Living

He's a rock for river's rockfish

Chuck Laughridge steered his jet-powered, flat-bottom aluminum boat up against the Roanoke River's current like a man who knows every rock in the river.

He navigated around boulders above the surface and many just beneath.

Among those rocks beneath the surface were rockfish. He didn't need his fishfinder to tell him so. The fish are there because 10 years ago the state enacted a rule that has saved thousands and thousands of striped bass, also known as stripers and rockfish.

Laughridge, 53, and the Roanoke Valley Striped Bass Coalition helped shape public opinion for the rule change. The coalition also joined forces with others in opposing a proposed paper mill in Weldon by Wisconsin Tissue in the late 1990s. Those plans were abandoned after the company merged with another.

Now is that time of the year when Laughridge is rewarded for his stewardship, when the rockfish make their spring journey up the river as they did before their decline. And though he moved away in August, this is the time of the year he visits more often for an inland rendezvous with the fish from the Atlantic Ocean.

Like his fellow anglers, he follows the hook rule, which requires that anglers use barbless hooks on the Roanoke during the striper run, when, on some days, it's nothing for an angler to catch up to 100 fish. Because only two fish can be kept per angler per day and the rest must be thrown back, the rule ensures that thousands of released fish have a better chance of survival. Barbed hooks generally are much harder to remove, causing more tissue damage than barbless hooks.

"We had to do something," said Laughridge, a part owner of the popular fishing Web site North Carolina Waterman at www.ncwaterman.com.

By the mid-1990s, only remnants of the bass runs of years past showed. This was the result of a combination of factors, including pollution and released fish not surviving.

"Chuck's main goal has always been to the well-being and sustainability of the Roanoke River striped bass stock," Pete Kornegay, regional fisheries supervisor for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's Coastal Region, said in a telephone interview.

When the stocks of smaller rockfish - crucial to the fishery's future - stopped showing up, Laughridge was alarmed.

"The rockfishing had just about hit rock bottom," Laughridge said.

Laughridge and Billy Green started the Roanoke Valley Striped Bass Coalition and drummed up awareness about the river and its fishery. They took politicians and journalists out on the river, exposing as many people as they could to the resource and building a database of supporters from inside North Carolina and out.

"Fisheries issues are always political and always economical," Laughridge said. "We knew if we got people to care about these fish, it would be difficult for politicians to ignore it."

"All of the sudden, when you see the other side, it's kind of a come to Jesus," friend Tom Merritt said over a dinner of fried rockfish the night before. "I want this for my grandchildren."

Merritt remembered when the river was full of goo from the paper mills along the river. He and Laughridge give more credit for the river's cleanup to the federal Clean Water Act, but local fishing guide Jack Eudy said they're just being modest.

"Chuck is a good conservationist," Eudy said. "Now, you can take that a lot of ways. I don't consider Chuck an environmentalist because I'm not an environmentalist. We're not tree-huggers. We have the fish and wildlife at heart. And Chuck and a lot of other good people have fought hard for this river."

"Chuck has fought dirty industry on this river," Eudy said. "Chuck's been a leader on conservation issues."

Laughridge has no regrets about attracting people from far and wide, now that those voices have helped to bring the fishery back to normal.

"We've caught a lot of heat for bringing all these people to the river," he said.

The river gets choked with the rockfish in the spring like it did before its demise. Weldon has claimed the title "Rockfish Capital of the World." The line to the boat ramp backs up for miles on some weekends, a mixed blessing.

But those people care about the Roanoke, and that was what Laughridge hoped for.

Laughridge and his wife, Michelle, moved to Harker's Island last summer, but he still does business in the Roanoke Rapids area, his home for 18 years. He's around town three times a week - even four or five times a week during the fishing season.

On a recent day, early in the rockfish run, he trailed his boat toward the Roanoke to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

"I'm still pretty much close to a local up there anyway," Laughridge said, laughing.

Everywhere he goes, he runs into people he knows.

The night before, he dined at the home of Tom and Betsey Merritt. He usually stays with the Merritts when he's in town. The friends ate the day's catch_strips of fried rockfish along with slaw, fries and hushpuppies.

In the morning, at Roanoke River Outfitters, Laughridge chatted with a friend in the parking lot and then headed inside and talked with employees of the bait shop.

On the river, he made for the Interstate 95 bridge. Ray Massengill of Down East Charters, in his own boat, attracted Laughridge's attention by holding up a stray flounder that was just caught.

"I've got to see this," said Laughridge, as stunned as anyone might be to see a flounder caught roughly 140 miles up the river.

"They follow me around," Massengill said, laughing. He usually guides along the coast.

Laughridge set course through the area he calls the "fall line," where the Roanoke River changes from the flat coastal plains habitat to that of the more-rolling piedmont, where the river rises in elevation past weather-worn boulders. But the fish weren't biting.

A mile down river, past dozens of anglers with mildly better luck, he pulled beside guide Jack Eudy.

Eudy had tied his boat to a downed tree extending out into the river, putting the day's clients, the father-and-son duo of Paul Neil Jr. of Winston-Salem and Paul Neil III of Charlotte, in position to intercept migrating stripers.

They caught them with just enough frequency to stay interested with playful banter, sometimes sprinkled with Eudy's salty words. That's what happens to anglers spoiled on the knowledge of how good the bite can be.

The poor bite was more the temporary workings of a cooler-than-normal spring and only hours before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had more than doubled the amount of water released at the Gaston Lake dam just upstream, scattering the fish.

But if the fishery ever takes another long-term nose dive, Laughridge will be ready.

Now that the stripers have recovered, the coalition has disbanded. Laughridge has held on to the database of names and numbers of those who care about the river and its fish. They would be quick to raise their voices if need be.

"All I'd have to do is send out an e-mail," he said.

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