view counter

Articles by Dennis Doyle

Hauling in jimmies cradling sooks

The big crabs were coming fast, furious and two at a time. My buddy, Mike Fiore, was in the bow holding a crab net crammed full of doublers. He was finding so many of the big males cradling females and clinging to the concrete bridge columns just below the water’s surface that he hadn’t time to shake one set out of the net before we were onto the next.
    “This is unbelievable,” he whooped in excitement. “I’ve never seen so many doublers.”
    Nor had I, and the fact that we hadn’t intended to go crabbing that morning made it more all the better.
    We didn’t have a basket on board to store the crabs, so Mike was simply dropping them onto the deck. There was soon scarcely room to move about in the skiff, with crabs two deep and scuttling in search of a return to the water.
    We had that net only because we intended to catch some big white perch. A crab net is the ideal landing device to ensure that a big heavy black back won’t be lost while over the side of the boat.
    The perch outing was a bust. Despite an early arrival, by mid-morning we had virtually nothing to show. The fish were not there, though we worked the likeliest areas with our best spinner baits.
    We exhausted Plan A and went into Plan B areas with no improvement. With a couple of peeler crabs and some bloodworms for a deeper-water Plan C, we headed for a not-too-distant bridge.
    As I eased my skiff up to a piling so that Mike could drop his top-and-bottom rig on the down-current side where we hoped some jumbo perch would be laying up (they weren’t), he blurted out, “Man there’s a couple of really big doublers hanging onto this column.”
    The baited top-and-bottom rig he had prepared never got wet as he laid down his outfit and wielded our perch landing device (the crab net) to bring the big jimmy and its date on board. Shaking them onto the deck, he leaned out and netted a second, then a third.
    “Dang, look, they’re all over the place,” he observed.
    The crabs kept coming.
    A successful angler can adapt to changing conditions. The conditions that day had changed drastically. We went from angling for white perch to harvesting blue crabs.
    I maneuvered our light craft close around each bridge support in turn, and Mike scooped up the doublers. After about an hour of working just a portion of the pilings, we had an astonishing number of crabs crawling the deck.
    Creating a couple of makeshift measuring devices marked at 5½ inches to ensure we didn’t keep any undersized crabs, we culled through the lot. Pitching the females plus all of the males even close to undersized, we still ended up with nearly a bushel of nice jimmies.
    Temporarily holding the keepers in our fish box while culling, we were then faced with another problem. A cooler is a poor place to store crabs as there is no air circulation. We had no other container and were almost an hour from home, so we dumped the keepers back onto the deck and began the run to the boat ramp.
    During the trip back, as I moved my flip-flop clad foot to discourage a big jimmy that was seeking shelter in my shadow, the motion was enough to trigger a typical crab response. It latched onto my big toe.
    With tears of pain and laughter running down my cheek, I held my foot still and the boat up on plane until the beast got bored and released my aching digit. The delicious crab feast we held that night was more than enough payback.

A hard fighter and incom­parable on the table

The previous two fish were a 10- and an 11-incher, but when I cinched this perch it was clearly a more formidable adversary. Boring for deep water in an extended, measured run, the perch then paused and just plain refused to budge. I lifted my rod and tried to pull him toward the surface but found it almost impossible to gain line.
    Having lost a number of big perch trying to out-muscle them, I patiently kept a deep bend in my stick. Eventually the fish began to move, steadily and away. I was at a loss for what to do next.
    The primary goal that morning had been to get some nice white perch for dinner. The secondary goal was to be off the water by 11am, when the August sun would begin to really throw its heat around.
    While I’ll launch my skiff in the wee hours before dawn when the water is at its coolest, I have never been a morning person. Luckily I didn’t have to rise early for these fish. The white perch is one species in the Bay that is almost immune to warm temperatures.
    The whitey is also as sporty as they come, a hard fighter, easy to lose and incomparable on the table, especially when fried. The only possible shortcoming is the perch’s modest size, but that can be remedied by matching the tackle to the fish.

Tackle Tips
    My favorite rods for tangling with these spunky fish, especially in shallow water where they can really show off their stuff, are a pair of light, Loomis five-footers with full-length cork grips and Shimano Sahara 1000 reels spooled with four- to six-pound mono.
    I throw a variety of lures, and each can be superior depending on the circumstances. Spinner baits are, overall, the most productive class of lures. A 1/6-ounce Super Rooster Tail in Clown Coach Dog or Chartreuse Dalmatian are superior for water up to four feet deep and have been the most popular perch lures in the mid-Bay for the last half-dozen years or so.
    A more recent addition, the Capt. Bert’s Perch Pounder in orange and black (Jamie’s Halloween) is fast overtaking the Roosters in terms of fish catching. These baits also work well in deeper water up to six feet and feature a single, fixed, super-sharp Gamagatsu hook that resists bottom fouling and makes de-hooking the fish a great deal easier.  Deeper water lures include the Kastmasters and the P-Line Laser Minnows.
    White perch of all sizes can usually be found in the shallows around rock jetties, piers and docks, fallen shoreline trees, any kind of rip-rapped edges and any deeper underwater structures such as bridge supports, rock piles, oyster reefs or sunken boats. The more remote, hard-to-find or difficult-to-access structures have the best chance of holding larger fish.

Back to the Fish at Hand
    It took some long and anxious minutes before my monster finally began to tire. Early in the battle I was suspicious that the rascal was a rockfish in disguise but its steady, determined runs and thumping head shakes convinced me that it was an old, thick shouldered, black back.
    Netting the beast as it finally emerged from the depths, I was still astonished by its size. Measured from the fork in its tail to the tip of the nose, it registered a solid 13¾ inches, my personal best in 35 years of fishing the Chesapeake. As contrast, it would take a rockfish of more than 36 inches on light tackle to equal the thrill of landing this outsized perch, indeed a trophy.
    Six perch that day easily provided dinner for me and my wife. I filleted the fish (the big one turned out to be a male), then cut each into finger-eating-sized portions. Rolled in panko crumbs, fried to a golden-brown in peanut oil and served with fresh, Eastern Shore sweet corn and sliced tomatoes, it was a meal to remember.

Trotline your way to a pickin’ party

Heading out from the ramp in a late morning sortie for white perch, I encountered a solo crabber’s boat at the edge of the channel. He was pulling in his trotline from the stern and looked up as my skiff approached.
    Seeking info on the crab catch, I gave him the sign language gesture asking how he was doing (arms open and a questioning look on my face). Shaking his head. he indicated problems. I killed my engine and drifted closer.
    “My line got tangled first thing; It took almost an hour to get it cleared. Then the side of my basket broke open,” he indicated with a flip of his head toward the shattered pieces of a wooden bushel in the bow. “The crabs got out and they’re crawling all over the boat. I’m going home.”
    “Bad day then,” I answered.
    “No, a great day,” he replied. “I got almost a bushel already. I’m just tired of them trying to crawl up my legs.”
    I gave him a thumbs-up as I restarted my motor. He flashed a big grin and resumed retrieving his line.

Do It Yourself    
    Finally, a good year for crabbing. After three years of Maryland Department of Natural Resources promising that crab numbers were improving, they are. Bouncing back from the slow recovery of a female population once again driven into near collapse by commercial over-harvest, the recreational crabbing season is proving a good one.
    Recreational crabbers can once again expect to get a family crab dinner with their own hands in a reasonable day’s effort, though DNR continues to add constraints on recreational crabbers: no female harvest, reduced trot line length and delayed starting time (all to favor the commercial sector). There’s no better crab than what you yourself provide.
    Feasting on succulent blue crabs a mere two or three hours out of the water is one of the finest epicurean experiences a Marylander can have. Just about anyone can catch their own, with a minimum of equipment, although a boat of some kind (even a borrowed kayak) is required to get the job done with a trotline.
    The trotline is the best, most effective device for catching crabs in any quantity. Six hundred feet is the current legal maximum for one crabber. If you fix a chicken neck bait every four feet on your line, that’s 125 baits (about 10 pounds of necks).
    Motoring, paddling or quietly pulling yourself down the crab line and netting each crab as it lifts up from the bottom, you can now expect to fill a basket in under a day. Starting early is the key as the crabs will usually stop moving to feed by about 11am and won’t start up again until later in the afternoon. On cloudy days, the bite may stay steady.
    Anchored on either end and marked by identical buoys, the trotline is kept on the bottom by about three feet of galvanized chain on each end. Constantly running the line with a wire-basket net will maximize the catch you will accumulate in the traditional split-wood bushel basket. The current minimum size for a male crab is 5¼ inches.
    Choose a day with a good tide running right from the start, for crabs move with the tidal current, and you need a steadily moving crab population to keep your trot line producing.
    If you’re not catching and the tidal current is moving, try another location. The one you’re at is probably not going to work.
    Area sports stores or crabbing stores offer the most affordable supply of line for crabbing and can fill in the details of just how to set it up, how to tie the slip knot for the chicken necks and the current depth where crabs are being found (right now it’s between six and 10 feet). They’ll also have a ready supply of chicken necks and the proper nets, anchors and floats.
    Crabs inhabit just about every body of water that feeds the Chesapeake. As long as you’ve got a good run of water (i.e., 600 feet) of the proper depth you have an excellent likelihood of catching Mr. (but not Mrs.) Blue Crab.

Plan B might be your score

I lifted my rod tip to strike and felt a solid resistance. The small rod bowed. About 30 feet from the boat, I saw the swirl of a fish breaching just under the surface. Then my drag started to sing. We were in the skinny water just off of a rocky Bay shoreline and throwing Capt. Bert’s Perch Pounders.
    There was either a really big white perch at the end of my line — or a lurking rockfish had fallen victim to my black-and-orange spinner bait. After about 50 yards of line had sizzled off of my small spin reel, I was guessing rockfish. It headed into open water and had my thin six-pound mono stretched tight and singing with tension.
    It was becoming a long run, even for a striper. Since less than half my line remained on the spool, I raised the Power Pole anchor to chase the speedy devil. Starting up the Yamaha, I eased out from shore and followed the fleeing fish. It finally slowed and allowed me to put some line back on my reel.
    Lifting and reeling, I brought the fish nearer until it decided it didn’t like that development and took off running again. Within a few short seconds, my line supply was again reduced. I put the motor back in gear and resumed pursuit.
    That I was enjoying the situation was an understatement. I hadn’t had such a tussle in weeks, and the fact that it was on a light five-foot rod didn’t diminish the experience. Determined not to lose this torpedo, I kept the rod pressure moderate, constant and off to the side.

Fishing Against the Tide
    This had turned out to be a fine day.
    Low tide was to have been at 5am on the charts, so when we splashed the boat at 7:30am we felt the current should be on the point of reversal, if not solidly incoming. However, the water at the Sandy Point boat ramp was just under the finger piers, hardly low-tide conditions.
    Arriving at one of our favorite Bay Bridge supports, we found no current. The water was flat calm, and my finder was blank of any fish marks. In anticipation of the imminent arrival of the current along with Mr. Rockfish, we began to live-line small spot down around the supports
    An hour into our efforts the water was still as dead as the bite, not surprising since rockfish are always reticent to actively feed unless there is current. The Bay, unfortunately, often runs its own tide schedule regardless of the printed versions. This was just another incidence of its fickleness.
    Should we continue live-lining and hope — or resort to Plan B? Having been at the mercy of tideless days on the Chesapeake, we had included in our tackle arsenal a couple of perch rigs, a supply of Bert’s Perch Pounders and some of our favorite Rooster Tails. Thus we voted for Plan B.
    After a quick run to shallow water, our fortunes improved. Thick and hungry white perch were hanging on almost every rocky erosion jetty that came out from the shoreline. They attacked our lures with gratifying vigor regardless of the lack of tidal current. There were a lot of nine-inch fish, but there were also some heavy-shouldered black-backs that passed the ten-inch mark.
    Then along came that Olympic-level rockfish. Eventually, I managed the marathon sprinter into my net. Surprisingly it measured just barely 20 inches; I had assumed it to be larger from the way it had resisted capture.
    Once on ice, it might shrink below the minimum size. I decided this particular fish’s fighting genes should be passed on to as many offspring as it might manage, so I eased it back over the side.
    By 10:30, the sun was getting oppressive, and we had enough big perch on ice to supply dinner for six.

Their lifespan is just too short

My German shorthair pointer, Sophie, passed away this past winter after 13 years of memorable companionship. Her absence is almost as imposing as was her presence. A flicker of movement off to the side still makes me turn my head, expecting her to bound up to my side. Returning home, I can’t help but look for her bright eyes shining in a front window as she somehow anticipates my arrival once again.
    “A dog’s lifespan is too short,” author Agnes Turnbull once said, “their only fault, really.” I’ve had the good fortune to know a number of dogs, and almost every one was so special and their passing so painful that right now I can’t bear the thought of going through it again. Of course, I will eventually weaken.
    The variety of dogs to choose from is more diverse than ever. Hunting dogs, or the sporting dog group according to the American Kennel Club, are my preference for both a pet and a field companion, for we share a similar inclination. This group of dogs includes Labrador and golden retrievers, Brittany and springer spaniels, pointers, setters and similar breeds.
    These animals are also more likely to be well behaved and intelligent as those traits are critical to their purpose in the field. They are easily trained as well, and most quickly acclimate to a family setting, ­especially if introduced while young. They do, however, expect to be exercised and taken afield.
    I also like working dogs, bred to perform tasks such as guarding property and persons, pulling sleds, water rescue and such. The more common breeds are the Rottweiler, the Doberman pinscher, the Siberian husky and the Great Dane. All are generally quite intelligent and purposeful, but all require intense obedience training; some are aggressive and need thorough socializing.
    The herding group is attractive as well in that it includes probably the most intelligent and readily trainable breeds. That includes the border collie, the Belgian Malinois, the German shepherd and Belgian sheepdog, as well the Welsh corgi.
    Herding dogs need plenty of exercise — plus opportunity for herding. Actual herding duties are their greatest joy, but gently gathering, directing and ensuring the safety of a family and its young children is a challenge these animals generally find fulfilling.
    The hound group is bred for hunting of a special type. Afghans, wolfhounds, bloodhounds, coonhounds and beagles, among many others, generally do well in more rural or open settings (and not particularly well in urban environments). Their instincts are to track and pursue other animals, relentlessly. Some of these breeds have a distinctive beauty but are particularly single-minded, and this does not always translate well into proper urban behavior.
    Some breeds in the hound group have the instinct to signal their location by howling or baying, something to consider when deciding to acquire one.
    Then there is the terrier group, breeds that originated for vermin control, hunting and (unfortunately) fighting. Today they are known for their energy, alertness and high ­spirits. Most possess individualistic personalities and require firm obedience training and, especially for the larger types, plenty of exercise.
    The toy group is composed of particularly small dogs, or selectively bred smaller versions of larger breeds (the toy poodle, the pug, the toy terriers and the Chihuahua, among others). They are particularly popular in urban environments. Exclusively intended as pets, some are even referred to as purse dogs. They are more easily cared for than the larger breeds and are known for being long-lived and loving animals.
    Non-sporting dogs comprise the largest, most populous and diverse group, including breeds like French poodle, Dalmatian, shar-pei, chow and the bichon frise, types that have evolved from many different roles to become pets and companions. Most have a singular appearance. Few generalities can be made of them because each is so unique. They do, however, share the same virtues as all dogs: loyalty, mirth, innocence, courage, curiosity and unconditional love.
    Now I’ve got myself thinking.

One is American, the other speaks with a soft Scottish accent

When our expanding family moved from our small house in Annapolis proper to a larger abode in Cape St. Claire on the Broadneck Peninsula, we were greeted by one of the more garrulous and distinctive birds in America, the crow. A large flock of the all-black avians was ensconced in and around the many trees that abounded in our new neighborhood.
    They did not sound like the crows I had grown up with long ago in Pennsylvania. These Broadneck crows seemed to have a different call all together, a low-pitched, nasal caw quite unlike the brash, raspy caw-caw-caw I was accustomed to hearing. It was as if these birds were possessed of a strong but soft Scottish accent.
    I discovered that not only did they sound different from the crows of my youth, the American crow (Corvus branchyrynchos), they were an altogether different species: the fish crow (Corvus ossifragus). Their numbers are significantly less than the American crow, but they are common to the wetlands and river drainages throughout the eastern and southeastern United States.
    Smaller than the American crow but not by much, the fish crow is otherwise a very similar bird. They are all black, quite intelligent and dine omnivorously on anything edible, including crustaceans, fish (living and dead), fruits, small reptiles and mammals and, unfortunately, the nestlings of other birds.
    Those ebony rascals ranged through our Broadneck neighborhood for a number of years — until one spring I heard the additional calls of the American crow echoing around the houses. At first I thought it was a melding of sorts, but after a day or so I realized the truth. A battle for territory was going on.
    The fight — and it was a loud one — lasted for the better part of two weeks. After that the nasal, Scottish accent of the fish crows that we had become accustomed to was replaced with the raucous caw of the American crow. This species then dominated our neighborhood for the next 20 years.
    A few weeks ago, however, I began to hear that Scottish burr once more. Their calls seemed to be everywhere at once as they began flitting through almost every copse of trees in the area.
    I then realized I had not been hearing crows of any kind for some time, years perhaps. Doing a little digging, I discovered that the reason for this absence had been a dire episode for crow populations in general.
    West Nile Virus, first identified in 1937 in Uganda, showed up in the United States in 1999 and within three years was widespread across America. A mosquito-borne infection that hit about 20 percent of humans with flu-like symptoms (and worse), it proved particularly deadly to all species of crows in the Americas.
    Ultimately, the fish crow proved somewhat more resilient (50 percent mortality once exposed to the disease), than the American crow (over 90 percent mortality). The overall crow population across the nation collapsed to about half of its previous abundance. Now that precipitous decline appears to have leveled out if not reversed.
    There is hope and some scientific evidence that both species are increasing in resistance to West Nile, but the change is slow. In the meantime, the territory of the more disease-resistant fish crow is expending due to the relative absence of the once-abundant American species.
    Today, it is once again pleasurable to hear the understated voice of the fish crow echoing about the Tidewater. Though sometime in the future the species may be again challenged for territorial supremacy, I am delighted to be remaking its acquaintance.
    Note: The raven, the largest bird of the genus Corvus, is also seen in Maryland but much less commonly. Ravens are noticeably bigger than both American and fish crows. Many of those around the Chesapeake favor purple and black.


Conservation Note

    The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission made a decision in 2012 to manage Atlantic menhaden as a critical part of the ecosystem rather than a single species and reduced the allowable commercial harvest. The results were an improvement in species population.
    Now, at the first sign of success, the Commission is considering increasing the commercial harvest.
    Communicating your displeasure at this action could reinforce the Commission’s resolve to protect the species: ASMFC, Menhaden Management, 1050 N. Highland St., Suite 200 A-N, Arlington, VA 22201 or BGOLDSBOROUGH@CBF.com. A personal written and mailed comment gets exponentially more consideration than an email.

Fish favor a careful angler

We were drifting soft crab at the Bay Bridge for rockfish when I let my bait get too deep. It fouled on bottom debris. Gritting my teeth in frustration, I maxed my drag, froze my reel spool with my thumb and backed the skiff away. I had lost a number of rigs over past seasons on this particular support, so I assumed that this was just another dues payment.
    I felt my monofilament line stretch as I moved away until it finally broke free, and I reeled my line back. I was surprised to see my hook still attached. Checking its point to ensure it had not been dulled, I rebaited and we set up for another drift.
    When a short time later a good-sized rockfish took my bait, I realized two mistakes I had just made. The first was that I had maxed my drag setting when I snagged my line and had neglected to reset it. The second was that I had ignored the effect of putting so much strain on the line. When that big lunker headed away, the drag held fast. I desperately backed off the adjustment, but my line snapped before the effort could have enough effect. Slumping dejectedly as I retrieved the loose line, I felt like a fool. This was far from my first rodeo, and I had made these mistakes before. Together they spelled disaster.
    As you impart acute strain on a knot, as I did when trying to break off my snagged bait, it continues to tighten, stretching the line and causing it to cut into itself until the knot, or some other weak point in the line, eventually fails.
    Though in this case the knot had not broken and my bait had pulled free, the mono within the knot had already been critically weakened. Coupled with the subsequent stress of a big fish and an extreme drag setting, the knot failed — and a trophy-sized fish easily broke off.
    The lessons, of course, are that when you put high stress on knots, cut them off and retie them — or suffer the consequences. When you mess with your drag, always remember to adjust it back to the original setting.
    The next disaster due to detail happened just a few days later. My favorite hook for bait fishing is made by a quality manufacturer, but with one minor flaw. The shank gap where the hook eye was formed was just a little larger than I would have preferred.
    Early in the season, it made no difference because we were using 30-pound fluorocarbon leaders, more than adequate for our light tackle and thick and tough enough to withstand a questionable hook-eye gap. However, a few weeks later the bite changed. We went from fishing big baits deep with 30-pound leaders to live-lining small perch with sections of 20-pound leader.
    You can guess the rest. During a battle with a particularly large and powerful striper, I experienced a long-range release, inexplicably losing the big devil. When I retrieved my line, I discovered my knot was intact but had slipped through the gap in the hook eye. There’s an old Wall Street saying: To know and not to do is not to know. I had known of the flaw and had done nothing. Willfully, I remained stupid.
    I still use that hook as its other qualities are significant. But ­whenever I get a fresh pack, I anoint the gap on each hook eye with a touch of epoxy. I have not lost a fish to that defect since.
    Retying stressed knots … modifying or eliminating flaws in terminal tackle … always checking for nicks and abrasions in the your line … being sure that the ring inserts on your rod guides, particularly the tip top, are undamaged … continually checking your drag settings: All of these are small habits acquired by experienced anglers.
     The longer you fish, the more little stuff you remember. When that big fish is finally on the line, minor details can make all the difference.

First, catch some small spot

As I flipped my live perch over the side, my son did the same. Hoping that we would not have to wait too long for action, I let the small baitfish swim down and away from the boat. The lines streamed aft and out to port as a light wind pushed our skiff over the calm water.
    Within a few seconds, my line was feeding out unusually fast. I glanced around for orientation to gauge just how fast the tide was moving. My son called, “Dad, your line is crossing over mine,” but when I tried to check its flow, I discovered it wasn’t the current that was pulling out my baitfish. It was something far stronger.
    “I’m getting a run already; something took my bait.” I said, “You’ll have to bring your line in.”
    “I can’t. I have a fish on,” he answered. His rod was bent to the corks, and line was pouring off of his spool.
    Throwing my reel in gear, I came tight to my fish to the same effect, my rod bent down and a strong rockfish headed out and away. I did my best to keep my line from crossing my son’s. For long moments it was a delightfully difficult situation.
    Laughing and dodging around each other as we finally got separation, I had to warn John to push his rod tip deep underwater to keep his line clear of our motor’s lower unit. His fish had turned and managed to angle his line under the hull. I thought about raising the motor in assistance, then decided my hands were full. It was every man for himself.
    The response had turned us optimistic. When we arrived, I had been alarmed to see more than 50 fishing craft clustered in the area. Fortunately, most of the others were trolling or anchored and fishing bait. Neither would interfere with our live-lining tactics.

Tips for Live-lining Success
    A number of details can make big differences in your rate of success. The bait must swim as naturally as possible; ideally no weight should be added to the line. Place the hook no deeper than one-quarter inch just in front of the dorsal.
    To maximize the bait’s freedom of movement, we use loop knots to secure a 6/0 live bait hook to the leader. Using at least 18 inches of no more than a 20-pound fluoro leader helps in the stealth department.
    When fishing open water, make your presentations to marked fish in drift mode to give you a definite advantage. Search until you have found good marks, move up current, then drift down over their location with your motor off. Your electronics will tell you how deep your quarry is and approximately when your bait will drift through them.
    Maintain constant but delicate contact with the baitfish through line tension. Knowing just how the bait is swimming — and lending pressure when it is to your advantage — will trigger strikes. When you feel the baitfish making evasive movements, snubbing it up briefly will make it move more frantically. The stripers are alerted to the bait’s distress and often respond with immediate attacks.
    A long pause, free of all line pressure, is almost always necessary after a rockfish grabs the bait. Unless you’ve got very small perch or spot, it’s difficult to get a hook set until the rockfish has really engulfed the bait. A long five count is the minimum.
    Strike with a firm, measured pull, not a hard strike. Particularly with bigger fish, if it has swallowed the bait, a forceful strike can rip the bait and the hook out of the soft tissue of the fish’s throat. During the fight, keep the pressure moderate for the same reason.
    Do not attempt to horse a fish in the last few feet nor snub a last-minute dash for the bottom. Be patient, set your drag on the light side, let them run and you’ll land ’em all — as we did that day.

When spot are missing, will they bite on white perch?

It was sunny and flat calm on the Bay, and I had made record time to get on site. But the area I had chosen was empty of boats. With such great weather, I assumed that at least a few sports would be working the flat. The schools of good-sized rockfish that had been teeming there were certainly no secret.
    On my fish finder, the water looked as vacant underneath as on top. With a sinking heart, I cruised slowly an irregular pattern in the general direction of previous good fortune. The bottom appeared featureless and empty; my scan of its 20-foot depth ran steady flat.
    I searched for a half-hour before my screen lit up. Netting a small but lively perch out of my bait bucket, I fitted a 6/0 hook just under the skin in front of its dorsal. I wanted that hook to break free with just a bit of a tug so it could easily find purchase in the rockfish’s mouth.
    One of the most frequent causes of losing big fish when live-lining is placing the hook too deep in the baitfish. Deep hooking obscures much of the hook gap, and it makes it more likely that, when the striper takes the fish down, the hook will turn back into the bait’s body and not into the rockfish.
    Motoring up current, well past the marks, I flipped the small perch out away from my skiff and felt it shoot down toward the bottom. I settled my nerves and waited out the drift with my thumb lightly on the reel spool. It was almost mid-day, and though the sun was high, its heat was not oppressive. The day couldn’t have been more pleasant.

What to Feed a Rockfish
    My trip had started out that morning, as it often does, with an unwelcome surprise. The perch I had planned to catch for bait were no longer where I had been finding them. Just a few days past, the area had been choked with schools of the little white devils, many just the right size, no more than five inches. This morning the bottom looked like a desert on my finder; no life anywhere.
    Moving about with my eyes glued to the sonar produced nothing but eyestrain. I gave up and headed for a sizeable creek where I had occasionally caught a few small perch. It appeared, at first, to be just as empty, but by moving about and trying every piece of structure, I finally found a small school of whities.
    It took another hour to get about 10 decent sized scrappers in my aerated bucket. The morning was wearing late when I finally fired up the Yamaha and headed for rockfish water.
    Would my perch baitfish work?
    The last few years, it has been virtually impossible to get rockfish to eat a white perch. If a live-liner didn’t have a supply of small Norfolk spot, it was unlikely a striper would be tempted to bite. Last year, the number of small spot in the Chesapeake dropped. This year, spot of any size seem to be missing. Since rockfish have to eat, I reasoned, perhaps it was finally time for white perch as bait.
    As I drifted over the area where I’d had likely marks, I felt my baitfish making a number of sudden dashes. Then it stopped. My line started up under my thumb in long, erratic bursts. I fed into the action, guarding against a spool overrun while trying to minimize resistance on the line. Giving the situation a long 10-count, I came tight again.
    When I felt solid resistance I struck, and the fight was on. The hiss of a smooth drag is lovely music to an old angler’s ear. It says big fish and means you’d better be extra careful. There are lots of ways to lose a big guy, as I well knew, but only one sure method to land it: patience combined with constant pressure and focus.
    Eventually that fat, healthy 32-inch fish came to the net and into the boat. As I buried it in ice, I marveled at how well things had turned out. My white perch had carried the day and I had more than enough to get another striper to fill my limit. But another fish didn’t really matter. Everything was already fantastic.

 

The concept couldn’t be simpler or the results better

My life as a sportsman has undergone any number of wild, unorganized, swings of interest. Angling-wise, I have immersed myself for long periods of dedication to salt-water fly-fishing, freshwater bass and bluegill fishing, a few years of an offshore blue-water crusade and plenty of surf and inshore wade fishing. Only in the last three years have I become absorbed by bait fishing in the Chesapeake.
    Perhaps it is because I don’t quite have the excess energy so advantageous to wielding the long rod, plugging the shallows with a casting rod or thrashing the oceanside high surf with a big stick and heavy metal. Plus, rising well before dawn to get the jump on big fish in skinny water or staying up past midnight to work an opportune tide no longer have the old attraction.
    Bait fishing, I’ve found, is a more relaxed pastime. The open-water bite, particularly in the Bay, is just as good during the day as the night, so there is no reason to wreck sleep patterns or strain domestic relationships to enjoy a dance with our game fish.
    Its basic concept couldn’t be simpler: decide on a species; determine what they usually eat and present it to them where they are most apt to be found.
    On the Chesapeake, species selection is fairly straightforward. It’s rockfish and white perch for most of the year and croaker and spot during the hotter months. I’ve excluded bluefish, drum and Spanish mackerel because of their mostly tentative presence in the mid- and upper Bay over the last decade.
    Rockfish — striped bass — are the most sought-after species by area anglers and rightly so. A particularly handsome, silvery striped fish with excellent table qualities, rockfish is just selective enough in its eating habits to be a challenge to catch.
    It is also sufficiently numerous to provide fairly frequent limits of two fish to all but the most casual anglers. The fact that it can be encountered in the Bay in sizes from barely two pounds for a legal possession to in excess of 50 pounds adds drama to the pursuit.
    Presenting the freshest cut menhaden, crab or a big lively bloodworm as bait will result, as likely as not, in the relatively prompt attention of any nearby rockfish. Attention to your rod tip is mandatory, as on many days stripers will sip the bait off your hook with nary a twitch to betray it.
    Time your strike properly. Sometimes a quick pull on the rod is necessary, particularly with small, soft baits. Other times, and especially with larger baits, if you don’t give the fish time to get it well into its mouth, your strike will result in nothing but a water haul.
    Another challenging baiting technique is live-lining. Presenting a frisky baitfish such as a four- or five-inch white perch or Norfolk spot near structure where rockfish like to hang out can result in some electrifying moments. A 30-inch striper on a medium-weight spin or casting rod will make any outing memorable.
    White perch are often, and quite mistakenly, overlooked or regarded as undemanding. Nothing could be further from the truth. The smaller sizes of perch are so eager to bite that they can amount to a nuisance, while the larger, those 10 inches and over, can be challenging and should be regarded as a premium catch, especially for the table. They like bloodworms, grass shrimp, crab.
    Norfolk spot and croaker can also be taken on the same baits as perch and are often found in the same areas. They are also frequently in such numbers that it is an ideal fishery for youngsters just starting out.
    The saying All good things come to those who bait is often spoken as angler’s jest. But in my time on the water, I have found it has a solid ring of truth.