Back in 1943, Stanley Chatham of Montross pulled croakers out of the Potomac weighing close to six pounds. He was thirteen at the time, and when he wasn’t fishing for sport, he was most likely helping his dad and three uncles harvest oysters. The Lower Machodoc became a bobbing parking lot between mid-September and Christmas, when the men of Tangier and Smith Islands crossed the Bay and parked their boats at Branson Cove, “so thick you could almost walk across the river bow to bow,” he said.
Dredging was a way of life to area oystermen then. Though it was illegal, the ban was not enforced with any vigor. Marine inspectors were sympathetic to the needs of the local economy and baffled by the need to restrict harvesting on an apparently abundant and delectable creature.
A decade later, the bivalves began to disappear from traditional harvesting areas, and their scarcity compelled Maryland watermen (whose state owns the Potomac to the mean low water mark) to push for tighter regulations on the shellfish. But dredging continued, and men began working in the dark—culling oysters by spotlight and simply cutting their net lines if they were caught. “It was almost impossible to get any evidence on them,” said Chatham, who later became an inspector for Virginia’s Marine Resources Commission.
When a prominent landowner from the Colonial Beach area was shot on his fishing boat by a Maryland inspector in broad daylight for alleged illegal dredging, the uproar created such tension among the fishing community, that the two states came together to renew their Potomac River fishing compact and reestablish licensing regulations and limits. That compact of 1958 still determines harvesting seasons and limits on the oyster, as well as all other shellfish and finfish in the main stem of the river between the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the Chesapeake Bay. The compact is perhaps the oldest, most tangible example of what’s called among environmentalists today a “fish management plan.”
Fish management is a relatively young science, spawned by the precipitous decline of oysters and other popular sport and commercial species throughout the bay. Those involved in management issues are trying to get a handle on current fish stocks and general distribution before we go too far and over-harvest another species right out of existence.
In Virginia, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and the Marine Resources Commission (VMRC)—using research performed by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science—conduct fieldwork. Biologists work on the tidal rivers throughout the year to collect data and develop a better feel for what’s going on underwater.
The science behind the fieldwork and the questions being raised are difficult: just how many fish of a given species are out there, and where do they generally spend their time? What causes fluctuations in their numbers from year to year? What is their geographic range of movement over the seasons?
And which fish should be classified as indicator species (or “canaries” of the rivers)—those that are more sensitive to changes in habitat or water quality?
The answers to these questions (and sometimes they are long-studied speculations) form the basis for fish-management plans. In addition to the oyster, plans have been written for the blue crab, the American eel, the striped bass, and many others. The striped bass, incidentally, is currently considered a recovered species, thanks to rigid enforcement of a moratorium on its catch throughout Bay waters.
Whether you’re an avid, every-Saturday-morning kind of fishing aficionado, or an occasional visitor to area waters, the range of fish species within just a few hours of home is a tantalizing distraction. Indeed, when it comes to fin-fish, the rivers of the Northern Neck exhibit a healthy mix of species that comprise what biologists like to call a “typical” fish community. While good water quality surely accounts for this bounty, it is the absence of manmade dams on the region’s rivers that assures fish movement and species survival. The absence of dams is especially important to the migrating fish, of course, who live most of the year at sea but move upriver during spring into tidal freshwater to spawn. That’s not to say the fish go completely unchallenged. They sometimes have to contend with pretty sophisticated beaver dams.
Most resident species—the catfish, the largemouth bass, the perch, for example—are faring well. When fishing directly on the Bay, off Windmill Point or at the mouth of the Potomac, expect to cast your line into saltwater treasures like bluefish, summer flounder, and red drum.
Like other communities of fish or plants, distribution is greatly influenced by water salinity. Environmental factors, physical conditions, and life histories play a part, too. In fact, it’s a very complex system working out there, and the only absolute about the “geography of fish” is: there are no absolutes!
For instance, the arrival of the migrating (anadromous) fish in a particular stretch of river can vary by several weeks each year, according to weather conditions. It is usually in late March or early April—right about the time that the shad-bush tree comes into bloom—that these mysterious fish show up in freshwater reaches, causing itchy feet among devoted anglers. The blossoms on the tree signal that the soil and the riverbed are warm enough for their annual migration.
The female American shad and her close cousin, the hickory shad, are prized not only for their flesh but, during the spring spawning run, also for their delicious eggs, or “roe,” a popular side dish with eggs at breakfast. When they’re running, head for the upland creeks. You’re likely to meet a few of your neighbors standing at the bridges or wading in shallow creeks, marveling at the sheer numbers.
One final note: Spring migration is a magical time to introduce kids to fishing and to instill awareness of the natural cycles of life in the Bay. And by combining a fishing lesson with a few ecology messages, you can do much to plant seeds of environmental awareness and respect for other life forms.
Watching O’er the Potomac
The Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) is a bi-state agency that was established in 1963 to oversee the compact between Maryland and Virginia outlining fishing rights and regulations on the Potomac River. As the chief licensing authority for recreational and commercial fishing on the river’s main stem, the commission closely monitors the status of fish moving up and down the Potomac. It relies on information gathered from area watermen, who report their success after each fishing season. Enforcement of fishing regulations is handled by each state. In Virginia, by the VMRC and VDGIF.
When out on the Potomac, license requirements change according to the specific stretch of river you’re in. Day markers have been placed at the mouths of all rivers, creeks, and bays feeding into the Potomac to help you determine where you are. Basically, all rivers on the Virginia shore require a Virginia license. Those on the Maryland shore, require a Maryland license. Those above the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a DC license. Fishing on the main stem requires a PRFC license.
So What’s the Big Deal About Menhaden?
If you’re new around here, you’ll quickly discover that this little member of the herring family once made Reedville the richest town in the country. Today, the fish is still “rounded up” into huge purse nets and literally vacuumed onto awaiting vessels and taken to port. The fish are processed into just about everything. After steaming, oils are separated from the body, skimmed off, and sold for use in a number of products, including paints and cosmetics. The remaining body parts, called “chum,” are primarily used as a supplement in animal feed.