Sheeps On The Jetty

By Scott Lenox

Sheeps On The Jetty

Hit the vid for our walkthrough of Atlantic Tackle in West Ocean City!!

It was a pretty quiet fishing day out there today all things considered.  The ocean was a little rougher than expected and the bay was a little dirty thanks to last night’s deluge of rain.  The ocean looks to be pretty nice tomorrow so day 1 of the Poor Girl’s Open should be a busy one.  I’ll see you at the scales at Bahia Marina starting at 4.

Blake Gunther and I decided to try some sheepshead fishing today for a new episode of Hooked on OC and it was awesome to have a plan come together.  We fished Deadly Tackle tog/bottom jigs with shrimp and sand fleas and we had three sheepshead putting two in the box.  Blake added a nice 19″ keeper flounder for a great day on the water.

Frank Tortella caught this nice 22.5″ flounder today and took the lead in the bay division of the ACSA Angler of the Year contest.

Captain Monty Hawkins of the Morning Star didn’t have the best day on the ocean today, but it was still a day on the ocean.

Having turned around Tuesday for seas, today’s sunrise seemed to offer promise. Wasn’t so. Lot of work for a little bit of catching lay ahead instead. 

Not wind-driven that I could see, seas were an amazing mishmash of heights and from several directions. Sure made for an uncomfortable ocean. These waves didn’t have the height of post-tropical weather, but had plenty of shoulders to upset the inner ear workings of perhaps half of today’s youthful crowd. 

All day and no matter where I went I marked mad numbers of sea bass & did not catch same. Tried all our tricks.. Wish I’d shown my anglers more. Not that I don’t want to catch all my clients fish, but the future of fishing especially. 

I surely hope they’re hungry tomorrow! 

I began fishing off OC in 1980 after a couple summers of seatrout fishing in DE Bay. 

It was brutal. Not that I understood it then–nor had any concept of why; but, & I promise, having lived it I know what overfishing looks like. 

Ain’t pretty. 

I’m certain this ain’t that. What happened today, on this trip, was a confluence of weather, fish behavior & several other factors. It’s not from recreational overfishing & we certainly don’t have commercial overfishing of sea bass here in spring/summer/fall. I doubt winter either. 

I saw thousands of sea bass on my equipment today. And yes, I’m sure they were sea bass. Had there been thousands more fishing would have been off, but still OK – like we had since 2018 or so. 

What’s happening more broadly across time with sea bass now, our ups and downs across decades, is a result of management. 

I’ve warned about it for some while. It’s my ‘age at maturity’ thesis that has us in a bit of a pinch. 

While it’s possible winter trawl could have an effect, where many states to our north have a 15 inch or greater size limit, and jumbo sea bass are worth much more, if there’s undue pressure on our fish in winter it’s because of stock overlap. 

There are some who hold artificial reef building responsible for the decline in our region’s sea bass production. They hold marine production is stagnate – say 10,000 new sea bass recruit annually regardless of spawning success or habitat increase/decrease.

If not given much thought it becomes a likely scapegoat. 

I beg your consideration – When the Great Eastern Reef (GE) was begun in the mid 1990s there was a well-known fishing spot nearby, the Twin Wrecks. Used to be those two wrecks would be completely kaput after just a few partyboat trips in spring. They would provide a few more trips in the fall. Almost all the pressure was partyboat and trap. If you went there and didn’t catch? It was going to be a long day because there wasn’t anything nearby. I’ll estimate there was 10 or 12 decent partyboat trips there a year with virtually no charter or private boat effort – say around 500 individual angler trips a year. 

After the nearby GE artificial reef began to mature, Twin Wrecks offered incredibly many more successful trips. Coupled with the Great Eastern’s reef footprint (was zero then grew substantially) the Twin Wrecks area offered over 4,000 successful angler trips just for the OC Princess into the late 1990s. I would roughly estimate by the mid 2000s there were close to 10,000 successful angler trips annually between the artificial reef and the ‘accidental’ artificial reefs – those two catastrophic shipwrecks we call the Twin Wrecks – so probably 20X more angler trips with a successful outcome.. 

(How does one chose which wrecks offer ‘natural’ production vs artificial reef siphoning off that natural production?)

I’m going to work these numbers up better and also for the Queen Reef (another catastrophic artificial reef – a true ‘wreck’ that became a major fishing spot when artificial reef was built nearby. 

I’ll also do the wreck of the Cook at Jackspot. 

The Cook will provide the cleanest/clearest data set because the artificial reef there wasn’t begun until 2007 or 08. For-Hire guys were well versed in submitting catch reports by then so a good measure should be available. If the truth is being told there will be a quite accurate measure of improvement. 

While the Twins and Queen were climbing into production we’d never seen before, (Before the first 25 cbass creel limit in 2002 I would sometimes come in two hours early on a full day trip with clients sitting on cooler lids to keep them closed after fishing the GEastern.) During this time half day boats were experiencing phenomenal fishing far inshore. Capt Kane Bounds reported to me that he caught boat limits in 2002 & 2003 on four hour trips inside 12 miles. 

You can bet any study of reef’s influence will point to a massive uptick in habitat production – one that quite matches the increase in habitat and whatever spawning production is currently in play on catastrophic wrecks and natural corals – once a new reef is grown in, it’s spawning production will train track with other reef habitats. 

As I’ve written over and over again, when the size limit went to 12 inches it triggered a “Hey! Slow Down Already! The Habitat Is Full!” response in cbass. 

When in 2015 we had what was surely the worst spring run of sea bass in MD’s history owing primarily to two straight years of survey noise, but also our local sea bass population’s nadir owing size limit – eg, local stock had been on a steadily downward trend, if slowly, since 2004 when age at maturity shifted from age zero/age one to age 3 and better. That decline culminated in 2015 when I would have top anglers with 2 or 3 sea bass in May(!) May is usually bang-on limit fishing – the best until late October. 

I predicted when the MD Wind Energy Area recolonized, cbass would act as they always had before management – exactly as science before 2000 shows when “All sea bass under 9 inches have spawned, some twice.” (And was why we put a 9 in limit on 5 years before Fed/State regs began..) 

That came to pass and created a major spike in production. We caught limits in recent years, often even in summer, for half a decade off that spike in spawning. 

I also predicted we’d see that spike taper; that we’d catch nicer fish which had escaped pressure and begin to reshift focus back to flounder.. 

Hmmm.. 

To paraphrase one of my Uncle’s favorite expressions and I believe true: “Stick with me, the worst is yet to be.”

One thing stands out – while there was truly a massive increase in sea bass spawning in the wind area after surveys ceased in Aug 2015, those fish did NOT colonize any nearshore reefs. (nothing died because of surveys – fish moved. Guides and private boats had an absolute blast on flounder on inshore reefs – even way inshore.) 

I suspect any sea bass that tried to colonize and spawn inshore were killed or blinded as is nature’s brutal way of selecting males for procreation. 

I suspect it doesn’t take many larger fish at all to “rule the reef.” 

If we could drop the size limit to 11 inches (happens to also be the commercial limit) I’d expect a wild jump in production — every single reef would fill. 

The worst part of a 12 to 13 inch size limit is Just as they’re switching from female to male (yes, really) they’re also becoming legal. 

With 9/10/10.5/&11 inch size limits many males thrown back would survive to spawn, sometimes for two years – today a keeper & they sizzle instead.. 

If interested in more I’ve published many pieces on this. Went into it in great detail in one over ten years ago, “Course Correction” (found one here https://www.fishingunited.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=11052 ) 

We also triggered age one spawning when we built Sue Power’s huge  Jackspot Reef. I’m hopeful of doing same this fall at the Bass Grounds. 

Wrecks made many times better? Indeed. Irrefutably so. 

Regulations based on catch estimates that couldn’t possibly be true destroying the promise of fishery management? 

I may be alone in it, but I’m sure of that too. 

That’s what happens when bad statistics are used to make regulations. 

NOAA might be getting the message. Just last week they published they’re considering a 30+% cut in recreational private boat and shore catch.. 

Hmmmmm again! 

If you want to sink your teeth into it — here’s the gooey stuff. 

https://apps-st.fisheries.noaa.gov/rpts/main/public_docs/Evaluating%20Measurement%20Error%20in%20the%20FES%20Consolidated%20Final%20w%20Review.pdf?method=PUB_MANUSCRIPT&id=32268

Cheers

Monty

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