The abundance of rockfish around Chain Bridge this spring is providing Washingtonians with spectacular sport but giving Officer Dennis Hance of the D.C. Harbor Police more work than he can handle.
Hance said he's written about $50,000 in tickets and confiscated a ton of illegally taken rockfish from Potomac poachers since April. He gives the confiscated fish to the Community for Creative Nonviolence to feed the needy.
"It got so bad, I've been locking people up," said Hance, who carries three pairs of handcuffs when he roams the river and its banks near Chain Bridge in plain clothes, using a rowboat, a Boston Whaler, a rubber raft, a motorcycle and a canoe to get from place to place.
Poaching is so widespread, he said: "I used to arrest people for having one fish. Then it went to five, 10 and now they have to have 12 or 15 before I arrest them." Those who aren't arrested get tickets; the fine is $100 per illegal fish.
Poaching is so common on the rocky Maryland and Virginia shorelines at Chain Bridge, Hance said he's been working 12-hour days trying to keep up. He gets some help from U.S. Park Police and officers of the Virginia Division of Game and Inland Fisheries, but since the waters he patrols are in the District, he's the main enforcer of fishing laws.
"I get there as much as possible," he said. "This year I think I put a hurting on [poachers]. But it's going on seven days a week. I can't get there every day."
Hance grew up on Long Island, N.Y., fishing for striped bass, as rockfish are known everywhere but in the Chesapeake region, and has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years. He's appalled at the attitude of fishermen who catch illegal rockfish, hide them along the rocky shoreline and haul them out in trash bags. Two weeks ago, he arrested two men with 138 rock stuffed in trash bags. "That was the biggest seizure of illegal fish in the harbor's history, as far as I know," said Hance.
"They know the rules," he said of anglers he cites. "They just don't give a damn. If you didn't know the rules, you wouldn't hide the fish. The ones I catch are hiding the fish back in the woods in bags and coolers. Most of them have D.C. licenses, so they should know the limits."
The District's early summer rockfish season opened Tuesday and runs through July 31. Licensed anglers may keep one rockfish per day, 18 inches to 36 inches long. Catch-and-release fishing also is allowed, but anything over one fish per day must be returned to the river.
Hance said the rockfish run at Chain Bridge is the best he's seen since 1986, when he joined the Harbor Police. He said poachers to whom he gives citations have 15 days to pay. "If they don't pay," he said, "I go down to the corporation counsel's office and fill out the papers for a warrant. Then the next time I catch them, they go to jail."
He said poaching is not new on the river, "but there's a lot of fish this year" so it's worse than ever. He said bass fishermen and fly-fishermen enjoying the record run of rockfish generally obey the rules, but a large number of shore anglers "are just killing them, and that's who I'm going to hit -- hard."
Along with the poaching problem, longtime Potomac anglers also are complaining about trash left on the riverbanks by shore fishermen. "The trash is worse than I've seen it in years," said Dick Tehaan, who has been fishing out of Fletcher's Boathouse below Chain Bridge for over 25 years. "Tell them they need to clean up after themselves."