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Weather threatens another opening day of rockfish fishing

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The state says it's OK to eat more striped bass, but the question today, the opening of the spring season, is whether you'll be able to catch them.

In a repeat of last year, high winds are expected to rake the bay, generating three- to five-foot waves and convincing many anglers to remain in safe harbor.

For those who love the taste of the firm, white flesh of morone saxatilis, being so close but so far from piscatorial paradise is, well, a form of purgatory. After all, it's been four months since the 2010 season closed. Freezers are fillet-free and muscles used to haul the big fish topside are starting to twitch.

"For a lot of people who fish just a few times a year, this is a can't-miss event. It's the chance to catch the fish of a lifetime, and maybe a state record," said Marty Gary, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist.

Opening Day for recreational striped bass season is a Maryland ritual as sacred as the Orioles home opener or a mid-May horse race at Pimlico. But the phenomenon is a relatively recent development, beginning in 1991 after a five-year fishing moratorium to allow the depleted population to rebuild.

The pent-up enthusiasm of that first year has never waned.

Hopefuls line the beach at Sandy Point State park and the fishing pier at Matapeake. Boats — sometimes as many as 200 in a three-mile radius — fill the water from the Patapsco River south to the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Calvert County and beyond.

The state's four-week spring season is responsible for about 36,100 of the half-million stripers, or rockfish, that get reeled in each year.

From now until May 15, anglers are allowed one rockfish per day of 28 inches or longer, measured from the tip of the snout to the end of the tail. Any fish longer than 40 inches is eligible for a state citation and will be entered in the 2011 Maryland Fishing Challenge.

Earlier this week, state health officials announced that declining levels of contaminants in striped bass means Marylanders can add more striper fillets to their menu: for adults, an 8-ounce serving three times a month from Chesapeake Bay rockfish shorter than 28 inches, or an 8-ounce portion from a fish longer than 28 inches once a month. Children can eat two 3-ounce portions from the smaller fish or one portion every other month from the larger fish.

First, of course, you have to catch one.

On a good day, when the sky is bright and full of promise and the bay is an azure sheet of glass, nothing seems impossible. A rod-bending, 38-inch silver fish with black racing stripes is just below the surface.

But on a day when the winds howl and the bay churns like the tub of a washing machine, fishing takes a back seat to the simple act of remaining upright, and walking across a deck becomes an athletic triumph.

With the temperature topping out in the low 50s and water temperatures in the same range, Natural Resources Police is urging caution this weekend.

"We have a whole season ahead of us. A fish is not worth somebody's life," said Sgt. Art Windemuth. "Many people are breaking out their boats for the first time this season. Their boating skills may not be sharp yet. They could experience problems and breakdowns."

Boaters should check all equipment and electronic gear, make sure safety equipment — like flares and fire extinguishers — aren't expired, dress appropriately and file a float plan that includes where you are going and when you expect to return "so we know where to start looking," Windemuth said.

As hard as it is to believe right now, the weather will improve, and with it the chances of having your name attached to a state record.

It won't fall easily. The current mark was set on Memorial Day weekend in 1995, when a 12-year-old Baltimore boy, Devin Nolan, reeled in a striped bass that measured 52-inches long, 30 inches around and 67 pounds, 8 oz. while fishing with his dad at Bloody Point, just south of Kent Island. His catch, preserved by a taxidermist, hangs outside the main conference room at DNR.

"You never know," said Gary. "On Opening Day, anything seems possible."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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