Rockfish in Transition
Come June, we’ll be in fishing heaven
The rockfish spawn is just about finished. The big migratory female rockfish have already vacated our waters to return to their wanderings along the Atlantic Coast. Migratory males (usually smaller than the females), remained in the spawning headwaters for the duration and are now forming up and leaving.
Over the last week, all of the rockfish that ended up on our cleaning table were male, measuring 25 to 33 inches. Males can be identified by two large, soft white organs, their testes, in the back of the internal body cavity. By late July, they will have shrunk to a diameter of about a half-inch, but this time of year they are large and obvious.
The big migratory rockfish have largely left the Bay, though some sizeable males are still making their way out of the spawning areas. Chumming and fishing cut bait are best bets for attracting a limit now, but soon light-tackle jigging will be scoring more reliably.
Plan to fish in the annual Coastal Conservation Association Maryland Kent Narrows Fly & Light Tackle Striper Tournament Saturday, June 2. The tourney features three divisions: fly, light tackle and kayak, with prizes of fishing equipment in each. Lines can go in at 5:30am, and the deadline is 3:30pm. Camaraderie continues at the Jetty Restaurant at Kent Narrows over a roast pig barbecue: $40 includes a year’s membership in the Association, a tournament T-shirt, adult beverages and barbecue: www.ccamd.org.
Very soon our resident rockfish will be all that remain. That substantial population is generally composed of fish seven years old or younger. After the age of seven, most rockfish, especially the females, instinctively leave their Chesapeake nursery to take up a migratory life in the Atlantic.
As the resident stripe bass enter their post-spawn period, they form schools corresponding to their age groups and slowly settle into their summertime routines in the Chesapeake. They move about seeking quantities of forage fish but no longer travel long distances.
At this early stage, when the fish haven’t yet completed schooling up and orienting themselves, chumming and fishing cut bait become the most productive method to locate or attract and catch fish. Trolling takes a distant second. But consistently encountering numbers of good-sized rockfish during this period can be maddeningly difficult.
This post-spawn phase does not last long. By early June, we can count on our rockfish entering their much more predictable summertime phase. Then, live-lining and eeling will become the more productive methods of angling, though chumming will still be worthwhile. Bottom fishing cut bait endures as the most popular strategy with shore-bound fishers.
The Secret of Live-lining
Live lining is accomplished by first securing a good supply of the right size baitfish. White perch of up to six inches will do nicely in the early phases of the summertime bite. These perch can be caught by fishing bloodworms or grass shrimp over hard bottom or around rocky, shallow water structures.
White perch are a hardy species and can easily be kept frisky in a bait bucket if the water is exchanged from time to time and ice is added periodically to keep the water cool. Live wells and aerated buckets are even better.
When Norfolk spot show up in good numbers, rockfish suddenly lose interest in white perch, and spot become the dominant baitfish. Spot are an oilier, softer-scaled and soft-rayed fish that are easier for the stripers to capture and more nutritious than the perch.
Spot can be caught by bottom fishing in the areas white perch frequent, using the same baits. Aerated live bait buckets are a must to maintain the friskiness of this species.
Eels, always a desirable bait for rockfish, are not quite as effective. That may be because of the general decline of eel populations. Purchasing them from a tackle shop is the most reliable way to acquire this bait nowadays.
Maintain eels in a wet towel on a bed of ice. They will go dormant as they chill and are then easily handled and revive nicely when they are reintroduced into Bay waters.
Perch, spot and eels are all fished the same way, hooked through both lips or lightly, just behind the head. The fish are turned loose and allowed to swim down toward the bottom over suspected rockfish. Weight is added to the rigs if the current is too strong to allow the fish to reach the right depths naturally.
Fluorocarbon leaders and sharp hooks are to every angler’s advantage during this period, when very good fish in the 10- to 12-pound range can be encountered.
Early summer is special on the Bay. It’s a good idea to get in as much water time as possible before the heat of July and August slow fishing down once again.