Fishing Our Big Muddy
When the fish bite, you gotta be there to catch them
First came Irene, then seven straight days of even greater deluge from Tropical Storm Lee. With so much forced inactivity, I was on the brink of angling despair. When the forecast suggested our first day of precipitation-free weather, I loaded my skiff.
Arriving at the ramp and launching at first light, I had no misconceptions about my chances. All the Bay’s tributaries had been swollen in flood stage for days.
Water was the color of coffee with creamer and cresting near the top of the piers at the ramp. Out on the main stem, as far as the eye could see, the surface was dimpled with branches, limbs and storm debris.
Carefully coming up on plane and moving down the Chesapeake, I even spotted the remains of an old boat sailing along with the tidal current. Well down at the stern with its ribs poking through the surface like the chest of an ancient pirate skeleton, it appeared bound for the Atlantic. I backed off the throttle: There were probably a lot more like that under the surface.
In the two short days I fished immediately after Irene, I discovered that angling had remained largely unaffected. I was betting that even with the present mess in the water, fish would still be around their old haunts.
Part of my theory was that even though the water was muddy, it was charged with oxygen. The rest of my scientific conjecture can be summed up simply as wishful thinking.
The first shoreline spot did not look promising. It looked deserted. Planting the spike from my Power Pole anchor and coming to a stop, I heard debris thump against my hull. The water did not appear as cloudy as it was out nearer the main channel, but it was far from clear.
Starting out with my favorite popping plugs and working the area thoroughly, I got nothing. Alone on the water without another boat in sight, I began to suspect that the morning might be a waste of time.
My Lucky Fluke
I switched to a lipless crank-bait, a noisy, rattling Strike King Red Eye Shad, simply because I could throw it a long way and search a lot of water easily. I fired it out without much hope. My second cast hung a good striper.
I played it carefully. It is bad luck to lose the first fish, and on that day I knew it might be the only fish.
I was wrong. After I netted the 23-incher and iced it down, I was hard to the next fish on the next cast. The off-colored water was teeming with hungry rockfish.
Without moving, I lost count of the fish I fought and released. The lure I was using got so worn of finish that I could barely tell it had been gold with a black back. I decided to retire it after one more fish and hang it on my wall as a memento of the unlikely morning. The next striper broke it off.
I switched to a Bill Lewis Rattle Trap, the older original of that type lure, to confirm if the newer Red Eye Shad was the key. It made no difference: Fish on. I switched to a Stillwater Clatter Shad, another recent variation. The stripers ate that as well, then an Aruku Shad by SPRO.
I used a sweeping side-arm retrieve to keep the vibrating plug near the bottom in about five feet of water. When it bounced the bottom (or a rock) I would give it an immediate short acceleration up, then pause and let the bait flutter down. The stripers would invariably hit on the flutter.
If I missed the hook set, I let it fall again. The hungry rock usually returned to hit it. One fish struck my bait four times in succession before I hooked up. They were determined.
Tropical Storm Lee has done what Hurricane Irene couldn’t: Spoil the fishing. It may be days before better conditions return. In the meantime, fishing fresh-cut baits on the bottom in deeper water, live bait near good structure — and having a lot of patience — are the main remedies. There are rockfish, bluefish, croaker and perch, but they are awaiting the improvement of water conditions as well.
Leaving about 10am with the bite still on, I headed for home with two nice fish in the box. I couldn’t help but wonder if this great fishing was going to continue or if my morning had been a lucky fluke.
The next day, the Bay was far worse. Floating debris was a dozen times what I had seen the day before, and the water was much darker with suspended silt. Rockfish were absent in the shallows. It may be some time before they return.