Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Fish Report 1/9/19

Fish Report 1/9/19 
More Tog Trips 
Another Reef 
Questions I'm Asked 

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 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.. 

Tog Trips Only: (No sea bass allowed. NOAA seems more & more clueless as to our actual recreational catch. Could very well flare-up in coming regulations. That is to say, MRIP could, again, really worsen sea bass regulation.. More on that in my next report!) 

Saturday, 1/12/19 - 11 Hour Tog Trip - departs 6AM to 5PM (so leaving as early as 5:30 if all are aboard..) $150.00 - 14 Sells Out 
Wednesday, 1/16/19 - Thursday 1/17/19 - Friday 1/18/19 - 10 Hour Tog Trips - Departs 6:30 to 4:30 - $130.00 - 14 Sells Out..

Trips Also Announced on Facebook at Morning Star Fishing & my personal page..
Tog trips thus far were hardly world class affairs. Catch? Yes, usually. But not great. Best trip recently but still not what I'd like. A few guys have limited. Some keeper females have gone back plus a jumbo bull. This is a fishery for the passionate... 

Jeremy Harrington released our largest bull so far in 2019 at 25.75 inches.. 

Bait is provided on all trips: green crabs for tog. (Whites MIGHT be available from crew for a reasonable cost..) Our Tog Pool Is By Length:  A Tog That's Been Tagged & Released Counts The Same As One In The Boat. 
Rental Rods are $7.00.. Each A Rod I'd Use Myself.
Wear Boots! Sneakers this time of year can ruin your trip.

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!
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.

23,792 Reef Blocks have been deployed at numerous sites
Here are sites currently being targeted: Capt. Jack Kaeufer's Reef 680 - Doug Ake's Reef 3,755 - St. Ann's 2,234 - Sue's Block Drop 637 - TwoTanks Reef 432 - Capt. Bob's Inshore Block Drop 900 - Benelli Reef 746 - Capt. Bob's Bass Grounds Reef 1,218 - Wolf & Daughters Reef 688.
Deckhand Doug prepares to shove #23,792 by the rail..

OC Reef Foundation sank a 130' barge 1/4/19 - This barge has no name but will surely be a great spot. Name it for $5K.. 

Greetings All, 
Watched a barge sink on our 1/4/19 ten hour tog trip. The bite started OK too, but then turned light and died. 
Still, got some pretty ones. Did have one client actually cry--not about the fishing! They'd snuck a green crab into their friend's sandwich and about died laughing when he bit square into it.. "How were your crab legs, Phil?".. Oh Man. I bet paybacks are coming.. 

Had a right decent tog bite Sunday 1/7/19 
..until the wind picked up 30+ NW. 
Tightened up to the beach. Hid behind OC's highrises & caught more, but fish were not as nice. 

Odd: Our very closest artificial reef site, just 1,000 yards offshore and slam in front of Ocean City, has given up two of the very best tog trips I've ever had (and I have seen many a good trip - amazing trips!) But usually I get skunked there. Fussy dang crab eaters. Have never figured it out. I know the circumstances they bit in - replication has not worked!
I've also had 2 state record tog on reef sites within easy sight of land. 
Every reef we successfully build creates more tog habitat. They are all colonized within four years, some sooner. 
Point is - the more reef we build, and the lower we can get pressure, the better tog will do. 
My tog trips 15 years ago were almost always limits. I thought it awful if at least half my clients weren't limited. Those days are over. 
Sure, we'll have some great days & good fish - but doing it every single trip? No. 

Really need sea bass back in grand number to lower tog pressure. As discussed in recent reports, sea bass closures drive tog pressure through the roof. 
I've tried, unsuccessfully thus far, to explain to fisheries scientists & managers why sea bass remained a viable fishery in the era prior to regulation, & then exploded in population during early regulation. 
We'll need managers' buy-in on maximized sea bass spawning if we are to ever put tog back into 'amazing fishery' again. 

A couple guys sent good questions about my "lowering the size limit will increase sea bass populations" theory. I'm going to use my responses to their questions as a springboard here. This report is another attempt at clarification of a really hard to fathom concept.

You see, all fisheries management is about judging extraction vs production -- 
successful fishing pressure of every sort being 'extraction' vs additions of spawning production (minus natural mortality..) adding to the existing population (or what population's left after fishing/natural mortality..)  

Where fishing pressure removals are far less than spawning production increases, fish populations thrive. 
Anything we can do to improve spawning production must also improve a fishery. 

You'd think that a no-brainer - to increase spawning production. But, trust me on this, we've given no consideration whatever to any means of spawning production improvement in marine fisheries along the Mid-Atlantic. 
None. Not as a facet of management, at least.  

Every reef we build; even at our slow, low budget pace, is swiftly colonized by growths & fish. Sea bass too. 
If left absolutely, completely alone - if no fishing or natural predation (bluefish/sharks) occurred - these reefs would all reach a plateau of sea bass population. Sea bass numbers would not grow to where ship propellers were slashing through them to get to DE Bay. The sea bass population would not grow to the moon because they weren't being fished.  
As seen in any study of population ecology: where lower order animals such as multi-celled daphnia (water fleas in biology class jargon) and any single celled organism will multiply until resources run out and the population crashes; higher order animals will retard their own reproduction so as to not outpace available resources. 
Crashes still occur - but there is a natural inclination to accelerate/decelerate reproduction based on habitat & food resources. 

I tripped over one such response in sea bass early in management's timeline. 
I was told by a MD state biologist in 1991 that "All sea bass spawn by 9 inches, some twice." Remember it as well as another event, a tragic event, in September a decade later. I can see Nancy Butowski, the fish shack, the boat, pilings, water.. It was an "Ah Ha" moment. 
In 1992 the owners of the super-sweet rig I was running, the OC Princess, allowed me to put a 9 inch size limit on our sea bass. By August it was obvious a size limit was having a huge positive effect on our sea bass fishing. Catches were climbing. Soon we'd see not only were we catching our releases - but spawning production was doing better. 

After a few years almost everyone in town was doing it. Even the commercial fish dock, Martin's Fish Co, was insisting trappers not land super-small sea bass. 
Then regulation began in 1997. It too began with 9 inches. 
Where in the 1980s I can remember awful days in August as a deckhand with 6 or 7 fish on the whole boat, by the mid-1990s we were seeing clients sometimes catch 6 or 7 thousand a day in August. 
Really. It was that big a difference. 
One thing I watched for from the outset was small male sea bass. A spawning male is a brightly lit fellow - big knot on his head & color. Those under 9 inch males were precisely what would be seen if "Every sea bass spawns by 9 inches."
We saw many undersized males every trip. Throwback numbers were insane, but we sent clients home with dinner too..... 

Under our self-regulation spawning production was outpacing fishing's removals in a big way. Our region's sea bass population was already shooting straight up before state/federal regulation began.  
The greatest sea bass fishing I've ever had (2002/2003) was comprised entirely of year classes of fish spawned prior to any recreational bag limits. 

Then spawning slowed. 
By the mid/late 2000s we were not seeing our catch replaced. Despite larger size limits & a bag limit - regulatory measures which should have ensured fantastic sea bass fishing forever had spawning remained even at constant - we were instead catching fewer & fewer. 
In 2007 recreational sea bass fishing effort in summer dropped off a cliff. We were catching summer flounder -- clients wanted them. 
Flounder were coming from the exact same reef & wrecks I'd been already been fishing for 27 years - same spots, new target. 
Even that dramatic decrease in summer fishing pressure for sea bass, which continues to this day, did not propel our region's sea bass population back up. 
Instead, sea bass spawning production is flatlined.. A little better, a little worse. Never what we first witnessed. 

I've watched sea bass for nearly four decades now. 
After exhausting every angle I can think of, my thesis that management altered cbass's "age at maturity" when they went to a 12 inch size limit remains the only plausible & observed explanation that fits. 
Age 1 includes sea bass up to 9.1 inches. Rest assured - they all used to spawn by age 1. 
Age 2 includes 8.7 to 12.5 inch sea bass. Presumably the longer fish would be late summer or fall. 
Age 3 & 4 are combined. They include some sea bass even to 16.1 inches but as small as 10.7.. Some just grow faster. 
Where we used to see hundreds, if not over a thousand, small, under size-limit male sea bass every day; post 2002's regulatory change to 12 inches (and then higher) we'd often go an entire season only spotting a dozen or so under 9 inch males. 
What we do see are 11.5 to 13 inch fish just starting to change, starting to color up & form the 'nuchal hump' we think of when we see a knothead sea bass. 
Those 11.5 inch males might get a spawn in. Maybe. 
He'll be legal before long - grow fast. Especially because males fluff up - in nature the boys wear makeup.. 
The rest we box up. Those just maturing males? Legal. 
Used to be: Just maturing males - throwback. 
When Spawning Production Exceeds Extraction, A Population Expands. 

Gets a little dicier here.. 
So I told you nearly all sea bass start female & only some will switch to male, right? 
Long time readers, surely. 
It clouds the waters here though. In aquarium tests where the bull is removed, the largest female will begin to show male hormones within hours. She's already switching. 
This is nature's safeguard against reef populations that could be separated by 10 or more miles - even hundreds of miles in the Pacific. If the bulls are culled off by human or other predation, the grand dame steps up. It happens in a lot of reef fish, really. 
I'm curious if its a behavior in tautog. Maybe? 

Currently we're fishing sea bass's spawning production down pretty hard. It's rare to see a 4.5 lb sea bass pool winner these days. Not many escape fishing pressure to grow that big anymore along the Mid-Atlantic. 
However, when spawning production was maximized  --though size limits were much smaller and bag limit more generous (if any limit at all!) -- we'd always have lots of big contenders for the biggest fish of the day pool. Again, it was rare that a 4.5 pound fish won - during early management they were usually well over 5! 
By maximizing spawning sea bass were creating many more successfully fertilized eggs than we were taking — & that before there was a creel limit. 
When the 25 Fish limit came in 2002, it caused a bulge that was out of this world. We had many clients who wouldn't take a 14 incher & some who kept only 16 & above. This was with a 12 inch size limit. 
I'm pretty sure we can again force age one sea bass to spawn with an 11 inch size limit. 
And, amazingly, in this crazy upside down view of management I've been trying so long to convince regulators of - it was the hardest hit reefs - where the 4 hour boats pummel the stock ceaselessly - that had the best affect on spawning production! 
Slip offshore a bit where pressure is much lower and you found a better grade. Slip way offshore and they were almost all jumbos. 

With today's effect on production - where we take them JUST was they mature and few survive that first spawning Summer - our closest reefs have all but collapsed. Even though there's a 3.5 inch increase from our original size 9 inch limit - production is kaput. 

Now a lot of fellows hold "Commercial traps are wiping us out." 
Capt Ricky (Parson's Dock in Lewes) & I used to be able to anchor on any random coral patch in the old grounds and catch sea bass like mad. We often had 70 and more clients aboard.  
Flags were all around. 
While I do think there's a case to be made for limiting commercial trapping on reefs the public built, I do not believe trap pressure is at all "The Cause" of our region's sea bass diminishment. We've not troubled with it off Ocean City. Some small boat skippers use bass pot flags to find fish. Point here is there were once incredibly many more traps off our coast than today. I'm positive.  
For diminished sea bass populations I hold spawning age at maturity 100% at the root of failing spawning production
..and NOAA says we have less cbass because of warming. 

Well, that's a lot to digest. 
My Solution: drop the recreational size limit to 11 inches - just like commercial. 
That would again force an 'all hands on deck' spawning response, and we'd again witness swiftly rising sea bass numbers... 

NOAA will, far more likely, see plainly from their MRIP 'recreational catch estimates' that one state or another's Private Boats have managed, AGAIN, to outfish ALL Commercial Trap & Trawl - Plus ALL Party/Charter. 
These miraculous catches will have occurred over weeks vs professional efforts' year. 
Getting managers & scientists to see beyond the smokescreen of unfathomably bad data is at the heart of this. There's no time for Habitat concerns, and especially not a crazy party boat skipper saying an absence of males in a larger population of larger females than was once even thought possible is retarding spawning production in sea bass. 
But there it is. 
For myself, I'm sure that's what happened to our once amazingly robust fishery. 
Thankfully, we're currently in an uptick in production. I expect it won't last.

Capt. Monty Hawkins 
Partyboat Morning Star 

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