On the last day of 1984, in the little harbor of Oxford, Md., the rainsqualls whipped at your face. Canada geese, beating south, were only a shade blacker than the sky. The channel markers were hardly visible. Two of us were alone on the dock, possibly the only people on any dock along the entire Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake. "Crazy, crazy, crazy," said Jim Price. An understatement.
Somehow Jim had managed to wrap himself in two parkas, but no parka ever stitched together could cut the kind of wind chill that we would hit once we had cleared the harbor and started running fast up the Choptank River. But we had to go on.
Under most circumstances, a phone call would have aborted the trip, but not this one. Dec. 31, 1984 was a day destined to go down in angling history, the last on which you could legally take out a fishing rod and try to catch one of America's best-loved sport fish, the striped bass, in its undisputed home, which is Chesapeake Bay.
The frighteningly acute threat to the striper as a species is well documented (SI, April 23, 1984), as is the deterioration of its spawning streams in the Chesapeake. Some of the gloomier commercial fishermen expected a quota system for 1985 so tough as to restrict the catch to 55% of 1984's level. What they got from Dr. Torrey C. Brown, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, however, was worse: a total and crushing moratorium, for an undefined period, on all fishing for striped bass from Jan. 1, 1985 on.
Of course, that ban included sport fishing. And though the whole subject was a serious one for a great many people, into this angler's mind had sprung, unbidden, the thought of a unique record in reverse, a kind of sporting last. Might there not be some sad satisfaction in catching the last-ever striper before the ban came in—as late as possible, that is to say, on New Year's Eve?
However, this was not likely to prove easy. To start with, there aren't that many stripers (called rockfish in the Chesapeake area) around, except for mostly small fish up to a couple of pounds, the progeny of 1978 and 1982 spawnings, which were practically the only even moderately successful ones of the last decade. Also, in the depths of winter, stripers are not very accessible to rod fishing. Their metabolism slows down in the cold water, which curtails their need for food. Instead, winter becomes a picnic for commercial fishermen because the bass, shoaled up tight together, not moving much, are easy prey for the nets. Thus, most recreational anglers along the Eastern Shore have put their rods away by October's end.
But not Jim Price, who (and that was about all I knew of him at this point) fished stripers year-round, mostly in the Choptank River. Jim was for the last-fish idea, he said when I got in touch with him, but he felt we should head out once or twice earlier in December to locate the best fishing spots.
When we made our first trip, though, what we hit was that remarkable shirtsleeves weather, up in the 70s, which marks early winter on the Eastern Seaboard. The stripers didn't know how to react, and neither did we. During that first trip in Jim's 20-foot center-console boat, we worked the arches and pilings of the bridge at Cambridge and every oyster bar along the shores of the Choptank River.
On our first day together I found Price a somewhat dour man who talked little, concentrating hard instead on the fish finder. When a few blips showed up on it, we worked over the fish with jigs and covered them, but, winter somnolent or sunstruck, they wouldn't move, though we kept trying until dark. "It would be something just to see one," I said.
"You want to see some," Jim said, "just head up to Choptank village on Monday. My brother Bill should have some in the stake nets then. We're starting to tag the fish now. Should have maybe 2,000 tagged by the New Year."