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Where have all the big fish gone?
Topic Started: May 2 2018, 08:01 AM (12 Views)
Ghost Comanche
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Where have all the big fish gone?
by Bill Cochran at Roanoke Times | May 1, 2018

Posted Image
Trophy striped bass this size, caught by Dr. Ken Neill III, are coming up
short in Virginia saltwater. Photo courtesy of Ken Neill

Last year was a challenging one for Virginia saltwater fishermen looking for wall-hanging size fish. Don’t expect 2018 to offer much improvement.

The number of citation-size fish worthy of recognition in the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament was 2,903 last year. Just four years ago it was 6,187.

Where have all the big fish gone?

Here’s a look at several popular species, along with some personal observations and expert input from Lewis Gillingham, director of the state-sponsored tournament:

Striped bass:
Trophy catches of this prized fish have been in sharp decline since 2012, when 1,331 citations were registered. Last year that number dropped to 200. To earn citation status in the tournament a striper must weigh 40 or more pounds or measure 44 or more inches.

There is nothing in the radar to suggest this year will be any better than last. In fact, 2018 is off to a dismal start. The once lucrative January and February coastal fishery along the oceanfront of the Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach was a no-show. Not a single citation-size striper was entered in the tournament. Schools of migrating fish appeared to stay offshore in water not open to sport fishermen.

Most of the 2017 stripers were caught in the Chesapeake Bay during a brief period beginning the second week of December, when fishermen had a legitimate shot at landing a fish of a lifetime. Stacy Moose, of Manteo, North Carolina, did just that, bringing to the scales a fish that weighed 64-pounds, 10-ounces. It was caught off of Cape Charles.

Some fishermen say there are good numbers of school-size fish coming on to replace the big ones, but I haven’t seen many.

Red drum: This species is a bright spot in the declining saltwater fishery. Some 864 release citations were awarded last season, the third most on record. For several years, red drum have produced more citations than any other species, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. In 2013 the count was 994; in 2014, 928; in 2015, 690 and in 2016, 819. A red drum must measure 46 inches to earn a release citation.

Speckled trout:
This colorful, good-eating, hard-fighting species hit an amazing high of 1,881 citations in 2013, but had plunged to 55 by 2016. Much of the decline is blamed on cold-weather kills.

Last year’s total of 221 citations signaled the start of a comeback. In the fall, some fishermen were calling fishing for specks 16 to 22 inches “the best ever.”

“Things really seemed bright heading into 2018 — until we had five days in a row of extremely cold weather in early January,” said Gillingham.

That brought reports and pictures of dead trout, but Gillingham doesn’t believe the 2018 winter kill was as severe as that of 2015, when the Elizabeth River was stacked with dead fish. There could be decent numbers of small trout this year. As for citations, the minimum weight is 5 pound; the minimum length 24 inches.

Flounder: Fishing for this pancake-shaped, good-eating species has been lackluster for several years, with little likelihood it will be any different this season. Forty-eight citations were registered in 2017. Most anglers are happy just to catch flounder that meet the newly reduced 16 1/2-inch minimum length requirement. To earn a citation, a flounder must weigh 6-pounds or more and measure a minimum of 26 inches.

This middleweight champion of the saltwater fishing world has become highly popular with anglers, to the point that heavy restrictions have been placed on it to guard against overfishing. Cobia fishing should be rewarding this season, but many of the fish will be under the 40-inch minimum size. If given the opportunity to mature, these fish soon will reach citation size.

Last season, 217 cobia earned citation status, which is about average for recent years, but down from the 401 of 2016. A cobia must weigh 55 or more pounds or measure 50 or more inches to be recognized as a citation.

Marlin: White marlin fishing has been on a boom since 2009, but it dropped off last season, when the citation count settled on 466. That still was the second highest number of any species next to red drum. Some boats reported catching 20-or more marlin during an offshore outing.

Charter boat captains credit a portion of the decline to an excellent run of tuna, which drew boats away from marlin fishing. A very active year for tropical storms also was a deterrent.

Gillingham predicts the 2018 season will equal the 10-year average. Last season produced 75 blue marlin citation releases.

Spot/Croaker: These two species are the delight of the pier and party boat crowd, along with the guy in a 12-foot skiff, but there has been an absence of citations. No croaker citations were entered last season, and only three spot.

While trophy fish are missing, average-size spot and croaker were on the rise last year and there is little reason to think there won’t be more and larger fish this season. To reach citation status, a croaker must weigh a minimum of 3 pounds and more a minimum of 20 inches. For spot, the length is 13 inches; the weight 1 pound.

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