ABOARD NRP 139 — The fight against striped bass poaching is being fought on the ice-covered deck of a small patrol boat being buffeted by three-foot waves and winds that make you shout to be heard.
Natural Resources Police Officer First Class Drew Wilson drops a grappling hook over the side to begin the blind search for illegal fishing nets — mesh death traps — like the type that caught 10 tons of striped bass this week, fish that were destined for Maryland's black market and perhaps beyond.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," says Wilson. It's Thursday. Two days earlier he found one of the nets that ignited a howl of public anger and sent the law enforcement agency into overdrive.
Officers have been reassigned from other units. Overtime is being gobbled up. A 73-foot buoy tender is on call to help haul nets.
It sounds like a lot until you watch a tiny boat trolling slowly over a tiny square of a bay looking for something 50 feet below the churning surface. Go too fast and the hook floats above the target. Go too slow and the boat becomes hard to steer.
"You can miss by a mile," says Wilson as he tosses the hook again and hopes for the line to go tight. "You can miss it by just inches."
Cpl. John Vogt, a K-9 unit officer, tries to jockey the throttle while keeping an eye on his partner leaning over the rail.
In the distance, another NRP patrol boat is moving slowly in an area suspected of holding a net.
Anchored gill nets are illegal for a reason. They are efficient and deadly. Over the years, poachers have fiddled with the mesh openings and locations to get the greatest haul for the least effort.
"They're lazy and greedy," says Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
Poachers hurt watermen two ways: by setting their nets before the season starts, they have their catch on opening day and flood the market, dropping prices; illegal catches — when confiscated — count against the annual allotment set aside for honest watermen.
There are about 200 licensed gill netters in Maryland who stand to lose when poachers win.
"Because such a limited amount of fish are set aside for a multitude of license holders, a 'get all you can while you can' approach dominates the mentality of many fisherman," says gill netter Jake Clark of Rock Hall. "There's not much left to do on the water for the generation coming up, and unfortunately they are learning that the wrong way pays the most."
These poachers knew their business well. They stretched 900 yards of net across a channel near the mouth of Eastern Bay that striped bass use as an underwater highway.
"Every single fish that comes out of the bay headed for Eastern Bay is going to get stuck in that net," says Wilson, as he tosses the hook again. "It's very easy pickings."
Officers and poachers play a cat-and-mouse game each season. The poachers pay informants to tell them when a patrol boat leaves the dock. The officers respond by changing their launching site. The poachers use darkness and fog to mask their movements. The police go to radar, sonar and tips from fed-up watermen. They haven't said what methods they used to find the nets this week because they are still investigating the area.
Wilson, Cpl. Roy Rafter and Officer Greg Harris kept watch over the first illegal net last Monday night, hoping the poacher would return to haul his catch before first light when wholesalers open. They sat in the darkness, just beyond Bloody Point Lighthouse, trying to stay warm and keep ice from building up on the deck and railings.
Wilson says they had no idea what was below as they hauled the net up. Or later on Tuesday, when they found three more nets filled to the brim. They needed a fork lift to move barrels filled with 400 pounds of fish each from the dock to a sorting area.
"I couldn't believe how many fish — big fish. They were huge," says Sgt. Lisa Nyland, who directed the dockside operation. "A waste, an absolute waste."
After hours of frustration, a lost grappling hook and some minor engine trouble, Vogt and Wilson stop trolling and race to the spot where NRP 144 has snagged something. Officers struggle against the violent rocking and cold, stinging spray to bring the hook to the surface.
Everyone cheers as they get a better look. It's a gill net anchor. The haystack gets smaller.