Hooking up with a Bulldozer
We waited patiently for the tide to turn. It took longer than the current charts predicted, but our wait was worthwhile. The boat swung a bit more earnestly at anchor. Then a rod tip began to dance.
The first slight tickle turned into more pronounced tugs as something below mouthed the chunk of menhaden. I gently retrieved my rod from its holder, slipped off the clicker to reduce line resistance and lightly thumbed the spool.
The striper bite, weather permitting, has been excellent. Curiously for bait-fishing anglers, the rock seem to prefer a menhaden bait on the bottom. In years past they would have switched weeks ago to spot as their preferred forage fish, with live-lining the superior method of taking bigger fish. That switch may still occur, but for now chumming and fishing the freshest menhaden possible on the bottom is a great way to score a prompt limit of linesides.
When the spool turned faster, I knew the fish had eaten my bait and was swimming off. Slipping the reel into gear, I waited for the line to come tight. When it did, I struck back hard. The response was immediate. My rod bent down almost into the corks as a heavy striper felt the sting of the hook, put the line over its shoulder and headed away, down current.
There is no prettier sound to an angler than the hum of a fish taking line against a firmly set drag. Over winter I had upgraded almost all of my reel drags with greased Carbontex custom drag washers. The results were gratifying.
The fish tore out line with no fits and starts. The line fed smoothly away under constant tension. When the run finally stopped, I short stroked, gaining back line and bringing the fish nearer.
The striper then turned in an arc out from the tidal flow and, luckily for us, away from our other outfits still trailing back in the water. I let the fish have its head until it was well clear of the other lines, then poured on the pressure again.
The rule in fighting rockfish is simple. If you try to stop them, they will wreck your gear and break you off. If you are patient, they will soon tire. Striped bass are rather like bulldozers, extremely powerful for short distances but without a lot of top end.
This one was no exception. A handsome, bright, 30-inch male, it was thick through the middle and shining with health. My partner waited until I got the fish alongside our skiff, then slid the net under and lifted it aboard. It would not take long to score the rest of our limit. The smallest was 25 inches.
This year’s early summer bite has been excellent. Almost every fish we have boated this past month has been a migratory male (six years and over) and chocked full of menhaden, the favorite forage fish. It is unusual for the bigger migratory males to tarry so long this high up in the Chesapeake. Our spring was colder than usual, plus local waters are full of baitfish to hold them here.
Rockfish males both migratory and resident always arrive first on station in the fresherwater spawning grounds of springtime, remaining until the spawn is complete. In contrast, the females arrive on their own immutable, unpredictable schedule and cast their roe with the aid of the males that then fertilize the eggs. The larger migratory females (over the age of five or six) then leave to return to the Atlantic.
By mid-June, virtually no big hens are swimming in the Chesapeake with most migratory males leaving as well, pausing to feed as they go. Eventually each summer, only smaller resident rockfish remain.
Right now there are still lots of stripers over 30 inches out there, mostly males from the 2007-year class, a particularly successful spawn.
Charter captain Frank Tuma has come up with a bait fishing technique that avoids the deep hooking of rockfish. He recommends using a snelled size 4/0 circle hook and lightly hooking the menhaden bait about a quarter of an inch deep with the hook point exposed. When a fish bites, leave your rod in the holder until the fish hooks itself. On a recent trip, his clients landed over 30 rockfish without a single instance of deep hooking. Tuma says one of the keys seems to be the hook size; attempts with larger and smaller sizes were not nearly as successful.