A little over a year ago in late September of 2020, David J. Smith was sentenced to 18 months of incarceration at the Anne Arundel County Detention center. His crime? Embezzling at least $136,200 from the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association (MSSA), including the charges for a vacation cruise he happened to be on when the MSSA’s board discovered he had sucked the organization’s bank accounts dry while simultaneously racking up insurmountable debt. Tournament winners were not awarded their winnings, the rent was not paid, and countless people (myself included) heard David say those cliché old words “the check is in the mail.”

In reality, his crimes were far worse. Dave Smith literally killed the MSSA. And with it, the voice of Maryland’s recreational anglers.

After the crimes came to light, MSSA President Frank Holden said “Maryland anglers have lost their voice in Annapolis.” Time has proven that Holden was quite correct. The MSSA had around 7000 members in 13 chapters. While those numbers may not be huge, they were large enough for anglers to have a seat at the political table. A voice. A voice that wasn’t perpetually ignored, as the disparate and squelched voice of the recreational angling community is today.

young angler on chesapeake bay
Who gives voice to young anglers like this, with the demise of the MSSA?

Many of these chapters still exist in one form or another, mostly as localized angling clubs. To see them survive is heartening. But none of them will ever hold a fraction of the sway the MSSA once did as long as they, and the recreational fishing community, remain so fragmented.

That’s not to say that recreational anglers have no voice — they do in the form of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA). CCA-MD is a healthy organization and CCA Virginia does its best with limited all-volunteer resources, yet their membership numbers have never made it to the MSSA’s level. And when it comes to politics and the allocation of resources, numbers matter.

So, why haven’t the MSSA’s former members joined the CCA? I ask this question often and hear a range of answers, but the most common ones are based on misconception. People say things like “they’re just tree-huggers,” or “they just want to end all fishing.” In fact, if you attend CCA meetings and talk to members you’ll quickly discover that virtually everyone in the organization is a dedicated angler. They aren’t out to eliminate fishing, they’re out to make it possible for us all to keep on fishing — with the best water quality, harvest allocations, and public access to the resources possible.

So: the MSSA is dead, and the remnants of its chapters are politically moot. Way too many anglers have a mistaken concept of what CCA is all about. We all complain that the rules and regs only get worse as recreational anglers gets shafted over and over again. As a concerned member of the recreational angling community, I would like to put forth two suggested action items to you other members of the recreational angling community.

  • First: join CCA-MD or CCA-VA. Now, not tomorrow. Walk yourself over to the computer or pick up the phone in your pocket, and type in joincca.org. I rarely ask FishTalk readers to trust me, personally, but I’m asking you to trust me now when I say that the CCA does, in fact, have the angling community’s best interests at heart. If you question CCA’s mission I ask you to look at it again with an open mind, and disregard old impressions and hearsay. They are us, and we are them.
  • Second: the leaders of the former MSSA clubs need to give serious thought to making CCA membership a requirement of club membership. When asked about the possibility or rebuilding the MSSA, every single club leader I’ve spoken with has told me that they won’t even consider it. They say that their group doesn’t want to surrender control to a larger entity after being so burned by the MSSA experience. This is understandable, but it also renders the clubs powerless. If you want your organizations to have a voice and you won’t consider reforming the MSSA, doesn’t it make sense to at least have a seat at CCA’s table?

As long as we debate the answer and fail to act, we will watch our fishing opportunities get divvied up among other interests.