Rockfish in Review
It was a mostly great year
The rockfish season this year was, on the whole, great. It didn’t start until June because spring was a three-month mix of heavy rains, high winds, muddy water and low temperatures. While that early scenario was disappointing for anglers, it was fantastic for the fish, because just about every species that reproduces in the Chesapeake had a very successful spawn.
In spite of the spring weather, the June bite started out hot. Live-lining took the limelight right from the beginning, particularly around the Bay Bridge. While light-tackle jigging produced fish for many of its advocates, swimming small, live, Norfolk spot on a 5/0 hook down into structure or onto a marked school of rockfish was a sure ticket to a hard-bent rod. Lots of stripers over 30 inches were caught throughout June and into July.
The only difficulty with live-lining in 2011 was locating the right-sized Norfolk spot. Having lost almost the entire yearling class in the Chesapeake to a cold-water fish kill during 2010, anglers had to make do with older and bigger spot as bait. Attempts at substituting small white perch proved inferior in tempting a good rockfish to eat.
White perch are still deep over shell bottom. Bloodworms on the bottom will tempt the black-backs into your cooler and provide a tasty meal. The yellow perch haven’t started yet, but it won’t be long. Something is always biting on the Chesapeake.
Whitetail and sika deer, muzzleloader: thru Dec. 31
That difficulty was only a mild irritation, however. Chumming and fishing cut menhaden deep became the more popular and effective technique later in the summer, but those who managed to find appropriately sized spot and stuck with live-lining rarely came home skunked.
Then came the shallow-water bite. In spite of torrid August temperatures, stripers frequented the shallows and moved up into the rivers almost from the first week of that month. Throwing top-water plugs and flies in the early morning and late afternoon almost always ended in churning melees, as schools of voracious rockfish from three to eight pounds would hit anything that sputtered, popped or chugged across the water.
That wonderful part of the season ended abruptly, however, when Hurricane Irene tore through the mid-Bay later in the month. The debris from Irene, drifting down from the Conowingo Dam releases, only managed to interfere slightly with the ongoing bite. But those interruptions were to prove a ghastly warm-up to what was to follow.
Tropical Storm Lee arrived in early September with a record deluge of heavy rain in our region and then up into Pennsylvania, inundating the entire Susquehanna River drainage. Floodwaters and an overwhelming amount of storm debris from those northern areas gushed down into the Chesapeake and pretty much put a stop to all activities on the Bay.
The Chesapeake remained dangerous and filthy for the rest of September. Though the Bay slowly cleared and fishing improved, subsequent releases of dirty water from the Conowingo Dam continued to vex us for weeks.
October eventually turned on, especially around the Bay Bridge, as a soft-crab bite developed unlike any I had ever seen. Almost every bridge support held pods of good-sized stripers, and they liked nothing more than a big chunk of soft crab drifted down into their midst. Fishing the Bay once again returned to excellent.
The top-water bite, unfortunately, never resumed due to the murky waters. But November and into December gave birth to a light-tackle jigging bonanza as rockfish began to school deep and feed up for winter. Bass Assassins and Stingsilvers, often fished with a small dropper fly, were taking fish everywhere in the Bay. Migratory fish also began to show and in early December trollers whacked some jumbo stripers.
The mid-Bay season for most of us ended as it began, with a good Bay Bridge bite right up to December 15, the last day of the season. A large school of three- to eight-pound fish had gathered around the structure, particularly the Eastern Shore Rock Pile.
Feeding on young gizzard shad, the stripers also took Bass Assassins, various metal jigs and even bull minnows on bottom rigs. The bite persevered right up until the season ended even though a small fleet of sport fishing boats hovered over them almost continually.
Rockfish season reopens next April 16. Until then, clean and service your tackle and give thanks for a unique sporting experience on a beautiful piece of water unlike any other in the world. There is no place like the Chesapeake, and no better fish than our rock.