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A Cold-Weather Delicacy

This time of year, rockfish crave minnows
Frank and Vern with rockfish caught on “minnies.”
      “Minnies,” was the only word spoken by my friend Frank Tuma over the phone early that morning.
      A few years ago,  I disovered a great cold-weather bait for stripers on an unusually warm December day prospecting for deep-water perch.
     Out with another friend, Mike Ebersberger, and his girlfriend Rachel, I remember the day well. Armed with bottom rigs baited with bull minnows, she began the day hauling in a 14.5-inch black-backed perch.
     After landing that fish we again experienced success — but not with the species we expected.
      The minnows dropped for the perch — holding some 30 feet down on the bottom — never reached their intended target. They were intercepted by some thick and winter-energized rockfish of four and five pounds.
      The perch remained out of reach the rest of the trip as minnow after minnow was consumed by the ravenous rockfish. Subsequent years proved that the stripers’ appetites during the arrival of colder weather invariably and especially included minnows, a bait that they usually ignore in warmer weather.
      “Friends are pounding nice rockfish on minnies out around the Bay Bridge, and you and I have been invited to join them tomorrow. Interested?”
      Of course I was. All the better that a classic form of Bay fishing was the method to be used to present the minnows to the rockfish.
     Bottom-bouncing was the original form of trolling practiced on the Chesapeake Bay. Today’s practitioners often prefer to drag as many rigs as possible (sometimes in the dozens) held in racks across the stern to entice the stripers through the sheer number of baits. Back in the day, anglers simply held their own rods as the boat moved along and worked the weighted baits up and down, contacting the bottom. Hence the term bottom-bouncing.
     The bottom-bouncing rig is constructed by tying the main line of the rod to a three-way swivel. A 24-inch line is then attached holding a sinker anywhere from two to 20 ounces, the weight depending on the depth of the water and the speed of the boat. A leader of six to 10 feet is then added to the three-way and a small- to medium-sized bucktail jig attached, trailing a lip-hooked bull minnow.
     The next day, Frank and I met his friends Bill and Vern at Sandy Point, launched Bill’s 23-foot center console and were soon bouncing minnows on jigs along the pilings. Within a half hour, our first rockfish came aboard, a 23-incher — to be followed over the next couple of hours by a 27- and then a 25-incher.
     The bite was slow at times but always interesting, and pulling and bouncing the baits became an all-inspiring task. By the end of the trip we had a really nice catch in the box and hoped that the weather would hold warm enough to get a few more trips in before the December 20 closure of the Chesapeake rockfish season.

Fish Finder
     The rockfish bite has accelerated, especially around the Bay Bridge. Anglers jigging and trolling lures and bait have been finding nice-sized keepers, some reportedly over 34 inches. Trolling minnow tipped jigs and soft plastic-adorned jigs is producing. So is simply casting and working Bass Assassins and their clones to marked schools, to breaking fish under birds and to bridge piers. The fish are here today, gone tomorrow with few areas providing consistent results.
     Hunting Seasons
Whitetail deer and Sika deer, firearms season: thru Dec. 9
Snow Goose: Dec. 11 thru Jan. 24
Canada Goose: Dec. 15 thru Feb. 3
Duck: Dec. 15 thru Feb. 10
Seaduck: thru Jan. 12
Ruffed grouse: thru Jan. 31
Rabbit: thru Feb. 28
Squirrel: thru Feb. 28