Diversity matters in this different kind of fishing tournament

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A different kind of fishing tournament here on Oct. 7 will give anglers advanced notice of the best fishing spots in the area, and will award prizes for the diversity of fish netted, not just size. It’s the Rod & Reef Slam, a celebration of the Chesapeake Bay fisherman’s best friend: an oyster reef.

Sponsored by Coastal Conservation Association, Maryland; the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF); the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative; and NOAA, the Slam is taking registrations here and at hgibson@cbf.org and 302-388-7659.

The late Clint Waters of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association (MSSA) used to tell his fellow anglers that “the best fishing hole” in the Choptank River was a place called Cook’s Point. Waters wasn’t telling fish stories when he reported that he routinely caught up to seven different species there: striped bass, hardhead, white perch, spot, and more. Some fishermen have even snagged legal black sea bass, fish rarely seen around the Chesapeake over the past 100 years.

Cook’s Point is an oyster reef near the mouth of the Choptank – a man-made reef at that. It is one of three such reefs that anglers will fish on at the Rod & Reef Slam. The others are Harris Creek and the Tilghman Island Artificial Reef just outside Knapps Narrows.

“Fish love oyster reefs like humans like a buffet line. As a result, recreational fishermen also love oyster reefs,” said John Page Williams, a CBF naturalist and widely known angler.

Oysters are called a keystone species in the Chesapeake. Oyster reefs are more than just mounds of shell; they form a foundation of the entire Bay ecosystem. They filter the water. And the intricate latticework of shells provides vital habitat for many small plants and animals that make their homes on reefs. Barnacles, mussels, and bryozoans attach to the oyster shells. Other animals like redbeard sponges, flower-like anemones, and feathery hydroids branch out into the water. Mobile invertebrates such as mud crabs, oyster drills and grass shrimp inhabit the nooks and crannies. Small fish like blennies, gobies and skillet-fish feed on the reefs, and attract larger animals such as striped bass and blue crabs.

But the benefits of these reefs are sometimes lost in debates about the cost of restoring oysters in Maryland. Some critics have questioned the tens of millions of dollars (mostly in federal money) that has been spent to restore over nearly 600 acres of oyster reefs in Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and the Tred Avon River.

These man-made reefs are showing real promise in their primary job: growing oysters. The latest report about on the Harris Creek project, for instance, found 97 percent of the area meeting minimal density standards for a restored reef, and 80 percent meeting optimal standards.

But just as the Harris Creek reef seems to be doing so well, some critics are questioning the state’s plan to finish large projects on the Little Choptank, and Tred Avon, as well as man-made reefs planned for the future.

The Rod & Reef Slam is meant to remind us of the benefits from such projects. Recreational fishermen typically understand those benefits. For instance, the Dorchester Chapter of the MSSA (of which Clint Waters was president) partnered with CBF and the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative to submerge more than 650 “reef balls” with baby oysters below the Bill Burton fishing pier in Cambridge – to attract fish.

Where you find oysters, you’ll find fish, and fishermen.

The tournament cost is $50, which covers entry fee, after party food, giveaways, live entertainment and access to a cash bar. Youth ages 16 and under may participate for free with a participating adult. Tickets for $10 are available for after party food and entertainment only. Lines in will be 6:45 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 7 and lines out 2:30 p.m. Powerboat, kayak, and youth divisions. More information here or at 302-388-7659 or hgibson@cbf.org.

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