Fall fishing is on the way FishTalkers, and that means red hot Chesapeake Bay fishing action up and down the DelMarVa zone and all along the coast! When the dog days of summer give way to a chill in the air everything from rockfish to redfish will be looking to fatten up before winter sets in, and we’ll enjoy some of our best action of the year. It’s just weeks away but I know I can barely stand the wait — WOOHOO!

kids holding up rockfish
Will your kids be able to enjoy the same striper fishery we've come to love?

With the bulk of the hot summer weather now behind us, we can take a clear look back at the recent rockfish closure and what we learned. While the folks in Virginia have been used to steering away from stripers mid-summer, this has been a new experience for Marylanders. And it comes on the heels of several seasons when we’ve seen rafts of dead fish floating downstream of the upper-Bay fishing fleets, summer after summer. I feel safe in saying that if the two-week late July closure was an important way to significantly reduce release mortality and end the problem of the floaters, virtually all reasonably minded Maryland anglers would be wholeheartedly in favor of it. But…

Back in the fall of 2018 we addressed this problem (“Notes from the Cockpit: The Floaters”). We pointed out that while the recreational angling fleet of chummers and live-liners takes most of the blame for these dead fish, strangely, many are well above the size limit and likely wouldn’t have been released. We noted that disease, water quality, a lack of forage, and many other factors could be the true reason for all the dead fish. And we specifically asked the DNR to look into the issue.

In 2019, with no response from the state, we asked our fellow FishTalkers to keep track of how many dead fish they spotted on summer days, their approximate size, the general location, and the species. We then published the full results (“Striper Fishery Update: Floater Results”) which boiled down to an average of seven dead fish spotted per angler per hour of fishing in the Hodges/Tolchester area. Again, the respondents noted a high proportion of keeper fish (an estimated average of 50-50) and interestingly, a higher-than-expected proportion of different species including catfish, shad, and carp.

During the last half of July in 2021, when recreational angling for striped bass was eliminated, what did the anglers pursuing white perch or catfish in the same area of the Bay observe? Dead. Floating. Rockfish. And catfish, and carp, and various other species. Social media was ablaze with the finger-pointers, including some who — even though there was no fleet fishing for stripers during the entire two-week period — laughably continued to blame recreational anglers for all the dead fish. Some others pointed out that there were commercial fishermen working the area (which doesn’t explain the carp) and that the pound nets never stop working (which doesn’t explain all the keeper-sized fish).

We’re not saying that the summer closure doesn’t work, nor that it should be abandoned, nor that recreational and/or commercial anglers are 100-percent innocent. But from the copious dead fish seen bobbing around during the non-fishing weeks, we now can say without question that recreational anglers who release fish aren’t the cause, or at least aren’t the main cause, of the summer floaters.

What is? We don’t know for sure, and we suspect that anyone who says they do has an agenda.

Again, we call upon the DNR to shift their posture. Scientists must be enlisted, and resources must be allocated. We need to scientifically ascertain why hordes of fish are floating around dead every summer. And then we need to address the cause(s), instead of merely pointing fingers or finding crafty ways to allege that we’re reducing the now-debunked “cause,” recreational fishing release mortality.