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The Early-Bird Rockfish Gang

Dress warm to catch ’em by the shore

Rockfish season is still four weeks away, but already a small crowd of dedicated anglers is breaking out gear. Their tackle is rather odd for the coming trophy season. They don’t favor the short, stout-as-a-broomstick trolling outfits used by Bay skippers. These specialized anglers prefer equipment more common among coastal surf fishermen.
    Their rods are nine to 12 feet long with lengthy butts, and they are hung with big spinning or casting reels capable of 300 or more yards of 20- to 30-pound mono or 30- to 65-pound braid. Their terminal setups are 30- to 50-pound leaders and big circle hooks rigged with three- to six-ounce sinkers. Their bait of choice: bloodworms, as big as they can find.
    A hard winter has delayed these early birds, but now they are shore-bound. The first couple of weeks, fishing is catch and release only. But by the season opener, they will have sussed the tempo of the striper migration and will be ready to slide some rockfish giants into their big coolers.
    Sandy Point, Fort Smallwood and Matapeake State Parks as well as Anne Arundel County’s Thomas Point Park are frequented by the cognoscenti. Further south, Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac has been drawing larger and larger numbers of anglers willing to suffer the wind, chill and rain.
    This tactic, strangely enough, has developed in only the last half-dozen years or so. Big migratory fish surely have been cruising the shoreline looking for a snack as long as they’ve been returning from the ocean to spawn. Yet most anglers have traditionally pursued them by dragging big lures behind big boats.
    Perhaps it was the economic downturn that forced some to remain shore-bound. Perhaps the successes of a small number of dedicated fishers were finally noted. Whatever the reason, more and more anglers have been showing up in the spring to soak a big, whole bloodworm on the bottom and hope for a 40-plus-incher to discover it.
    When fresh menhaden become available, many anglers will switch to them. Some fanatics will even search out herring or shad that have been legally harvested elsewhere (it’s prohibited to take either in any part of the Chesapeake). But the bottom line is that these guys catch fish, and often regularly.
    Many anglers prefer night fishing, when the big rockfish are more apt to frequent the shallows. But I have also interviewed those who maintain banker’s hours and arrive about 9am and fish through to the afternoon. Their theory is that, as the majority of the fish are unpredictable, one might as well be as comfortable as possible when pursuing them. All of these guys catch fish, sometimes lots of them.
    Enduring the weather is a major part of the early spring fishing experience. Warm boots, woolen socks, windproof, insulated coats, snug hats with ear covering, thick gloves, handwarmers and a thermos full of a hot beverage are almost a necessity, especially at night.
    Many anglers fish multiple rigs. Two or more outfits increase the odds of hooking up and ensure that at least one line is available while changing baits or clearing a fouled line.
    When shoreline fishing, sand spikes firmly set into the ground are a necessity. Casually propping your rod against a cooler risks it being dragged into deep water when a strong fish takes the bait.
    A beach chair is another mark of an experienced angler. Shoreline fishing is characterized by long periods of inactivity interrupted by moments of adrenalin-soaked, fish-fighting panic. Being comfortable during the slower moments makes the wait much more tolerable.