TILGHMAN -- Tuesday morning, Capt. Darryl Larrimore knew he would have his hands full aboard the charter boat Pleasure Merchant, what with eight anglers aboard, no mate and hordes of big rockfish roaming The Diamonds off the mouth of the Choptank River.
And he was prepared: A bucket of chum was tied off atop the transom, with its lower, outboard side punctured with small holes; spinning rods were rigged and hung in cabin-top holders, ready for distribution, and the coolers were filled with cold drinks and box lunches.
"It's kind of a wild crew on board today," Larrimore said with a smile as he fired up the twin engines and idled out of the slip at Harrison's Chesapeake House.
"I had 'em yesterday, and it was a comedy. These guys like to fish and they like to have their fun, too."
Those guys were a foursome from Pittsburgh -- retirees Walter, Charlie, Lou and his son-in-law, Nick -- a fun-loving quartet that had made themselves known in the dining room and bar the night before but who, for the moment, at least, were on their good behavior because there also were three teen-agers aboard.
But still there was that easy and sometimes profane banter one finds the morning after among friends who have fished together for many years.
And before long, within the bustle of settling in for the ride south, came the distinctive sound of a pop-top snapping open on a cold beverage.
"Oh, yes, what I think I need is a little more of last night," Lou said in a raspy voice as he closed the lid to the cooler and then raised the can to his mouth and drank with purpose. "We come down here once a year to fish and get a little foolish -- and some years, like this one, we get a little more foolish than others.
"This year the fishing was so good and we got so foolish we decided to stay over an extra day."
Indeed, angling for rockfish had improved during the previous few days, as the minimum size dropped from 28 to 18 inches and the daily limit increased from one to two.
"These past few days, it's picked up a good bit," said Larrimore. "Some of it is the lower size limit coming in, but there just seems to be more rockfish around than there was a week or two ago -- and a lot of them would have been keepers at the 28-inch limit.
"I don't know why it is, really, but it is, and these Pittsburgh guys know it's so."
On Monday, the crew from Pittsburgh had limited out in an hour and spent a couple of more catching and releasing rockfish.
"Oh, my, it was a day out there, too," said Walter, a stout, mischievous angler who carried on a liquid repartee with Lou throughout the day. "It was raining, the wind was blowing, the waves were three and four feet high -- and those big fish didn't mind it a bit.
"They was draggin' Lou all around the boat and he was cussin' at every one of them. One would hook him and we'd all have to get out of the way because Lou and his fish was comin' through."
Tuesday morning, however, was mostly clear and the wind was light as Larrimore set the anchor at The Diamonds.
While Larrimore, a tall, lean and tolerant shoreman, let the Pleasure Merchant settle to its hook and sloshed water into the chum bucket, Walter dug through his belongings, looking for his "secret juice," an aerosol can of fish attractant he uses for bass, walleye and catfish in the waters around Pittsburgh.
"They think I'm crazy, you know," Walter said as he sprayed a chunk of menhaden with Ketchem's Spanish Fly fish attractant. "But there's nothing alive that can resist this juice. You just watch."
In the corner of the cockpit, Lou groused about "that crazy man, sissy fishing" and the $200 bar tab from the night before, while a fast tide carried menhaden oils and bits of flesh across a small stretch of The Diamonds.
"Yesterday, it was 9 o'clock or so before we caught our first fish," said Nick as he stood at the transom. "But once they started, we had three and four on at a time and the action was furious. It was great fishing."
But as 9 a.m. came and went, only Walter had attracted and caught fish on the Pleasure Merchant, two smallish rockfish that were released. Meanwhile, aboard a few of the dozen or so other boats anchored nearby, fish were beginning to move up the chum lines and hit baits.
"Tide's still running pretty fast," Larrimore said as he added an ounce of weight to each of the spinning outfits and considered re-anchoring closer to the western edge of The Diamonds. "Maybe we'll have to move, but we'll give it a while longer and see what happens."
At 9: 30, the first decent rockfish came aboard, a 34-incher caught by Ryan Jordan, a teen from Edwardsville, Pa., who with his brother, Rob, was vacationing in Tilghman.
A few minutes later, two more 28-inch-plus stripers hit, and then the blitz was on. Over the space of an hour, a limit of 17 rockfish were brought aboard and several others were released.
"I've been coming down here for 25 or 26 years, and I never have had fishing like this for this size fish," said Charlie, a quiet member of a rowdy group. "This sure beats all those years when all we caught was bluefish."
According to state Fisheries Service biologists, fishing for rockfish is better now than it ever has been, and the future of the fishery appears to be spectacular.
"After decades of overfishing, a moratorium on harvest and then limited fishing opportunities, the beginning of a world class striper fishery is upon us," fisheries service biologist Martin L. Gary said in this week's statewide fishing report. "[Monday] marked the first time Maryland anglers could fish on a truly fully recruited 1993 year class of striped bass."
How large is the 1993-year class and what does it mean for striped bass [rockfish] anglers in Maryland?
Previously, the 1970-year class was measured at 30.4 in the annual young-of-the-year index, and its members fueled a strong fishery for nearly a decade when size minimums were 12 inches and the creel was unlimited.
In those years, too, millions of fish were taken out of the fishery before they were mature enough to spawn. But since the moratorium, regulations have protected migrant spawners in the spring and allowed a conservatively managed fishery for 18-inch rockfish in the summer and fall.
The 1993-year class, which measured 39.8, is a result of those regulations and the 1996-year class measured an astounding 59.3. Together, those year classes are numerous enough to ensure excellent fishing for years to come.
"The gargantuan 1996-year class will begin entering the fishery in the fall of 2000," said Gary. "It's hard for our fishery managers to even imagine what fishing will be like then."
Walter, with his secret juice and a cold beverage alongside as he fished the chum line and another big striper caught Lou, summed it up nicely:
"I'm crazy, you know, and they only let me out to go fishing," he said, smiling, as Lou bumped his way along the starboard rail. "Next year, they better let me out again, because I wouldn't miss this kind of fishing for the world."
Pub Date: 6/21/98