The spring season for rockfish now draws the attention of Chesapeake Bay anglers, but big bluefish, too, once were among the prizes of spring fishing.
"Remember when they used to show up in May, those big blues that would stay for about two weeks and then be gone?" said Harley Speir, chief of biological monitoring and analysis for the state's Fisheries Service. "We haven't seen that in maybe 10 years."
But this year there is a tease of moderate-sized blues in the bay, a hint of what once was and someday could be again.
During the recent pro-am tournament out of the Rod and Reel Docks in Chesapeake Beach, several blues were weighed in, including a 14-pounder. Catch reports from the Department of Natural Resources, tackle shops and charter-boat centers also indicate pockets of blues in the middle and lower bay.
"There have been a few caught here and there and have been since the last week of April," said Fred Donovan of the Rod and Reel Docks, "and for us to have them this early is interesting."
A popular theory among fishermen is that top predators such as bluefish and rockfish run in cycles, and never are both species dominant at the same time.
"I don't know what the biologists will say," Donovan said Friday. "But talk to the old-timers and I don't think any will tell you there ever was a time when both of them were here together in large numbers."
Ken Lamb of the Tackle Box in Lexington Park closely follows fishing activity throughout the middle and lower bay. He theorizes that "we are in a rockfish-hardhead cycle rather than a blues-trout cycle" and the current pulse of early blues could be a harbinger.
"When I was a boy, it used to be that charter captains would come in here and talk about the big blues and big trout they used to catch in the '40s," said Lamb. "Well, at the time, we never had seen anything like that, so we thought it was strange, that age had finally caught up with these guys."
But, Lamb said, through the years when rockfish have been thick, hardheads (croaker) have been plentiful, too.
"You know, washtubs full of croaker in an hour," said Lamb, who caught several bluefish early this month while on a "busman's holiday" with Capt. Brady Bounds off the Power Plant. "By golly, that's what we have now."
And by Lamb's count, the 15- to 20-year cycle is due to change.
"But we'll have to wait and see," he said. "It's one here, some there. There are not enough to brag about, but they're there."
Bluefish, which spawn offshore and move up and down the East Coast with the seasons, are subject to interstate management plans formulated by a technical committee of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The ASMFC also sets management parameters for rockfish.
But while rockfish have benefited from intense management and recovery programs from North Carolina to Maine, bluefish have been more scullery maid than Cinderella.
In general, while there is agreement that bluefish numbers are down on a coast-wide basis, there apparently is no consensus on the cause. And without knowing the cause, one biologist said, it is difficult to move toward a solution to the problem.
In Maryland, said Speir, bluefish catches are monitored by checking charter-boat logbooks and the commercial catch at the end of the year.
"At this point, it's hard to tell exactly what's going on out there with bluefish, although there apparently have been good numbers of blues in the surf at Ocean City, too," said Speir, adding that there is too little information yet to begin to analyze the changes.
"There is some indication that we did have increased reproduction two or three years ago. But we're still down overall," Speir said. "We don't believe it indicates recovery. It's a minor blip of improved reproduction."