CHESAPEAKE BEACH, MD., OCT. 5 -- This was to be the day long-suffering Chesapeake Bay sport fishermen made up for nearly six years of state-imposed abstinence with a rockfish bonanza.
Rock would be everywhere, preliminary reports suggested, on opening day of Maryland's resurrected rockfish season, the first since an emergency statewide rockfishing moratorium was imposed on Jan. 1, 1985, after stocks of the prized fish fell to record lows. Declining water quality and overfishing for sport and commerce were cited as the culprits.
So why was Capt. Mike Sullivan looking so pained today?
"Don't tell me," said he, "that I waited 5 1/2 years to fall flat on my face here."
That was at 2 p.m., after he'd run his charterboat Dolly Diesel with a party of four anglers 30 miles from Calvert County to the mouth of the Patapsco River in the shadow of Baltimore, fishing every old rockfish haunt along the way with nothing to show for it but one legal-size rock, a 22-incher that gobbled a bucktail just north of the Bay Bridge.
With an hour left to fish, Sullivan was down to his last shot. A voice from the past told him fish bite best on a moving tide, and the tide might move better to the east. There he went, tossing the trolling lines over into 17 feet of water nervously.
He needn't have worried. The tide ran, the fish bit and in a matter of minutes, his half-decade rockfish vigil was over.
"Got him!" cried Don Polsten of Crofton as one trolling rod bent and shook with a strike. "Got him!" said Jack Mayhhew as another rod did the same.
Suddenly it was rockfish mayhem, just like the old days, with rods clattering onto the deck, lines tangling, fish flopping, autumn sunlight streaming down and Sullivan shouting orders from the wheel, happy as a kid.
It didn't last long but it didn't need to. Within a half-hour Mayhew, Polsten, Ken Rubin and Tim Schaefer had boated 14 keeper rock up to 10 pounds, close enough to their charterboat limit of five per person to satisfy them. Added to a couple dozen bluefish they'd hooked earlier, it was a bonanza after all.
"But I don't mind telling you, it had me worried," said Sullivan as Dolly Diesel breasted the swells on the long run back down the Bay, tossing sheets of spray into the sunlight.
So it went on this heralded day, when Marylanders from Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac to Poole's Island at the head of the Bay finally got to fish for their state fish again.
Ever since the 1985 moratorium, pushed along by federal guidelines, all states on the East Coast have instituted measures to conserve rockfish, known as striped bass everywhere but in the Chesapeake region.
Evidently the measures are working, because state officials said stocks have shown a sharp increase in the Chesapeake, where most rockfish spawning occurs, and along the coast from Maine to the Carolinas where mature rock roam.
Maryland officials were additionally buoyed by near-record rockfish spawning success last year, as measured by biologists who seine the Bay's creeks and rivers where juvenile rock grow up.
The spawning turnaround paved the way for the tightly controlled, five-week-long sport-fishing season that began today in Maryland, the tidal Potomac and Washington, D.C.; Virginia's season opens next month.
Cpl. Ralph Parker of Maryland Natural Resources Police said thousands of boats were out today, 1,100 of which were checked for compliance with rockfish laws by 120 Natural Resources Police in boats, helicopters and at launch ramps arund the Bay.
Only a few citations were issued, mostly for failure to have a Maryland tidewater fishing license, Parker said. He knew of no citations for anglers taking over their daily limit -- two fish a day per person for sport fishermen and five per person for charterboat customers.
At 8 this morning, over 100 fishing boats large and small crammed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a traditional rock hotspot that's been all but barren of anglers in the last few years. Likewise, pockets of boats gathered in the Potomac near the Route 301 Bridge, at Kent Narrows on the Eastern Shore and at the mouth of the Patapsco.
Tackle stores did record business. Charlie Ebersberger at Anglers Sporting Goods at the western end of the Bay Bridge said 1,000 customers passed through by lunchtime, more than he could ever remember. Calvin Tyler at Tyler's Tackle Shop in Chesapeake Beach planned to go fishing himself, but was overwhelmed by orders for bucktail lures and spent all day tying them for his customers.
Parker said today's spectacular autumn weather boosted the turnout as a cool northwester blew in on cloudless skies. It was vintage rockfishing weather, rock being a cool-weather fish most vulnerable when they leave sheltered waters school up in deep, open water in the fall and winter.
Catch reports were spotty, but it appears that most successful anglers went home early.
Buddy Disney, Tommy Rogers and Timmy Hunt were headed for home at 7:30 a.m. with their limit of six rockfish, caught in three feet of water near the mouth of the West River. Likewise, Ken Lamb of Lexington Park and his partner were done by 8 a.m. with a limit of four fish in the five-pound class caught near the liquid natural gas plant off Calvert Cliffs.
Then there were those like Sullivan, who started late, struggled and, he conceded later, enjoyed every moment of it.