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Striped bass success may come with catch


Will success spoil next year's trophy striped bass season?

Some folks are wondering whether Maryland recreational anglers, already penalized for exceeding their 2005 quota, will be flagged again for taking too many fish in April and May during spawning season.

There's no doubt thousands of folks had a blast this spring. Except for gas prices, what wasn't to like? The weather was good. The Chesapeake Bay wasn't muddied up by Susquehanna River runoff. And the scare about a dire new study on striped bass disease proved to be the product of the overactive imagination of a single reporter.

Even with an increase in the minimum size during the early part of the season and a delay in the start of tournaments, the photos and stories coming out of Deale, South River, Kent Island and other fishing hotbeds would lead you to conclude this year's trophy season was a rousing success.

But riding along with the wave of success is an undercurrent of dread that our debt to nature is about to grow. I've heard speculation about over-fishing from anglers and from state biologists in their OD-OTR mode (that's "off duty and off the record").

"A lot of people are spooked by the perception," acknowledges Marty Gary, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Natural Resources. "Everyone is a little nervous."

The total won't be known until around Labor Day, which gives us plenty of time to worry. But Gary believes we might squeak by.

"We had almost a perfect scenario last year to create our problem. This year, while not the exact opposite, was very different," he says.

To back up just a minute for some background, last spring's cold weather slowed the spawning season. Migrating stripers just waiting around for the water temperature to rise were easy targets. As a result, Maryland recreational anglers exceeded their allotment by nearly 30,000 fish, which under federal rules required a payback.

But instead of forcing Maryland to make good on the entire total this year, the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board accepted a two-year installment plan.

Maryland fisheries chief Howard King promised to raise the minimum size from 28 inches to 33 inches for the first weeks of the season, hold to the daily creel limit of one fish and eliminate tournaments until May 1 to ensure that big female fish are not hauled in during spawning. He also promised to institute a better way to account for the recreational harvest.

Gary says initial indications from biologists stationed in the upper bay is that the peak of the spawn came about four days after the April 15 opening day.

"The 1996 year class was driving the wagon early on," Gary says. "There were more spawning peaks, but not nearly the level as around mid-April. As the big tournaments approached in early May, the major spawning periods were past peak and the numbers of fish dropped off. Compare that to last year, when the cold weather kept the fish around until the last week of May."

Gary thinks that the tournaments aside, recreational effort dropped off by April 30.

"What we wanted to do with the regulations is put the brakes on the first two weeks of May. The 33-inch minimum size was really built to gain most of its impact during that period," he says.

Regardless of impressions, the rubber hits the road when the annual Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (MRFSS) is released around Labor Day.

Few people actually believe that the survey provides an accurate census, but in the absence of another data base, it is what regulators are bound to uphold.

DNR asked charter captains and recreational anglers to e-mail their catch numbers as a way to create a population model similar to the one they helped develop for flounder. The hope was to collect information on 5,000 to 10,000 fish to provide a strong foundation to make population estimates for review by the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board.

"We're not going to let MRFSS go out there and put up some number while we just sit there," Gary says. "Looking at the in-box at our fishing survey section, we're going to have some significant numbers to work with before MRFSS comes out.

"It'll be what it'll be, but we're hopeful the numbers won't be anywhere near where we were last year."

Fishing challenge

The first week of the "Maryland $1,000,000 Fishing Challenge: The Return of Diamond Jim" has yielded 17 anglers who hauled in tagged fish.

Those folks are qualified to win a chance (odds 1-in-65) at $1 million cash, a 20-foot center console motorboat and trailer, a bass boat and trailer, and/or one of two 4-by-4 pickup trucks.

So far, fish have been caught in Montgomery County's Little Seneca Lake, the Pocomoke River, the Susquehanna River below Conowingo Dam, Allen's Pond in Prince George's County, Pasadena's Lake Waterford, Broad Creek on the tidal Potomac River and Owens Creek near Thurmont.

Contest officials say there are tagged fish in every county.

Fisheries staff released the second $25,000 "Diamond Jim" in the eastern Chesapeake Bay. The striper's neon-green tag is good for an instant cash prize, but the tag expiration is midnight Friday.

No one caught one of the five Diamond Jims released May 30. Another D.J. striper will be released later this week for next week's contest.

The contest runs through Labor Day.

Turkey hunting

Turkey hunters bagged 3,008 birds during the spring season, a 4 percent decline from last year's record 3,136 birds.

Junior hunters took advantage of good weather during the one-day youth hunt April 15, killing 168 turkeys.

Western Maryland counties led the totals: Garrett, 342; Washington, 340; and Allegany, 331.

Eighty-two percent of all turkeys were killed on private property.

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