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A New Hook for a New Season

Doubtful at first, I’m a confirmed member of the circle-hook club

      Opening day of the second rockfish season, May 16, looked to be a pretty one. It was warm with calm wind, the sky nicely overcast and a fine mist as we motored out of Sandy Point Marina in my 17-foot skiff. It did turn out pretty — pretty wet, then very wet and pretty cold.
      The bite made up for it all.
       Anchored up south of the Bay Bridge in about 33 feet of water over some excellent marks, friend Vince and I and dropped the chum bag over the side. I had pre-rigged our rods with circle hooks and fish-finder rigs.
      I have used circle hooks in the past while catch-and-release fishing. But when fishing for the table, I preferred what I considered the more reliable option, old-style J hooks. However, with the new regulation mandating non-offset circle hooks, there is no other option. In the back of my mind, however, there was some doubt as to the true reliability of the hook.
      The first rockfish to join us on board was a fat and healthy 23-incher, hooked firmly and cleanly in the corner of the mouth, just as the oddly shaped hook was supposed to do. We briefly considered releasing the fish in hopes of more substantial quarry, but we both had painful and detailed memories of releasing the first legal fish — and being rewarded with a skunk.
        The fine mist had morphed into medium-sized raindrops, so we donned vinyl jackets just as the next fish fell to our devices. It was another fatty, this one just over 20 inches. With the skunk banished, there was no release reluctance. It, too, was hooked nicely in the corner of the mouth, making for its safe release. The fish jetted off, little affected by the whole affair. I was warming to the new hooks. 
      The bite slowed as the rain increased. Still, the next rockfish was especially nice. It measured 32 inches and took forever to get to the boat. Again hooked in the corner of the mouth, the big guy (it turned out to be a male) had a surprising amount of energy, running off gobs of line before I could get it turned.
       Then it stayed deep, and I experienced a dark foreboding that the fight might result in a lost fish. I needn’t have worried. With the hook buried right where it was supposed to be, we eventually netted the bulky devil without incident. 
       I was becoming a confirmed member of the circle-hook club.
       The next fish was Vince’s, 27 inches and as bright, fat and shiny as they come. We deposited that beauty deep in the ice chest, debating how big our last keeper had to be to make the dinner list. That’s when the big one hit. Running off a lot more line than I felt comfortable surrendering, the powerful striper ran well out, then began to cut a big half-circle below us.
       The current had become stronger, and as the fish presented its side to us, I considered pulling anchor to follow. That was when the hook pulled free. My rod straightened, and my heart sank. I slowly retrieved my line, with every yard bringing a heartbeat of depression.
       Then the rain really came down. Vince hung another good one, and I laid up my rod to reach for the net. Soon a 26-incher was thumping on the deck. Looking at each other with water streaming down our faces, soaked pants and sopping wet canvas shoes, we didn’t need further discussion to decide we were done for the day.
 
Fish Finder
     The bite has finally taken off. Lots of rockfish are in the Bay proper in mixed sizes, from irritating throwbacks to big late-running trophy-sized brutes. Trolling, jigging, chumming and just fishing cut bait have been putting keepers in the box.
       Keepers now must be 19 inches or longer, with only one of the limit of two fish larger than 28 inches.
       Trolling big baits, particularly around Chesapeake Beach and Point Lookout, is tempting the trophy-sized fish. Anglers throwing soft plastic jigs at marked schools of suspended mid-sized fish (to 30 inches) along the deeper channels are also running up big scores. Chummers and bait anglers are getting prompt limits on either end of the tide phases, the first two hours or the last two.
      The imposition of circle hooks for chumming and live-lining hasn’t made a difference. The circle hooks may in fact be more effective than J hooks, if my experience is any indicator.
      White perch have been showing up in excellent numbers in the deeper tributaries; as for the shallow-water bite, I’ve heard no reports of any as yet.
      Commercial crabbers are targeting 10 to 15 foot depths. I’ve heard no stories of recreational crabbing successes, but it could be that anyone catching them isn’t eager to share.