New rods warm day when only cold bites

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While many of us were hunkered down post-Christmas, nursing our expanded brain pans, practicing writing "2005" and adjusting the horizontal hold on our football television, Ethan Sherkey and Adaline Fair were out fishing.

Santa gave the kids new rods and a tackle box filled with circle hooks, weights and bobbers, and they weren't going to wait around until spring thaw to try them. The siblings begged their grandpa, Capt. Kevin Farrell, to take them fishing.

The Dec. 28 outing was not the fishing debut for Farrell's grandchildren, who live in Newark, Del. Last fall, the kids got "My First Fish" certificates from the Department of Natural Resources after a successful outing with grandpa.

Now, the weather three days after Christmas was, to put it mildly, not.

"It happened to be blowing a small-craft warning, and it was colder than heck," says Farrell, who can laugh now about conditions that made the Chesapeake Bay feel like the Roaring 40s.

But that didn't stop Ethan, 7, and Adaline, 4. They paraded down to Whitehall Creek, rods over shoulders, and picked out a spot near the end of Bob Downey's pier. Before his digits turned to fingersicles, Farrell rigged their new rods with bloodworms. The kids began casting while snuggled up on either side of grandpa.

They waited for a nibble. And they waited some more.

"They were very patient," says Farrell, 51, a licensed Coast Guard captain and fire protection specialist at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "I was surprised. They never complained about the cold."

They'll learn. If anglers couldn't kick a little about the weather, the bait or the bite, we'd be rendered mute.

Finally, Ethan ran up the white flag. The three anglers walked back to grandpa's house for mugs of hot chocolate.

Puts me and my couch-side dish of honey-roasted peanuts to shame.

Virginia's new king striper

Yes, Virginia, there is a new rockfish record in the Old Dominion.

Paul Kleckner rang in the new year by catching a 63-pound, 8-ounce striped bass on Jan. 2. The record-setting striper was 50.5 inches long and 33 inches around.

His catch, hooked in the Atlantic Ocean 18 miles south of Wachapreague Inlet, has been certified by the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament.

Kleckner was trolling a parachute dressed with a 4-inch white shad fished as the trailing bait of an umbrella rig. It took him nearly a half hour to reel it into his boat, about two miles off shore.

His catch broke the record of 63 pounds set Jan. 30 last year.

To offset or not to offset

The mention of striped bass reminds me to remind you about a DNR hearing Wednesday on proposed regulations for the Susquehanna Flats striped bass catch-and-release season.

Anglers who fish with bait will be required to use non-offset circle hooks or "J" hooks with a gap of less than a half-inch between the point and the shank.

"It's the right thing to do," says fisheries chief Howard King of the circle hooks.

As many of you know, non-offset circle hooks reduce fishing mortality, an important consideration on the flats, the area at the mouth of the Susquehanna River adjacent to one of the East Coast's premier striper spawning grounds.

Studies have shown that they are slightly less effective at catching fish than traditional "J" hooks, a fact that some anglers cling to like a balloon to a cashmere sweater.

But hooking fewer fish is a small sacrifice, especially in a season called catch-and-release.

DNR has no intention of banning live bait during flats season, despite a back-door attempt to do so last year.

"We heard an outcry from bait dealers and from anglers who use bait to attract other species," King says.

Bait use on the flats surged the past few years as anglers struggled to find something to attract striped bass in heavy spring runoff the color and consistency of Bosco chocolate syrup.

Old-timers argue that using bait on the flats runs contrary to what DNR intended, but didn't write down, when it opened the area to fishing in 1999. The fear is bait will lead to chumming.

But bait doesn't kill fish, hooks do, which is why I'd ban "J" hooks on the flats. If you want to prevent chumming, put it on the books.

The regs would permit dip netting or seining white perch under 8 inches for live-lining.

It has been the practice, but it's been illegal. "There's an over-abundance of small white perch, so there's no reason for it not to be made legal," says King.

DNR also is proposing a starting date of March 1 instead of March 15 for the catch-and-release season.

King says the change will give Maryland the same opening day as Delaware has for the C&D; Canal, Delaware River and the Upper Nanticoke River.

"There's no apparent increase in striped bass mortality by moving the start date," he explains. "There won't be much to catch the first two weeks of March, but it gives people the opportunity to scout around and cast."

One thing will not change - the season's end - which will be May 3.

The hearing will be at 7 p.m. at DNR headquarters in Annapolis.

But wait

There's more.

The regional regulatory commission that oversees interstate fisheries plans is having a hearing tomorrow in Annapolis on the management of croaker.

Anglers will be asked by Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission biologists how they would like to see the croaker population cared for.

The commission has not set size and harvest limits on recreational and commercial croaker fishing. Maryland has a 9-inch minimum, 25-fish limit on recreational anglers and 9-inch minimum on its commercial fishery.

In 2003, the state's recreational anglers caught 1.6 million fish, the third-highest total in 10 years. Virginia anglers reeled in 6.7 million fish, a significant drop from 2002, when they landed 9.1 million fish.

The commission notes that Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey have an "abundance" of croaker, which might lead some to believe that there's no need to tweak the management plan.

But as Bill Clinton once cautioned, the time to fix the roof is when it's sunny.

The hearing is at 7 p.m. at DNR headquarters.

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