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Articles by Dennis Doyle

Early-spawning crappie already on the move

The new fishing year is blossoming before us. Since the passing of the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) on Dec. 21, 2014, our daily dose of sunshine has grown. January 8 gives us eight hours and 11 minutes, a trend in the right direction. We might not notice the accumulation of extra sunlight every day, but the fish do. It is one of the prime drivers of their urge to spawn.
    Crappie (properly pronounced with a broad a) are generally the first fish in the Tidewater to feel that stirring and start to move to the shallows. They are also known as calico bass, speck, speckled perch and, because of delicate mouth structure, paper mouth. That’s a point of anatomy to be considered when making the decision whether to derrick a hooked fish up out of the water or land it with a net.
    One of Maryland’s most overlooked fish, crappie are also good eating. Therein lies part of the problem of finding good crappie water: Their fans are loath to share that information. However, I can offer a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
    Now is not too soon to start looking. Any day temperate enough to tempt you out will be a good day to try. Crappie tend to bite early and late in the day, so that’s the first thing to take into consideration. I recommend scouting sites starting in the early afternoon (when it’s warmer) and fishing early mornings only on locations that has proven productive.
    Light to medium-light spin tackle with six- to eight-pound monofilament will be sufficient. Specs will take minnows of all types, but smaller ones are usually best. Try to harvest the minnows yourself with a dip net or a baited minnow trap, particularly from areas close to where you’re fishing. Fish the baits under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Concentrate on water 10 feet or less in depth.
    Since crappie have a larger mouth than most pan fish, any hook size from a #6 to a #1 will work. Thinner diameter wire hooks are superior because they are easier on the smaller minnows and keep them lively longer. No leaders are necessary.
    Night crawlers and red wigglers are two more fine crappie baits. Fish them the same way you would the minnow, under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Crappie are schooling fish. When you hook up one, there should generally be others in the immediate vicinity.
    Concentrate along shorelines of the fresher areas of local tributaries, targeting downed trees, submerged brush or tangles of floating debris. Bridges, piers, docks and other constructed water structures are also prime holding areas. Target deeper water during low tides when fish tend to congregate in the river’s holes and pools. When the water warms up past 50 degrees, these fish will be more likely to take a lure. For now, live bait is best.
    Crappie are widely distributed in Maryland. On the Eastern Shore the Wye Mills impoundment — as well as the stream (and bridge) below the spillway — is a good place to look for big crappie. The Tuckahoe River is also a prime location, again both the impoundment and the waters below it.
    The Upper Choptank is a particularly good tributary for a hot bite in early springtime. Greensboro is a great place to try, especially if you have a small boat. Going upstream and targeting laydowns, tree stumps and submerged brush will generally get you some nice fish. Higher up the river at Red Bridges can also be excellent for shore-bound sports.
    The Pocomoke River near Snow Hill can be outstanding. One of the better fly and light tackle guides on the Chesapeake, Kevin Josenhans specializes in fishing that river just for crappie this time of year. Check out his blog at http://josenhansflyfishingblog.com/ for an early season report.
    On the Western Shore, the Patuxent is one of the better rivers. Starting at Wayson’s Corner and up to Queen Anne’s Bridge and Governor’s Bridge, you’ll find good spec territories somewhere along the way. Also try the Jug Bay Wetlands area for good fishing and scenery.
    Almost all of the upper reaches of the Western Shore tributaries can hold crappie, but these fish have a low tolerance for salinity so you will not find many farther downstream.
    There are also a multitude of freshwater impoundments in Maryland where crappie lurk, especially Urieville and Unicorn Lakes and spillways. Find a full listing of all the inland waters available plus listings of the species that frequent them at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/index.aspx.

The new fishing year is blossoming before us. Since the passing of the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) on Dec. 21, 2014, our daily dose of sunshine has grown. January 8 gives us eight hours and 11 minutes, a trend in the right direction. We might not notice the accumulation of extra sunlight every day, but the fish do. It is one of the prime drivers of their urge to spawn.
    Crappie (properly pronounced with a broad a) are generally the first fish in the Tidewater to feel that stirring and start to move to the shallows. They are also known as calico bass, speck, speckled perch and, because of delicate mouth structure, paper mouth. That’s a point of anatomy to be considered when making the decision whether to derrick a hooked fish up out of the water or land it with a net.
    One of Maryland’s most overlooked fish, crappie are also good eating. Therein lies part of the problem of finding good crappie water: Their fans are loath to share that information. However, I can offer a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
    Now is not too soon to start looking. Any day temperate enough to tempt you out will be a good day to try. Crappie tend to bite early and late in the day, so that’s the first thing to take into consideration. I recommend scouting sites starting in the early afternoon (when it’s warmer) and fishing early mornings only on locations that has proven productive.
    Light to medium-light spin tackle with six- to eight-pound monofilament will be sufficient. Specs will take minnows of all types, but smaller ones are usually best. Try to harvest the minnows yourself with a dip net or a baited minnow trap, particularly from areas close to where you’re fishing. Fish the baits under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Concentrate on water 10 feet or less in depth.
    Since crappie have a larger mouth than most pan fish, any hook size from a #6 to a #1 will work. Thinner diameter wire hooks are superior because they are easier on the smaller minnows and keep them lively longer. No leaders are necessary.
    Night crawlers and red wigglers are two more fine crappie baits. Fish them the same way you would the minnow, under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Crappie are schooling fish. When you hook up one, there should generally be others in the immediate vicinity.
    Concentrate along shorelines of the fresher areas of local tributaries, targeting downed trees, submerged brush or tangles of floating debris. Bridges, piers, docks and other constructed water structures are also prime holding areas. Target deeper water during low tides when fish tend to congregate in the river’s holes and pools. When the water warms up past 50 degrees, these fish will be more likely to take a lure. For now, live bait is best.
    Crappie are widely distributed in Maryland. On the Eastern Shore the Wye Mills impoundment — as well as the stream (and bridge) below the spillway — is a good place to look for big crappie. The Tuckahoe River is also a prime location, again both the impoundment and the waters below it.
    The Upper Choptank is a particularly good tributary for a hot bite in early springtime. Greensboro is a great place to try, especially if you have a small boat. Going upstream and targeting laydowns, tree stumps and submerged brush will generally get you some nice fish. Higher up the river at Red Bridges can also be excellent for shore-bound sports.
    The Pocomoke River near Snow Hill can be outstanding. One of the better fly and light tackle guides on the Chesapeake, Kevin Josenhans specializes in fishing that river just for crappie this time of year. Check out his blog at http://josenhansflyfishingblog.com/ for an early season report.
    On the Western Shore, the Patuxent is one of the better rivers. Starting at Wayson’s Corner and up to Queen Anne’s Bridge and Governor’s Bridge, you’ll find good spec territories somewhere along the way. Also try the Jug Bay Wetlands area for good fishing and scenery.
    Almost all of the upper reaches of the Western Shore tributaries can hold crappie, but these fish have a low tolerance for salinity so you will not find many farther downstream.
    There are also a multitude of freshwater impoundments in Maryland where crappie lurk, especially Urieville and Unicorn Lakes and spillways. Find a full listing of all the inland waters available plus listings of the species that frequent them at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/index.aspx.

A different rockin’ new year

We are going to have a good year in 2015. That’s what I’m predicting, despite continuing reports of rockfish population problems.
    I must disclose, however, that when it comes to predicting what Tidewater anglers can expect in the year to come, the last few seasons I’ve built up close to a 100 percent accuracy rating — 100 percent wrong.
    My prediction for 2013 was for a disappointing year for rockfish. That season turned out to be the best in memory, with lots of big fish that stayed around all season. Catching was phenomenal.
    My prediction for 2014 was based on the falling rockfish population scenario, soon confirmed by an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission survey. I was sure a mediocre season would follow. But Bay fishing again proved excellent.
    Making a prediction for 2015 in light of these failures posed a real challenge. The Commission has officially confirmed falling rockfish numbers as well as anticipating a spawning female population crisis. Thus a 20.5 percent harvest cut for the Chesapeake has been mandated for 2015. How can Tidewater anglers have another great year in the face of that pronouncement?
    I was again tempted to go with the science-based opinions that we are bound for a disappointing year in 2015. Then I consulted an old friend, one of the more knowledgeable Bay watermen I’ve known.

Leo James’ Prediction
    Leo James has been fishing the waters of the Chesapeake almost daily for over 71 years.
    “The problem with government officials figuring the rockfish numbers is that the fish have fins. They can move miles from one day to the next,” he explained.
    “Early last April, setting my nets for white perch day after day, I caught so many six- and seven-inch rockfish that had to be released that I stopped setting. Now where did those little rock come from? They couldn’t have been spawned that year; they were too big. [A six-inch rockfish should be about six months old.] There were thousands and thousands of them.
    “All these government officials that say they know what’s going on out there are full of it. Especially about the Chesapeake. They really don’t know what’s happening; they’re just guessing and they can guess wrong. I can tell you from what I know and what I’ve seen, the Bay is going to have a good season in 2015. There’s plenty of fish out there.”

He’s Not Alone
    Some DNR officials may agree with James, at least about a portion of the rockfish problem. In arguing against the Commission’s 20.5 percent reduction for the Chesapeake rockfish harvest to protect the spawning female stocks, DNR argued in part that our Bay fishery is primarily for male stripers. Most of our females become migratory and leave for the Atlantic. Perhaps our Bay numbers are better than Marine Fisheries Commission data indicate.
    James offered one caveat: “I can tell you another thing from my 71 years of experience. There has never been two years in a row that have ever been the same. They are always different, and usually way different.”
    So my final prediction is that we’re going to have another good rockfish season in the coming year, but it won’t be anything like last year. So be ready to adjust your game.


Welcome Back to Fishing

    Maryland Department of Natural Resources wants to woo back Marylanders who have not bought an annual nontidal or tidal fishing license since 2011. If that’s you, buy before Jan. 31 and save 50 percent.

Fish, fowl, venison — and winter greens

Eating wild is a priority at my family’s table. During the Christmas and New Year holidays, we feature treats we’ve harvested from the wild. Following are a few favorites.

Appetizers

Rockfish Ceviche

Two rockfish fillets or other firm, white fish (about 1.5 lbs.), sliced into pieces approximately
½ x 2 inches
1 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil.
1½ large sweet onions, cut in half lengthwise, then very thinly sliced
2 to 3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
1 to 3 jalapeno peppers, chopped
4 lemons
4 limes

    Put fish in glass. Add all ingredients, then gently mix. Add freshly squeezed juice of lemon and lime to cover the ingredients in the bowl. Gently mix again so that all pieces are exposed to the juices. Cover and refrigerate at least five hours, better yet, overnight.
    Taste and adjust spices. Serve drained on a bed of lettuce with a garnish of thinly chopped spring onions plus a side of French or artisan bread or your favorite crackers.

Broiled Breast of Dove

    Wrap each dove breast in a piece of thick-cut, smoke-cured bacon. Broil in oven, turning once.
    Remove when bacon begins to crisp. Serve with a dusting of paprika.

Entrées

Waterfowl Medallions

    Fillet breast meat from a goose or duck and, slicing against the grain, cut into medallion-sized pieces abou three-quarters-inch thick. Marinate overnight in olive oil, rosemary, minced garlic, salt and pepper.
    Drop pieces individually onto a hot cast-iron skillet and quickly brown both sides. Remove and store in a shallow bowl in warm oven.
    Deglaze the skillet with one-half stick butter and one-quarter cup brandy. Drizzle over the browned medallions. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

Venison Tenderloin

    Cut a 12- to 18-inch section of venison tenderloin, rub with coarse-grained salt and puncture thoroughly with a fork. Marinate overnight in olive oil, chopped basil and generous amounts of minced garlic and fresh-ground black pepper.
    Prepare grill and scatter wet mesquite chips over charcoal (if using a gas grill, wrap wet wood chips in foil and puntcure several times with a fork). Cook covered but with vents open. Turn once. Remove when internal temperature of the roast reaches 120 degrees. Cover with foil and let stand 15 minutes.
    Melt one stick butter, add a good squeeze of fresh lemon, stir and drizzle over sliced tenderloin. Serve garnished with pickled green peppercorns and a dusting of paprika.

Collard Greens

    Rinse, stem and chop two pounds of greens. Combine in saucepan two bottles of beer, two tablespoons olive oil, one-half cup chopped country ham and salt and pepper. Add greens and simmer until tender.
    Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Bon Appetit!

Fishing in a chill rain is better than not fishing

As my cast settled, the streamer curved down and across the dark current. As the line straightened out at the shadow line, an unseen rockfish slammed the fly hard. I struck back and lifted. My nine-foot rod bent all the way to the cork handle, and my line came tight to the reel. “They’re here,” I informed my friend up in the bow, “or at least one of them is, and it’s a good one.”
    The night had turned cold, a lot colder than I expected. Drops of icy rain had begun to splatter my foul-weather coat, and that wasn’t expected either. George Yu, an old fishing buddy, and I were taking a long shot, trying to get in one last bit of action before rockfish season closed. It looked like our effort — and discomfort — just might pay off.
    Our skiff was anchored a long cast up current of one of the piers of an area bridge, a reliable rockfish hangout in seasons past but one we hadn’t visited in a while. It was a nighttime-only bite and dependent on tidal current, moon phase and a fair bit of luck.
    We had decided to try it earlier in the day. One problem, originally, was the moon. It was close to full, and that much light at night almost always scatters the fish. Near total darkness is necessary to allow the bridge lights to cast a distinct shadow line. There the rockfish like to concentrate and ambush bait.
    However, a good, solid overcast had formed and was projected to remain heavy throughout the night. The 10-day forecast promised few other chances at catching a last fish before the season ended. We decided to chance it.
    The next problem was timing. My friend couldn’t get out of his office until late, putting us on the water at 8:30pm, well after dark, with a tidal current predicted to slacken at 10:30. That left a pretty short window for success.
    To make the effort more difficult, we were using fly rods and hi-density sinking lines to try to coax the stripers into eating. We’d been successful using this technique before. But it did mean we would be dealing with a right-hand wind.
    A right-hand wind tends to push the backcast (assuming a right handed caster, like myself) across behind the angler’s body. Hence, the forward cast can easily stick the fly’s hook through your ear. Only a slight breeze had been predicted. But if you put much faith in a marine wind forecast you haven’t fished the Bay much.
    The first fish, when it came, proved a spirited fighter. I had forgotten how much colder water enhanced a striper’s ability to resist capture. I expected to see a 23-incher come alongside as I struggled to bring the fish near the boat. This one measured scarcely 18 inches, though it was as winter fat as a football.
    “We can do better than this,” I said, slipping the fish back over the side. By then my partner was hooked up and struggling with his own fish.
    “Get the net,” he called out.
    “It’s going to be smaller than you think,” I replied. “Relax. It’s not going anywhere.”
    When the fish broached alongside us, I scrambled for the net. It wasn’t a giant, but it was definitely a keeper. A few minutes later George slipped the heavy 21-incher into the fish box. In another couple of casts, I was tight to its near twin.
    Deciding to endure our good fortune, we hooked and released small and just-keeper rockfish for well over an hour, holding out for a pair of heavier critters to reach our limit. Then the current began to die and the wind picked up.
    “I think I’ve enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand,” I said after too many minutes of no fish, my teeth chattering and my fly whistling too close to my ear.
    “Anytime you’re ready, I’m ready,” George said. “We got in one last trip.”

I’m dreaming of Florida fishing

Rockfish season ends December 15, just days away. That is also the end, at least for the next few months, of the focus of my sporting life. Since last April, my schedule has been planned largely around the hunt for stripers and related marine forecasts, the timing of proper tides, desired wind direction, the 10-day outlook, the maintenance of my skiff and for the last few weeks, favorable temperatures. All of that will be over soon.
    But wintertime fishing is not hopeless.
    Lately, I’ve been considering some bad-weather traveling. There is always a good bite somewhere. Travel far enough south, and good things can happen.
    Since my oldest son and his family have moved to southern Florida, I’ve become acutely aware of the winter sailfish run that starts every January just off Miami. Some sailfish have been hooked from local fishing piers. Miami is just the focal point; the bite extends quite a distance both north and south.
    It was improbable to me that an exotic pelagic fish that rarely gets any closer than 30 miles off the coast of Maryland would be cavorting within almost a stone’s throw of a more southern city. But the warm, northward flowing Gulf Stream Current that closes with Florida’s southeastern coast does just that. It also brings dolphinfish (mahi mahi), wahoo, king mackerel and various species of tuna. These are just the sorts of finny critters that can help a serious angling addict through Maryland’s two most intemperate months.
    Last year I sampled this fishery on board the sportfisherman Thomas Flyer out of Miami. Within a half-hour, we hooked up our first of five sailfish for the day. A little later, we were slammed by a number of mahi up to 10 pounds. We lost one or two much bigger fish sight unseen. I immediately wanted to do it again.
    Florida has plenty of charter boats and fishing guides as well as public boat ramps all along the coast. The salty (and delicious) Gulf Stream gamefish are often found so close to the coast that, assuming a judicious selection of wind conditions, a relatively small craft of 18 feet or so, trailered down or rented onsite, is enough to get you to the fish.
    The technique for hooking is simple: slow trolling (also called bump trolling) live baits. Pinfish and pilchards can be bought at tackle and bait shops or caught by jigging Sabiki rigs resembling small bunches of tiny shrimp. These baitfish often concentrate around navigational structures just off of the shoreline; look for early morning charter boats gathered for the same purpose.
    With a supply of live bait on hand, the usual strategy is to stream your lines with the baitfish hooked through both jaws out behind the boat and move at the slowest speed that keeps the baits trailing to the stern but doesn’t allow them to wander very much to one side or the other (and tangle with other lines). Search youtube.com for bump trolling for more information.
    You won’t need heavy blue-water tackle to tangle with the critters; most will be under 40 pounds. Any medium-heavy six- to seven-foot rod with a good quality reel with at least 200 yards of 20-pound mono will be adequate.
    Sometimes, though, you might hook up a behemoth (there’s the occasional blue marlin at more than 500 pounds) that will strip your reel of line and break off. That possibility only adds to the excitement.
    Even if the fishing is slow, you’ll be warm. Temperatures in southern Florida during January and February average in the mid 70s.
    Winter action for sails, wahoo and mahi usually lasts into early March.

After six days pheasant hunting, we were exhausted, wind-burned — and ecstatic

“Congratulations,” my wife, Deborah, said to me over the phone early that morning. “You boys have managed to put yourselves in the coldest spot in the whole country, and that includes Alaska.”
    I was pulling on a pair of thick woolen socks while outside swirling snow was accumulating in the parking lot of our motel. In De Smet, South Dakota, the outside temperature gauge read five degrees above zero as we prepared to go ring-necked pheasant hunting. A stiff 30-mile-per-hour breeze made the wind chill calculation minus 20 degrees.
    A reasonable person would, perhaps, have hesitated, saying to himself, Maybe it would be wise to wait for another day. That kind of good sense is not often found among dedicated bird hunters. Besides, the number of wild pheasants in South Dakota was predicted to be the highest in years.
    The pheasants themselves were hardly inconvenienced by the descending frigid mass of arctic winter air. The ring-neck is a century-old immigrant from Northern China, where it was also no stranger to extreme winter conditions.
    Introduced to America in 1881 by Judge Owen Denny, the U.S. Consul to China, this superb game bird immediately adapted to our continent, especially the agricultural areas and particularly South Dakota, which long ago proclaimed itself the Pheasant Capital of the World.
    As we transferred our dogs into insulated kennels in the beds of two four-wheel-drive vehicles, it was obvious that the pups were not going to be bothered by the cold. Brewster, a four-year-old English cocker spaniel endowed with a delightful personality and boundless energy, was already rolling and frolicking in the parking lot snow drifts as we sorted things out.
    Along with Brewster were six field-experienced springer spaniels — Astrid, Buck, Gino, Penny, Sony and Susie — plus Sandy, a big muscular yellow Labrador whose role it would be to bust through any cover too stout or snow drift too deep for our mid-sized spaniels.
    The 10-day bird-hunting trip had been meticulously planned and put together by Tom Schneider with Meade Rudasill, both Annapolitans, avid wing shooters and springer spaniel fans. They had been making this pilgrimage for ring-necks for 20 years.
    This year they invited me to join the adventure along with their three other companions and gun dog handlers, Kevin Klasing of Mt. Airy and Jim Zimmerman and Tim Wachob, both Pennsylvanians.
    Below-freezing weather had one advantage: Ring-necks, particularly the roosters, yard up or gather in flocks under such conditions. They also seek out the densest cover for protection, usually close to an energy-dense food supply such as corn. If South Dakota has anything in large quantity besides ring-necked pheasants, it is cornfields.
    This year, especially, it had cold as well. That five-degree morning was just the beginning. Within two days, the temperature had fallen to minus 11 and the wind chill to 40 below. But ring-neck hunters are a hardy lot; with proper clothing and mad determination, we managed an exceptional hunt.
    Switching out dogs on a regular basis and selectively hunting only the smaller (about a quarter-mile or less), denser patches of cover kept our energy levels up. We also returned frequently to the trucks for restorative warmth. Almost every day we bagged our limits of roosters (three per gun per day; hens are protected from harvest) though it often took us to closing time (5pm) to get it done.
    We did not keep track of the shells we expended. The ring-neck can quickly attain 65 mph in level flight. Add in a 30 mph tail wind, you’ve got a particularly difficult target to bring to bag. By the end of six days in the field, we were just about out of ammunition, exhausted, wind-burned — and ecstatic.

A fat eel is the best winter bait

I could feel my bait strongly swimming downward next to the bridge piling. Judging its descent at a couple of feet off bottom, I thumbed the reel spool, both to keep it out of any rubble it might dive into and to incite its efforts to escape. It briefly struggled against the increased resistance. That was all that was necessary. Something powerful grabbed the bait then swam away.
    A five-count allowed about 25 feet of line to slip under my thumb. I slowly raised my rod tip, then lowered it to allow a little slack in the line. Hoping the rockfish had the bait well back in its jaws, I dropped the reel into gear and waited for the line to come tight. When it did, I struck back hard.
    My rod bent in a severe arc. I could feel the heavy headshakes of a good fish transmit up the line. Then the striper took off running, headed for the general direction of Baltimore. There was little I could do to stop it.

The Art of Eeling
    More than any other seasonal change, cold alters fishing tactics and baits for stripers. One of the better tempters, especially for large winter-run stripers, is the eel. Called big rockfish candy because the whoppers love them so much, eel is one of the surest bets for seducing a trophy rockfish this time of year.
    The one downside to eeling, as its more dedicated practitioners call it, is handling the slimy devils. Slipperier than a bucket of eels, is an old saying. They are impossible to grasp with a bare hand and a challenge to control if you do manage to get hold of one.
    Fortunately, there are solutions to these problems. Keeping the snakelike creatures restrained in a net bag in your live-well or an aerated bucket will allow you easy access to them. Using gloves or a piece of rough cloth simplifies holding them until you can manage to get them on a hook.
    One of the better alternatives I’ve found is to store them on ice. I use a small lunch-pail-sized cooler with a good layer of ice (or better yet reusable plastic ice blocs) on the bottom covered by a thick wet towel. The snakes become dormant when stored this way and will live for quite some time, days even, if maintained cold and covered by another layer of wet towels.
    They can be easily handled in this passive condition using just a piece of towel or a cloth glove. Once you’ve hooked them up and tossed them in the water, they quickly regain their vigor.
    Put them on your hook in a way rockfish favor. Because rock have very small teeth, they will usually attack a larger bait toward the head to immediately control it. Your hook should be toward the head of the eel, where the fish is likely to strike.
    Sliding the point through the corner of their eye sockets gives the hook a solid purchase. Some anglers prefer to hook them under the chin and out the top of the mouth, particularly if the eels are to be fished weighted on the bottom. Others, especially anglers drifting their eels suspended under release bobbers, hook them lightly under the skin at the back of the head. There is rarely a need to place a second hook farther back on an eel. In fact, using a second hook on this writhing critter will lead to an impossible-to-unravel tangle.
    Once a striper strikes, allow it to swim off with the bait. Give it time, a five-count at minimum, to subdue the prey and work it back in the throat in preparation to swallowing. Use a strong short-shanked hook, at least a size 4/0, that can withstand a good deal of pressure because your chances of hooking a really big rockfish will never be better.

Farewell Fish and Eel
    The rockfish headed toward Baltimore that day probably arrived within not too many minutes. Somehow, during that express-train run, the hook pulled free. I lost the fish, but my hands did not stop shaking for quite a few minutes, and it wasn’t from the cold.

The fast, bouncy motion of the lure brought me fish

My original plan was to get a few big perch for a family fish fry on the weekend. I also hoped to capture smaller ones to live-line for rockfish later in the day at the Bay Bridge. It didn’t quite work out that way.
    With a healthy supply of grass shrimp and some razor clams for the perch, I splashed my skiff and made the short run out to the river channel. Slowly cruising a pattern, I looked for the big school of perch I had successfully worked over the previous week. It had been a mixed bunch of big whities plus a fair number of the little fellas (three to five inches) that might prove tempting for rockfish.
    My clever strategy for the day succumbed to reality. The perch were no longer in residence. Drifting and fishing the grass shrimp and clam and searching hard over a wide area, I discovered that the river’s channel as well as its edges were as empty as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.
    Heading out into the Bay I decided to try the Bay Bridge for rockfish anyway. Though my hopes of catching a supply of bait perch had been dashed, I had a fallback. I always carry a box of various sized jigs.
    The fishing jig is named after the dance. Folk dances performed with fast, bouncy motions are called jigs (i.e. the Irish jig), and that is how this lure is worked in the water. Its sudden, jerky movements imitate a small fish in panic.
    Nearing the center bridge span, I was greeted by a heart-warming sight. Birds were whirling, screaming and picking off small baitfish being forced to the surface by the feeding stripers under them.
    I hurried to tie on a quarter-ounce BKD in chartreuse, eased up to casting distance just outside the frenzied flock and pitched my lure. Within seconds, I was tight to a rockfish that put up quite a feisty battle. Netting the fat but undersized fish, I unhooked it and flipped it back over the side.
    Another dozen casts resulted in more small throwbacks, so I paused to reconsider my options. Switching out the BKD for a two-ounce Stingsilver with a small dropper fly attached above, I tried working the bottom, 50 feet down. There is sometimes a larger class of fish under those breaking on the surface.
    This time I hooked what I thought was a much heavier striper. As I drew it close to the boat it turned out to be a double hookup, neither of which was remarkable in size. But then I noticed that one of the struggling fish was a perch. While a 14-inch striper is not particularly impressive, a fat 10-inch perch definitely is.
    Swinging the pair on board, I flipped the rockfish back over the side and the winter-thick perch into my cooler. Subsequent drifts netted more heavy perch and more undersized rock.
    I had to be careful when bringing in these fish. You can horse a schoolie rockfish in quickly for release, but if you try that on a big perch it will too often result in a lost fish. The perch’s mouth structure is much more fragile that the striper’s. Each hookup became a guessing game. I gently fought the fish to the surface, but what fish? Was there a big fat perch on the hook or another throwback striper? Or both?
    After an hour of constant action the sky darkened, the wind picked up and a bit of rain spat down. Declaring victory, I racked my gear and headed back for the ramp. Despite my poor start, I could feed my family. All that good fortune came from dancing a jig.

With catches cut by 20 percent, the species could rebound in two years

You’ll hear the same story from most anyone who fishes recreationally for rockfish (aka striped bass) in Chesapeake Bay along the Atlantic Coast: There are not nearly as many fish today as there were 10 years ago.
    Science agrees. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — whose task it is to manage the striped bass population — conducted a benchmark stock assessment in 2012. It found that the total population of striped bass has fallen some 30 percent since 2003 with the numbers of spawning age females at a dangerously low level.
    Technically, over-fishing had not yet occurred, the commission allowed, but it was coming.
    On Halloween, fisheries managers from coastal states from Maine to North Carolina met in a 10-hour marathon at Commission headquarters in Mystic, Connecticut. Included were Chesapeake states — Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
    The managers heeded recommendations from recreational fishermen along the Northeast Coast (where catches have fallen as much as 80 percent) and the Chesapeake. The result: recreational and commercial Atlantic Coast harvests were cut by 25 percent; Chesapeake Bay recreational and commercial harvests by 20.5 percent.
    This landmark decision bodes well for the future of our rockfish.
    The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission succeeded where states have failed. Bay jurisdiction efforts to make smaller reductions in much smaller increments were ­rejected by the other states’ fishery representatives.
    In Maryland recreational fishing, Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service director Tom O’Connell expects the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Trophy Season minimum size regulations to increase from 28 to 36 inches, still one fish per angler. The season is anticipated to open, as before, on the third Saturday in April and continue to May 15.
    The regular recreational rockfish season for the Bay will also remain the same: May 16 through December 15. But the minimum size is planned to increase from 18 to 20 inches.
    On the commercial side, the Chesapeake Bay quota for rockfish will drop to 1.471 million pounds (down from 1.925 million pounds). The minimum size for the commercial fishery is expected to remain 18 inches.
    Atlantic Coast recreational fishery limits will drop from two fish to one; minimum size remains 28 inches.    If the plans works, the species could be declared recovered in two years.

While the wind blows, I’m ­getting a handle on things

The Beaufort Wind Force Scale puts the threshold for a half-gale at 20 miles per hour. These stiff Bay winds are projected to be with us intermittently into November.
    Winds like these cheer the hearts of sailboat skippers after the doldrums of summer. But anglers on the Chesapeake suffer at being blown off the water as the season winds down.
    To calm the turmoil that gens up in my angler’s innards when I realize another Maryland winter is fast approaching, I clean my gear.
    Most in need of TLC are the cork handles of my favorite rods.
    Cork is extremely lightweight, odorless, compressible, long lasting and eco-friendly compared to synthetic materials used for the same purposes. It is warm and comfortable to the touch and has a non-slip quality, even when wet, which is why I prefer it to all other materials for my light-tackle outfits.
    This splendid material is increasingly expensive and ever more difficult to find at any price in the better grades used in quality fishing rods. Portugal and Spain produce 80 percent of the cork for world markets, the lion’s share consumed by the wine industry.
    Production is a complex, long-term affair. The material is derived from the bark of the cork oak, which must be at least 25 years old before it can stand harvest without harm. Subsequent extractions can be made every nine years. Luckily, however, the cork oak has a lifespan of 200 years.
    If well maintained, a cork-grip fishing rod will last indefinitely, at least the lifetime of the owner. Proper maintenance is not difficult. Start out by giving the handle a gentle but thorough scrubbing with a sponge and common kitchen scouring cleanser.
    After scrubbing, rinse the handle and put it aside to dry. Inspect for any gaps or flaws in the cork. These should be corrected with good-quality wood filler.
    I like Elmer’s Interior/Exterior Wood Filler in Golden Oak. It is easy to use and closely matches the hue of most cork. Fill the voids and scars on the handle with a small knife or similar instrument. After the filler has completely dried, use 220-grit sandpaper to smooth and blend all surfaces. Then let the filler set up for an extra day or two before proceeding with the final step.
    All cork rod handles should be dressed after cleaning and drying with a generous application of Pure Neatsfoot Oil. This will insure that the cork does not dry out and will protect it from weathering and restore its flexibility and fine tactile qualities.
    If our windy weather finally breaks, cork maintenance is not in vain. A clean, well-oiled handle will not soil easily, and a few extra, late season uses will do hardly anything but give you an extra appreciation for your efforts. You will, after all, have already gotten a good handle on things.