As meetings go, Monday night's open house about proposed regulations to protect striped bass was a head scratcher.

Members of the group with "conservation" in its name were saying very unconservationlike things. So were other recreational anglers.

Essentially, they want to continue to harass, unencumbered by rules, egg-laden female striped bass as they swim to their spawning grounds in the upper Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in March and April.

Harass is a harsh word, I know. The dictionary says the word means: "to trouble, worry or torment." So harass is exactly the right word.

Here's what happens. A boat spiked with a dozen or so fishing rods slowly trolls the water. When a huge fish strikes, the angler reels it in, most likely hauls it over the gunwales in a net, poses for pictures and then dumps the fish back over the side.

That's catch-and-release, Maryland style.

The Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service will be proposing regulations Tuesday to slow - not halt - the practice. Recreational anglers in favor of retaining the "preseason season" say it doesn't harm the fish and are willing to take a chance with the future. Charter boat captains want to err on the side of conservation.

A compromise is possible if everyone isn't so dug in and in love with the sound of his own voice - more on that in a minute. Protecting the fish should be the bottom line here.

Female striped bass cruise the Eastern seaboard all year, working their way from the Carolinas to New England, stopping in the Chesapeake on their way north each spring to spawn. Seventy-five percent of the striped bass on the East Coast start their lives here, making Maryland the most important stop in the life cycle.

For that reason, the Department of Natural Resources doesn't allow recreational anglers to catch and keep stripers until the third Saturday in April. Before the season starts, however, an area near the mouth of the Susquehanna River called The Flats has been established to allow catch-and-release fishing.

But anglers with cabin fever have started going out on the main stem of the bay early to knock the rust off their skills and get their boats ready for the opening Saturday in April. The practice has been growing in recent years, though the numbers used by the Fisheries Service are somewhat fuzzy.

One thing is certain: The agency's annual Young-of-the-Year census of year-old stripers that dates to the 1950s shows that the bay in recent years has not been a hospitable nursery.

Exercising caution, the Fisheries Service proposal most likely will eliminate the use of bait and certain kinds of hooks that cause deep wounds, limit the number of rods on each boat to six and reduce the number of fishing days each week to three from March 1 until the third Saturday in April.

To allow fishing to continue unabated, biologist Lynn Fegley says, "would be irresponsible."

It also would draw the attention of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which sets Maryland's striped bass quota and has a history of challenging the state's management policies. (If you have any doubts about regional interest, read a story in last Sunday's Maine Sunday Telegram titled, "As Chesapeake Bay Goes ... So Goes Maine's Striped Bass Population" at pressherald.mainetoday.com.)

But closer to home, there are state lawmakers who would be more than happy to legislatively close the striped bass season until late April or May and claim the title of conservationist.

Here's a compromise: Drop the cap on the number of fishing days each week in favor of a ban on lifting the fish into the boat. It's better for the fish (Florida does it with tarpon), and it's easily enforceable.

The Sport Fish Advisory Commission gets those harsh political realities and last month voted to back new regulations.

Coastal Conservation Association Maryland likes the status quo, a strange position for an organization that successfully pushed for a yellow perch conservation law to ensure that those fish reached their spawning ground unmolested by commercial nets. Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association is part of the "us, too," chorus.

No one knows whether catching pre-spawn striped bass stresses them so that they don't spawn or to the point that the eggs are not viable. But one look at the YOY survey makes you wonder if something bad is happening on our watch.

"We are concerned about the stock status," acknowledges Tom O'Connell, Fisheries Service director.

If Maryland curbs its fishing appetite, the worst thing that could happen is that we have more fish in years to come.

What's wrong with that?

Fowl foul

Pintail Point is a posh resort in Queenstown on the Eastern Shore that boasts on its Web site of having "a wide variety of waterfowl species that congregate among various locations of our expansive properties."

That might be true, but a little wheat and fresh corn doesn't hurt the congregating.

John Turner, 39, a licensed Maryland guide who works out of Pintail Point, pleaded guilty in Queen Anne's District Court to baiting waterfowl on three ponds last season to make it easier and quicker for his paid clients to reach their bag limits. He paid a fine and court costs of $500.

Natural Resources Police staked out the property on six days to catch Turner. On Jan. 2, officers found the guide and two customers in a goose blind in the field between the three ponds. The customers got warnings and Turner, who admitted he spread the grain, got a ticket.

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