Striped bass season opens slowly

The Baltimore Sun

ABOARD THE DRIZZLE BAR-- --At 6:08 yesterday morning as he powered up the twin diesels and nosed his 46-foot charter boat toward the Chesapeake Bay, Capt. George Bentz declared the striped bass season open for business.

Sadly, it took most of the day for word to filter down to the fish. Not our fault.

As Bentz turned into the bay from Bodkin Creek, the sun began its climb above the Eastern Shore, turning from orange to yellow and adding a touch of glitter to the water. The surface was as smooth as a roll of plastic wrap stretched tight below the Bay Bridge, from Matapeake to Annapolis.

Quickly, the day became a "wish you were here" postcard for the Maryland tourism industry. With sunny skies and warm temperatures that left your skin glowing, how could it be otherwise?

Filling an ice chest with fish would make it perfect.

But as those of you who wet a line know, rarely does anything come easy early in the season. And this was one of those times.

The early word via radio and cell phone was the fish were biting off Chesapeake Beach if you wanted to participate in the scrum of charter boats and the private flotilla. But elsewhere, it was a slog.

Marty Gary, a state fisheries biologist and judge at the Boatyard Bar and Grill Tournament in Eastport, speculated that the previous night's full moon and clear skies prompted the fish to feed while it was still dark. And with the water temperatures in the mid-bay running about 55 degrees, the spawning fish may have decided to linger in the rivers and staging areas.

Whatever the reason (and there are probably 100 other theories I didn't hear), eight hours after we began, our party of 10 came up with four legal-sized rockfish, two from below the bridge and two from above.

We had ringers on our roster. Capt. George "Pop" Bentz, the captain's dad and founder of the Pasadena Sportfishing Group, served as our able mate. Tom O'Connell, the newly named director of the Maryland Fisheries Service, provided the imprimatur of officialdom.

We felt fortified by the knowledge that the largest striper ever landed on Bentz's boat was a 47-pounder about three years ago at the mouth of the West River.

Things started well at 8:12, when the first rod bent and we practiced our chorus of, "Fish on!"

Michael Davis, a college student from New Windsor, wrestled a 38 1/2 -inch beast of the East into the boat, leading to high-fives all around and the satisfying "thunk" of the fish hitting the ice in the big blue box near the stern.

"I'm going to have a little surf and turf on the grill," crowed his father, Roger. "A couple of rib-eye steaks and some rockfish fillets."

"Where do you live?" teased O'Connell, taking out a piece of paper and a pen.

Nothing like a good start.

And nothing is what we got. It was like all the stripers scrambled to some underwater evacuation route, went into the FBI's fish protection program or took a nap. I had visions of them all lined up at the Boatyard Bar, sucking down margaritas and laughing about our pitiful flailing around.

You scoff, but who would look for a trophy striper at the tournament headquarters? It's always the last place you look, right?

Bentz, the senior, rigged up his homemade "sliders," which allow plastic baits that resemble shad to "swim" freely behind bucktail rigs instead of just wiggling their tails like Daryl Hannah in Splash.

To pass the time, I asked O'Connell about fisheries doings and his priorities. By phone, I harassed another DNR employee who was fishing several miles away and dealing with the same conditions and the horrifying realization that the fried chicken on board was nearly inedible.

"We can't even get the gulls to take it," he concluded.

Did I say nothing was happening?

Finally, as high noon gave way to 1 o'clock, a rod on the port side popped in its holder, startling everyone into action. Don Snyder of Edgemere reacted first and was rewarded with a rotund 31-inch rockfish.

With that, Bentz, the younger, pulled up stakes and switched sides of the Bay Bridge, threading his way among the pilings while fighting a fierce current that pushed the Drizzle Bar toward the concrete.

"I run the bridge every year like this," said Bentz with one eye on boat traffic and the other on the planer board off the starboard side that practically scraped the pilings. "It's where the fish are."

Within minutes, his daredevil act was rewarded when Ethan Estevez of Edgewood landed a fat 36-inch fish. The day ended with Jason Hyatt of Delta, Pa., reeling in a 35-inch fish.

Back at the Boatyard, Gary reported that while anglers "didn't crush them" on opening day, officials of the catch-and-release tournament saw a "fair number of entries."

Winner of the event - the seventh - was Gregg Behling, captain of "Team Behling Out." The Millersville resident said he caught the 46-inch fish about 9:30 a.m. off Calvert Cliffs on a chartreuse umbrella rig. His name and an outline of the fish will be painted in the rafters above the bar.

"We've fished this tournament since its inception," Behling said. "So we had a pretty good idea that this fish was going to do well."

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