The best seasons to fish are spring and fall, when fish are on the move and hungry from their travels. The best times are dusk and dawn, when changing light triggers in them the urge to feed.
Which is why it felt so promising to be idling up to the point Sunday morning in the dark before dawn with a canopy of bright stars overhead and enough of an autumn chill in the air to make a sweatshirt and long pants a comfort.
"We should probably cut the running lights so we don't spook them," I suggested to Andy Hughes, who was piloting his 25-foot center console into shallow water after a brisk run out to Chesapeake Bay. He did, and the soft glow of reflected starlight shone from the water, which was calm. Then came the sounds we'd hoped to hear.
"That's them," said Tom Shelton, reaching for his rod. "They're up there feeding in the rocks."
It was still too dark to see so we eased into casting range using the noisy splashing as a guide, being careful not to run onto the barely submerged rocks. Hughes cut the engine and the boat drifted slowly on the tide. "Ker-whap! Ker-splash!" Rockfish were smashing bait on the surface.
Shelton threw a cigar-shaped popper out and chugged it back across the water where the fish were feeding. You could hear them whacking at it but they must have been small or striking short because he didn't hook up. Two or three casts later he felt the solid tug of a good one. His rod bowed as the rockfish made a run.
I was right behind, casting another popper into the same pod of splashes, and soon I was fast to a good one, too. Hughes didn't have time to rig up before he was dashing from one line to the other with a landing net, dipping up rockfish of 20 and 22 inches, enough over the minimum size of 18 so they didn't need measuring. They went straight into the ice chest.
"Keepers," I said. "Isn't that nice?"
Indeed, it hasn't been hard to catch rockfish on Chesapeake Bay this year but it hasn't been easy to find keepers. The bay is full of 12-, 14- and 16-inchers that are easy to fool, but getting ones big enough to take home for dinner has grown increasingly difficult.
That fact has not been lost on resource managers in Maryland and Virginia, who are looking for ways to reverse the trend so more folks can enjoy sportfishing for keeper-sized rock next year and into the future.
They and all other East Coast states are under instructions from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federally sanctioned congress of state resource managers, to find a way to protect larger rockfish, which for the last three years have been caught at a rate substantially higher than targets established by ASMFC.
Recreational and commercial fishermen from the Carolinas to Maine are supposed to remove only about 30 percent of rockfish stocks annually. They've stayed within the limits on smaller rock, but researchers found that in the last few years mortality on rock eight years old or older (the 15- and 20-pounders everyone likes to catch) has been as high as 56 percent on some age groups.
All the states are now committed to new rules for 2000 that would protect larger fish. Some ideas Maryland and Virginia officials are considering include reducing the daily limit from two fish to one along the coast, increasing minimum size for keepers by two inches (to 20 inches in the Bay, 30 inches in the ocean), and reducing or eliminating the spring trophy season for large rockfish that return to the bay to spawn and the late fall season that also targets larger rock coming in from the sea.
Both states also are considering slot limits for rockfish, which would allow anglers to keep only fish in the 18- to 32-inch size range, or establishing a maximum size for rock of 32 to 36 inches, with all larger fish off limits.
"We're ready to do whatever is necessary," said Jack Travelstead of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. He blamed the decline in his state on increasing recreational catch as well as the tactic of "high-grading" among commercial fishermen, who get a limited number of rockfish tags and thus target the biggest fish to get the most pounds for each tag.
"The states have agreed to a 28 percent reduction in mortality of rockfish eight years old and older," said Eric Schwaab of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "This is more about monitoring and continuing to build our stocks than rebuilding them. There are still a lot of fish out there but they're small."
Which explains why it's so satisfying on a cool, starlit September morning to find a pod of keepers smashing surface lures. The fish bit hard until the sun was up and beaming, then slowed. By then we were done, and soon were headed back upriver with the sun and wind on our backs. "It's a nice feeling," said Hughes, "going home with a limit and the whole day still ahead of you."
It would be better still if it weren't so rare. It took a while to get state resource overseers to acknowledge what every serious sport angler has known for years--that it's getting harder and harder to catch large rockfish as stocks of keeper fish get depleted. Here's hoping the new rules they formulate this fall have the desired effect and that things get better, and stay better, into the next millennium.