3142Fish_320Spring, glorious spring has made her eloquent arrival to the snow-weary Mid-Atlantic.  The peepers are peeping, the red buds are budding, and yesterday, through the morning fog, I caught a glimpse of an osprey soaring high above the Bay Bridge.  There are a lot of reasons why fishermen look forward to the arrival of spring.  A big one is the beginning of Daylight Saving Time when clocks spring forward to give us one more hour of treasured after-work daylight.  Fishing and spring go together like, well like fish and fries.  Have you noticed how all the fast food restaurants put their fish sandwiches on sale this time of year?  I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard the “Give me back my filet-o-fish” jingle so many times I want to rip that Billy Bass off the wall and put a gaff through its gills. Despite the annoying commercial, I bet I’m not the only one who’s waited in line at a drive-thru recently for a “supersized #4 hold the tartar sauce.”  In my opinion humans are hard-wired to eat fish in spring.  It’s been in our DNA since the first hunter-gatherers wandered away from the warmth of their winter hearth and found springtime streams teaming with spawning fish.  For many fishermen the urge is so strong it’s nearly impossible to stay away from the water in March and April.  This is the time of year when fish are easiest to catch, and the time when we most want to eat them.

Unfortunately, sustainability issues prevent us from enjoying some of the fish we crave.  Maryland’s cherished rockfish are especially vulnerable in the spring. In March and April most of the Atlantic stock striped bass migrate into the Chesapeake to spawn. Since there has been declines in young fish populations in recent years, it’s important that we allow the spawners to reproduce before removing them from the population.   Like many fishermen, I’ve joined the call to stop the harvest of pre-spawn rockfish. There’s really no reason to kill a big strong spring striper.  They don’t taste as good as smaller fish and they contain very high levels of mercury, PCBs, and other dangerous chemicals.  More importantly, a six year old female striper produces about a half million eggs, but a 30 year old cow can produce over three million.  I believe it’s immoral to kill a pre-spawn rockfish solely for the sake of displaying a dockside trophy.  Establishing a catch-and-release-only spring striper fishery would do wonders for the rockfish population, not only in the Chesapeake Bay, but also for stocks all up and down the Atlantic coast.

Sadly, instead of moving in the direction of promoting proven methods for sustainable fishing like catch-and-release, Maryland fisheries managers have taken a giant step backwards.  Regulations are set to take effect which restrict pre-spawn catch-and-release while maintaining an opening to the catch-and-kill season that falls right smack in the middle of the spring migration.  The problem is, opening days are set years in advance despite the fact that there’s just no way to pinpoint when fish will move up the Chesapeake and begin to spawn.  The 2010 season may prove especially fatal to the striped bass fishery since melting snow is keeping spring water temperatures lower than average.  To my thinking, the start of the kill season should be set well after the spawn.  Both recreational and commercial fishermen have to make sacrifices in order to protect the fish we love.

I’m not a fan of the methods some Bay fishermen use to catch rockfish during spring.  I believe there are better techniques than trolling dozens of heavy lines behind a slow moving boat with spreads up to two hundred feet wide.  I’m not opposed to efforts which seek better catch-and-release ethics, whether it’s for trolling, light tackle, or bait fishing, but I’m worried about a management system that restricts catch-and-release while doing nothing to limit the killing of pre-spawn fish during the commercial and recreational seasons.  In fact, not long after putting catch-and-release restrictions in place, Maryland officials voted to consider an increase in the number of fish harvested commercially off the coast. Back in the hills, we’d call  a decision like that “bassackwards.”

Fortunately, there are some Mid-Atlantic species we can bring home to the springtime dinner table without fear of collapsing theyperchfly stock.   There’s nothing like a heavy stringer of March panfish to cure February’s cabin fever. Thanks to some management decisions that have promoted recreational angling, fishing for yellow perch in the upper Chesapeake tributaries is better this spring than it’s been in years.  Fishermen up and down the Bay are reporting banner catches of tasty “yellow neds.”  It wouldn’t be right to criticize our fisheries managers for their striped bass decisions without congratulating them for their yellow perch success.  It’s a great example of the good that can come from decisions based on sound science and not on biased concerns they’ve heard from special interests.

The white perch run is also right around the corner. Unlike rockfish and yellow perch, there are very few management problems with these fiesty fighters.   They’re relatively abundant and easy to catch.   Filets from cold-water white perch that are breaded in corn meal and sprinkled with Old Bay might make the tastiest fish sandwich in the worlP4120062d.  We’ve had a lot of rain recently, and streams are muddy, but I’ll be casting for perch as soon as the water clears.  In my opinion, a March panfish meal ranks right up there with the first osprey sighting as one of the best harbingers of spring.

Here’s to hoping there’s a lot of fish-eating in our future and that our next fish dinner won’t come from a fast-food restaurant.   Keeping a just-legal rockfish or two on opening day may not harm the stock much, but there’s little justification for killing the big pre-spawn cows this spring.  It’s much better to release those fish carefully so they can continue their journey up the Bay.  Hopefully, mother nature will cooperate so that spawning conditions are good and the fish we let go will make millions of baby rockfish.  That would mean even more stripers to catch and release in the future.  And maybe we shouldn’t run out of the room screaming next time we see that filet-o-fish commercial. When it comes to pre-spawn rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay, that Big Mouth Billy Bass may be singing the song we need to hear.

Related posts:

The Founding Fish – American Shad in the Mid-Bay
Careful Catch – When A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Fish

Posted Monday, March 15th, 2010 at 11:42 pm
Filed Under Category: Articles
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Responses to “Give Me Back That Filet O’ Fish”

  1. James Cunningham says:

    Shawn I truly appreciate all you are doing and hope others are listening. I know you have changed the way I think of fishing in general. I believe your knowledge of sustainable fishing is just as interesting as the techniques you use to successfully reel them in.

  2. Steve says:

    Shawn nice article as always ,I would be concerned though with an increase in rockfish what would they eat as the menhadden stocks are being raped.

  3. RiverCat09 says:

    Shawn,

    Spring is indeed approaching, and not a moment too soon after the long, snowy winter. Those peepers across our street are deafening (music to my ears), our crocuses are in bloom, the goldfinches are turning color, and hummingbirds have arrived on the Gulf coast.

    I’m a troller by birth; it was what I was taught growing up, and is what I do best, but I’m trying to master jigging one trip at a time. I believe the main problem lies with agricultural runoff and over harvesting by commercial netters. However, I believe that they should take a closer look each year at the opening of the season to ensure that pre spawn rock are not killed. I do like the fact that they are mandating barbless hooks and no stingers for pre-season C&R. It breaks my heart to see rockfish carcasses at the dock side in the spring laden with roe.

    Shawn, thanks for taking the time to write, and thanks once again for teaching me to become better at jigging via your articles. By the way, sweet new boat!! Congratulations!

    Don

  4. Rob Wilson says:

    Well written Shawn.I agree with everything you said and always look forward to your next entry.I appreciate your knowledge.Hope to see you at the bridge soon.Rob

  5. Jim Windsor (jwinds) says:

    Shawn,

    A great read as always. I am 100% with you in support of C&R for Spring stripers. We will just have to keep thowing ideas out there and hope that sooner tha later someone wakes up. Unfortunately there will be many folks, recs with boats and those that book charters, that insist on taking big fish home to justify their expense. To me a photo lasts a lifetime!

  6. Steve F says:

    I wish more guys would practice C&R on the bigger fish but I guess it’s that feeling you get when you get back to the dock and show all the guys that are standing around what you have caught. What was that you said one day while fishing “A photograph is worth a million fish” how true… Great read Shawn and I’m behind you 100% on the C&R…

  7. Roger T says:

    Just think of the great fishery we would have If everyone did there part.

    I caught a few WP yesterday at the BB rock pile down deep 50’…still cant get over how silver they get in that cold dark water.

  8. Jerry Norris says:

    I agree, release the cows. If you want rock to eat, keep one less than 24″. They taste much better and are not loaded with toxics. I can almost see the flats from my office, but I do not target the prespawn fish. Not knocking anyone who does-that is just my personal choice.

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