ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland anglers are sifting through the rubble of their aborted, 10-day October rockfish season, looking for signs to guide them to a brighter future.
The recent reunion with the prized state fish was too brief, by all accounts.
"Why did they lie to us?" wondered Washingtonian Alexander Hampshire, who banked on the five weeks of fishing initially scheduled by state officials, but wound up getting only one day -- and an unsuccessful one at that.
He was not alone in his misery. When the planned 35-day season was abruptly shut Oct. 14, it punctured the aspirations of a long-suffering crowd. Marylanders waited almost six years for a shot at rockfish, once a symbol of the Chesapeake Bay's abundance before a 10-year decline sent stocks tumbling to an all-time low, forcing closure of fishing in 1985.
"We had a lot of pent-up demand" when the moratorium finally ended Oct. 5, said fisheries chief Pete Jensen.
But no one anticipated the size of the crowd. Seventy-eight thousand anglers went to sea and landed an astonishing 172,000 pounds of rock in just three days, taking more than half the season-long quota of 318,750 pounds in one gloriously long weekend, according to state estimates.
It was wild. Tackle shops had to ration bait, cutting back as low as two eels per customer and charging up to $2.50 apiece after it became clear a live eel was the rockfishing equivalent of tossing a candy bar into a kindergarten class.
"People were hoarding eels," said Charlie Ebersberger, whose employees dispensed the sure-fire bait by the thousands at Anglers Sporting Goods. "Charter captains wanted 100 at a time. Guys wanted two, three, four dozen to keep at their docks. There was an eel shortage. I had to cut it to four per person. People got upset, but I had to be fair to everyone."
The battle for bait was one clear sign that reopening of rock season after the 5 1/2-year closure would be no convocation of conservationists. Folks were out to get their share and the scene was fevered. Sections of the upper Chesapeake where fishing was best looked like a maritime K Street at rush hour.
"I took some friends out to Love Point the last day. I figured we'd get a few fish because they were plentiful and easy to catch there," said Ben Florence, a state biologist who has fished the bay for almost 30 years. "But I took one look at the mob scene and said: 'No way. We're not getting into that mess.' "
"I was off Poole's Island," said Rich Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfisherman's Association, "and it looked like you could walk across the bay on the boats."
If the number of anglers exceeded official expectations, so did the size of rockfish they caught, averaging 6.4 pounds, more than twice the anticipated average. All of which forced the state into the embarrassing position of having to close the season less than a third of the way through when the quota was prematurely reached.
But if anglers were upset at the time, now they are turning the numbers to their own advantage, crowing about the turnout and the economic boon it provided.
Sport fishermen say the millions of dollars they spent proved that recreation fishing is more valuable than commercial net-fishing for rock, which opens next month with another 318,750-pound quota.
"We can't see how a commercial fishery could be warranted after seeing this tremendous surge of enthusiasm by the recreational angler," Novotny said. "It's obviously a finite resource that needs to be protected and distributed for the most social and economic good."
To MSSA, that means pressing this winter for legislation to establish rock as a gamefish, off limits to commercial fishing.
The organization pushed a similar bill two years ago, with Gov. William Donald Schaefer's support, but it failed in the legislature. Now Schaefer has flip-flopped, telling the commercial Maryland Waterman's Association he won't support gamefish status for rock and wants the resource shared by all.
"I don't know whether that's good or bad," chuckled Larry Simns, head of the waterman's association and a clever observer of political ironies. "Last time, we had the governor against us and we won. This time, he's with us. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself."
Simns and the rest of the rockfishing community meanwhile are focusing on the work of a new, volunteer panel of Marylanders, the Striped Bass Advisory Committee, charged with framing recommendations for next year's fishing season and already rocking the boat with a controversial proposal for a spring fishery.
The panel, representing sport, charter and commercial interests as well as environmentalists, is on record as supporting a season starting May 15, targeting up to 380,000 pounds of migratory rockfish 28 to 36 inches long as they leave the Chesapeake after spawning in the rivers and upper bay.
But the proposal is not final and remains hotly contested within the ranks. Maryland's initial plan was to have only an extremely limited spring season for a few, giant trophy rockfish over 42 inches long with a limit of one per boat.
The idea was to leave the bulk of migrating rock alone in the Chesapeake, where up to three-quarters of East Coast stocks are spawned each spring.
But Department of Natural Resources officials told the panel recently that Marylanders could take 380,000 pounds of the coastal migratory stock in the spring without exceeding federal conservation guidelines.
The opportunity was quickly seized upon by charterboat operators, who say they need an early season economic boost after two straight years of abysmal spring bluefish runs.
Commercial and sport representatives on the advisory board at first said they wanted no part of a spring fishery. The commercial men said it was impractical for them to pursue the fish except on spawning grounds, where they are barred from setting nets in spring. Sport anglers expressed philosophical opposition to fishing on spawning stocks.
But the chartermen were adamant and now sport and commercial anglers are taking a second look, asking assurances from state resources officials that spring fishing would not interfere with continued recovery of coastal rockfish stocks.
Negotiations drag on. "We're floundering," said advisory committee chairman Bill Goldsborough, a biologist who works for the conservation-oriented Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
If so, it is in a time-honored way for fishermen, who have always recognized the importance of conservation, but at the same time fear that a fish they conserve might end up being caught and kept by someone else.
Those worries are not eased by reports of a banner year for rockfishing up and down the coast as anglers enjoyed an abundance largely fueled by Maryland's half-decade moratorium.
"The striper fishing in Maine was the best we've seen in 20 years," said Barry Gibson, editor of Saltwater Sportsman and a part-time charter skipper out of Boothbay Harbor. (Rockfish are called striped bass just about everywhere but on the Chesapeake.)
Last spring, the statewide closure grew particularly grating to Maryland charterboat operators as migrating rock invaded the bay in hordes.
"Our boats threw back almost 4,000," said Buddy Harrison, who runs a charter fleet at Tilghman Island. "It was a crime to throw all those fish back. The bay was alive with them. We could have caught our five or six a day and been out of there."
"Why should we let these fish go, just so somebody in New Jersey or Massachusetts can catch them?" said Harrison, echoing a timeworn fishing refrain.
State officials have wavered on the spring fishery. Natural Resources Secretary Torrey C. Brown indicated this summer, after announcing grim results of this year's bay survey of rockfish spawning success, that a spring fishery in 1991 was premature and unlikely.
But state fisheries chief Jensen subsequently provided the advisory board with the news that rock were around for the taking under federal rules, and encouraged exploration of the possibilities.
Meantime, the advisory board is looking at other refinements in next year's fall fishery. Observers say a one-fish-per-person daily limit will get close attention, in order to stretch the season longer than this year's fleeting 10 days. The fall quota is expected to increase from this year's 750,000 pounds to perhaps 1 million.
The board also is wrestling with problems created by the higher daily catch limits and longer season enjoyed by charter skippers this year, which generated heat among sportfishermen.
Two schools of thought have developed over how to patch the rift between charter and recreational anglers -- either bring both groups under the same seasons and limits, as in the past, or split them entirely, giving them separate seasons with different limits to be taken out of sight of each other.
First, however, the panel is under the gun to come up with spring recommendations, which must be in place by December to allow time for regulations to be processed.
Maryland's fractious, fevered rush back to rockfishing leaves some distant observers scratching their heads.
"We had this wonderful ethic going of catch them and put them back," said Bob Pond, founder of the conservation group Stripers Unlimited in Attleboro, Mass., who believes the mystery of declining rockfish stocks is a function of failed reproduction, with no solution yet in sight.
"But the management thinking has reverted to, 'These are here to eat,' like a farming mentality. We had a sportfishing ethic going and now it's, 'If I don't get them, someone else will.' They say the human race is the lunatic of the universe," said Pond. "Sometimes it seems like we'll do everything we can to destroy ourselves."