view counter

Articles by Dennis Doyle

How to find hot wintertime fishing

A big El Nino winter is expected, possibly moderating Maryland temperatures. That’s good news for anglers wanting to get in a few extra rockfishing trips, as the season remains open until December 15 on the Bay and year-round oceanside.
    Despite El Nino’s predicted warming effect, however, planning any fishing trip this time of year means getting good information on weather conditions. A 10-day forecast is a good place to start.
    I refer first to the temperatures and, because I have a small skiff open to the elements, eliminate any day predicted to be under 50 degrees, especially as damp, salty air always seems to be extra cold. Even if you have a 30-footer with a heated cabin you will be forced out into the open when the action starts.
    Next, look to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Forecast for guidance on wind speed, direction, precipitation and sea conditions. The first two days of the forecast are generally on target. The third day can be fairly accurate; thereafter, refresh your data as your target date gets closer. Expect significant change.
    On the Bay, winds above 10mph are not recommended for open boats. The seas push higher, and the resultant wind chill can make things very uncomfortable, even dangerous.
    Wind direction is also important, especially if it is from the northwest or southeast. Those directions mean the wind is coming the full length of the Bay, and that has an amplifying effect on wave height.
    For real-time local conditions, look to the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System at Constant reports originate at 10 Bay locations. The rule I follow is that if any two weather sources are in conflict, expect the harsher version to be the more accurate.
    If you’re a shore-bound angler, dress warmly, have extra clothing handy and carry a hot beverage. Temperatures should be above freezing; otherwise your line will ice up in the rod guides.
    Fishing the colder months also means the fish will react differently to bait or artificial lures. Expect very hesitant, almost imperceptible bites. If you’re working lures, do it slowly and methodically; when you feel a bump, react deliberately, staying poised to drop back to give the fish another chance if you feel no resistance.
    Bait anglers will have to watch their rod tips like hawks and will still find their baits stolen. Adding scent such as menhaden and shedder-crab oil to your baits can pay extra rewards this time of year. Jumbo bloodworms are worth the extra cost. Rockfish metabolisms have slowed with the declining temperatures, so they will not eat as often or as much as during warmer months. Persistence and patience are critical to success.
    There can be excellent big-striper action in winter around Ocean City (minimum size 28 inches, limit one fish). The inlet, particularly, is a haven for big fish that can be jigged up or caught on live bait. The surf fishing can also be excellent, and fly and light-tackle anglers working parallel to the shoreline, just behind the break, have hooked up with some giants.

Fine dog work, great company and challenging birds make for a ­memorable hunt

A double layer of warm technical clothing, heavy brush chaps and a stout hunting coat were barely holding the elements at bay.
    Out front a wild pheasant had just broken from cover, speeding low over dense treetops and right at me. Backlit by the sun, I couldn’t tell if it was a rooster or a protected hen, so I held my fire, waiting for the bird to display its colors. Fingering the safety, I tried to warn my partner of its approach but doubted that he heard me over the roar of the wind across the thrashing prairie grasses.
    I was standing at the end of a South Dakota shelter belt, a quarter-mile line of closely planted trees outside an inner row of thicker evergreens, bordered by smaller bushes and then more evergreens. It was the only cover that could withstand the relentless gale ripping since dawn across the flat agrarian Huron County countryside.
    The belt offered weather protection to the farmhouse and barns some 200 yards distant. As the trees also bordered an enormous harvested cornfield, it also offered ring-neck pheasants an ideal laying up spot on a 30-degree morning.
    Gusting at 50 mph, the wind was at my back and I had to guard against being pushed off balance. Off to my right about 25 yards distant stood my partner, the ramrod of the hunt, Tom Schneider. We were blocking at the far end of a drive that hoped to break some wild, tough Dakota ring-necks out of cover and into range.
    The rest of our party from the Maryland-Virginia area — Jim Zimmerman, Kevin Klasing, Mike Wilkerson and Steve Roth — were pushing from the other end of the shelter belt behind their trained springer and cocker spaniels, in a hammer and anvil movement.
    Then the bird out front lifted from the trees, turned, opened its wings and caught the wind. Its long, graceful tail and iridescent green head — set off by a brilliant white collar — announced that it was a rooster. I threw my gun to my shoulder. The bird’s air speed was boosted by the gale, blowing from a leisurely 30 mph to about 70 in an instant. I fired twice but never came close as the bird zoomed toward the horizon.
    Stuffing two more shells into my gun’s magazine, I peered under the trees and saw a half dozen more roosters running toward us in front of the spaniels. As they neared, pandemonium broke out. Birds were flushing everywhere through the trees and into the wind. Shooting and reloading, then shooting again was as exciting as it gets hunting ring-neck pheasants in South Dakota.
    Wind-burned and exhausted, we all agreed it was one of the best hunts we’d ever had. We seldom came close to downing the legal limit on most days, but we had shared the finest aspects of the wingshooting sport: fine dog work, great company and challenging birds.

The one that got away

Perhaps at birth I got an extra dose of the hunter-gatherer gene. Maybe it was early exposure to a rural life with family and friends who thought fishing a desirable skill. Whatever the reason, I have a strong affection (perhaps compulsion) for the sport.
    As a result, I will be troubled, sometimes relentlessly, if I’ve experienced angling failure.
    Such is the case after a misadventure three long months ago, affected nothing of any significance and involved no witnesses other than myself, but it lingers in my subconscious, haunting me.
    I was fishing off Podickery Point on a sultry summer day under ideal conditions: calm water, still winds and a nicely moving tide. Chumming is not my first choice of angling, though I find it pleasurable and relaxing to cede success to the whims and appetites of the fish.
    The rockfish action had been good at that location. I expected no less that day, despite an occasional plague of marauding cow-nosed rays. If they showed up in any numbers, hooking and releasing these powerful but undesirable creatures would be a nuisance.
    There was no sign of rays, but the rockfish bite turned out slow. After three hours, I had only one fish in the box to show for my efforts. At 26 inches, it was a nice fish but not all that I was seeking. Refreshing the baits every 20 minutes on my four-rod setup, I decided to make a change.
    I replaced one of the baits, cut menhaden, with the biggest of the heads I had removed from the baitfish. The head is not usually good bait, being hard, large and offering little meat. But sometimes big stripers prefer these baits.
    Nothing much happened for almost a quarter of an hour. Then the outfit baited with the head began to sound off with the chatter that announces a slow and determined run. After a fair pause, I slipped the Abu reel in gear and set the hook.
    The result was a solid resistance; no run, no headshake, just firm resistance. Then the fish moved off steadily, as if hardly concerned. I tightened up the drag and leaned into it, bending the medium-heavy powered rod down to the corks and straining the 20-pound mono until it started to hum.
    That only caused the critter to hasten its down-current run. After some 50 yards, it turned and headed back and off to one side. I’d had visions of a real giant on my line; now I experienced a sudden doubt and disappointment, recalling similar encounters before — with big rays.
    Yes, it had to be a ray. Then it made a run like a ray move, virtually cementing my conclusion. Some 100 feet off the starboard side, a wingtip, I thought, broke the surface, followed by a heavy splash and a renewed run against my stiff drag.
    I tried to horse the thing toward the boat, but to no avail. The fight was nearing 20 minutes before I regained any amount of line. Heaving and reeling, I brought it ever closer. Then, as it approached, the devil crossed behind the boat, tangling with two of my three lines remaining in the water.
    Disgusted, I snubbed the run, dropped the rod down beside me on the deck and grabbed the monofilament with my hand, taking a half wrap and pulling the beast and the entangled lines up toward me at the stern. That’s when I finally saw it.
    It wasn’t a ray at all. It was a great rockfish with an eye the size of a half-dollar and shoulders as thick as an old dock piling. My heart stopped as the fish turned and took the accumulated lines directly into the motor’s submerged propeller. I barely felt the tug as they parted and the giant swam free.

Perfect your cast to battle with autumn’s big fellas of the Bay

Our skiff was slowly drifting off of the Western Shore, just below the Bay Bridge, pushed by a light northwesterly wind along with the beginnings of a falling tide. My eyes were glued to some strong arches on the fish-finder indicating we were passing over a pod of good fish holding close to the bottom in about 20 feet of water. Bending on a 3/0 Half and Half (a Deceiver-style fly with a Clouser-type head) in chartreuse and white, I lifted my stiff nine-foot rod and started to cast.
    Beginning with a roll cast directed to our rear and about 60 degrees off the line of drift, I worked a short length of the 350-grain, sink-tip fly line out. Just as it touched the water I cast again, working a bit more line out, and yet again, until I had the full 30 feet of black, high-density line extended. Then, as that heavy line touched the water one last time, I made a hauling, sidearm backcast, shooting the dark tip and about 25 feet of running line to the rear.
    As the cast straightened out behind me, I changed the plane of my forward cast to almost straight overhead and began a strong forward haul. As the line leapt out in front of me forming a narrow loop, I made a circle with the index finger and thumb of my left hand and guided the rest of the pile of line (about 40 feet of it) laying on the deck, sizzling through the guides and out over the water.
    The weight of the sink tip took the fly deep as I stripped off another 10 feet of line from my reel and fed it into the drift. Allowing a full 10 count to let the line get close to the bottom, I began a slow strip-jerk retrieve to impart the motions of an injured baitfish on my streamer. About the time I imagined the fly was reaching the area behind us where we had marked the pod, the line came tight. I cinched the fish up hard, and another autumn fly rod battle was on.
    Usually, the long rod is associated with sweetwater and the more pleasant months of the year. Casting a tiny Adams upstream in May to tempt a dimpling trout or working a small popper in June along the spawning beds for bull bluegills are more usual pursuits.
    But the less comfortable chill of autumn sends another signal to the long-rod enthusiast of Chesapeake Bay. This is just the time to break out the eight- and nine-weight saltwater rods, tie on a 20-pound leader and do some serious battle with the big fellas of the Bay, our rockfish.

How to Do the Chuck ’n’ Duck
    Casting a heavy-taper floating line over shallow water (six feet or less) with big, bright streamers and poppers can be a relaxing and especially enjoyable saltwater tactic. But the window of opportunity is inconveniently short, usually lasting only an hour or so after first light. As the sun climbs, the light-sensitive stripers tend to move to a deeper stratum until evening. Unless a fly angler can find large stripers actively feeding and breaking on the surface, fishing a floating line is no longer an option.
    If you want the bigger rockfish you’ve got to follow ’em deep, and that means using a high-density sinking line. Sink-tips, as they are called because only the first 20 feet is heavily weighted, can work depths of 15 to 25 feet.
    Sink-tip lines come in various weights, usually measured in grains (1,000 grains to an ounce). A 350-grain line is intended for eight- and nine-weight rods, 450 grains for 10- and 11-weight rods, etc. The heavier the rod and the heavier the line, the deeper you can reach and the larger the fly you can throw. Keep in mind the axiom, bigger fish want bigger baits.
    Casting these lines requires some adjustments to your normal casting stroke. It is wise to prepare by lawn casting before taking your show on the water. The technique of throwing sink-tips is sometimes called the chuck ’n’ duck, you’ll understand why the first time you try it.

Dress warmly if you want to get in on the nighttime bite

Darkness had fallen. The scattered fishing boats had headed home with little success. I was alone on the water, and it was a good deal colder than a few minutes earlier, when the sun was shining its last.
    But I had dressed well. Zipping up the neck of my fleece turtleneck under a flannel-lined shirt and closing my foul weather coat around me, I settled down to wait.
    Arriving just as everyone else was leaving was a little chancy. If the fish had shown up earlier, the commotion of anglers hooking, battling and landing them would have driven them off. But I was counting on the school of rock’s delayed arrival. This area had been fished hard the last few days, and I was guessing the bass were finally getting a little weary of all the attention.
    About a half-hour after full dark, I began to cast. Working a half-ounce Rat-L-Trap-type bait over submerged structure, I started to search. Feeling the plug occasionally banging off of sunken rocks below gave me focus. I couldn’t allow the bait to get so deep that it would hang up, but caroming it off the scattered remains of old riprap was a strike trigger.
    Pausing the retrieve for just a second after the initial contact just might emulate a fleeing baitfish that had stunned itself in its panic to escape. Could any nearby striper resist such an easy meal?
    A quarter of an hour passed as I concentrated on casting and retrieving. Then at the pause, my lure hung up. Reflexively I set the hook but felt only the solid resistance of failure. Then came a healthy headshake, and my rod bent down as an unseen torpedo headed away and out toward the channel. The drag sang, and I relaxed.
    Patiently waiting out the fish’s powerful didoes for escape and holding the rod tip high to minimize line contact with the rocks below, I let the fish exhaust itself. Slipping my net into the water, I eventually guided the striper into its folds and lifted it on board. My first night fight of the season had been a success.

Nighttime Primer
    One of the difficulties in fall fishing, especially in shallow water, is that the sweet spots become well known almost at once. It is first-light and last-light action, so the window for success is usually little more than an hour or so on either end. If a few boats gather, it can be even shorter.
    The evening bite usually dies as darkness falls. Wait about a half-hour longer, and the feed often starts again. Fishing after dark is usually not as frenetic as at sunset, but it can be very productive and the fish can get substantially larger.
    I use a Rat-L-Trap-type bait as a searching tool because I can cast it farther and cover more water. As it’s a noisemaker, it tends to draw the fish from farther away.
    If the bite slows after the first few fish on the Trap, I’ll then go to a swimming crank bait such as a Yozuri Crystal Minnow, a Bomber Long A or a jointed Rebel. If that’s not successful, I will change again to a BKD or a Bass Assassin and work it deep and slow. One of them usually does the trick.
    The only cautions about this type of angling are that you should never fish an area or run a water route you haven’t gotten to know in daylight. Always wear some kind of life jacket, have a good waterproof radio or phone and let someone know where you are fishing and what time you‘ll be back. Dress warmly and bring a lot of lures. The rocks below, as well as the stripers, are famous for eating them up in the dark.

You’re missing out on the fun if you don’t have a boat

It’s almost impossible to look out over our Chesapeake Bay without also gazing at a graceful waterman’s workboat or anglers in a skiff speeding to the next honey hole, a family in a cuddy or cabin cruiser slowly trolling for trophy rockfish or heading for dinner at a waterfront restaurant. Sometimes all of them at the same time.
    The plain fact is that if you live in our area and don’t have a boat, you are missing out on enjoying one of our nation’s largest maritime playgrounds.
    At 4,500 square miles with 11,000 miles of shoreline and hundreds of tributary rivers and streams, the Bay is the biggest and most complex estuary on the North American continent. It is also home to 300 species of fish, 170 species of crabs and shellfish and visited by more than a million migrating waterfowl each year. Our Bay is a recreational heaven and a naturalists’ wonderland. A boat is the key to experiencing it fully.
    It isn’t necessarily true that owning a watercraft is a seasonal, expensive, time-intensive and dangerous pastime. Today’s marine craft are safe and robust. The motors, once the bugaboo of seafaring, have become models of reliability and efficiency. Modern materials and refined technologies have much reduced maintenance requirements and breakdowns.
    Today’s boater can expect to enjoy almost eight months of comfortable use in an average season on the Chesapeake. Stalwarts willing to endure more uncomfortable conditions (sometimes including myself) often log in full 12-month calendars.
    While there is no upper limit on the size or expense of a craft that will allow you to enjoy our maritime cornucopia, a boat of 21 feet or slightly larger with outboard power is a good starting point. Such a boat will get just about any adventure under way from a crabbing excursion to sightseeing, bird watching, visiting waterfront restaurants, catching a rockfish or filling a cooler with perch and spot.

My Requirements and Desires
    My own boating usually involves just me and sometimes a friend. My wife, a high school art teacher and successful sculptor, generally has a full schedule. Our three sons have mostly flown the nest.
    Spending at least three or four days a week on the water in fulfilling my duties as a sporting columnist for Bay Weekly, I have chosen a simple 17-foot center console skiff. It is easy to tow, launch and handle solo or with a friend. Powered by a 50-horsepower Yamaha four-stroke motor, the relatively light and slender craft (800-pound hull, six-foot beam) can max out at 30 mph, cruise easily in the mid 20s and fish all day on about three gallons of gas. Its modified V-hull with a wide, flared bow runs dry in a chop and handles just about any kind of weather I’m apt to fish in.
    I’ve equipped the skiff with a stern Power Pole or shallow water anchor, an electric trolling motor for stealthy shoreline running, a good quality GPS/fishfinder combo and a handheld compact VHF marine radio. This setup excels for shallow-water plugging and fly fishing and is quite satisfactory for deeper water tactics such as chumming, live-lining, jigging or just bottom fishing with bait.
    I’ve come to prefer keeping the craft ready on its trailer, having found that one of the keys to angling success on the Bay is getting promptly to where the fish are — even if that entails a road trip to a distant public boat ramp.

Try It!
    Whatever your requirements and desires, being on the water is a life-expanding experience.

Some days it takes perseverance to fill your cooler

It was nearly noon. My skiff was getting low on gas, a chop was building and my cooler was still empty. Having started in the early hours, searching and fishing from Sandy Point to Hackett’s and Tolley’s then up to Podickery and over to Love Point, I was now on my way back to the ramp without a single rockfish.
    My eyes ached from looking for feeding sea birds. The only ones that I had spotted appeared as baffled as I was. My bucket of chum was back on ice, as was my supply of menhaden. My casting rods, rigged with top-water plugs and deeper water jigs, remained unused.
    It was decision time. Either I quit, pull the boat and head home for a warm meal, a shower and a nap, or I mount a serious second effort. I was tired and hungry, but I knew the forecast ruled out fishing for the next few days. A large foul-weather system was approaching; even now the wind was building.
    Deciding to go on, I secured my center console on the trailer, then drove toward more sheltered waters. Days ago I had located a few schools of particularly chunky white perch. Hoping that they were still there, I launched at a convenient ramp and headed back out.
    Slowly cruising the channel edge, I saw what looked like a nice school of perch on my sonar screen. I motored back up-current, dropped a hi-lo rig baited with pieces of bloodworm and let out line. Feeling the one-ounce sinker skipping over the shell bottom below, I held my thumb on the spool and drifted along.
    Thump, thump, bang! My light rod tip bent down, and the spool turned against the drag. I felt the surges of a good fish below. Then the rod really bent over, telling me a second fish had jumped on. Two nice perch eventually flashed in the sun as I lifted them up and over the side.
    I let the smaller guy go, iced the other, over 10 inches, and decided, perhaps impulsively, that 10 inches would be my minimum. Rebaiting, I dropped the rig back down and resumed the quest. The next school lit up my screen, and the fight was on again.
    But by 3pm, I had accumulated only two more 10-inch keepers in my box, though I had caught and released dozens of perch. Conditions were now deteriorating. The wind had begun pushing one way, the tide another. My drifts had become hesitant and were resulting in fewer strikes.
    I was again considering calling it a day when I noticed a nice school on my fish-finder. Casting back up-current, past where the fish had been marked, I retrieved with sweeps of my rod. Bam, bam: Two fish slammed the baits. The biggest was 11 inches, his buddy a hair smaller.
    That simple change turned the key. Drifting or slowly motoring until marking a school, then casting back over them and retrieving the baits with pronounced sweeps resulted in hard, prompt strikes and, almost invariably, nice big perch.
    Within another hour I had more than a dozen big, thick black-backed perch in the box.

Only a very good friend shares a perch honey hole

My small spin rod was bent down deeply, and the delicate six-pound mono sizzled through the water as a small but mighty fish cut hard away, my spinner bait sparkling at the corner of its mouth.
    The sound of the lightly set drag feeding line was a sweet melody to my ears, reassuring me that its measured resistance would be unlikely to tear the hook from the perch’s delicate mouth. I intended to let that rascal run until it tired; then I would invite it to dinner, that very evening if things worked out.
    Behind my skiff’s console seat sat a small cooler designed for a six-pack of canned beverages but in this case perfect for another purpose. Half-full of crushed ice, it already nestled four 10- to 12-inch white perch that I had scored that morning. It had taken me over two dozen releases of smaller fish to garner these heftier prizes.
    I wanted these fish for a fry-up, and I knew from experience that the thicker fillets from perch that size would retain just the perfect amount of interior moisture and flavor yet yield a nicely crisp panko-coated exterior for a crunchy-on-the-outside-savory-in-the-middle dining experience. The thought of golden-brown fillets bubbling in hot peanut oil and the willingness of the numerous perch in residence to continually smash my small lures was turning my morning into a fine day.
    Recent problems with the rockfish bite in the mid-Bay had me baffled. Three straight six-hour outings with only undersized or barely keeper stripers to show for my efforts made me reconsider my strategies. Then I remembered an old axiom: If at first you don’t succeed, the heck with it. Try something else.
    The something else in this case was switching to white perch. The fact that I’ve also been having trouble consistently finding decent-sized perch did give me pause. The past season I had already had to write off extensive areas that had produced some great fishing over the past several years. The fish there had simply disappeared. Whether it was from over fishing or some environmental change, I was unsure, but there were no longer perch in residence. As tributary white perch are generally territorial and don’t move far from their home waters, I guessed it might take quite a long time for these locations to recover.
    My only option was to begin searching out new territory.
    The first attempts produced little success until a friend took pity on me. Fatigued by the unrelenting tales of my recent angling frustrations, he offered to show me the nearby location of his better perch successes. Of course he swore me to secrecy.
    I held out little hope that the area would live up to the hype. But having no better options at the time, I spent a morning with him testing the area.
    The shoreline we visited turned out to be one long honey hole. We were into good fish for more than three hours. The best white perch that day was a 13½-inch beauty boated by my friend. I easily iced down enough thick and heavy white perch for the dinner I had in mind.
    By then it was just 11am. Though overcast skies and a flood tide were extending the perfect conditions almost indefinitely, we quit the area for the day. It’s always wise to limit the harvest on a good fishing hole, saving the bulk of the population for later trips.
    Now I’ve got to redouble my efforts at discovering new perch fishing territory. One good spot is not enough to rely on for anywhere near the rest of the season. Besides, I’ve a favor to return.

Hot weather is hard on anglers and hard on the fish, too

The first big fish came rather promptly, though in the end it proved a questionable blessing. I had flipped the half soft crab out to one of the bridge pilings and fed line under my thumb. The tide was crawling along, just slow enough to allow my quarter-ounce lead to sink the bait into the sweet zone.
    The sweet zone that day was at about 15 feet, halfway to the bottom. That’s where the fish arcs had shown on the sonar with our first exploratory drift past the bridge support. On our next pass we had dropped the baits.
    I felt a tap-tap, then a steady pull. Having been plagued by undersized rockfish the last few sorties, I did not want to deep-hook a fish that had to be released. So as soon as I had any indication that my quarry had the bait, I put the reel in gear and struck.
    My rod bent down, line feeding out against the firmly set drag, as the fish headed directly for the nearest concrete piling. Thumbing the spool a bit to slow that tactic convinced the clever devil to double back toward us … then to cross under the boat. The only thing to do in such circumstances is to plunge the rod tip deep into the water and hope the line doesn’t contact the hull. Fishing line rarely survives contact with a boat’s propeller or any of the other sharp metal edges down there.
    I struggled with the powerful rascal until the tidal current and wind twisted our skiff away from the structure. Then I put the helm hard over and shifted into reverse to clear the line from under the bottom. With the edge now in my favor, the bass began its surrender. When it flashed a few yards off of the gunnel, my partner readied the net.
    No need to measure this one, I thought. The fish was definitely in the 25- to 26-inch range, heavy and well proportioned. Then as it rolled into the folds of the net, I saw the ugly red sore on its shoulder. Without bringing the afflicted fish aboard, I removed the hook and turned it loose.
    The rockfish looked healthy enough otherwise, and I hoped that the coming colder water would kill the bacteria causing the infection so the fish could regain its health.
    The next few rockfish were undersized releases; then we got lucky with a fat 22-incher and put him on ice. But after that, no matter which bridge pier we drifted to (and there were many), the shorter rockfish plus some sizeable perch showed up to consume the rest of our supply of soft crabs.
    Heading back to the ramp tired and with just one fish in the box, we were happy to be nearing the end of summer. The latter part of August had not been kind to our efforts. Foul hot weather, temperamental fish (too many of them bearing sores) and the arrival of large numbers of undersized schoolies had jinxed us.
    September and the coming of autumn hold the promise of better things. Colder weather and cooler water seem to improve the vitality and size of the Bay’s rockfish. Plus, from recent reports and the count of boats launching in late afternoon, there is every evidence that the shallow water bite may come early this year.
    Fishing has often been described as the most optimistic of sports, a triumph of hope over experience. With the changing seasons, that pretty much describes my attitude.

Finding feeding seabirds will save you time and speed up your catch

The seabirds, scores of them about 100 yards away, were wheeling, screaming and diving. We could see the splashes of fish wildly feeding just under the surface. They were not the explosive strikes of the big stripers we had hoped for, but it was impossible to ignore them.
    Running ahead but well outside of the feeding school, I chopped the skiff’s throttle, turned and eased within casting range. My partner and I flung our lures just to the edge of the action. I was fishing a half-ounce Bass Assassin, and Moe, a half-ounce gold Red Eye Shad.
    Moe’s rod dipped down almost immediately from a strike, and I felt a sharp tap, tap, tap. “Bluefish,” I snorted, “small ones.” I could imagine the toothy little devils reducing my five-inch soft bait to a stub.
    My friend landed, then carefully unhooked a wriggling nine-inch snapper blue from the treble hooks of his crank bait and released it. I pulled the shredded remains of the soft plastic body from my jig head and searched in my box for another to replace it.
    “This is not going to get any better,” I said, looking across the acre or so of small splashes. “Let’s vamoose.”
    Putting the boat up on plane and scanning the horizon, I soon saw another group of working birds about a quarter-mile away.
    Bigger birds, bigger fish.
    “Those are bill gulls over there,” I said. “Maybe we’re in luck.” Ten minutes later we had two fat rockfish thumping on the deck, though neither was a keeper. A few more casts and a look at the fish-finder confirmed the absence of anything approaching the 20-inch minimum, so off we went again.
    Across the Bay and into the distance were several groups of birds working over feeding fish. We had a job to do, and I was glad that I had remembered to top off the gas tank that morning.

How to Catch Them
    Late August is the beginning of fishing for breaking rockfish under birds. A more exciting fishery just does not exist on the Chesapeake. We were following up on reports of a couple of acres of 30-plus-inch fish just off Love Point. We never encountered that school. We did, however, enjoy lots of hook-ups and releases.
    You can do a couple of things to make the most of these opportunities. First, you need a good pair of binoculars; models with image stabilizing are particularly helpful. Scanning the waters to find birds that have located the feeding fish will save you a good bit of time.
    Next, know your birds. Terns and young laughing gulls are the smaller birds you see wheeling about the Bay. They feed almost exclusively on silversides and anchovies. Bigger predator fish will sometimes key on the small baitfish, but this time of year these schools attract mostly smaller rockfish and bluefish.
    Mature laughing gulls are a bit larger, the ring-billed gull larger still, then the herring gull on up to the black-backed gull, the largest of all. When these bigger birds are on the feed, you can bet that the baitfish will be bigger and the game fish chasing them larger as well.
    The very best trophy fish-finders are pelicans and gannets with wingspreads of more than six feet. They’ll be working over the schools of the largest menhaden and the heaviest rockfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel.
    There are other protocols. Never run into the midst of a breaking school. That will put them down and anger anyone else trying to fish them. Turn off your engine while engaging breakers for the same reason, and don’t cast into their midst. You’ll avoid cutoffs from sharp gill plates of rockfish and teeth and abrasive tails of bluefish if you always work the edges.
    If the feeding fish on top are small, go deep. Bigger fish are sometimes on the bottom picking up baitfish injured by the frantic, smaller fish feeding on top.
    Squash your hook barbs if you’re doing a lot of catch and release. It will make things easier for you and the fish.