Morning Star Fish Report

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Fish Report 12/11/18
New Trips: One Tog/One CBass
Why Tag Tog?
Sea Bass Management's Most Important Tool

Trips Also Announced on Facebook at Morning Star Fishing https://www.facebook.com/ocfishing/ & my personal page..

Thursday, 12/13/18 - Tautog - 7 to 3 - $110.00 - Sells Out At 14 (bloody unlikely!)
Friday, 12/14/18 - 10 Hour Sea Bass - $150.00 - Sells Out At 20 - Long Run..

Bait is provided on all trips: A variety for sea bass, and green crabs for tog. (No white crabs at this time.)

Reservations Required at 410 520 2076 - Staffed 24/7 (Asking me for a reservation via FB or Email is a guaranteed way to wrench up the business! Use the reservation line!)  On My Rig You Can Reserve What Spot You're In. Please See http://morningstarfishing.com For How The Rail's Laid Out..
LEAVE YOUR BEST POSSIBLE CONTACT NUMBER & LISTEN TO YOUR MESSAGES - Weather Cancelations Happen - I Make Every Attempt To Let Clients Sleep In If The Weather's Not Going Our Way..

Be a half hour early! We always leave early!
..except when someone shows up right on time.
Clients arriving late will see the west end of an east bound boat. With a limited number of reserved spots, I do not refund because you over-slept or had a flat..

No Live Tog Leave The Boat - Dead & Bled - Period. (I Believe The Live Tog Black Market Has Hurt This Fishery ..But Nowhere Near As Much As Bad Sea Bass Regulation)
Agreed With Or Not, All Regulations Observed – Maryland: 4 Tog @ 16 Inches

If You Won't Measure & Count Your Fish, The State Will Provide A Man With A Gun To Do It For You. We Measure & Count — ALWAYS — No Exceptions!

It's Simple To Prevent Motion Sickness, Difficult To Cure. Bonine seems best because it's non-drowsy. Truly cheap & effective insurance.
Honestly - If you get to go on the ocean once month, once a year, or even less; why risk chumming all day? Similarly, if you howl at the moon all night, chances are good you'll howl into a bucket all day.

Bring A Cooler With Ice For Your Fish – A 48 Quart Cooler Is Fine For A Few People. Do Not Bring A Very Large Cooler. We DO have a few loaners - you'll still need ice.
No Galley! Bring Food & Beverages To Suit. A few beers in cans is fine for the ride home.

In winter waterproof boots are almost a necessity - sneakers can ruin your day. While some rarely, or never, wear gloves for fishing, you'd not likely see me fishing this time of year w/o at least the half-finger wool gloves. Tuck a "hot hands" warmer in the palm and life is good..
Layers are best because, believe it or not, sometimes it can be very pleasant offshore--especially when the wind lays down. In winter it's warmer offshore owing to warmer waters. In summer it's cooler..

Sponsor the Ocean City Reef Foundation!
http://www.ocreefs.org
We're Nowhere Near Reef Building's True Potential.

If you have concrete blocks in the backyard taking up space and just making snake reef, bring em. We'll toss em overboard with the rest.

23,567 Reef Blocks deployed at numerous sites as of 12/11/18. Here are sites currently being targeted: Capt. Jack Kaeufer's Reef 602 - Doug Ake's Reef 3,721 - St. Ann's 2,234 - Sue's Block Drop 637 - Two-Tanks Reef 320 - Capt. Bob's Inshore Block Drop 900 - Benelli Reef 746 - Capt. Bob's Bass Grounds Reef 1,218 - Wolf & Daughters Reef 688.

Greetings All,
Fall sea bass are certainly past prime. Most of the larger fish have packed their bags and hopped a train offshore. Most, I say. Not all. Did have a few clients in double digits last Saturday. One fellow limited out too.
No, we're not out of the game yet! And Friday's forecast looks plenty doable & warmer. Gonna burn some fuel. I doubt seriously we'll be back within the 10 hour time-frame..

Also did my first dedicated tog trip since April last week. Had a handful of clients & just as well; weatherman was playing games again. At noon we still had 23 knots from the North. Was forecasted NW 10-15.. Most clients had 2 nice keepers and a fair number of throwbacks. Poor Wayne had 14 throwbacks and had to stop on his way home for a Purdue chicken for dinner.
Thankfully high winds that day were 'switchy'. When 25 knots lays on one compass point it'll build a wave set rapidly. That day it rolled from NW to N - no sea heights beyond an occasional 4 footer.
That switching is why a south wind in often more doable than any E or NE blow. Generally a NE wind especially will lock in on a compass point a stay there - gets rough!
Plus E & NE winds have the longest fetch—blowing across open water truly aids sea height development.

Anyway.. We're starting to tag tautog again. I use ALS tags. Anyone can do it.. (American Littoral Society - Look up Jeff Dement)
Tagging large numbers of sea bass since 1994; after I'd begun tagging tog in earnest in 2004 we soon learned growth rates, of course. But, more importantly, we learned tog are homebodies. Once they colonize a reef off DelMarVa -- That's Home.
Every now and again a tog will wander. Especially if there's an artificial reef nearby that's growing into that 3 & 4 year old sweet spot - a few blackfish will leave their home reef to colonize a new nearby reef construction; this as its mussels & what is called the "fouling community" (reef growth) become able to support the species.
Ever been at the boatyard when a boat was hauled that hasn't seen a pressure washer in a couple years? That's what tog like. Lots of growth. Our substrate (e.g. concrete, rock, or a barge purposely sunk as reef) is perhaps instantly 'reef' at sinking, but the growth on that substrate is what really makes it tic - a couple years accumulation - a couple decades better! I once held a small rock in my hand a client had snagged - a tiny bit of natural substrate. It had several types of growth on it. I was able to find a dozen or more rock crabs (white crabs)--super tiny fellows--hidden in a thin veneer of life on that small rock. They grow - tog feed.
Mostly tog seem to feed on mussels - smaller the better.

Only time I ever saw a new reef gain a tog population swiftly, in a year, was at the 565 foot Radford sunk at the DelJerseyLand Reef. (Yes daily 50/50 reef raffle players - we donated $3,500.00 to that project. A drop in a multi-million dollar project's bucket, but the Morning Star's 50/50 did help!) Divers on the Radford soon reported to me that the cavernous passageways Jeff Tinsman had cut throughout the Radford were quickly grown-in with massive mussel colonies. Mussels don't need light - just water flow. The biomass must have been astounding -- tautog found it irresistible..
Where the Radford was sunk there's a LOT of existing nearby reef - and suddenly a 24/7 fresh mussel paradise opens for our chiseltooth tog buddies.. Yeah, they found it fast. I should imagine there will be tog deep inside that reef that never see its exterior again save spawning season - nor a baited hook!
Tog are a wrasse. Like sea bass, (many reef fish really,) numerous wrasses around the world change sex. Not all. In species that do it'll be just enough to rebalance a spawning population where males have been diminished. Because a reef may be isolated by even 10s of miles, (or far greater in the Pacific!) this ability to change from F to M (sequential hermaphrodite) we know sea bass have ensures enough males in what may otherwise be an entirely female population.

Do we know if tautog change sex? No we do not.
More likely to hear someone say they absolutely do not.
However, as related to me by Dr. Hare of the NE Fisheries Science Center, currently the scientific consensus as seen in the Tautog 'green book' (or Essential Fish Habitat Document - these EFH handbooks make good reading for we fish nerds..) ..the EFH green book recognizes not all male tog have the pronounced chin & distinct lateral line that so separates the boys from the girls in blackfish. They're thought to hermaphrodites that can be either sex!
My question - and first posed to me by Steve Doctor of MD DNR Fisheries - is: Are these fish "either sex" or more simply 'on their way' to becoming male?
There's enough oddity in small tog we catch to make it worth looking into. Some 'females' don't look entirely female, and some males retain a lot of female coloration.
DSCN5022.JPGDSCN5016.JPG
Dan Iacangelo with a tagged male tog for release. Note clean lateral line, grayish cast, square chin & white dot amidship. 
Bob Houser with a good sized female he tagged. Chin slopes, mottled brown, no dot, no obvious lateral line..
IMG_5674.jpgIMG_5678.jpg
Two recent tags (about 15 inches) displaying both Female & Male characteristics..

Now we're tagging females--both solidly female & questionable (is this a male?) from 10 to 16 inches. If some solidly change sex, it'll more likely be at the smaller sizes. (Or has size limit management already pushed tautog 'age at maturity' out too?)
Though my boat tagged a fair number of tog from the mid-2000s on, sometimes over 100 a day, we didn't make much of which sex it was. Now we do. Tagging may point us toward a need for further study - especially if we get distinct result in tags which were noted F on release ... coming back M.
Possible..

Not sure how it would apply to tautog fishery management, but I remain convinced size limit's ability to alter 'age at maturity' in sea bass is management's most powerful, if completely unrecognized & unused, tool.
Have written about it many times - deeply researched it. Where all the scientific literature on sea bass before 2000 have some females switching to male at age one - & even in their first year of life - since our size limit went to 12 inches in 2002 virtually no sea bass switch sex until age 3 - sometimes 4.
Indeed, in the 1977 "Biological & Fisheries Data" Sandy Hook 'Blue Book' on sea bass it claims (P 15 - 4.11) "Nearly all sea bass over 25 cm (9.8 inches) are male."
Those measurements--though certainly true in their day, are no longer valid. Today we can catch hundreds - even a thousand 11 inch sea bass and not see a male. From 1994 to 2001 we'd see 100s of under-9 inch males on any given day with a good bite. Now we see virtually none.. An entire year can go buy with less than a dozen under 9 inch males being spotted.
This variance, to me, signifies virtually the entire marine sea bass population from May to August was once in the spawning population. If numerous age 1 sea bass (5.5 to 9 inches) were already transitioned to male, then there was a reason - they were spawning.
Today we see some transitioning males as small as 11.5 inches, more often a shade over 12. A 12 inch male sea bass in May/June will be legal that summer - soon. (over 12.5 inches & age 3)
That means in today's fishery - We catch our spawners..
When I had a self-enforced 9 inch size limit from 1992 to 1997 - all out throwbacks were in the spawning class. We'd see males as small as 7 inches everyday - sometimes smaller still. When real regulation (fed/state regs) first began in 1997 it was just a size limit at 9 inches. Even in 98 not every state was enforcing federal regs. In 1999/2000 the size limit was 10 inches - still no bag limit..
From spawning which occurred ONLY in an era with no bag limit - spawning while there was no limit to how many sea bass clients could carry home - our sea bass population became larger every year - far larger.
I believe this was because all the fish we were releasing were in the spawning class. Fish spawned in this 'no bag limit' era would become the greatest sea bassing I've ever experienced in 2002/2003.
By fall of 2003, however, I was wondering where all the smalls were.. Fishing was incredible - yet because the fall run had always been partly/mostly comprised of that year's marine-found juveniles, they were noticeable in their absence.

I believe the affect of shifting sea bass age at maturity out 2 years and more on spawning production has been significant. Though we have many more large female sea bass than ever--females so large the scientific literature once held they did not exist-- (we often see even 17 to 20 inch females today, yet in the 1977 Blue Book it has 'largest females' at 34 cm ~ 13.4 inches) ..although now large female sea bass make an amazing proportion of the population ----- spawning production has tapered significantly since 2003.
It strikes me that with no smaller females switching to male - at all - in a population where once fully 25 or 30% would have already switched at age 1 & 2 - those younger cbass are no longer spawning - just some age 3 & all age 4 cbass are. (I have no observations above the southernmost point of NJ -- all my observations are off DelMarVa..)

Some claim this is entirely because of warming. Yes, it's true that no one, despite many lives lost, was able to "Find The NW Passage" around the Americas before 1906 when Amundsen made the first transit. Where Cabot lost 5 ships and 200 men in 1498 looking for what did not exist at that time - a way around the top of Canada to Alaska - today that passage is fairly routinely  transited by ships. It was during the summer of 2012 that the passage was ice-free for the first time in recorded history..
But sea bass are still COMMON all the way to at least mid-Florida! They haven't "shifted north" in such fashion as to lessen spawning production in the Mid-Atlantic.

Regulation has the fishery in a vise up north. Fifteen inch size limits are common.
Down here I absolutely believe the reason sea bass were still a viable fishery even in the unregulated period's darkest hour is because they spawned young - and I believed they responded best to management when there was an 11 inch size limit... (maybe 10!)  
It is vital that we understand how to maximize a spawning population..

An experiment on this theory of shifting 'age at maturity' was recently concluded off the coast of Maryland. It wasn't planned for, nor recognized as such. I complained bitterly about the complete evacuation of sea bass and flounder as sub-bottom survey work went on for years in the MD Wind Energy Area. (See a video I made in Jan 2016 showing the absolute absence of sea bass in the wind area - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46ahNqo8geE - The comparative footage was shot in the end of August 2015 at the conclusion of survey work, and from the VERY SAME REEFS in May/June 2004. A sub-bottom profiler is NOWHERE NEAR as loud & powerful as deep sea bed "Acoustic Surveying" for oil/gas with air cannons..)
At the MD Wind Area's mid-summer 2015 completion, all manner of reefs in and around the huge survey site were again recolonized by sea bass by May 2016 - and for the first time in well over a decade I saw numerous under nine inch males..
Because those reefs were completely devoid of sea bass, there were therefore no large males delaying the start of younger females switching to male in younger fish.
This experiment also occurred at our African Queen Reef Site when for two years a vessel under charter to the Navy also drove away sea bass. Though not nearly as complete (perhaps owing to a shorter time span) I have been told there were smaller males at the Queen Reef this past summer than there had been in years.
Speaking of the Queen Reef - while we had smaller sea bass size limits & no bag limit I could fish the Queen Reef (12 NM SSE OC MD) with 50 and more people on the 90 foot OC Princess & did so frequently. When I began sea bassing with the 55 foot Morning Star in 2004 clients could sometimes fish the Queen & nearby wrecks/reefs with NO BAIT - Just Bare Hooks! - and catch sea bass incredibly well.
Nowadays I cannot fish the Queen Reef for cbass. It doesn't hold enough fish to keep clients' interest. (nor mine!) The size limit is bigger, the bag limit smaller, seasons are shorter -- there's just a dearth of production. Spawning is compromised by fishing pressure.
Another example: Capt Ricky (huge Lewes partyboat at Parson's) & I on the OC Princess would often target sea bass at the "Old Grounds." Atop these small patches of natural corals spread across more than 200 square miles, sea bass were so plentiful in the late 1990s that large crowds could be kept busy all day.
For nearly 15 years now that's no longer the case. Flounder? Yes. Some sea bass? Yes. Large schools of sea bass worth anchoring on? No. Not since sea bass "Age At Maturity" shifted fully 2 to 3 years out.

You see, today's marine sea bass population must have, by my estimation, 70% or more NOT in the spawning population. Today it's also true that JUST as sea bass grow INTO the spawning class, they become legal...
When regulation forced sea bass to spawn younger - they did. (indeed, all throughout the era of No Regulation sea bass spawned exactly as described in the science -- age 1 & even age zero..) When there were not males greater than 12 inches on nearly every reef of any type - smaller fish were somehow instinctually signaled to spawn (and for some females to transition to male) at age one. Back then (until 2002/2003) we had what must have been nearly 100% of the marine population in the spawning class. ALL our throwbacks -- All summer -- were spawners.
Their population climbed despite far higher levels of both recreational & commercial catch.
Today we box up the spawners and leave just enough large males to stifle the instinctual urge to rebalance the spawning population with small males - Its those large males which, I believe, control 'age at maturity.' (relatively speaking.. A 7 inch sea bass perceives a 13 inch male as 'large' - but you're not going to win the pool with it!)
They no longer transition at age 1 or age zero as they once did.

Now, of course, this effect was greatest where fishing pressure was highest. Where fishing pressure was low - mostly outside of 12 miles - you could tell how much fishing was occurring on a reef by the size of it's smallest males. Forcing cbass to spawn at age one worked because even our most heavily fished reefs had fantastic spawning production - spawners were being thrown back! And boy did it show. In 2003 sometimes even 1/2 day boats could catch 25 fish-per-person cbass limits within 12 miles of Ocean City, MD.
Now it's pretty good to have 25 keeper sea bass on the whole boat on a half-day trip. A lot of days they won't do even that...

I've never had any luck getting federal/state regulators to bite on this "Age At Maturity" work of mine.
Nor the idea our remaining seafloor hardbottom habitat (natural reef) might be important(!) - Or any consideration our natural hardbottom habitat is at but 15% or so of it's historical footprint when considered from 1950 or so.
Then too, NOAA apparently does believe Private Boats targeting sea bass from one state can out-catch all Commercial Trawl/Trap AND All Party/Charter -- All Combined.. (That's the MRIP issue I always write about - Specifically Here & A Matter Of Import To Today's Sea Bass Management - NY Wave 6 (Nov/Dec) Private Boats in 2016 & 2017 landed, by MRIP estimate, vastly-incredibly more sea bass than ever before. Those Gradys & Boston Whalers landed more sea bass in two really cold rough months than ALL Party/Charter along the WHOLE COAST in the same period -- AND ALL COMMERCIAL TRAWL/TRAP!!! Combined!
What a farce.. People are getting PAID to destroy fisheries science & management. Because harvest numbers are KEY in any fishery management scheme - here we have GIGO...)

To try and convince management a smaller size limit in sea bass is, by far, their most powerful tool in elevating sea bass spawning production has, thus far, been a hurdle too high.

So now on to tautog. I've long advocated a 16 inch size limit based on the mammoth increases in egg production from a 14 to 16 inch blackfish. We ought to want to maximize spawning production..
But what if altering age at maturity also comes into play with tog? We'll never know unless we first discover whether or not some actually do switch and at what age....

Just some winter thoughts on past and ongoing work.
Going Fishing Too!
Regards,
Monty

Capt. Monty Hawkins
Partyboat Morning Star, Ocean City, MD
mhawkins@morningstarfishing.com

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