The first of May marks the much-anticipated opening of Maryland’s trophy striped bass season on the Chesapeake Bay. In Virginia there is no longer any such season. And up and down the coast, state after state has instituted a slot for the much-beloved rockfish so that the true trophies — also known as breeders — swim free. Thus, we can’t let May begin without examining the ethics of having a directed fishery where the largest, most fecund females are squarely in our crosshairs.

holding up a tropky rockfish
A trophy caught on my boat circa April 2000, when three of us killed three fish over 40 inches. Was it excessive? It didn’t seem so at the time but in hindsight, absolutely.

The cases for and against having a trophy season are both straightforward and valid. Those arguing against will say that the fishery is in trouble and we need to leave those big breeders alone so they can reproduce. Those arguing for will emphasize that the trophy season has a huge economic impact in Maryland, especially for charter boats and tackle shops, and that the stocks are far better today than they were when the state began allowing a trophy season post-moratorium. Yes, there are many other less significant points that can be made, but the vast majority of the fireworks boil down to these two points of view. And in truth, they’re both correct.

They’re also not mutually exclusive.

In the early days of post-moratorium trophy fishing, we were issued plastic tags with our licenses allowing us to take just a few fish each season. In some Gulf states anglers can buy a tag or tags allowing them to keep one over-slot redfish per season or per tag. Practices like these permit fishing to take place, without allowing the free-for-all harvest of huge numbers of fish. And in some cases when the fish are being harvested the angler is ponying up to do so, with his or her money going to the programs that support and/or rebuild the fishery.

Would a program like this be the right move in the Chesapeake Bay? I don’t know. But I do know that there’s room for discussion. I know that it’s critically important to many recreational anglers that we protect those big cows as much as we possibly can. And I know it’s critically important to the tackle shops and charter captains that we don’t eliminate a substantial portion of their income.

I can hear the points and counterpoints being made in all your angler-brains right now, because they’re taking place in mine, too. This is not an easy issue to resolve. And it’s so incredibly important to so many of us that we all tend to quickly become heated in the back-and-forth. Many recreational anglers — myself included — can’t claim to have any moral high ground because we boxed countless 40-inch-plus rockfish for decades before ever realizing that it might be problematic. Many charters are in the same boat because they harvested trophies daily by the dozens year after year. And many businesses may (may) appear to be putting personal gain ahead of the fish’s welfare. On the flip side of the coin, there’s no denying that a certain segment of the angling community seems (seems) to enjoy jumping on their high horse maybe a tad bit too much, and sometimes without necessarily knowing all the factors revolving around the issue.

Pointing fingers is pointless, but reasoned discussion is a good thing. Heck, it is, or at least used to be, a core tenant of our democracy. I invite your (civil) input no matter what side of the fence you may be sitting on; email [email protected] for publication in next month’s Letters section. I hope it grows to be pages and pages long.