Outdoors: Healthy and abundant bay grasses worth celebrating

cdollar@cdollaroutdoors.com

Earlier this summer I was fishing with a friend and, just for giggles and grins, we set a dozen snap pots along a six- to nine-foot edge not too far from where the Chesapeake Bay mingles with the two Choptanks. The water's clarity was startling, making the bottom easily visible. In nearby shallower waters, sprawling mini-meadows of underwater grasses grew seemingly everywhere.

My buddy guessed eel or wild celery, more of a question than statement.

"Eel grass blades are much wider, and it's too salty here for celery; it's widgeon grass," I replied, as I plucked a floating handful from the salty waters for a closer look, laying the plant's narrow stem and leaves across my palm.

Good news of the resurgence of underwater grasses has been fairly widespread. Locally, the South River Federation reports seeing bay grasses in Little Aberdeen Lagoon for the first time in 23 years. And recently I watched an awesome online video featuring my former colleague John Page Williams, the undisputed dean of the Severn, and Chesapeake Bay nature photographer Jay Fleming (I'm pretty sure I sold him my old fishing kayak many years back) discussing Jay's snorkeling above several species in the Severn, milfoil, pondweed and redhead among them.

Their trip reminded me of the early 2000s, when JPW and I participated in the CBF push to restore underwater grasses through transplanting them. Where we could find them (more scarce than presently) we'd snorkel among lush aquatic meadows to document what could be. Also as part of that effort, the bay foundation brought a guy up from Florida who had this contraption, which was built on a pontoon boat and resembled a watery Ferris wheel sized for small house pets, or a Habitrail for hamsters on steroids.

Apparently, he had used his contraption with some success to transplant turtle grasses in Florida waters. It worked like this: plugs of grasses would be placed in tubes attached to the wheel. As the wheel rotated it would drive the pant's roots into the bottom sediment, the theory being they'd take root and eventually stimulate growth. I admit it was kind of a cool concept, worth a shot, but in reality the process was too labor intensive and ultimately the initiative fell short of exceptions.

Today, we seem to be in Year 2 of an encouraging increase in acreage of grasses bay wide. Not surprisingly it's also been positive for crab numbers, as well as recreational and commercial crabbing. Seafood dealers say they have more local product, watermen usually get a pretty good price per basket at the dock from wholesalers, and devotees of this succulent crustacean delight in the fattest, sweetest crabs in the world.

Sport anglers, from those chasing largemouth bass in fresher waters to those after rockfish and spotted seatrout in the mid to lower bay, have shared with me their excitement about seeing so much grass; not just because it usually means good fishing but because the diversity of marine life the grass beds attract enhances their on-the-water experiences.

It'd be extremely hard, if not impossible, to overstate the importance of healthy and abundant bay grasses to the Chesapeake's ecology. Blue crabs are joined by numerous fish species seeking shelter from predators among the dense aquatic foliage. Other animals —turtles, geese, ducks — eat grasses. Stout grass beds knock down wave energy, making water clearer and helping to minimize shoreline erosion. The proliferation of healthy grasses almost always means good water quality.

Enthusiasm for what's possible for the future of our bay is an intricate part of its recovery. Programs to slow pollution are beginning to take hold, yielding some encouraging progress. As exciting as this all is, however, we hear also words of temperance from professionals about the risks of getting ahead ourselves, even in the face of this welcomed uptick.

For example, the cold spring in 2016 has probably spurred good grass growth again this year. And it's worth listening to leading bay grass scientists when they remind us that despite underwater grasses impressive ability to rebound — freshwater varieties are more resilient and experts cite the recovery of the Elk River's grasses as a prime example — widgeon grass has driven the recent increase in acreage, yet it is notorious for its "boom-and-bust" cycles. High one year, down the next.

No one knows what next year or the year after will bring, so let's not only enjoy it, celebrate it, but also leverage that progress. To paraphrase bay scientists, great things can happen for the Chesapeake's health when Mother Nature works with us. The outlook will only be better when we consistently return the favor.

SHOOTER QAUALIFICATION DATES: Deer hunters who want to take part in a managed deer hunt on public lands this coming season first need to get their Shooter Qualification Card. Passing this proficiency test is required to be eligible for the hunts, the participants of which are determined by lottery. DNR announced this week its Shooter Qualification Schedule, available online (dnr2.maryland.gov/huntersguide/Documents/shoot_qual_cal.pdf.)

There will be more than 30 firearm qualification sessions at 16 locations across the state, including several in Anne Arundel and Queen Anne's counties. DNR reminds us at several locations you may need to make an appointment, and many outfits charge a fee to cover their expenses. For complete details check out the 2016-17 Guide to Hunting and Trapping in Maryland.

Photos and outdoors calendar listings to cdollar@cdollaroutdoors.com.

Outdoors calendar

Thru Sept. 17: Chesapeake Summer Slam. Five species, throughout the Bay. Sign up at technicalfisherman.com.

July 15-17: 12th annual O.C. Marlin Club Kid's Classic, 9659 Golf Course Road, Ocean City. Info at 410-213-1613 or ocmarlinclub.com.

July 16: WISH-A-FISH Foundation Day, Sandy Point, Annapolis at 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Contact Skip Zink at 410-913-9043 or email at md-wish-a-fish@comcast.net or annap@wish-a-fish.org.

July 18: MSSA Broadneck/Magothy #10 Chapter Meeting, American Legion Post #175, 832 Manhattan Beach Road, Severna Park at 7:30 p.m. Call 410-757-9070.

July 20: MSSA Annapolis #1 Chapter Fishing Trip, Rod N' Reel Docks, Chesapeake Beach at 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Info at mssaannapolis.com.

July 23: CCA-MD 3rd annual Baltimore Kids Catch. Canton Waterfront Park, 3001 Boston St, Baltimore at 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Info at ccamd.org.

July 23: Pasadena Sportfishing Group Kid's Fishing Derby, Downs Park at 7 a.m.-12 p.m. Register at pasadenasportfishing.com

July 25: CAPCA Meeting, Annapolis Elks Lodge #622, 2517 Solomons Island Road, Edgewater. Open to the public meeting starts at 7:15 p.m. Info at capca.net.

July 29-31: Huk's 3rd annual O.C. Big Fish Classic, Talbot Street Peir. Info at 410-213-0325 or bigfishclassic.com.

Aug. 8-12: 2016 White Marlin Open, world's richest billfish tournament. Ocean City. Register at whitemarlinopen.com.

Aug. 13: MSSA's KI Fishing club's annual Youth Fishing Derby, Romancoke Pier, Rt. 8 south. 9 a.m.-11a.m. Awards and lunch at Kent Island American Legion #278 from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

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