Rockfish

A large Potomac River striped bass on display.

THIS IS usually the time when I realize I’ve yet to set up any spring season trophy rockfish trips and scramble to book something with some of my favorite charter captains.

Fishing for big striped bass, locally called “rockfish,” has been a tradition for the last 20 years or more. Like many anglers, though, I might be taking this spring season off – and it has nothing to do with coronavirus.

The spring trophy seasons in Maryland, Virginia and in the Potomac River have been greatly truncated, as expected, following last year’s decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Board to address overfishing. A 2018 Benchmark Stock Assessment of the species determined an 18-percent harvest reduction relative to 2017 stock levels was needed.

Much of the ensuing discussion in Maryland and Virginia centered on how to protect the species’ spawning stock, those big females that move from the ocean into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to deposit eggs. Season timing, size limits. the issue of catch and release, and more were on the table.

The Maryland and Potomac River seasons typically opened in mid-April and ran through mid-May. Virginia, which was never a major player in the trophy rockfish total catch, opened a little later.

This year, both the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission have shortened their seasons and moved the starting date to May 1. Their spring trophy seasons end May 15.

Virginia’s spring season for the Chesapeake and its tributaries will run from May 16 to June 15. Virginia has instituted slot limit restrictions for both spring and fall. In the spring, anglers can keep one fish between 20 and 28 inches long per day. All others must be immediately returned to the water.

Virginia’s Chesapeake Area fall season is Oct. 4 to Dec. 31. The limit is one fish per day per person. The minimum length is 20 inches and the maximum 36 inches.

In the Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, anglers will be limited to one fish that must be at least 35 inches long. Spawning rivers in Maryland and the Upper Bay spawning area are off limits until June 1 to striped bass fishing. Maryland also prohibited recreational catch-and-release fishing for striped bass from April 1-30.

The Potomac River Fisheries Commission sets rules for the Potomac. Their new striper rules apply from downstream of the U.S. 301 bridge at Dahlgren to the river’s mouth. The changes limit anglers to a single fish per day, 35 inches or larger.

The PRFC also set a summer and fall season for May 16 to July 6. The limit then is two fish a minimum of 20 inches long, per person each day. The season then closes through Aug. 20, during which time anglers are prohibited from targeting striped bass. The season reopens Aug. 21 and runs through the end of the year.

Measure Carefully

Measurements are based on total length and fishery law enforcement personnel are sticklers when it comes to properly measuring length. Close doesn’t cut it. According to published guidelines, fish must be measured from the most forward projection of the snout, with the mouth closed, to the tip of the longer lobe of the tail fin, with the tail compressed along the midline, using a straight-line measure, not over the curve of the body.

Circle Hooks

When fishing the Potomac for striped bass during the closed season, anglers must use barbless hooks. Non-offset circle hooks are recommended this year and will be mandatory next year.

Maryland regulations specify that anglers must use non-offset circle hooks when live-lining or chumming for stripers, typically done after the spring trophy season, which usually involves trolling plugs or other artificial lures. Maryland-water striper anglers using fish crabs or worms as bait must use non-offset circle hooks or “J” hooks.

Virginia is strongly recommending, but not mandating at present, use of circle hooks, which are proven to reduce the mortality of released fish since the fish almost always is hooked in the corner of the mouth. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has an excellent overview of circle hook benefits at dnr.maryland.gov/Fisheries/Pages/recreational/circle_hooks.aspx.

Many researchers believe curtailing catch-and-release fishing will help the species rebound. While large, spawning female fish often appear in good condition, the arduous spring spawning run can leave them physically depleted. Fish caught and released in the very warm summer months are thought to have some of the highest post-release mortality rates. Overall, the ASMFC estimates up to 9 percent of striped bass that are caught and released die soon after.

The changes are impacting the region’s many charter fishing captains and others who rely, at least in part, on a vibrant recreational fishery in the Chesapeake Bay region. Capt. Danny Crabbe, a longtime charter captain who operates out of Heathsville (crabbescharterfishing.com) said, “The regulations may be needed, but surely will negatively impact our business in a huge way.”

Rules governing fishing for striped bass in the coastal ocean have also changed. Always check regulations before heading out to fish.

Bluefish Also Tightened

Regulations related to catching and keeping bluefish have also been tightened this year. In the Potomac, the minimum size you can keep is 8 inches. Recreational anglers can keep three fish a day. Anglers fishing with a charter operation can keep five fish per person. Maryland’s regulations are identical. Virginia has the same possession limits but doesn’t specify a minimum size.

For more outdoors adventures, wild game recipes, travel and more, see Ken Perrotte’s weblog at outdoorsrambler.com.

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