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Chumming for Rockfish

Here’s how to make it work for you

Chumming has always been an excellent way to catch rockfish in the Chesapeake. It’s not particularly demanding in technique or equipment, so just about anyone with a boat who is willing to invest some time can consistently score some really nice fish with this method. As a bonus, it can be easily done with medium-weight spin or bait-casting tackle.
    The basics are simple. Anchored up in a moving tide, the angler suspends over the side of the boat a mesh bag that contains a frozen block of ground menhaden. Also commonly called alewife and bunker in the mid-Bay, menhaden are the favorite food of rockfish.
    The ground menhaden thaws and disperses into the tidal current, attracting rockfish sometimes from great distances. Cut pieces of whole baitfish are then hooked and fished suspended on the bottom for the rockfish to discover and eat. It is a very simple yet effective technique.
    There are, however, strategies that can improve your chances. The first and most important is locating and securing a supply of really fresh baitfish. Top-quality is evidenced by a minimum amount of blood in the bag and the high sheen of silvery white fish that are firm and have a good odor.
    That’s not to say you can’t catch stripers with a bag of two- or three-day-old fish that are off-color and a bit soft. All of us have. But the fresher the bait, the better the bite. Plus your chances of scoring bigger fish increase.
    Keep that bait buried in ice. Menhaden degrade rapidly. If not kept well iced, they immediately begin to soften and spoil. Leaving bait exposed to the sun or warming on the boat is self-defeating. Keep your bait cold, always.
    Buy plenty of baitfish. This is not the place to save money. The first vertical cut of the menhaden, just behind the head, is the prime piece. It contains the internal organs in the body cavity. In the middle of that gut will be the heart. Put that gob on your hook first (with your hook through the heart), then add the piece of fish. You will be surprised how often this draws the first bite and the biggest rockfish.
    Rockfish are a school fish, and when one fish begins to eat, it sends a signal to all of them to eat as well. Change your baits every 20 minutes; by that time most of the scent will have been washed out. Rockfish will find your baits and eat them much quicker when their scent trails are clear.
    The chum bags available today are generally made with a mesh size too small. Cut a few extra holes (about an inch wide) in the bottom of the bag to let the bigger chunks of the chum wash out. You want to attract rockfish, not make the chum last as long as possible.
    The last tip is to use a large enough hook and leave the point and barb well exposed. Hook the menhaden, not too deeply, near the spine at the top of the piece of bait. A rockfish is used to feeling sharp things in its mouth. Just about everything it eats has spines or hard points so the incidental prick of a hook will not frighten or alert it.
    Early in the season (until mid-July at least) a size 5/0 to 7/0 bait hook is not too big if you’re seeking fish in the 30-inch class. After that, as the bigger fish leave for the ocean, gradually reduce your hook size to match the schoolies that remain.


Conservation News

    Natural Resources Police received a complaint on May 12 concerning a large number of dead fish floating near Town Creek, a tributary of the Patuxent. Searching the area, officers saw a commercial vessel, the McKenzie Leigh, unloading fish at a nearby pier. The vessel was holding about 14,000 pounds of croaker and other species. Officers from four counties were assigned to measure the entire catch in an effort that took 12 hours. Approximately 3,500 pounds (about 10,000 fish) were found to be undersized. Charges are pending.