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Rockfish Own the Night

To play with them, you need to know the rules

It had been another great night of fishing on the Chesapeake.

The Chesapeake had at last become quiet. The Bay’s summertime revelers — with their boats, jet skis and water toys — had fled home hours ago. Even the gulls were finally mute, settling into their roosts for the evening. But as deep darkness descended, my fishing partner, Christian, and I sat motionless at anchor in my small skiff positioned about 100 feet from a heavy rock jetty.

Fish Are Biting

The rockfish live-lining bite remains incredible this summer. It is as sure a bet as there is for a limit of stripers — providing you have a quantity of lively spot, five to seven inches, for bait. Try Love Point, Podickery, the whole length of the Bay Bridge and Hackett’s, Tolley and Thomas points. Trollers as well are still scoring on rockfish, though not as well, dragging small spoons, soft plastics and bucktails deep. Plugging the shallows for stripers is starting to be productive in the early morning and late afternoon.

Spanish mackerel are taking Clark spoons, Kastmasters, small, bright surgical hose and even Hopkins jigs trolled fast around the main stem of the Bay. Bluefish are still here, though mostly in the Eastern Bay, and smashing anything bright and shiny. Croaker remain in our area as well and are biting well, though most anglers are pursuing rockfish. White perch are well schooled and over shell bottom and taking bloodworms and grass shrimp. They are also thick along shoreline structure and chasing minnows and small menhaden and hitting spinner baits and tiny crank baits with abandon.

Crabbing has slowed to miserable of late with the larger jimmies scattering and going deep to cooler waters. The middle depths have been commandeered by hordes of undersized crabs of both sexes. I have never seen so many small crabs, especially females, and it bodes well for coming seasons. That is, of course, if politicians don’t sell us out and allow the return of the wholesale commercial harvest of females. Keep that in mind during the November elections.

First there came a slight swirl at a small rip at the end of the structure where the falling tidal current twisted past. A few minutes later, the water’s surface boiled in the same rip as something large and unseen made a sudden and violent move.

Alongside the jetty’s rocks, barely visible in the light of just a sliver of a waxing moon, the back of a large fish, then a second, emerged from the water as they worried at something a long cast away. The feed was starting.

Thumbing my small casting reel, I sent a flat-sided, shallow-running crank bait sailing out. It barely dimpled the glassy surface as it dropped to the water just past the feeding fish. Holding my rod tip high, I began a slow and immediate retrieve. Christian’s rod made a quiet swish through the night air as he sent out a lightly weighted Bass Assassin toward the same area.

I could feel the surges of my bait as it pulsed and fluttered through the water, sending out its treacherous signals of distress. Suddenly I lost contact with the lure. Dropping the rod tip and cranking my reel hard, I took up line until it came tight again. Then I struck.

A fish thrashed out in the nighttime water, my rod tip surged down and my stiff-set drag began to surrender line. I heard Christian grunt as he set the hook into his own fish.

Laws of the Night

This time of August, when the sun drops below the horizon, the Chesapeake undergoes a change. The air is still heavy with the daytime summer heat, so heavy that on a calm evening it makes the languid surface of the Bay’s water appear to move like mercury: silver, silent and lazy slow.

But underneath that surface, something else is taking place. With the blazing summertime sun gone, night descending and temperatures finally falling, the Bay’s rockfish are wide awake. Many are moving into the shallows to hunt. They know the baitfish are gathering there in ever larger schools as they begin the early stages of their fall migration.

Searching about in packs large and small, the stripers are answering to an appetite that has been gradually increasing over the last few weeks. The days are getting shorter, autumn is coming and the nighttime bite is on. The stripers are bold, even fearless, in the dark of these late summer nights. This is a light tackle paradise and a shallow-water angler’s dream.

The angling rewards can be substantial, but fishing the nighttime hours also poses extra dangers. Since the waters are almost always deserted, an angler in distress cannot expect assistance in the event of a breakdown or other boating mishap.

Double check your boat batteries, gas, flashlights, flares and other Coast Guard-required safety equipment. Never venture out unless your craft is in perfect running order.

Always be sure you have an operating marine radio or cell phone, preferably waterproof and submersible. And know how to accurately describe exactly where you are going to be fishing in the event you have to call for help. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back.

Never plan to fish an area in the nighttime that you haven’t fished or visited recently during the day. If you don’t have a GPS system, be sure to double check the navigational buoys on the way out and note your headings and the numbers on the markers.

Things look different in the dark. It can be difficult to find the particular channel or inlet leading to your launch site. It’s easy, however, to get disoriented.

Finally, never ever venture forth if there is any possibility of storms, however remote. Check marine weather just before you depart and while you are fishing. You can’t see bad weather coming in the dark, and summertime squalls can be especially fast moving and violent on the Chesapeake.