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Big Rockfish Returning

November’s fish have fattened in the ocean

I cast the wriggling spot close to the bridge piling, leaving the reel out of gear with my thumb lightly pressing on the spool. As the spot swam toward the bottom I could feel it taking line. It paused and meandered, unafraid, following the tidal current away from the concrete structure.
    As our skiff drifted farther away from the bridge support, my fishing partner and I reeled up our baitfish, motored back to the towering support and repeated the process, moving our presentations to other areas of the swirling currents, over and over again. The results were consistent: No rockfish in residence.
    The keeper we had stowed in the fish box earlier that morning remained companionless the whole of the day. Search as we might, we could not locate more rockfish, either around the Bay Bridge — pretty much a sure thing for the last two months — or any other location we tried. We tried lots of them.
    Occasionally we would mark small pods of good-sized fish swimming in 20 to 30 feet of water. But we could not hold over them long enough to present a bait, and those that we managed to drop on refused to eat. It was a long day.
    My next attempt was an evening sortie to the edge of the mouth of a local river where action had been intermittent the last week or so. The tide was perfect, high and beginning to ebb with a nice current.
    I threw top-water plugs, Rat-L-Traps, various colors of Bass Assassins, some sub-surface swimmers until well after dark and achieved nothing more than losing about $20 of tackle to the rocks below. I saw one barely legal striper boated among the seven or eight skiffs drifting the area.
    A day or two later, we again searched the mid-Bay area, vertical-jigging, live-lining, tossing soft plastics and generally exhausting a repertoire that had been filling our cooler with quality rockfish the whole of the season.
    Calls to fellow anglers reported few better experiences. The fish harvested were small, scattered and caught mostly by trolling, though live-lining and deep jigging did continue to produce a few fish here and there.

Prepare for Ocean Rockfish

    This time of year, as the temperatures plunge, the fishing patterns change dramatically. Schools of resident rockfish become ever more difficult to locate. They no longer haunt one general location for long periods. They are schooling and moving.
    November rockfish are seeking the schools of baitfish that have been forming throughout the Chesapeake and its tributaries and moving down toward their winter quarters: the mouth of the Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. As Norfolk spot, croaker, snapper blues and young menhaden move south, some cold-weather newcomers — big migratory stripers — are moving north to intercept them. A few have already been landed, 30-plus-inch fish bearing sea lice.
    These ocean runners, some as large as 50 pounds, will be a challenge as they arrive on their own schedule and seek baitfish concentrations rather than specific locations.
    Trolling with big baits, soft plastics and spoons measuring 12 to 16 inches, will become the prominent method of searching out these trophies. Light tackle anglers can score a few as well. Deep jigging with bigger soft plastics (to 12 inches) and fishing big chunks of fresh alewives (menhaden) on the bottom, with or without the assistance of chum, can do the job as well.
    The last few months have given us one of the best rockfish seasons in memory. If the end of the season matches up, we will be lucky indeed.