Welcome to fall and the awesome Chesapeake Bay fishing that goes along with it, FishTalkers! The cooling temps mean fish are fattening up for winter, the bird play should be heating up, and the hot bites we anglers enjoy at this time of year will surely get us all thoroughly pumped. Safety is of course always a concern, especially as water temperatures drop and hypothermia becomes a threat, but there’s something else that can also turn a good fishing trip bad in the blink of an eye: an unpleasant encounter with the watercops.

First and foremost: let’s be clear that we at FishTalk have great respect for the Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP), Virginia Marine Police (VMP), and Delaware Fish and Wildlife Natural Resources Police (DENRP). We’re grateful that they’re there to provide life-saving assistance when needed and enforce the law so everyone angles on a level playing field. And having fished the Mid-Atlantic region for my entire life, in the dozens (hundreds?) of encounters I’ve had with these officers there’s only been one single time, ever, when I felt an officer treated me unreasonably (and that was in the early 90s). Recently, however, there’s been some controversy over a gray area in the law. It’s come to my attention that some people who were fishing in Maryland waters around pound nets, in ways that appear to be 100 percent in accordance with the regulations, have been cited for violations — and that’s a dang shame.

pound net fishing
Once fish enter the crib of the net they can't get out, but they can swim in and out of the heart. So, is the heart "enclosed"? 

Some of you may have seen the pictures circulating on social media earlier this year which seemed to show a boat casting its lines into the pound, or “crib” (the fully enclosed portion) of a pound net. Many of us, myself included, have cast around these nets for as long as we’ve fished the Bay without any problems. Fishing inside the enclosed portion of the net is, obviously, not kosher — and as any reasonable person might expect, would make the watermen who work those nets quite irate.

Here's what Maryland Code 4-505 specifically states on the matter: “A person may not molest, disturb, destroy, or catch and carry away fish belonging to another person from any boat, live box, crab pot, trot line, or the pocket or crib of any pound net or enclosed or gilled in any fish net of any kind…”

Note that this wording doesn’t specifically address the “heart” of a pound net, a distinctly separate portion which is attached to the crib but is open on both sides. Does that constitute “enclosed?” If your lure lands one inch outside of the opening, is that near enough to the heart to justify a citation? How can anyone tell exactly where said lure landed in the first place? Hence, we get into the gray.

Thanks to all the fuss kicked up by those photos, some watermen have been reporting anglers who were fishing near their nets — and multiple people have been cited for casting at the heart of the pound nets. As they had always done in the past without ever raising a hackle.

It’s an unfortunate situation. One angler appears to do something indefensible, and to prevent it from happening in the future, everyone else gets penalized. It’s not fair. But it is understandable. Unfortunately, when situations like this arise and there’s a gray area of the law, well-meaning people do get caught up in the… errr… dragnet.

The solution to this situation? We need a clearly defined regulation stating that you can’t fish within “X” of a pound net. I hate to lose the option of casting to them, because I’ve fished around them with excellent results more times than I can count. But I’d rather have one less spot to cast to than risk having my day ruined by an unpleasant encounter with the law. We’ve reached out to the DNR for comment on this matter and have been advised that they are looking into it, but haven’t heard more to date. Meanwhile, I already consider fishing around the nets a matter of history. Where you cast is, of course, your own choice. But if you want your fishing days on the Chesapeake to remain pleasant and problem-free, my advice is to give those nets a wide berth.