Thursday, February 07, 2013

Bill Cochran's Outdoors: The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season

Cary Wolfe with his 74-pound state record striped bass.

Virginia Saltwater Fising Tournament

Cary Wolfe with his 74-pound state record striped bass.

Bill Cochran Bill Cochran is a Roanoke Times outdoors columnist.


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Saltwater anglers who fish for striped bass, speckled trout, white marlin and red drum, had a great, sometimes spectacular, season in 2012.

The same can’t be said of anglers who pursued spot, gray trout, spadefish and croaker. It was a dismal year for catching trophy-size fish of these species.

The ups and downs of saltwater fishing last season are etched in the results of the 2012 Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, a state-sponsored contest which has been around since 1958. It is the best available indicator of coastal fishing trends.

First, let’s look at the contest totals. Anglers registered 6,071 citation catches last season. It was only the eighth time in the 55-year history of the event that the 6,000 mark was surpassed. The total was 895 more than the previous season.

State-record catches were registered for striped bass, swordfish, tautog and wahoo.

Striped bass dominated the contest, with 1,331 citations, or 22 percent of the total, according to Lewis Gillingham, tournament director. That was the second highest number in the history of the contest.

Included in the count was a 74-pound state record landed Jan. 20 by Cary Wolfe of Bristow. He was aboard the Bada Bing off Cape Henry with an estimated 100 boats around him trolling, casting, baiting and jigging for big stripers. Wolfe was fishing a parachute rig.

Any striper over 50 pounds is a catch of a lifetime; a 60-pounder sets you apart. You get an indication of how good the fishing was by the fact that 170 of the catch-and-keep citations were for stripers 50 pounds or more. Eleven weighed 60 pounds or more. Other big fish were among the 425 (32 percent) that were released.

Mild weather in January and February last year benefit anglers who were fishing for stripers along the ocean front. There also was mild weather at the other end of the season, late November, where the action centered on the Chesapeake Bay. In comparison, this year’s ocean-front fishing has been a bit disappointing.

The runner-up to stripers in the citation tally were speckled trout, with a 1,279 total, the best ever for the tournament. Gillingham noted that speckled trout fishing is a year-round affair in Virginia, with every month producing citations last year.

Although trout are one of the better species for table fare, 61 percent of the citations were for releases. Of the catch and keep citations, 10 topped 10 pounds. The leader was a 14-pound, 1-ounce catch by Michael Whittaker of Chesapeake. Like many of the jumbo-size trout, this one came from the Elizabeth River.

It was another spectacular year for white marlin, with 1,179 releases, second only to the 1,253 in 2010. Gillingham noted that the first citation came on June 9 and the last December 1.

Red drum ranked fourth in the tournament, with 772 citations, the second highest ever.  Only release citations are offered for this species, which offers a lengthy fishing opportunity. The first citation was registered off Ocean View Pier on March 19 and the last on the bayside of Eastern Shore, Nov. 19, Gillingham reported.

There were other tournament highpoints. The 54 gray triggerfish citations were the highest ever. The 81 sailfish and the 289 blueline tilefish were the second highest for the tournament. The 119 blue marlin releases was the fourth highest.

Now for the down side.

Several popular species failed to account for a single citation. There were no spot citations for the first time in nearly 20 years; no gray trout citations; no spadefish citations; only five croaker citations. This hurt the pier and party boat anglers who go after these species.

Gillingham offered a ray of hope. Gray trout have been down since 2007, but last year the number of 2- to 4-pound fish increased. There was a time you could count on gray trout bailing you out when other fish weren’t biting.

While large spadefish were scarce, anglers found good numbers of fish 5-pound and under.

Here are the tournament results:

* Amberjack: 54 release citations

* Black Drum: best fish 86 pounds, caught by Matthew Hamay, Gloucester, off Fisherman’s Island, 33 citations.

* Blue Marlin: 119 release citations

* Bluefish: 19 pounds, 8 ounces, Wilfredo Sermonia, Suffolk, Norfolk Canyon, 18 citations.

* Blueline Tilefish: 19 pounds, 8 ounces, Rickie Atkins, Ashburn, Norfolk Canyon, 289 citations

* Cobia: 97 pounds, Capt. Josh Jordan, Poquoson, Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, 131 citations

* Crevalle Jack: three release citation

* Croaker: 3 pounds, 5 ounces, David Freeman, Poquoson, lower York River, five citations.

* Dolphin: 43 pounds, Bob Swope, Charles City, Norfolk Canyon, 29 citations

* False Albacore, four release citations

* Flounder: 13 pounds, 2 ounces, William Lee, Erwin, N.C., Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, 99 citations

* Gray Triggerfish: 5 pounds, 14 ounces, Ira Hudson, Chincoteague, Chincoteague, 54 citations

* Gray trout: no citations

* King mackerel: 48 pounds, 8 ounces, Ken Neill, Seaford, along Virginia Beach, 22 citations

* Kingfish: 1 pound, 12 ounces, Brenda Fields, Machipongo, Hungar’s Creek, seven citations

* Pompano: 1 pounds, 13 ounces, Thomas Riley, Virginia Beach, Virginia Beach surf, one citation

* Red Drum: 772 release citations

* Sailfish: 81 release citations

* Sea Bass: 6 pounds, 12 ounces, Johnnie Parlow, Dewitt, Norfolk Canyon, 22 citations

* Shark: 53 release citations

* Sheepshead: 14 pounds, 8 ounces, Jason Perry, Port Haywood, Cut Channel, Buoy 39-47, 123 citations

* Spadefish: no citations

* Spanish mackerel, 6 pounds, 12 ounces, Brandy Edwards, Reedville, Northern Neck artificial reef, three citations

* Spearfish: seven release citation

* Speckled Trout: 14 pounds, 1 ounce, Michael Whittaker, Chesapeake, Elizabeth River, 1279 citations

* Spot: no citations

* Striped Bass: 74 pounds (state record), Cary Wolfe, Bristow, off Virginia Beach, 1,050 citations

* Swordfish: 446 pounds (state record), Joseph Harris, Virginia Beach, Norfolk Canyon, six citations

* Tarpon: 10 release citation

* Tautog: 24 pounds, 3 ounces (state record), Ken Neill, III, Seaford, Morgan Wreck, 97 citations

* Tuna (bluefin): 321 pounds, Jay Barefoot, Hampton, off Sanbridge, 152 citations

* Tuna (other than bluefin): 253 pounds, 6 ounces, John Cullison, Lexington Park, Md., Washington Canyon, 18 citations

* Wahoo: 122 pounds, 1 ounce (state record), Susan Nelson, Whiteford, Md., off Wachapreague, 73 citations

* White Marline: 1,179 release citations

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