One of the better recent arrivals on the East Coast sportfishing scene is the Coastal Conservation Association, an alliance of anglers that made a splash two decades ago by getting redfish, snook and speckled trout protected in Gulf states where they were being plundered, then dramatically improving Florida fishing by pushing through a ban on inshore netting there.
The CCA since has inched north. Four years ago, it got to Maryland and Chesapeake Bay, where it is becoming a force in tidal fisheries decision-making.
"When we got to 1,000 members, people started looking at us seriously," said CCA-Md. President Chris Coile, an avid fly-rodder. "Today we're asked our opinion on all the issues. We're invited to all the important meetings. When we get to 5,000 members, we'll be a genuine voting bloc, and it'll just get better."
In the past year, CCA-Md. has expanded from three chapters to eight, ranging from Baltimore to Southern Maryland, with a chapter in D.C. that held its first banquet last night at Potomac Boat Club under Key Bridge. Tickets were sold out.
The organization is pressing to protect against overfishing a variety of species, including yellow perch, which the CCA says have all but vanished from 90 percent of traditional Maryland spawning streams; white perch, unprotected by creel or size limits; menhaden, the base of the bay food chain, but netted by the ton in Virginia for oil, cat food and protein meal; rockfish, which are dwindling in average size throughout the bay; and black drum, giant bottom-feeders that live a half-century but are sold for as little as a nickel a pound.
The CCA has a national lobbyist following issues in Congress, and CCA-Md. and its sister state organizations have regulatory and legislative experts tackling local issues. The aim is to make sense of a dizzying array of complicated management problems and have an impact on decision-making.
"My primary recreation is fishing, and I want to see it get better," says Coile, a real estate entrepreneur from Glen Burnie who made a fortune in Maryland, sold out in 1982 and moved to Montana with his wife to become an outfitter and trout guide, then returned after five years when he found he missed his native state.
Coile says the problem with fisheries management is: "One guy can't do anything. The process is too big and laborious. It's political, and you need voices."
CCA-Md. had a rocky start but appears to have found its legs under Coile, who took over as president 2 1/2 years ago. His term was one year, but he's still there because, he says, "No one else wants it."
I had always heard he was an exceptional bay fisherman, and when he called last month to invite me to the D.C. banquet, I proposed a fishing trip. We agreed on a day last week, then when the weather forecast called for cold wind, gray skies and possible rain, I suggested a delay.
"Why? It's going to be perfect!" Coile said.
Perfect for a penguin, maybe. When we whooshed away from the dock on Kent Island in his 20-foot Jones Brothers skiff, we were buttoned and hooded and muffled to the max. But the fish weren't far, and there were plenty of them.
Coile and I had an astoundingly productive day chasing seagulls around and fly-fishing beneath them for breaking rockfish in Eastern Bay and the main Chesapeake off Poplar Island. We hadn't gone three miles before I spied a big flock of gulls wheeling over bait, the first of many we would see.
"That's what we're looking for," said Coile, and he sped to a spot upwind of the excitement, killed the engine and hauled out nine-weight fly-rods with double-rigged, small, white Clouser minnows. We drifted down on the school and hooked up again and again, often two rockfish at a time. Most were small, but about one in 15 or so were keeper size of 18 inches.
Later we went out onto the main bay to inspect a construction project at Poplar Island, where the state is spending tens of millions of dollars on a huge impoundment to hold Baltimore Harbor's endless supply of dredge spoil.
"Here's one that got away from us," said Coile, gesturing at miles of rock riprap being piled into a giant circular retaining wall. "It's like a small city out here. Who had any idea it was going to be like this?"
The Poplar Island project, which was promoted by the Army Corps of Engineers as a benign wetland restoration project, serves as a reminder of the role CCA-Md. can play in conserving and protecting the bay and its resources.
"Our members fish," Coile said. "We don't just listen to scientists. We're out there covering the whole bay, so we have a good idea what's really going on all around."
Armed with firsthand information, a growing membership list and a bit of restrained expertise in the political arena, CCA-Md. at the moment is the saltwater angler's best hope for the unified fisherman's voice that's been sorely lacking in resource management issues to date.
Meantime, it's refreshing that the president knows how to run a boat and cast a line. On the way back to the dock, Coile's depth-finder lit up with some inviting bumps on the bottom. We stopped to try for sea trout in 30 feet of water.
They were there all right, eager to bite chartreuse and white, two-ounce Stingsilver jigs lifted slowly up and down off the bottom. "A day like this," Coile said with a smile, "a guy might never get home."
For information on the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland, check the Web site at www.ccamd.org or call 1-888-768-6580.