Tuesday April 28, 2015; 11:15 am EDT
This rockfish took me for a Chesapeake train ride
It had been way too many days since I had caught a rockfish, and I was ready. But late that afternoon, the light was beginning to fail, and my surface plug had gone untouched cast after cast.
My hopes had been pinned on a rumor that there were good fish to be had around this remote pile of boulders. Now it looked like it was just not going to happen for me, again.
Getting desperate, I changed my lure color. Perhaps in the dim, fading light of day, black would be a better choice. Its stark silhouette would stand out better when seen from underneath.
But for some reason at the last instant I opted for a white Rat-L-Trap, a subsurface lure, instead of the black popper. The Trap has always been a good rockfish plug, but I hadn’t used one in recent memory, and I’d never used white in poor light, always black. That odd decision would have impact.
Casting the lure far out past the edge of the rocks, I began the retrieve. Lifting my rod tip as the lure passed the edge of the structure, I cranked faster to be sure it didn’t hang up on any unseen boulders.
The mad pulses of the lure vibrated through the water with the increased speed and transmitted up through the line and onto my rod tip. I felt the lure bang off a submerged rock. Then the freight train hit.
Hooked to a Train
I’ve likened the strike of big fish to the lure getting hit by a train. It’s the kind of overstatement anglers are fond of and lends violent drama to a fish story. But my previous experiences were nothing in comparison to this.
My rod jerked down from an incredible force on the other end. The line flew off of my casting reel so fast a mist formed from the moisture flung out of the spinning spool. My tightly set drag had no effect whatsoever on stopping or even slowing the fish. Everything was out of control.
A rockfish fight is generally not an explosive affair. They can be stubborn, but they don’t go fast and they don’t go far … usually. This one was running like hell and not stopping for anything. I was hooked up with a locomotive screaming down tracks bound for the horizon.
After way too much line had disappeared from my reel, I pushed my thumb down on the spool to add resistance to the drag. I had to stop this fish before I ran out of line.
That turned out to be a mistake. I fried my thumb with the friction, and the monster I was connected to accelerated in response. I don’t know how much line was left on my reel when the brute finally paused. I was afraid to look down.
I began lifting the rod and reeling as I lowered the tip, and lifting then reeling and lifting then reeling again. I was gaining line, but it stretched horizontal to the surface of the water out into the distance. I couldn’t even guess how far away the fish was.
After many long minutes of effort, and with the sky getting darker, I finally recovered enough line to feel I had a chance. Then the fish took it all back, and I started over again.
Eventually, though, I began to prevail, finally drawing the big devil toward the boat until at last its tail broke water about 20 yards out. A lump rose in my throat from the size of it, and I began making the fish gods all kinds of promises … If only I don’t lose this baby. But I knew the odds were not good. Long fish fights are usually lost fish fights.
Both of us were just about spent, and though I botched my first landing attempt from arm fatigue, I did manage on the second effort. The striper’s length barely fit into the net, and it was only with difficulty that I struggled it over the side and into my skiff. The fish was just as big as it had felt.
I hooked up with three more rockfish that evening, but I had already used up most of my game. Two of the fish pulled free from bad hook sets, and the third was a release. That one measured 23 inches, but in comparison to the 20-plus pounder iced down in my box, it didn’t seem nearly big enough to keep.