thirty-nine stripes," grumped Conners, "and not a greenie or yellow to put in the box. If I speed up they get on, if I slow to a crawl they get on. If I took the hooks and threw them in the boat, I believe the damned rock would jump in after 'em."
Conners, like many charter fishermen, believes the state ought to open a limited, one- or two-fish-a-day rock season while they're here in abundance and nothing else is.
But Early said the planned month-long rockfish season starting Oct. 5 is as early as the state can get things organized. The "threatened" status of rock can't even be nullified until September, he said, and oversight apparatus to make sure recreational and charter rockfish anglers don't exceed their quota of 400,000 pounds a year won't be in place until then.
Next year, he said, the state might consider a split season for rock with an early session in June. May fishing is unlikely except for a one-a-day trophy season for fish 45 inches long and up, he said, because federal conservation plans bar fishing for rock here in the spawning season.
All of which leaves Conners and Sullivan in a strange quandary, with plenty of fish to catch but all protected by law.
"I've got a party of congressmen and senators this weekend," said Conners, hatching a plan, "and I know exactly where to take them. I'm going to 45 feet of water and start trolling so they can see for themselves -- there's nary a rockfish left in the bay.
"I just hope they have strong arms, because they're going to be doing some pulling."
Mike and Chris Sullivan run the charterboats Dolly Diesel and Miss Dolly out of Solomons. For information, phone them in Landover at 336-0710. Conners handles bookings for himself and a dozen other charter boats out of H.M. Woodburns Bait & Tackle on the island. Call him at 301-326-3241.