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The Finicky Appetites of Rockfish

When spot are missing, will they bite on white perch?

It was sunny and flat calm on the Bay, and I had made record time to get on site. But the area I had chosen was empty of boats. With such great weather, I assumed that at least a few sports would be working the flat. The schools of good-sized rockfish that had been teeming there were certainly no secret.
    On my fish finder, the water looked as vacant underneath as on top. With a sinking heart, I cruised slowly an irregular pattern in the general direction of previous good fortune. The bottom appeared featureless and empty; my scan of its 20-foot depth ran steady flat.
    I searched for a half-hour before my screen lit up. Netting a small but lively perch out of my bait bucket, I fitted a 6/0 hook just under the skin in front of its dorsal. I wanted that hook to break free with just a bit of a tug so it could easily find purchase in the rockfish’s mouth.
    One of the most frequent causes of losing big fish when live-lining is placing the hook too deep in the baitfish. Deep hooking obscures much of the hook gap, and it makes it more likely that, when the striper takes the fish down, the hook will turn back into the bait’s body and not into the rockfish.
    Motoring up current, well past the marks, I flipped the small perch out away from my skiff and felt it shoot down toward the bottom. I settled my nerves and waited out the drift with my thumb lightly on the reel spool. It was almost mid-day, and though the sun was high, its heat was not oppressive. The day couldn’t have been more pleasant.

What to Feed a Rockfish
    My trip had started out that morning, as it often does, with an unwelcome surprise. The perch I had planned to catch for bait were no longer where I had been finding them. Just a few days past, the area had been choked with schools of the little white devils, many just the right size, no more than five inches. This morning the bottom looked like a desert on my finder; no life anywhere.
    Moving about with my eyes glued to the sonar produced nothing but eyestrain. I gave up and headed for a sizeable creek where I had occasionally caught a few small perch. It appeared, at first, to be just as empty, but by moving about and trying every piece of structure, I finally found a small school of whities.
    It took another hour to get about 10 decent sized scrappers in my aerated bucket. The morning was wearing late when I finally fired up the Yamaha and headed for rockfish water.
    Would my perch baitfish work?
    The last few years, it has been virtually impossible to get rockfish to eat a white perch. If a live-liner didn’t have a supply of small Norfolk spot, it was unlikely a striper would be tempted to bite. Last year, the number of small spot in the Chesapeake dropped. This year, spot of any size seem to be missing. Since rockfish have to eat, I reasoned, perhaps it was finally time for white perch as bait.
    As I drifted over the area where I’d had likely marks, I felt my baitfish making a number of sudden dashes. Then it stopped. My line started up under my thumb in long, erratic bursts. I fed into the action, guarding against a spool overrun while trying to minimize resistance on the line. Giving the situation a long 10-count, I came tight again.
    When I felt solid resistance I struck, and the fight was on. The hiss of a smooth drag is lovely music to an old angler’s ear. It says big fish and means you’d better be extra careful. There are lots of ways to lose a big guy, as I well knew, but only one sure method to land it: patience combined with constant pressure and focus.
    Eventually that fat, healthy 32-inch fish came to the net and into the boat. As I buried it in ice, I marveled at how well things had turned out. My white perch had carried the day and I had more than enough to get another striper to fill my limit. But another fish didn’t really matter. Everything was already fantastic.