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A Not-So Little Fishing Secret

No matter your gear, you’ve got to be over the fish if you’re going to catch

     After five consecutive skunks over the last 10 days, I shared my grief with friend and neighbor Frank Tuma, a charter boat captain.
     “Yeah, I’ve heard that the middle Bay is empty of rockfish,” he said. “But I’ve found a nice bunch that I’ve been working over the last few trips. Going to take a couple of friends out tomorrow. Want to come?” 
     I swallowed my pride and accepted. It was not a hard decision. I could not remember a dry spell as long and brutal as my current one.
     The next morning I grabbed a pair of rods and headed for the marina. Frank and friends Ray and Bob and Bob’s son Rob were on board and ready to go.
     It was not a long run, about a half hour on Downtime, Frank’s 29-foot C-Hawk, but the day was already remarkable. Temperatures were approaching 80 degrees and the winds were a mere whisper. Not bad for November. As we neared Frank’s spot, he picked up a pair of binoculars and scanned the forward horizon.
     “Birds should be showing up any minute.”
      As if on cue, a dozen or so gulls materialized in the distance off our starboard quarter, swooping and diving over water that was becoming increasingly agitated. We slowed about 100 yards away, and the captain deployed his trolling gear: small and medium-sized tandem rigs of green-and-white soft plastics with rubber hula skirts and two downsized umbrella rigs.
     “One thing you’ve got to remember, Den,” Frank said to me with a grin, “is that no matter what kind of gear you’ve got or how hard you try, if you’re not over fish, you’re not going to catch anything.”
     I couldn’t argue with that logic. So I moved aft as we neared the breaking fish and screaming birds.
     As we skirted the edge, then crossed over to draw our trailing baits into the active zone, first one, then two and finally three rods went down hard. Soon there were three fat and healthy fish flopping on the deck. The smallest was 23 inches, the largest 26. 
     We soon added two more to the fish box. Then things got a little complicated.      The one downside to chasing birds over breaking fish is that the bite is obvious to anyone in the area. Some of the boats eager to join in the action rushed into the breaking school with their engines running.
      At first the intrusion merely split up the school, but eventually the motor noise put all the fish down. The action died.
      “Whattaya gonna do?” Frank muttered as we motored away from a fleet that had grown to over a dozen boats.
    Trolling away, we waited for things to improve. The only noticeable change over the next hour, however, was the arrival of more watercraft, few catching anything. Motoring ever farther, we checked our baits for weed and other hook fouling and redeployed them again. Eventually we were rewarded by the appearance of wheeling birds and white water thrown by feeding rockfish — right in our path, not 50 yards away.
     Steering to one side so we would not disturb the action, Frank maneuvered our trolled baits right down the edge of the melee. Rods began to bend down again. Within a half hour we had our 10-fish limit and a few more that we released. It wasn’t quite noon.
    Frank was right. To catch fish, you really need to know where they are.
Fish Finder
     I’m sworn to secrecy concerning the location of this week’s column. Aside from those fish, keeper rockfish are mostly lacking in the middle Bay. The bulk of larger fish migrating up from the ocean have reportedly stalled around Tangier Sound and the mouth of the Potomac.
      Trolling is the best method, with fish favoring umbrella rigs and tandem setups. Chartreuse-green followed by white fished deep are producing the best. Jigging is also taking some fish when concentrations can be found holding steady, usually on the bottom. Shallow-water action has been disappointing.
    White perch are on the move to their wintering grounds. Still, some schools of really big, thick whities can be found holding on the lumps off the major tributaries. They’ll take bloodworms on the bottom in 15 to 25 feet. 

Hunting Seasons
Sea Duck: thru Nov. 12
Duck: Nov. 11-24
Canada Goose Nov. 18-24
Snow goose: thru Nov. 24
Whitetail deer, antlered and antlerless, and Sika deer: Muzzleloader season thru Nov. 21; Bow season thru Nov. 24 
Woodcock: thru Nov. 24
Ruffed grouse: thru Jan. 31
Squirrel: thru Feb. 28