PORT DEPOSIT, MD. -- His old clients have been phoning Earl Ashenfelter lately to book autumn rockfishing trips on the fish-rich Susquehanna River below Conowingo Dam.

But Ashenfelter, who may have caught more rock than any other living Maryland angler, has to tell them his services won't be available for the long-awaited season opener on Oct. 5.

While the five-mile river section Ashenfelter plies has as many rock in it as at any time he can remember in 58 years of fishing, it will nonetheless be off limits to anglers this fall for conservation reasons.

The state has ordered a continued closure of the Susquehanna, along with all other waters north of Baltimore's Patapsco River and certain freshwater "spawning stretches" of other rivers, after determining that rockfish caught and released in fresh water have a far lower survival rate than in saltier water downstream. They've recorded up to 75 percent mortality there, as opposed to 1 percent or less in salt water.

Assuming many undersized and oversized fish will be caught and released during the scheduled five-week fall rockfish season, state officials decided to take no chance on rafts of bloated victims floating dead in the Susquehanna or elsewhere in the upper Chesapeake.

That news comes as a bit of a blow to Ashenfelter, who has sat as patiently as anyone through the four-year, statewide rockfish moratorium that helped restore stocks of the beleaguered species, yet won't get to partake in the benefits of his home waters.

But it doesn't upset him too badly. He reckons he's taken a quarter-million pounds of rock from the river since 1932, when he first poked the bow of a rowboat into its wild, rocky shoals. "If I never kept another one," said the 72-year-old dean of Susquehanna anglers, "it wouldn't really bother me."

The forced fishing lull came at a propitious time for someone of his advancing years, as the moratorium made him give up a charter business that had boomed for 25 years. "I had a waiting list of 50 people I never did get to take," he said, though he'd "call them every year to pay my respects."

Among his rockfishing clients were governors, millionaires and sports stars such as Brooks Robinson, many of whom marveled at Ashenfelter's uncanny ability to pilot a wooden, outboard-powered, 18-foot skiff through river perils that made lesser men blanch.

Last week, I tagged along to relive a bit of the glory that was the Susquehanna in its fishing heyday, and it was an eye-opener. In a lifetime of fooling around in small boats, I'd never seen anyone handle a vessel so effortlessly and offhandedly in such murderous places.

With one hand on the trottle, a cigarette dangling from his lips and his bespectacled eyes glued to the trolling rods, Ashenfelter casually motored through rolling whitewater and rock-strewn, fast-water slices I'd have been nervous about negotiating in a kayak, and he didn't even seem to pay attention.

"Wagon Rock over there," he'd mutter, identifying a landmark in a voice barely audible over the rushing current, "water comes up and she looks just like a covered wagon, cap'n. Ham Gravy over here. Watch your rods now. Catch a few here, I'll take you up Bird Island, cast for some bass. Now watch here, little tight," and with a twist of the throttle he'd blast past some horrendous, half-submerged, toothsome boulder awash in white froth, missing it by inches.

"This here Susquehanna skiff, cap'n, I designed it myself. Four layers of fiberglass on the bottom {for scraping over rocks}, got the bow cut down so I can see over her. Some day this boat will be down in history just like them skipjacks."

Ostensibly, our goal was to catch perch and smallmouth bass, but I'd been warned in advance it was almost impossible to keep Ashenfelter from trolling a bucktail through his old rockfish haunts along the way, which proved the case.

"Just put a line out here, cap'n," he'd say, "see what's in there." Then, with unbelievable precision borne of a half-century's experience, he'd predict the exact instant the rod tip would dance with the strike of a fish.

It could be a smallmouth bass on the line, of course, or a perch, but on two occasions the strikes proved to be rockfish of breathtaking proportions -- 15-pounders that took the lures in shallow, fast water and put up herculean struggles on light tackle.

Ashenfelter babied those fish at the boat, netting them gently, working the hooks out quickly and holding them by the tails while working water back and forth through their gills to revive them. Both swam away on their own, but I didn't like the half-hearted way they did so, and Ashenfelter finally agreed, begrudgingly, to avoid his rockfish holes altogether for the rest of the day.

Which left us back on the bass and perch fishing, which proved awful. No surprise to him. "You're not looking at a bass fisherman," said Ashenfelter matter of factly. "Rockfish is what's in here and that's what you're going to catch if you want to catch something. You're not going to do nothing with those bass in here."

Now, thanks to the state, neither is anyone going to do anything with rockfish, at least not in the foreseeable future. That's not particularly good news to Ashenfelter, the Susquehanna's living rockfish legend. But if he's grumbling, it's not too loudly. He's seen his share, after all.

The New Restrictions

Rockfish anglers planning to avail themselves of fall seasons in Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac should acquaint themselves with new limits and restrictions. Here's a general breakdown:


Season runs Oct. 5-Nov. 9 or until quota reached (318,750 pounds for recreational anglers; 112,500 pounds for charterboats). Daily limit is two fish per person per day for recreational anglers, five fish per person per day on charter boats. Size limit: 18-inch minimum, 36-inch maximum in Bay and tributaries, 28 inches minimum in ocean. All tidal waters open except Chesapeake Bay and tributaries north of Patapsco River and "spawning reaches" of other tidal rivers. Call (301) 974-2241 for details.

Chesapeake Bay fishing license required; no rockfish license or stamp needed.


Season runs Nov. 5-Dec. 5; daily limit two fish per day per person; size limit 18-36 inches in Chesapeake and tributaries, 28-36 inches in ocean.

No special license required, but anglers fishing for rock must obtain a free permit and report their catch at season's end. Permits available from Virginia Marine Resources Commission, call (804) 247-2200 for details. No permit required to fish on a charter boat.

Potomac River (Point Lookout to D.C. line):

Season runs Oct. 5-Nov. 15 or until quota of 57,000 pounds is reached. Daily limit two fish per day per person; size limit 18-36 inches.

No license required, but fishermen must obtain a free permit from Potomac River Fisheries Commission and record their catches on it. Call (804) 224-7148.

District of Columbia:

Season runs Oct. 5-Nov. 16; daily limit two fish a day, 18-inch minimum size. D.C. license required.