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Etiquette for Breakers

How to get your fair share when fish and birds are feeding

It had started as a brisk, calm morning, but the fish weren’t in the shallows where I had hoped to find them. After a futile hour, I followed Plan B to the Bay Bridge to find only little guys there. I was calling it a day and heading in when I saw a wisp of smoke to the north.
    Thinking it odd, I watched for seconds until I realized it wasn’t smoke at all. It was a swarm of feeding seabirds, their numbers growing by the second. Securing my gear, I fired up the outboard, jumped up on plane and headed toward the melee.
    It took about 10 minutes to reach the swirling mass. I couldn’t believe my luck, for there wasn’t another boat in sight. Boils and splashes decorated at least an acre of water out in front of me as the screaming birds swooped down for stunned and injured baitfish.
    Easing my throttle to a slow crawl, I surveyed the situation. There seemed to be some sizeable rockfish in the mix as I slowly skirted well out from the edge of the action and quietly headed up current. I didn’t want to queer this bite.
    Getting a good idea of the tidal movement and the effects of the slight breeze on my skiff, I finally eased up to within casting distance. Shutting down the motor, I began to work the edge of the breaking fish with a surface plug. Quickly hooking up with a nice fish, I fought it to the boat and netted it.


    A new influx of dirty water down from the Conowingo Dam has complicated fishing in the middle Bay. The fish are still around, just moving to avoid filthy water. Nice-sized rockfish are being taken around the Bay Bridge, and trollers along the Eastern Shore have been getting fish dragging small bucktails, spoons and sassy shad. Generally, because of the plagues of dirty water from the north, better fishing is to the south. Down at Breezy Point, nice fish are being taken trolling and jigging.
    Way to the south around Tangier Sound, the fishing for speckled sea trout has been outstanding, the best in years. Mostly small bluefish are still in the mid-Bay. Croaker and spot are becoming ever scarcer.
    Crabbing remains good, but the jimmies are working ever deeper.

    Icing down the 20-plus-inch striper, I picked up my rod again and looked to the action. But my skiff had drifted out of range of the feeding fish. I was lowering my electric motor to quietly rejoin the frenzy when another boat made its approach.

The Wrong Way

    A large cabin cruiser roared directly into the middle of the feeding fish and stopped as its four-man crew, leaving their motor idling noisily, cast in every direction. They were rigged for bottom fishing, and their quickly sinking baits went unnoticed by the feeding fish. The boat’s ingress, however, had split the school into two groups.
    With the fish in the group nearest them (and me) dispersing from the noise of their engine and getting no hits on their baits, they rammed their throttle ahead and chased back into the second half of the school. They repeated that maneuver a number of times, without any success, until they managed to drive away virtually all the feeding rockfish.
    I left in disgust. The last sight I had of the boat and its crew, they were still vigorously working the water without the slightest clue as to what they had done.

The Right Way

    No one has exclusive claim over breaking fish on the Chesapeake. But there is definitely a strategy and an etiquette to ensure angling success and to allow everyone an equal chance in the action.
    The first rule is to never drive a boat into breaking fish. Pause a distance off of the edge of the school, determine which way the school is moving and how the tidal current and wind effects your boat. Then quietly reposition so that the fish come to you. Turn off your engine when you’re in place. If you find the fish surrounding your boat, do not start up, even if you’re ready to leave. Wait until they have moved on to reposition.
    Give fellow anglers plenty of room. Figure the length of your longest cast, double it and give everyone else at least that much room in hopes they will do the same for you. If someone is fighting a fish, give way. Moving in close will only give the linesides (or big blue or spec) a chance to foul the line on your motor.
    If you are trolling lures and want to target a breaking school, lengthen your lines, pass by the school and turn across, bringing your lures (but not your boat) through the breakers. There are always unseen fish on the edges. Often they are the bigger fish.
    If you discover that the fish on top are undersized and not worth your time, don’t despair. There are often larger fish beneath them, sometimes deep under them and a distance down current. Fishing sinking or diving lures (and in the latter case metal jigs), just off the bottom can score some lovely stripers, bluefish and sea trout, even when the ones on top are teenies. This is particularly true if the fish breaking at the surface are snapper blues.
    Don’t despair that the actions of gross offenders through ignorance or rudeness are without consequence. With every cell phone a digital camera and the web an angling party line, offending fishermen will often find a photograph of themselves and their boat a topic for electronic criticism on more than one local angling web site.