Maryland officials, buoyed by the enthusiastic public reception of the limited rockfish season this past fall, are proposing a spring season with even more startlingly severe limits.
The Department of Natural Resources is pushing a May sport season for trophy rock that would last four weeks and allow anglers to keep just one fish apiece for the entire season.
Officials acknowledged that the concept of one fish per angler per season is virtually untested anywhere in the nation, but they believe it can work. The plan has been embraced by charter skippers and some sport anglers.
Under the proposal, fishing would be allowed in Maryland waters of the main stem of the Chesapeake from the Bay Bridge south, to avoid harassing the fish on traditional upstream spawning beds. Only large fish could be kept -- ones longer than 45 inches (about 42 pounds) during the first two weeks and somewhat smaller ones -- probably more than 32 inches and about 15 pounds -- the last two weeks.
The idea is to give angling-starved Marylanders something to do during the traditional first month of Bay fishing season.
For the last two years, normally plentiful bluefish have been all but absent in May, but huge numbers of rockfish have been around. That led to rancor among anglers, who caught but had to release scores of theoretically rare, protected rockfish, yet were unable to boat and keep even one theoretically abundant blue.
Rockfishing was closed in Maryland for five years -- 1985-1989 -- to allow stocks of the beleaguered state fish to recover from record lows caused by overfishing and declining water quality.
When fishing finally reopened in October, DNR officials scheduled a month-long sport season for a quota of about 430,000 pounds of rock, a total they felt could be safely taken without impinging on continued recovery of the species.
But so many anglers turned out for the heralded event -- 150,000 the first weekend -- that the quota was caught and exceeded in 1 1/2 weeks and the season was hastily closed.
Since then, Maryland has managed a limited but successful commercial fishery in which several hundred watermen netted and sold about 120,000 pounds of rock last month -- far below their quota of 318,000 pounds.
Meantime, Maryland officials discovered that under federal conservation guidelines, they apparently have access to an additional quota of about 275,000 pounds of coastal migratory rockfish -- ones that come into the Bay from the ocean in the spring to spawn.
These are the fish targeted in the proposed May fishery, which would have no effect on the next scheduled fall season. By starting the season in May, spawning rock would be left alone during the height of their reproductive activity in April, officials said, and targeted while on their way back out to the ocean after completing spawning.
So far, only Maryland has expressed interest in spring rockfishing. Virginia officials and those on the bistate Potomac River Fisheries Commission were surprised by Maryland's move and said they have no plans to implement a similar season.
"It's the first I've heard of it," said Clifford Hutt, counsel to the Potomac commission, "but those fellows up in Maryland are real clever about these things."
Maryland Fisheries Chief Pete Jensen announced the state's decision at a meeting of the volunteer Striped Bass Advisory Board in Annapolis last week.
Jensen's initial proposal was for a two-week season starting May 13, targeting fish 36 inches or longer. But Ed O'Brien of the Charter Boat Operators Association argued that 36-inch fish are extremely rare in the Bay, and pushed to lower the minimum to 28 or 32 inches. Jensen said the 32-inch minimum is now under consideration.
O'Brien also encouraged the state to extend the season to four weeks and target huge, 45-inch-and-up fish during the first two weeks, on grounds it would give Marylanders a chance to catch a state record fish during the early part of the month. when the largest female rock are thought to head out of the Bay.
The current state record is a 55-pounder, caught by Eric Shank on May 6, 1978, while trolling a spoon off the mouth of the West River. But rockfish as large as 90 pounds have been caught in nets in the Bay in the spring.
The remaining big question is how officials plan to enforce the one-fish-per-season limit. Jensen said spring rockfishermen may be required to apply for free permits that could come with a nonreusable tag. Anyone catching a keeper fish would attach the tag to it immediately, and anyone caught with an untagged rock would by liable to a heavy fine.
Other suggestions include a check-in system at designated shoreside stations, like that used for deer, or a phone-in checking system relying strongly on voluntary compliance.
Jensen said charter captains would get no special allotment under the proposal. They would be able to take keeper fish only for clients who had tags.
The state also would retain the right to close the season abruptly if the quota of 275,000 pounds is reached prematurely. At an average of 15 pounds or so per fish, 275,000 pounds adds up to 18,000-odd fish, which sounds like a lot until you consider the 150,000 anglers who headed out for the first weekend of the fall season.
DNR officials are working feverishly to finalize the proposal, which must be cleared by the state's Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee as well as the federal Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversee coastal rockfish stocks.