The Last Rockfish
Tic, tic, tic: I could feel my two-ounce bucktail jig bouncing lightly across the remnants of the centuries-old oyster bed some 70 feet below. On this windy, mid-December day, even with gloves my hands were aching cold and my fingers growing numb. Then, finally, something below felt different, and I slammed my rod back hard. The tip arced over, hesitated, and my whole rod was pulled down, almost to the gunnel. The drag started to hiss. Fish on!
The big rockfish of winter are still arriving. Though the 50-inch mark has yet to be broken, a number of fish have come close. Trolling is the most productive method. A 48-inch, almost 50-pound fish recently fell to a trolled tandem bucktail rig in 110 feet of water.
Whitetail and sika deer, muzzleloader: Dec 17-31
We had been making drift after drift over this shell bottom for more than an hour, and though there were good marks on the fish finder, there was no action. One of the challenges with wintertime angling is that fish are cold-blooded. During frigid months, their bodies change, storing fat, and their metabolisms slow down, conserving energy. That reduces their need to eat and that translates into a very slow bite.
But a hook-up in cold weather also means a tough fight. The water is more oxygenated and the fish more resistant to tiring.
It seemed to take forever to get this guy to the surface, but I didn’t want to rush things. That was fortunate because when we finally got the fat eight-pounder into the net, I saw that my hook had a very thin purchase on its lip. Had I leaned hard on this one, I would have lost it for sure.
The Right Tools for Light-Tackle Jigging
I had been fishing with jigs in deep water over the past two weeks around the Bay Bridge and had learned a great deal. Light-tackle jigging in the Bay requires specific techniques and proper tackle. My six-and-a-half-foot, fast-action medium-heavy St. Croix casting rod and Ambassadeur baitcasting reel, spooled with thin 15-pound braid, were pretty close to what was required.
Light-tackle jigging is not new, but with improvements in tackle technology over the last decade it has substantially increased in popularity on the Chesapeake and has become, arguably, one of the most productive techniques available to take stripers, particularly on artificial lures.
Two aspects of modern tackle that have made this possible are braided line and graphite fishing rods. The no-stretch quality of braid and the light weight and sensitivity of graphite let you tell just what is going on with your jig deep under water. You can almost feel a fish breathing on your lure.
You no longer need 10 ounces of lead to stay down where fish are holding in their wintering grounds. Fifteen-pound braid is generally the diameter of six-pound monofilament, which greatly reduces its drag in the water and makes getting down deep and staying there possible with lightweight lures.
My arsenal of deep-water lures includes few if any items heavier than two ounces.
Sometimes the stripers want a wobbly fall such as the Lil Bunker produces. Other times they want just the straight rise and fall of a Stingsilver or Diamond Jig. Then equally often the dance of a bucktail or a Bass Assassin is what will trigger a strike. The lure should be the lightest weight you can use and still reach and stay at the depth of the fish.
Scent can also be important since at those depths there is little light. In low temperatures rockfish rely more on smell than sight to locate their prey. I’ve discovered that Berkley Gulp Alive products such as the four-inch Swimming Mullet added to the jig hook can provide just a little extra to trigger a rockfish’s interest.
Clothes during the cold season can also make or break the fishing trip. You’ll often see anglers in full waterfowl hunting camouflage when they’re on the water this time of year. Windproof waterproof and insulated coats and pants will make your day comfortable instead of agonizing.
Stay away from down-insulated clothing when you’re on the water. When it gets wet, down loses its ability to retain warmth. Stick with synthetic insulators such as Thinsulate and Hollofill or with wool clothing. In the event of a drenching, they’ll keep you warm until you can get off the water.
Rockfish season closes December 15, but catch and release is permitted during winter months. The survival rate for released fish in colder weather is close to 100 percent, so don’t hesitate to tangle with Mr. Striped Pants when the weather permits. It’s not necessary to harvest a fish to enjoy a dance with the wild.
Oyster Harvest Moratorium?
Scientists have again called for a complete halt to commercial oyster harvesting. That’s the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s recommendation to allow the few stocks remaining the possibility of rebuilding.
These recommendations are opposed by both commercial watermen and state officials. At least a century of over-fishing and, more recently, significant pollution, have resulted in the reduction of this keystone Bay resource to five percent of its historic numbers. Yet Maryland officials insist a commercial season is still viable while they continue to study the oyster population’s demise.
Many others, myself included, believe that these people are seriously out of touch with reality.