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Return of the Rockfish

Trophy-size fish arriving daily

Very large migratory stripers are arriving in the mid-Bay, setting the scene for the opening of Trophy Rockfish Season in just two weeks. Big-fish anglers — sports who are willing to spend 10 frigid hours or more at a stretch jigging for a single photo op with just one enormous cow — are posting pics of multiple big fish caught and released from The Rips at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant up to the warm water discharge at the mouth of the Patapsco.
    Despite grim news last year from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission of a 25 percent decline in overall striped bass stocks, the Chesapeake, especially the mid-Bay, experienced a striper-fishing bonanza last season. Devoted fishers are hoping for a repeat this year.
    Scuttlebutt overheard from commercial netters over the winter indicates an unusually big population of larger-than-average fish holding on wintering grounds in the mid-Bay. We are all hoping these fish will remain with us, especially at the beginning of the season.
    Two weeks from now, we’ll get on the water officially and settle all the conjecture. Finally, the cold we’ve complained about the last two months will be working in our favor. There’s a better than good chance that the low temps have delayed this season’s spawn, which will in turn keep more big fish in the area longer.
    Early on, big trolling lures such as parachutes with nine- to 12-inch soft shad in the traditional colors of white, yellow and chartreuse, will compete with the more trendy hues like John Deere green, sparkle purple and jet black. Whatever the color, the big rigs should be dragged to tempt the giants.
    Umbrellas, chandeliers and other multiple-lure setups that create lots of water noise and disturbance to attract big fish remain popular — and work well. Big fish? Big bait. The old mantra is as true today as ever.
    The best areas to troll this time of year are the deep-water channels that the migrating stripers tend to use (the tides are stronger) to come up the Bay (usually on the eastern side) and to leave (usually on the western side). Of course, choosing which side to fish is not so simple when you also have to take into account wind direction, forage fish location, time of year, time of day and boat traffic. The only rules that don’t change are to fish the warmer top 15 feet of the water column (unless there’s heavy boat traffic, then fish deep) and always plot a zigzag course to cover more water.
    Chumming with bait fishing was once uncommon during the trophy season but is gaining adherents every year. One reason is that it lets anglers tangle with really big fish using lighter tackle. Another reason is it has been surprisingly effective
    Most boat anglers fish the channel edges and set their baits (fresh menhaden is best) on the bottom. Others will fish some of their baits shallow, under floats, or at intermediate depths with little weight. There is a strong belief that stripers found up off of the bottom in springtime are traveling and not eating. But you can never tell.
    Quite a fishery has also evolved over the last few years off of the beaches of Sandy Point and the pier at Matapeake State Park, where anglers using bloodworms and fishing long surf rods to get their baits out away from the shoreline have been scoring great catches (for release) from mid-March through mid-April, especially before dawn and after dark. The opening of trophy season means they’ll finally be able to keep one fish if it’s over 28 inches.
    The most important aspect of both chumming and bait fishing from shore is using circle hooks. The odds of catching a throwback (under 28 inches) are very great this time of year. Half of all released deep-hooked fish of any size die within two hours, an extensive DNR study has found. Every angler should use circle hooks to keep from gut-hooking these fish.