One of life’s great experiences on the Eastern Shore is hooking a two foot long Rockfish on light tackle around the shorelines of Chesapeake Bay. Feeling that pulse at the end of your line is special, and seeing a kid’s face light up from that feeling is even more special. Relationships are built watching a sunset with a keeper Rockfish in the cooler.
The early Rockfish season of 2023 on the middle Eastern Shore was the best in recent memory. For most of June anglers were catching multiple fish in the 24 to 30 inch range every time out. In catching up with friends after the early season there was a strangely uniform response – a wide eyed and far away gaze followed by “wow.”
Unfortunately, by the first of July this summer the weather turned hot and the Bay water temperature crept up toward 80 degrees and exceeded 80 starting on July 5. During this time Rockfish were still feeding, but I noticed their fight diminished and on landing were exhausted. Because of the heat I stopped fishing around July 1st. However, the number of anglers visible around Eastern Bay was surging and most were practicing catch and release well past their one fish limit. Even more ominous was the number of anglers who kept fishing right through the season closure of July 15 – August 1st when Bay water temps were well over 80 degrees. Dead Rockfish or “Floaters” were tragically common.
Coincidentally, the Maryland Rockfish Young of Year index, released last week, showed a 1.0 index – the second lowest reproduction level since 1954. Even worse, the index has been well below average for the last six years. Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries managers attribute the low reproduction to warm and dry weather through the winter and spring. Over the coming winter DNR fisheries managers will be considering additional protections for Rockfish in 2024.
Despite the mixed results for 2023, I remain bullish about the future of Rockfish on the Chesapeake. Growing up in the 1970’s the Rockfish population was so small that we simply did not catch them at all – despite fishing several times a week. In 1984 Gov. Harry Hughes imposed a full moratorium on Rockfish harvest. Since the moratorium was lifted around 1990 a variety of tackle restrictions and conservation measures have been implemented and adjusted through the years. For me, since 1990 I have had at least a chance of catching a legal Rockfish every time out.
For the future, of course all recreational anglers must know and follow the rules and limits laid down by DNR fisheries managers – including new and likely more strict conservation protections for 2024. But we as individual anglers should go further and use some common sense to protect this magnificent shared resource. Once the Bay water temperature reaches 80 degrees or the air temperature reaches 90 degrees leave the Rockfish alone regardless of seasonal closures. DNR has an excellent new “Striped Bass Fishing Advisory” which includes real time high temperature warnings along with time of day and catch and release best practices.
I am so grateful for the Gov. Hughes Rockfish moratorium in 1984, and for the constant attention by DNR fisheries managers since then. But regulations are not enough. We need all anglers to take personal responsibility to care for these fish and their future. My children have all felt the pulsing tug of a big Rockfish – I just hope their children will have the same opportunity.
Rob Etgen retired in 2021 after a 40 year career in conservation – the last 31 years as President of Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. In retirement Rob is enjoying family and working on global and local sustainability issues with Council Fire consulting out of Annapolis.