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July 30, 2011

Regulators must save menhaden to help striped bass

The coming days will be the tale of two fish and the regulatory process by which the pair is protected and managed.

The future of one fish, the striped bass, is directly tied to the future of the other, menhaden. But you wouldn’t know it by the way the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is acting.

Some commissioners are hair-on-fire ready to vote on Monday to begin the process of adding new protections for striped bass that could change size and creel limits or shorten the fishing season. Forget the fact that the science to back such a decision—a new stock assessment--is still more than a month away from completion.

But the menhaden debate may linger on, as it has for years, or result in approval of some half-hearted measure.

Yes, there are some disturbing signs that the striped bass, Maryland’s state fish, is facing tough times. The Chesapeake Bay, the spawning grounds and nursery for three-quarters of the entire Atlantic Seaboard population, is a filthy mess with an ever-increasing dead zone. Many adult striped bass have sores and are ravaged by a fatal disease that remains a mystery to scientists. The census of baby stripers in the bay has been below average for the last three years.

And the menhaden stock—a primary food source for striped bass—is at 14 percent of what it was 30 years ago.

But what will ASMFC do to protect menhaden on Tuesday, when the species comes up for discussion?

Maybe looking at harvest numbers they’ve had in hand for months, numbers that show the commercial harvest has exceeded its target in 32 of the last 54 years, commissioners will finally vote to fire up the regulation-making machine to give the fish a chance to repopulate the waters.

But maybe not.

In the first place, there’s Omega Protein, “the 300-pound gorilla in the room,” as Wellfleet, Mass., officials call it. The company, which has a fleet of 10 vessels and eight spotter planes working in the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake, has done a superb job of protecting its interests, greasing the palms of elected Virginia officials, packing legislative hearings in Annapolis and mounting a public relations campaign that included a video endorsement by the executive director of ASMFC, Vince O’Shea.

Omega grinds up menhaden at its Reedville, Va., plant for use in heart-healthy Omega-3 products, pet food and cosmetics. Its operation employs about 300 people, which makes it a big player both locally and in Richmond, the state capital.

In a four-page letter to ASMFC, Omega and 41 other commercial interests urge the commissioners to “resist any calls to rush forward precipitously, ahead of schedule, with the development of any new management scheme.”

Rush ahead? Really?

In 1967, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission urged the governor and General Assembly to authorize a study “of the effect on the menhaden fishery operations on recreational fishing in Virginia” in time for the 1970 legislative session. Nothing really came of it, but the first red flag was raised—by Virginia.

Four decades hardly seems to be rushing to conclusions.

In an interview last month with The Public Trust Project, Dr. Rob Latour, a Virginia fisheries expert who led ASMFC’s 2010 menhaden stock assessment said: “There are lots of flags within the stock assessment that cause concern…the total abundance predicted by the stock assessment is the lowest on record from 1954-2008. How can it be the lowest ever and still be healthy or not overfished?”

How, indeed.

But Omega has a new posse of allies: commercial fishermen from Maine to North Carolina who supply the lobster fleet with bait.

With overfished herring being placed off-limits while the stock is rebuilt, bait boats are likely to substitute menhaden.

If ASMFC didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to take on Omega by itself, why should anyone think it can summon up the courage to take on commercial interests from nine states?

But if the commissioners are ready to forge ahead without the latest science to protect striped bass, how can they in good conscience and with plenty of alarming numbers in hand deny menhaden protection that really means something?

Posted by Candus Thomson at 10:56 AM | | Comments (4)

July 27, 2011

Seed salesman to get shot at $20,000 rockfish

David Huffman was just pulling into a cornfield in Pennsylvania when I reached him to talk about fishing.

Huffman, 47, will find out Thursday morning if the striped bass he caught off Rock Hall at the mouth of the Chester River on July 20 is Diamond Jim, worth $20,000, or a cubic zirconium knockoff worth $500.

"I haven't thought about it," said Huffman when I asked him how he'd spend the money. "You have to win first."

Last year, five anglers caught imposters by the time the Diamond Jim contest ended on Labor Day. This year, Huffman is the first.

Another angler who called in a tag two weeks before Huffman failed the required polygraph test.

"My luck," said Huffman, who lives in landlocked Jersey Shore, Pa., and is a sales manager for T.A. Seeds, LLC.

Huffman was on his second Chesapeake Bay fishing trip of the season, aboard Capt. Chuck Clark's Bayside Girls. He hooked a 22-inch striped bass and began reeling it in, when Clark saw the neon-green plastic tag.

"I didn't know anything about it," said Huffman of the contest. "The captain said, 'Get that fish in the boat now.'"

It was a good thing Clark knew the rules, Huffman said, or he might have removed the tag before making the call to the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service and disqualified himself.

The Fisheries Service verified the tag as one of the 200 placed on fish up and down the bay on June 30 and Huffman passed his lie-detector test.

"That was something else, too," he said.

Huffman will open an envelope at 10 a.m. at Sandy Point State Park to see if the number on a slip of paper matches the tag number from his striper. If Huffman is unlucky, the prize in August will be $25,000.

Either way, he'll get to spend a half-day fishing on the bay to help biologists tag the contest's August fish.

If no one catches Diamond Jim next month, the $25,000 will be divided between the anglers who have caught imposters--a potential list of one, so far.

Back at his office, co-workers are doing what Huffman has refused to do: mentally spend the money.

Carol Crawford, the pleasant woman who answered the phone, confided, laughing, "We're already deciding who's going to the Bahamas with him."

Posted by Candus Thomson at 4:16 PM |

Stocking program adds bass to Choptank River

Like aquatic Johnny Appleseeds, state fisheries biologists this year are releasing more than 268,500 largemouth bass fry and fingerlings into the Choptank River to replenish the population and improve recreational fishing opportunities.

In a report issued today, Tidal Bass Manager Joe Love outlined the program's progress and releases that are in the works for 2012.

In April before spawning began, adult fish were collected from Mattawoman Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River, and the Northeast and Sassafras rivers and placed in the Joseph Manning and Unicorn Lake state hatcheries. After the spawn, the adults were returned to their habitat and the offspring were released in batches into waterways in late spring and early summer, Love said. 

In May, 36,000 were released into the Choptank River in a partnership with the Maryland Bass Federation. Another 170,000 were added to the river Memorial Day weekend and a third batch of 59,542 went in at the end of June.

The river will get two final fish transfusions in October and February, totalling 3,000 large fingerlings. 

Middle River will get an infusion of tagged largemouth bass later this summer from the tanks at Wheelabrator Baltimore, where Linwood Wade and Joe Stankiewicz raised 7,676 fry. The refuse-to-energy facility has been raising fish for the Department of Natural Resources at its Aquaculture Center since 1986.

Maryland has been stocking largemouth and smallmouth bass in tidal waters since the Civil War. To date, more than 4 million fish, from 1-inch to 8-inches long, have been raised and released. Fisheries managers target one or two waterways a year to achieve maximum impact.  

It will take two years for the fry and fingerlings to grow to catchable size, Love said. It is hoped that in addition to improving fishing, the new Choptank residents will act as a keystone predator to control populations of smaller fish and critters.

Next year, Love expects to stock areas of the upper Chesapeake Bay and Wicomico River.

Photo: Randy Elliot of the Maryland Bass Federation holds a bag of largemouth bass fry before their release into the Choptank River.

Posted by Candus Thomson at 9:38 AM | | Comments (2)

July 26, 2011

The price of striped bass

After years of holding up striped bass as the model of how humans can save a species from extinction, fisheries managers are finding out that the glue holding the model together is beginning to weaken.

Disease and pollution are taking their toll. Poachers steal at will. Government is unwilling to pay for scientific and enforcement muscle. Regulators posture instead of acting boldly.

It is human nature to continue to bask in a singular success long after everyone else has moved on. Ballplayers, actors and politicians extend their careers by reliving "the big one" and finding folks willing to pay for the honor of listening.

Right now, state fisheries managers are proposing a sweeping set of reforms to get a handle on a commercial striped bass fishing industry that the public doesn't trust. Weeks of headlines and photos of illegal nets filled with tons of fish will do that to your image.

But both the watermen and the recreational community are asking the same question: Who will pay the bill?

The answer -- coming in the next week or so -- could doom the entire effort. Meanwhile, the state keeps plugging away at a plan to get the Maryland striped bass fishery in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast certified by an independent auditor as sustainable.

The difference between what the watermen pay in permits and fees ($451,000) and what it costs to monitor and enforce the industry ($1.02 million) is out of whack. The watermen say they can't afford to pay for the measures that would go a long way to restoring public trust.

The recreational anglers say they won't. And more importantly, they are not buying the old line that what's good for the commercial industry is ultimately good for them.

As all this plays out, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will be meeting Aug. 1 to yak some more about striped bass, vamping until a new population assessment comes out this fall that will tell all of us whether we're being good stewards or just running our mouths. It will be interesting to listen to the commissioners from all Eastern Seaboard states try to position themselves for both good news or bad news. No doubt the "I told you so" choir will be warming up backstage.

Speaking of choirs, the auditor from Moody Marine Ltd. will be in town Aug. 9, setting up shop in Calvary United Methodist Church next to the Department of Natural Resources headquarters in Annapolis to hear from the masses. You may testify beginning at 6 p.m.

Moody will decide whether Maryland's striped bass fishery is up to sustainability standards set by the Marine Stewardship Council. If we make the grade, those in the commercial fishing industry will be able to buy the rights to use the MSC seal on their products.

But here's what worries me. Even if Moody gives Maryland a thumbs up, who's going to believe it?

We've had three consecutive years of below average striped bass production. The state still cautions people, especially women of child-bearing years and children, not to eat too much striped bass because of lingering cancer-causing PCBs. The Chesapeake Bay dead zone will consume a larger area this year. And a decade after conservationists issued their warning, the ASMFC is still trying to decide what to do about the commercial harvest of menhaden, a small fish that feeds stripers but appears to be on the decline in the bay.

Maybe the MSC seal can be strategically positioned over rockfish sores to make them more attractive to the marketplace.

Posted by Candus Thomson at 6:51 AM | | Comments (3)

July 25, 2011

Ken Penrod's bass fishing report

Guide Ken Penrod, owner of Life Outdoors Unlimited, files his weekly bass fishing report.

SUSQUEHANNA and JUNIATA RIVERS: two stars; low and clear, with stain along east bank; temperatures in the 80s; 3.3 feet at Harrisburg and 3.4 feet at the Newport gauge on the Juniata.

Fishing from power boats is tough unless you are in a dam influenced area so floating and wading are reliable options. John Cunningham of Riverfront Campground is your man. Reach him at 717-877-2704 to arrange for shuttle service. Smallmouth bass are stacked up in areas where deeper water and bottom structure create perfect habitat with no less than 4 feet of water. Be careful that you don’t drift the boat through the good stuff.

UPPER POTOMAC RIVER: three stars; clear with algae; 85 degrees; 1.2 feet at Point of Rocks. The river is very low and it’s easy to see the effects of agriculture runoff that must be regulated.

Bass fishing has been very good and tiger musky catches have been amazing. At Edwards Ferry, be careful while motoring. There are obvious ledges in the launch vicinity so pitch Mizmo tubes or Case Magic Stiks before moving on. I like the upriver chances, including the Maryland shoreline near the power lines; Balls Bluff; Harrison Island on the Maryland side, and deeper holes between the island and Maryland. Early topwater lures to consider include Obie Hardhook buzzbaits; Penrod Special spinnerbait by Big Mouth Lure Co., Speed Trap crankbaits by Luhr-Jensen and Rapala DT04 crankbaits. I’m using 6-pound test Sufix ProMix monofilament now—in the green color. My spinning rod is a 6-foot medium action. Just a note of caution: Please don’t play hot-water bass to long. Low dissolved oxygen and exertion will kill your bass quicker than you think.

At Whites Ferry, be sure to motor to the middle of the river before turning upriver—and be very sure that the ferry is on one shore or the other. The cable has been adjusted and will turn your boat over if you strike it. I recommend the upriver opportunities. Stay in the middle of the river and begin to float-fish when you can see the smoke stack from the power plant. This is very easy fishing. I like the lures I wrote about for Edwards. Often I can make this float three times in a day. I usually stop my float at the downriver end of Mason Island.

At Lander, I like the downriver drift at this level although I will fish areas upstream. I’ll drift three lines: Maryland shore, middle and Huffman Ledges, from the power line to the end of Bald Eagle Island—if we catch 15-20 bass on the first drift. It’s important to control your float using a trolling motor. Stay low in the boat as you cast to likely haunts.

TIDAL POTOMAC RIVER: four stars; 80-90 degrees; algae in areas; measurable salt upstream to Washington.

Fishing has been good throughout much of the river, but algae and vegetation is taking-over shallow creeks and bays. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t keep bass in live wells and do not over-play hooked fish. The conditions we have on the river now are perfect for mass kills. Report mass kills to the Department of Natural Resources immediately.

In Washington water, we do well to fair in the Washington Channel, the entrance to Pentagon Lagoon, bridge foundations, old wharf locations and rocky cover above Key Bridge. I recommend Rapala and Luhr-Jensen crankbaits in crawfish pattern. The Rapala colors I recommend are: 11, 29, 47, 82 and 99. There are still stripers in D.C., especially the Channel and on humps downriver of the railroad bridge (Long Bridge). Smallmouth are virtually everywhere, but in serious concentrations at bridge foundations and rocky habitat above Key Bridge.

In the vicinity of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, we do well in grassy areas near Belle Haven Marina, the drop-offs in Penrod Cove and Smoot Bay, grass beds north of Broad Creek and south of Hog Island. Pomonkey Creek has become choked with vegetation, but you’ll find bass and snakeheads there as well as in Bulltown Cove and Pohick Bay.

Around Mattawoman Creek, the fishing remains very good, but you’ll need to expand your search. As always, the creek is worthy although some days you swear the fish have moved to Virginia. The grass thickens between Marsh Island and the river--that’s still my favorite spot. Buzzbaits over grass in the morning is working. Punching Case or Mizmo plastics through grass mats is boring but productive yet dangerous. Shallow-dive crankbaits by Rapala and Storm catch better-than-average bass in deeper water near heavy vegetation. Big Mouth Lure Co. (302-745-4668) is back in business again so order some of the Penrod Special spinnerbaits and the chatter baits. Take a look at grass in the Occoquan and Belmont Bay; downriver, check-out Chickamuxen points, Mallows boats and the Aquia docks.

DEEP CREEK LAKE: two stars; 77 degrees; clear with some algae. Guides Brent Nelson and Bret Winegardner have been entertaining vacationing families and friends but fishing during the middle of the day is tough unless you cast live baits to grass beds away from boat wakes. In the early hours, before the boat traffic, the guides are finding smallmouth bass on boat docks and rocky shores between Deep Creek Lake State Park and the dam. The early hours are best. Be on the water by 5:30 a.m. and cast topwater lures over grass beds and Case plastics under docks.

POCOMOKE RIVER: two and a half stars; high 80s; tannic. Like so many Eastern Shore tidal rivers, a falling tide is so much better for the angler. One thing the Pocomoke doesn’t lack, however, is cover. You can launch at Snow Hill and fish all the way to Pocomoke City without using your outboard motor. The spatterdock, cypress roots and impressive drop-offs near the vegetation is text book. We do best between Shad Landing and Dividing Creek and focus on weed edges. If the water is high, the inside edge is your target. If it’s low, the outside is best. Nassawango Creek is another option, as is the water above the draw bridge.

Posted by Candus Thomson at 7:24 AM |

July 21, 2011

Five outdoors things to do indoors this weekend

I can't in good conscience send anyone outdoors this weekend. Conditions are, as my good friend Arthur Hirsch likes to say, "like standing in the mouth of a dog."

Hot, humid and air foul enough to knock a buzzard off a honey wagon. Land of pleasant living? Not quite.

So what to do? Try one of these indoor activities that will keep your outdoors chops in working order:

1) Watch a movie about the outdoors. "A River Runs Through It," will make you think of clean, clear Montana. "Jeremiah Johnson" has Robert Redford, gorgeous scenery and snow. "The Great Outdoors" has Dan Ackroyd, John Candy and Annette Benning. "Into the Wild" is Alaska--nuff said. "127 Hours," the story of Aron Ralston's amazing self-rescue, will take your mind off our weather and give you something to be thankful for. 

2) Start reading a book about the outdoors. My favorite fishing books are "The Moon Pulled Up an Acre of Bass," "On the Run: An Angler's Journey Down the Striper Coast," and "Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World-Record Largemouth Bass." Mark Jenkins, whose work has appeared in Outside magazine, has a terrific compilation of tales of all kinds in, "The Hard Way." For comedy, try Bill Heavey's, "If You Didn't Bring the Jerky, What Did I Just Eat?" Hunters will like the writing of Pete Bodo in, "Whitetail Nation."

3) It's almost mid-season in the world of summer fun, so take stock. Clean out the tackle box. Wash down the kayak or jon boat. Patch pin holes and tears in the tent and un-stick the zipper. Reapply waterproofing to your boots. Do a little maintenence on the fishing rod and reel.

4) Plan the next couple of outings. For ideas, try my favorite online hiking clearinghouse, Or go on the Department of Natural Resources website and see if one of the 66 state parks looks interesting. If you need something a little more structured, choose one of the 24 challenges that are part of the Maryland Park Service's Park Quest summer adventure; you'll have to pay a nominal fee, but it's worth it.

5) Just chill. 

Posted by Candus Thomson at 11:33 AM | | Comments (1)

July 20, 2011

Pit bulls in space. Snakeheads, well, everywhere

snakeheadblog.jpgIt's been nine years since a recreational fisherman pulled a northern snakehead out of a scrummy pond in Crofton and federal and state experts told us it was an isolated problem.

I heard about it and wrote the first story. It was the last time I was alone, with CNN, NPR and tons of other media outlets camping out until the Department of Natural Resources poisioned the pond and ended the saga--temporarily.

Now, it's hard to think of a watering hole that might not harbor the toothy invasive fish from Asia. The snakehead is becoming one of those cyclical summer stories like pit bull and shark attacks--not at the same time. These stories fill the headlines and airwaves for a few weeks and then disappear just as suddenly.

Just this week, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center announced that biologists netted a 23-inch, egg-bearing female in the Rhode River, just south of Annapolis, while conducting their annual fish sampling.

Don Cosden, the assistant fisheries director for DNR, says he has other reports of snakehead sightings. And fishing guide Mike Starrett sent me a photo of his latest catch (17 pounds, 30-inches) taken Wednesday night in Mattawoman Creek--more on that in a moment.

In an email to me, Cosden said he had three reports--two confirmed and one from a very credible source--of snakeheads in the Nanticoke River.

"I had a report of an observation that sounded pretty credible at the head of South River. We think these are all natural range expansion of this critter," he wrote. "We had another caught in a pond in Montgomery County, which is in the Muddy Branch drainage, which is a tributary to the Potomac River above Great Falls. I believe this one must have been released by someone because of the difficulty of actually migrating into this impoundment."

Is someone spreading these suckers with an eye toward creating a new recreational opportunity (like Virginia's blue catfish) or is it an entrepreneur who sees snakeheads as a replacement in fish markets for declining species?

Beats me. Beats the folks with the science degrees.

Until someone gets to the bottom of this range expansion thing, perhaps we all ought to practice pitching plastic lures to grass beds, like chef Chad Wells of Baltimore's Alewife restaurant and Starrett.

Here's Starrett's Mattawoman story in his own words: "I saw the big fish slide into hole and turn facing out. I cast a black horny toad over the hole in the hydrilla and ran it slowly over top. Nuttin, not even a look-see. So I cast it again and this let it drop in the hole with a slight twitch, as the poor little frog left the hole the snakehead attacked it.

"Hookup was strong and I had a medium-heavy rod, with 40-pound braid to turn him from digging into the grass--I have lost so many by them weaving my line through the matted grass. Once I got him clear of the grass, my reel seat popped and I was able to retighten it quickly.

"I Boga gripped his lower jaw and then clipped his gills with a pair of kitchen shears. Later that evening the big snakehead came back to life and leaped out of the livewell and almost bit the young man (a client) on boat. It was kinda funny.

"I clipped his gills again. Later at the dock the snakehead leaped out of the livewell again and, man, that young man was shaken by that. We all laughed. It will stick in his memory forever."

Starrett said he gave the fish to his neighbor, who loves the taste of snakehead.

Can't wait to hear the next snakehead story...unless we've moved onto another species to get us through the summer.

Posted by Candus Thomson at 1:06 PM | | Comments (3)

July 19, 2011

Former waterman busted for poaching again

Serial poacher Joey Janda was charged with crabbing without a license and other offenses after Natural Resources Police observed him shortly after noon on Friday crabbing from a homemade boat in Harris Creek off Tilghman Island.

He also was charged with possession of suspected heroin and paraphernalia. Officers seized his boat. 

Janda, 25, of Wittman was charged on June 19 for having undersized crabs and has been ordered to appear in Talbot District Court on Aug. 18. He has been charged more than 60 times over the last decade with natural resources violations and been convicted of poaching oysters, striped bass and crabs. He is still under a three-year license suspension handed down by a district judge in February 2009 and a five-year suspension of his tidal fish license by the Department of Natural Resources that began last January. 

The only reason he was crabbing on June 19 is that a DNR official, now retired, had allowed him to keep his status as crew. When I wrote about that 19 arrest, I noted that Fisheries Service Director Tom O'Connell said this morning that DNR "is exploring its options in light of the incident."

Let me say again what I said then: There should be no "options." If a judge finds him guilty on Aug. 18, Janda should lose his commercial fishing privileges forever. He should be banned from setting foot on a commercial boat. He shouldn't be allowed to work at a check station.

No mercy, no wiggle room, no second chances. Hell, he's already had and abused a billion of those.

The Maryland Watermen's Association, the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association, the state Tidal Fish Advisory Commission, Coastal Conservation Association Maryland and other recreational organizations need to speak up. They need to contact O'Connell; the prosecutor, Talbot County State's Attorney Scott Patterson; and District Judge William Adkins III and tell them to close the book on Janda's short but destructive career.

Posted by Candus Thomson at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)

July 18, 2011

Snakeheads on Maryland's menu?

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.

When man puts northern snakeheads -- a nasty invasive fish from Asia -- into Maryland's waterways, chefs make sushi, stir fries and grilled fillets.

These days, watermen are getting more per pound for snakeheads ($2.50) than striped bass ($1.50) as a result of a Department of Natural Resources marketing program that makes a connection between supply and demand.

Maryland is trying to contain the spread of the fish, first detected in a Crofton pond nearly a decade ago and now found in many Potomac River tributaries. A prize giveaway by Bass Pro Shops and a tournament failed to make a dent in the burgeoning population.

Enter Steve Vilnit, DNR's fish marketing czar, who is trying to help the commercial industry find new outlets for their catch. Snakeheads are usually found in the nets of watermen targeting blue catfish.

Vilnit is contacting innovative chefs in the region to see if they might be willing to put snakeheads on the menu. Baltimore's Alewife restaurant was the first to get on board, and has figured out how to make the fish just another white meat.

"It's just like any other fish -- salmon, mahi-mahi -- it's just kind of an uglier-looking fish," says sous chef Eli Morris. "Sauteing it, it's just like eating chicken, I hate to say that."

Depending on how it's prepared, snakehead is a bit firmer than other white fish, which means it stands up to a grill better. But it's sweet, mild and clean. In the hands of a great deep-fry cook, it might be a great substitute for cod in a platter of fish and chips. More sustainable, too.

Head chef Chad Wells, an avid angler from childhood who has been out on Maryland's tributaries stalking snakeheads, says he would create a different recipe, depending on which section of the fish was being used: sauteing tail pieces, frying the fillets from the middle section and grilling portions near the head.

"It cooks fast, as fast as a pepper," he says. "If I were stir frying it, I would cook the vegetables first and then the fish."

Wells says he's pressuring wholesalers, like ProFish, to get him more snakeheads and talking them up with watermen.

"When I can get them, we're going to have them on the menu," he says. "Watermen are looking for snakeheads hard. If we can create a demand, it will be good for them."

Morris says it's important to throw off the sci-fi stories about snakeheads and see them for what they are: dinner.

"If somebody went out fishing or took their kid fishing and lined a snakehead, they absolutely could take it home and prepare it they way they would a fish bought at a supermarket," he says.

Snakeheads are only a sliver of the market now, but as wholesalers get more comfortable with the new product and other fish become more scarce, they may take their place in restaurants and fish stores alongside Maryland striped bass.

"This is a way we can make a difference," says Vilnit. "Every fish they take out of the water is one less invasive fish harming the habitat of native fish. And every fish the watermen sell helps their bottom line."   

2002 Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston

Posted by Candus Thomson at 10:32 AM | | Comments (4)

July 15, 2011

Five things to do outdoors this weekend

Before the heat returns with a vengence next week to bottle us up inside, take advantage of the fresh air. Here are a few suggestions to get you breathing deeply:

1) Catching a beautiful trout or even a feisty panfish can take your breath away. If you've always wanted to learn how to fish, or just want a refresher course, go to Montgomery County's gorgeous Seneca Creek State Park Saturday and take part in the "Take Me Fishing: A Family Friendly Beginner Course," 9:30 a.m. During the two-hour tutorial, visitors will learn how to cast a line, bait a hook and tie basic knots. A limited supply of fishing rods and hooks will be available. Anglers over 16 must have a freshwater fishing license. Park admission rates apply $2 for Maryland residents; $3 for non-residents. Details: 301-924-2127.

2) There are two fishing derbies for kids this Saturday. The Pasadena Sportfishing Group is holding a contest from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. at Downs Park in Pasadena. The fishing club--Maryland's largest--will be there to offer advice and cheer on contestants. Winners in two age groups will be awarded prizes. More of the fine print can be gotten by calling 410 768-3644. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Port City Bass Anglers are having its seventh annual fishing contest at Bynum Run Park in Bel Air. Junior anglers will compete in two age groups. Registration will begin at 8 a.m. at the park entrance. In addition, the kids will have the option to compete in a casting, flipping and pitching contest. Prizes and trophies will be given, and there will be free food and drinks for all registered participants and their guardians. Details:

3) Join the Oregon Ridge Nature Center staff on its only canoe trip down the upper Gunpowder River on Saturday. No first timers; you must have canoed at least once before. The group will meet at 10 a.m. on location in northern Baltimore County and directions will be provided at registration. Bring your lunch and shoes that can get wet. Children must be 10 years or older and be accompanied by an adult. The cost is $15; $10 for members. To save a spot, call 410-887-1815.

4) The Westminster Astronomy Club will lead a free star-gazing session Saturday at 8 p.m. at Patapsco Valley State Park's Avalon area. Club members will be talking about the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, which peaks the night of July 28 and 29. The club will provide time machines for its presentation. Meet in the field by shelter 105.

5) On Sunday as the temperatures start the creep back into the oven, go tubing on the Big Gunpowder from noon to 3 p.m. with state parks staff. Meet at Monkton Station for a 1.8-mile hike up the TCB Trail. Then float back down to the starting point. Wear sun block, swimsuits or shorts and sturdy shoes that can get wet. Secure your car keys. Tubes and PFDs are provided. Parking is tight at Monkton Station, so arrive early. Participants must be at least 16 years old. The cost is $5 per person. Call 410-592-2897 for more information.

Posted by Candus Thomson at 6:00 AM | | Comments (4)

July 13, 2011

State starts second court for natural resource offenders

The state is expanding its effort to involve judges and prosecutors in natural resources cases, setting up a second program at the district court in Snow Hill.

Last year, Chief Judge Ben Clyburn agreed to a pilot program at the district court in Annapolis that clustered all cases brought by Natural Resources Police on a single day, and Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee assigned a prosecutor versed in the specialized law to handle them.

By everyone's account the test program has been a huge success, prompting Clyburn and NRP Col. George Johnson to look for other sites.

"We wanted to expand on the Eastern Shore because we're having more problems there," said Johnson. "It's what we asked for and what we got."

John Norton III, the administrative judge for the four counties of the lower Eastern Shore, set aside every Friday at 1 p.m. at the Snow Hill courthouse in Worcester County.

"I knew it would work once judges had the opportunity to concentrate on these cases," said Clyburn, an avid angler. "The judges assigned get to see these repeat offenders, get to know what the crimes are. The upper shore is next." 

NRP Capt. Lloyd Ingerson, the lower shore district commander, said he's pleased to have the program and the offer of help prosecuting cases from the State's Attorney's office. The legal expertise may not be needed on routine boating tickets and fishing violations, but it will come in handy in oyster and deer poaching cases, he said.

"You can have a very good officer and a very good case, but you're not an attorney and across the aisle is a professional. Sometimes things don't go your way," Ingerson said.

Ingerson is hoping that judges and prosecutors will incorporate natural resources law in their annual in-service training days.

"Most of them aren't as familiar with our stuff as they are with regular criminal law," he said. "If we can get our foot in the door and tell them why this natural resources law is important and explain the big picture, maybe we'll get better outcomes."

Posted by Candus Thomson at 7:00 AM | | Comments (1)

July 12, 2011

Reward to find goshawk killer grows

The Maryland Ornithological Society has started a reward fund for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who shot and killed a northern groshawk, believed to be part of the state's only breeding pair, and left three chicks to die near Savage River State Forest.

The birders have $800 in hand and MOS official Dave Webb says the amount is expected to increase as clubs send out their newsletters.

The Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Foundation also has offered a $1,000 reward.

Natural Resources Police is still investigating the death of the bird.

Maryland's northern goshawks were driven to extinction in the 1900s by the logging industry's harvesting of Appalachian Plateau forests. In 1991 and 1997, the federal government rejected calls to list the bird on the endangered species list. Many states, including Maryland, responded by placing the goshawk on their own lists.

In North America, the goshawk is federally protected under an amendment to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

In the past decade, three or four pairs returned to breed in Garrett County's dense canopy of maturing forests only to move on, said Dave Brinker, a Department of Natural Resources biologist who has been studying the birds for three decades.

On its endangered species list, DNR notes that they are "critically imperiled in Maryland," with five or fewer birds remaining in the state.

Brinker found the female bird, killed by a shotgun blast, near its nest along with its three orphaned chicks on June 17. 

Adult goshawks are dark gray with white feathers that look like eyebrows and red eyes. They are intense hunters, pursuing large birds, squirrels, rabbits and hares. Attila the Hun wore an image of a northern goshawk on his helmet and the bird of prey adorns the flag of the Azores.

The birds are known for their territoriality, fiercely defending their nests, even attacking people who get too close. But this nest, near the intersection of Westernport and McAndrews Hill roads in Garrett County, was not near a hiking trail and there had been no nuisance complaints filed. The bird was killed outside any legal hunting season.

NRP is asking anyone with information about the crime to call the Poacher Hot Line: 800-635-6124.

Posted by Candus Thomson at 11:15 AM | | Comments (1)

July 11, 2011

Rail trail extension to be discussed

The National Park Service is having two meetings this week as it prepares an environmental report on extending the Western Maryland Rail Trail 15 miles From Pearre Station in Washington County to the Paw Paw tunnel in Allegany County.

On Wednesday night at 6 p.m., officials will take comments on four alternatives at Hancock Town Hall, 126 West High St. The next evening, same time, the meeting will be held at Paw Paw School, 60 Pirate Circle, Paw Paw, W. Va.

The proposal process began late last year and the selection of an alternative is expected by late fall.


The Western Maryland Rail Trail is a popular attraction, used by about 80,000 hikers, bikers and walkers annually. The town of Hancock estimates it generates nearly more than $1.7 million in revenue each year. The extension would be an asphalt surface with 2-foot shoulders.

The alternatives include proposals to bypass tunnels considered vital bat habitat, widening the U.S. 51 bridge for bikes and creating or expanding new parking areas.

A complete description of the options and maps are at the NPS website.

The comment period will end on Aug. 15. An electronic form is at the project website.

Posted by Candus Thomson at 4:33 PM | | Comments (1)

July 8, 2011

Take responsibility for yourself on, in the water

Thirteen boaters have died. Three swimmers have drowned at state public facilities.

That's the 2011 statistical picture of Maryland's summer on the water as of Friday, the start of another weekend. I'm still looking up 2010 swimming numbers, but this year is tied with last year in boating fatalities. And we still have eight weeks to go until Labor Day.

You'd think with the state well on its way to setting new marks for mayhem, folks might wise up. Might pause, reflect and decide to recreate more responsibly.

But you'd be wrong.

"I'm really at a loss," says Natural Resources Police Sgt. Art Windemuth, whose job it is to write up the press releases on water fatalities and speak to reporters. "I don't know how to drive the message home."

"It's definitely the mindset that these tragedies happen to others," says Lt. Col. Chris Bushman, the No. 2 at the Maryland Park Service. "People throw caution to the wind."

For example, Windemuth notes that just a week after stepped-up patrols targeting drunken boaters, officers arrested eight drunken boaters at Kent Narrows. And Thursday evening, a pleasure boat slammed into an Ocean City jetty, injuring two and sinking the boat.

Fourth of July celebrations at Sandy Point State Park turned into unspeakable sadness, when a Baltimore youngster playing on the beach went into the water and drowned.

People have come to expect that lifeguards will sprint to their rescue and patrol boats will swoop in to pluck the unfortunate from the water.

It really doesn't happen that way, at least not often enought that you can bet your life on it.

The Sandy Point accident last weekend is the latest example.

According to accounts, the youngster was playing at about 8 a.m., got into the water, perhaps to retrieve a ball, and disappeared. Attempts to find him in time failed.

Bushman says it's important for people to realize that lifeguards "are the second line of defense. When parents go to a beach with lifeguards, they tend to turn over responsibility to them. Parents and relatives are the first line of defense. We are not in a custodial position with children.

"I don't know that these children did anything thousands of children hadn't done before them," Bushman says. "And yet at any moment fun can turn to tragedy."

Windemuth says people need to prepare a mental checklist of things to do before heading out for the water.

"You need to ask yourself, 'What if?'" he says. "Then ask, 'Do I have the right equipment, am I capable of taking care of myself and the people around me?'"

Bushman says parents and guardians need to watch their children at all times, even if they have to take turns.

"We know how hard that is. Children just slip away and somewhere along the line if they're near the water, they're in the water, whether it's by the bay or the river bank or by a lake," he says.

He continues, "The reason Natural Resources Police and the Maryland Park Service are so persistent about safety is because when someone dies, it feels like a personal loss. The park service is all about providing lifetime memories for people, and we do that for millions of people each year. When we have a tragedy like [Sandy Point], it's so contrary to what we're all about."

Posted by Candus Thomson at 12:30 PM | | Comments (2)

July 7, 2011

Five things to do outdoors this weekend

Is it my imagination or is summer truly screaming by like a NASCAR racer with Kyle Busch at the wheel? By one benchmark--the solstice--we're just three weeks in.

But if you count summer as that 100-day window between Memorial Day and Labor Day, we're closing in on the halfway point.

Jeez, Louise.

So, don't put off the stuff you thought you'd leave for later this summer because later this summer is here and the finish line ain't that far off. Try one of these to get your motor running:

1) On Saturday or Sunday, go tubing down the Little Gunpowder River with the Oregon Ridge Nature Center. Bring lunch and wear clothing and shoes that can get wet. The group will convene riverside at 10 a.m. in northern Baltimore County--directions will be provided. The day ends at about 3. This activity is suitable for ages 8 and up; children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. The cost is $10 ($8 for members) per person. Space is limited, so call 410-887-1815.

2) On Saturday at 10 a.m., learn how slaves hiked to freedom on Montgomery County's Underground Railroad Experience Trail. The free 2-hour walk is led by volunteer "conductors," along a wooded, natural surface trail from Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park to historic Sandy Spring and back, a 2-mile roundtrip. Learn how free blacks and Quakers helped slaves avoid patrols and slave catchers. No registration is needed, but check the recorded message, 301-650-4373, to ensure the hike is going.

3) Combine two fun summer activities in one day: Go fishing from a canoe during a guided paddle at the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center in Harford County. The Saturday adventure on Otter Point Creek runs from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Fishing rods and worms supplied. Suitable for ages 8 and up. Cost: $10 per person. Call 410-612-1688. 

4) No one expects the Spanish Inquisition or getting lost in the woods. But stuff happens. On Saturday at 10 a.m., learn how to make the best of a bad situation at "Survival Skills in the Woods," a program at The Howard County Conservancy. Get the basics about food, shelter and finsing your way out from volunteer naturalist Rich Martin, a graduate of many classes at the Tom Brown Jr. Wilderness, Nature, Tracking and Survival School. If raining, program will be indoors.  The Howard County Conservancy is a non-profit organization based at the 232-acre Mount Pleasant farm on Old Frederick Road (Route 99) between Bethany Lane and Woodstock Road. 

5) Short rock scrambles and stunning views from high above the Potomac River are reasons why a hike of the Billy Goat Trail that runs along the C&O Canal should be on everyone's bucket list. On Sunday, the Sierra Club is leading a jaunt along the 7- to 9-mile trail network. Good shoes and water are a must. Snacks or lunch and a camera are recommended. Depart at 8:30 a.m. from the west lot of the Broken Land Parkway Park and Ride at Route 32. Call Ken Clark, 443-280-4050 or

Posted by Candus Thomson at 7:00 AM |

July 1, 2011

State bear hunt lottery application opens

Even though the season is still about four months away, the Department of Natural Resources today opened the application period for the black bear hunt lottery. Last year the state received 3,850 applications for 260 permits.

DNR will issue the same number this year, the seventh season since a 51-year moratorium was lifted. To-date, hunters have killed 343 bears, with an overall sucess rate of 12 percent.

The 2011 season, limited to Garrett and Allegany counties, will run from Oct. 24-29, with a quota of 55 to 80 bears. The hunt will end when wildlife managers determine the quota has been met.

Lottery applications will be accepted online until 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 2. Phone applications will be accepted at 1-888-579-6768 between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. from Aug. 22 through Aug. 26.

Regardless of method, only one application per person will be accepted; attempts to enter multiple times will result in disqualification and forfeiture of all fees. A $15 nonrefundable fee (credit card, check, or money order) must accompany the application. Anyone who fails to pay by noon on Sept. 5 will be removed from the drawing.

Checks and money orders should be made payable to MDDNR Black Bear and mailed to MDDNR Black Bear, P.O. Box 360, Frostburg 21532.

The lottery will again use the Preference Point System. Hunters who apply this year will receive one entry in the random drawing as well as one additional entry for each past consecutive year they have applied since 2007.

Posted by Candus Thomson at 1:19 PM |
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About Candus Thomson
In a world of paper vs. plastic and candy mint vs. breath mint, my early memories involved a debate about the merits of freshwater vs. saltwater.

On the one hand, a great uncle’s fishing cabin on the Susquehanna River beckoned, but so did family gatherings on the Jersey Shore.

The correct answer, thankfully, was, “both.”

As The Sun’s outdoors writer for more than a decade, I’ve fished across Maryland in one day, hiked the width of the state in one hour, camped overnight in the median of I-95 to experience the wildlife between the fast lanes and chased mountain bikers in a 24-hour marathon race.

Those are some of the highlights. I’ve also fallen in a raging Gunpowder River during a trout survey (photo available upon request), had a shark spill its guts on my clothes and been stuck in a sub-freezing Vermont wilderness with men armed with flintlocks and hatchets, shuffling along on ancient wooden snowshoes.

And, in my travels I’ve met lots of you, who share a love of the outdoors and the good times and mishaps that go along with it.

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