Fall rockfish season opened Friday, the earliest late-season period for striper fishing for recreational and charterboat anglers since the fishery was closed for five years starting in January of 1985. And according to several accounts, opening day was somewhere between a bang and a whimper.
"I don't think it was nothing to be excited about, much more than what you see any other day," said Bunky Conner of Bunky's Charterboats in Solomons. "There's been quite a few guys through here with their limits, but I haven't seen any real big fish."
Near the mouth of the Patuxent River, Conner said, the best action seemed to be for bluefish, Spanish mackerel, spot and croaker.
Capt. Bud Harrison, who runs the charterboat Beaudacious out of Harrison's Fishing Center in Tilghman, said rockfishing was "only fair" on opening day.
"We've been catching lots of fish, but not as many keepers as we would like," said Harrison, one of seven captains out of the fishing center, on Friday. "Most of the keepers we are getting are taking red hoses trolled under the breaking fish."
Spoons and bucktails were consistently taking bluefish, Spanish mackerel and rockfish under the 18-inch minimum, Harrison said.
"But for the keepers," Harrison said, "our best bets seemed to be red hoses, 16 or 20 ounces of weight, slowing the boat way down and catching the fish real deep."
Conner also fished hoses Friday morning, although he said his fishing partner used bucktails. Both baits were "catching about even," Conner said, "but those two- and three-pound bluefish really tear up your bucktails."
Both Harrison and Conner said that bookings were somewhat thin, given the long holiday weekend. But next weekend, they said, the bookings will pick up and look good through the balance of the season, which ends Nov. 19.
From Love Point, at the mouth of the Chester River, to Thomas Point, at the mouth of the South River below Annapolis, pockets of boats were stationed at current breaks and over oyster bottoms, some chumming, some drift fishing or trolling.
But the crowds of boats that have marked the later openings of the fall season the past few years did not seem as large, the fishermen did not seem as frantic and the number of keepers taken did not seem large.
Larry Hansel, of Queen Anne's Marina on Kent Island, said a few charterboats went out Friday, but the number of smaller recreational boats that have crowded his ramps in past seasons was off.
"Most of the fish in this area were caught trolling," Hansel said. "Chumming drew a lot of fish, but what people got was small bluefish and undersized rock -- and the [bay] bridge boats didn't seem to do much, either."
It may be that the stripers are too widely scattered, feeding on small groups of baitfish in the rivers or foraging widely in open waters. If that is the case, as the season goes along and the waters cool, fishing will get better as the baitfish schools head for deeper water and the rock congregate with them.
"But, in my opinion," said Hansel, "[DNR] has made the season too long to get everybody excited this early. Fishermen have 75 days and two fish per day. That's 150 fish per person, theoretically.
"If deer season or rabbit season were that long, they wouldn't be very much a case for excitement, either."
And perhaps that is what is needed -- a long season in which anglers have the opportunity to be selective in the days and locations they fish, a season that wends its way through autumn and diminishes the intense fishing pressure of past fall seasons.
After all, it was only a few years ago that those 14- and 16-inch rockfish that are caught and released regularly now were caught and kept -- when anglers unknowingly were in danger of fishing away the future.