Dockloads of Tuna

By Scott Lenox

Dockloads of Tuna

It was another nice day today and the great news is the tuna finally got to a more reasonable striking distance and the strike is exactly what some boats did….let’s get to it.

The crew of the Boss Hogg out of Sunset Marina was on fire today fishing in the Spencer Canyon.  The crew combined forces to land 20 beautiful yellowfin tuna and lined the dock with fillets.

The crew of Reel Chaos with Captain Anthony Matarese at the helm had a crazy good day of tuna fishing today as well with 18 fish for the fish cleaners.

Captain Chris Little of Talkin’ Trash had the fish cleaners at the Ocean City Fishing Center busy with a load of tuna as well.

Jennifer Blunt celebrated her birthday today by going fishing with husband Jeremy, Captain Bobby and the crew of the WRECKER on board the Lit Up where they landed some birthday yellowfins.  Happy Birthday Jen!

Captain Willie Zimmerman of the RoShamBo had his group in the tunas as well today and filled the box with nice fish.

Captain Ron Callis of the Turnin’ Fins had a slow start, but things picked up and he managed 7 tunas and a mahi on today’s trip.

Anglers on board the Primary Search opted to do some deep dropping with Captain Austin and he rewarded them with fillets upon fillets of sea bass and tilefish.

The crew of the Ocean City Girl had some good fishing today with some sea bass and some bonus keeper flounder.

Angler Chris Powell caught one of the largest, if not THE largest, sea bass that I’ve seen this year when he landed this 22.75″ stud.

Rich Daiker, Kenny and Ashton had a great day of sea passing today and filled the bottom of the boat.

Captain Jason Mumford of the Lucky Break had a couple of good trips in today’s great weather with keeper flounder all around.

Captain John Prather of Ocean City Guide Service had a nice afternoon trip today with three keeper flounder for his group.

Blake Gunther of Gunther and Sons Fishing fished the south jetty this morning with a Fish in OC tog jig (that he makes) and landed the first sheepshead that I’ve seen this year.

Captain Marc Spagnola isn’t sleeping much nowadays and the rays and river fish are paying the price.  Captain Marc put his shooters from a couple of trips on great shooting for cow nose rays, snakeheads, gar and big catfish.

Captain Monty Hawkins of the Morning Star didn’t have great fishing today, but he did have great weather and good fishing.

What a great day to be at sea. A light easterly breeze kept it cool; yet winds were scarcely enough to ripple the water, let alone build a set.  

Young Lucas and his Dad gave our reef blocks & pyramids their last exposure to earth’s atmosphere before pressing on to a more distant reef. 

No one crossed into double digits despite as nice a bite as you could want (and yesterday it was TOUGH to get bit!) Randy finished with our largest for today’s sea bass pool.

Had OC Marlin Club members aboard today for their annual sinker bouncer trip. Most of these guys have done a lot of fishing. Some years before my time too. I thought a lot about marlin fishing’s local history and, especially, its future – or, more to the point, “Can we make marlin fishing’s future similar to its distant past?” 

I sure think so.

Yes I do. 

While doing reef monitoring work this spring–a month before sea bass would come inshore–we saw large squid on our screens just 9 miles out at the Bass Grounds. 

Good numbers of them, too. 

Every time I’ve ever seen squid off our coast its been on some sort of reef-like bottom, most often a remnant of our natural hardbottom reefs that survived the early industrial fishing period. 

The outside edge of the Bass Grounds (a deep slough) is defined by the ‘First Lump’. Much like our more famous Jackspot shoal 21 miles out, (Jackspot made OC famous as the ‘White Marlin Capitol of the World,’) .. the First Lump rises out of 80+ feet of water to less than 30. It too was targeted by marlin fishermen in the 1940s, 50s & 60s. My good friend Capt Jim Whaley won the Marlin Club tournament in 1958 with two whites he caught at the First Lump. He was fishing 50+ miles inshore of where guys put their lines in these days.

A bit further out is the Third Lump where blue marlin were often the target. There is a video of the Miss Budweiser (a sport fishing boat back then, today its a 200mph speed boat..) with a blue marlin hooked up & jumping wildly as they often will. OC MD’s highrises are plain to see, if distant. That fish was trolled up at the Third Lump on purpose. 

Why were those spots suitable to marlin then and not now? 

Oysters. 

Waiminit skipper.. Oysters in the ocean? 

Not so much!

Yes, there are no oysters in the ocean, at least not in the Mid-Atlantic. But, as a marine ecologist might say; there is a strong benthic/pelagic coupling between marlin and oysters. Chesapeake & Delaware Bay oysters, you see, once filtered our region’s estuarine outflows in their entirety – even several times over. Oysters are what kept ‘the deep blue sea’ blue. 

Now its green. 

Oysters feed on everything algae thrive on. Then they eat the algae too. Once oysters collapsed in the late 1970s, so too did the greening of the Mid-Atlantic ocean accelerate. 

By the mid 1970s Jackspot was no longer a marlin hotspot. Catch a few? Yes, but the water was often too green. In the 2000s the water was always too green. 

Always. 

Perhaps some readers will be unfamiliar with ‘bluewater.’ If you can see down a few inches or even barely a few feet – that’s green water. It’s dirty. 

If it seems as though you can see down thirty feet, fifty, or ‘forever,’ that water will be blue – nearly free of algae. 

It’s literally Blue. 

And it’s beautiful. 

I’ve even had reports of bluewater in the lower Chesapeake from the early 1960s. 

Imagine..

With the great and grand natural biofilter shut in our estuaries, algae owned all of the Chesapeake. To this day algae is creating dead/anoxic areas as algae decompose and use all available oxygen. Decade by decade nutrient & algae rich waters flowed  into the Mid-Atlantic; from nearshore to further and further offshore, our historical grounds have become ‘marlin free’ because of water quality. Today even distant waters to canyon’s edges and beyond suffer in green at times. 

Its not that marlin populations have collapsed. No, there have been new records set for most caught in a day or a year of late. 

Our ocean turned green in just over half a century. That’s why there are no marlin where once they were numerous. 

For decades many biologists believed oyster restoration was a pipe dream – unobtainable. As Chesapeake artificial reefs had proven since at least the mid-1990s, we now know vertical substrate is the key. Once restorationists began spending their dollars on rock and fossilized oyster shell (limestone) – that allowed oysters to grow on steeply inclined surfaces and not be smothered by silt; re-reefing the Chesapeake then became a matter of money & time. 

We know how. We’ve seen fantastic successes in both MD & VA’s recent tributary efforts. 

It’s unquestionable. Turning the Mid-Atlantic ocean blue again is 100% doable. 

For bluewater sight feeders such as marlins, some tunas and wahoo, a return to historical nearshore feeding grounds will only require one more element after water quality is restored — a return to biological production of squid & sand eels. 

It’s interesting that of all the old timers I ever interviewed; guys who fished in the 1950s, 60s, & 70s all had tales to tell of the mess billfish would make spitting up sand eels. Of the many deckhands of mine and their friends who went on to master billfishing, none have ever seen a billfish spit up sand eels. 

Sand eels just don’t thrive in the deep. They’re more of a nearshore/shoal-top critter. And, while we certainly have issues with their habitat, its primarily the water having become too green for sight-feeders to use that has kept the last two generations of mates from having to clean that mess up.

Squid, however, offer a different tale I believe. Here seafloor habitat restoration has an important role.

A younger skipper; in the mid 1990s I had discovered an area of muddy bottom where tubeworms were thriving. Although they look like a flower, they are stationary filter feeding animal which feed in similar fashion to large barnacles. They withdraw into tubes of a few inches to nearly a foot for shelter. These are made of sand, mud, and held together of their own secretions. Twenty years ago I knew of an area of tubeworm north of Jackspot where I could fish several times a month with 80 anglers each trip. When summer flounder/fluke regs loosened and local trawler skippers again began venturing a bit further off, this particular slough was among the first places trawled. 

Those men complained bitterly of ‘spaghetti mud’ (tubeworm) jamming their nets. I never caught another sea bass there. 

(One of my greatest regrets is not filming any tubeworm. Lots and lots of hardbottom reef – never filmed any soft bottom reef. I do not know of a single patch anywhere now.) 

Similarly I observed tubeworm colonies inshore. On these we would find only tiny sea bass – months old. It was in this miles-long mud slough where tubes were colonizing that I found the greatest concentration of squid I’ve ever seen in the mid 1990s.

Squid mark on our fathometers (fish finder/sounder) like nice-sized sea bass. Not knowing what I was seeing I had clients drop.  While a single hook isn’t ideal for squidding, if they’re thick you can catch a few. It was amazing.. 

Squid. 

Lots of em. 

I got on the radio and told everyone what I was seeing. 

Next day there were a bunch of Jersey trawlers towing the area. 

Never saw tubeworm or squid in there again. Never ran my mouth on the radio again either. 

So, of the times I’ve seen squid it’s been on natural bottom (mostly sea whip meadows) and then, this spring, on artificial reef. 

Where we’re building that reef there was once 4+ square miles of sea whip and sponge growing at the Bass Grounds – just inside the First Lump. 

Of those square miles a few square yard remained by the late 1970s – flattened by hydraulic clamming gear. 

There are other missing bottoms & impacted bottoms that cannot begin to support the life they once did. 

Unlike oyster bottoms which are known in fantastic historical detail; no restoration effort I know of, save my personal efforts, has ever tried to catalogue the historical footprint of any of our seafloor reef: from snowy grouper habitat in 50 fathoms just north of the Washington canyon that’s now barren slab rock, to vast whip meadows at the Bass Grounds – ignorance. 

How can NOAA claim to have restored sea bass with no idea their original habitat? 

Ignorance is bliss.. 

I believe we can restore our temperate reef fish. In doing so we’ll also help to restore billfish to their historical nearshore feeding grounds. 

We must restore both water quality and reef ecologies long absent. 

Had our marine waters turned green in half a decade instead of half a century there’d be a lot of angry people. 

Marlin moving offshore happened slowly–in over half a century. It’s called ‘baseline shift’ or ‘generational shift.’ Time healed the pain. No one’s even saying can’t. There’s only ignorance. 

We may just get lucky. 

Artificial reef constructions may replace a percentage of lost hardbottoms – just enough. 

Oyster restorations may finally begin to arrest water quality – I think it fair to say this has already begun. 

If we start catching white marlin at Jackspot again, it’ll be efforts to re-reef the Mid-Atlantic that accomplished it. 

Cheers  

Monty 

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