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Slim Pickings

Trophy rockfish big but few as ­season opens

Steve McGinnis, D.L. Hutton and Lesy Smith with a 411⁄2-incher caught at Bloody Point on a chartreuse/white trolling bait.
      Slim Pickens was a noted Hollywood western character actor of the 1980s. Unfortunately, his name defines the results of the opening day of trophy rockfish season in Maryland. Hundreds of boats, thousands of anglers, a beautiful, sunny day, light winds, calm seas. Very few fish.
      The low catch surprised almost everyone, as most boaters reported that their fishfinders showed a more interesting scenario below. Lots of big stripers were swimming throughout the Chesapeake, with hardly any taking a bait.
       Unusually cold water temperature, dirty water and a delayed spawn are the primary culprits in the opening-day disappointment. Cold water slows the rockfish metabolism and dulls their hunger. Dirty water makes them uncomfortable. Plus a lot of the fish are still moving toward their spawning sites and uninterested in anything else. 
        Hardly any of the fishless anglers I interviewed the first two days were unhappy, though. While united in disappointment, most were cheery and confident that luck would sooner or later turn their way.
       On Sandy Point beach at mid-morning on the opener there were perhaps 60 or so anglers lined up behind their forest of surf sticks, almost shoulder to shoulder, fishless, but nary a frown among them.
      Down the road at Leo James’s marina on Mill Creek, a customary source of vital intel, the outlook was guarded. “The fish are there,” Leo said. “I just don’t know what they’re going to do today. I’m hoping my customers get some, but this opener is very different from the last few years, at least for now.”
       During my last tour of Sandy Point at about 4pm, the mood was still optimistic with a few anglers still arriving, hoping for an evening bite. The overall numbers, however, were thinning. 
       Finally, at 5pm, I located a boat with a keeper. An 18-foot center console that had launched from Sandy Point that morning and trolled all the way down to Bloody Point and back had scored a very fat 411⁄2-inch fish, weighing 38-plus pounds. It was one of two hooked at the same time; the second was cut off when the two fish crossed lines. Steve McGinnis landed the ­beauty, while D.J. Hutton skippered and Lesy Smith provided backup as well as the story on the one that got away.
      Again and again, anglers throughout the day were optimistic as the whole season lay ahead, with some already gearing up for the following day.
      The vast majority I interviewed were trolling, which is the most effective method for finding trophy-sized fish. There were, however, a growing number of shore-bound sports, many with their families in tow to provide emotional support as well as some logistical assistance. A chilly day with a poor bite is more easily enjoyed with a just-grilled burger or hot dog.
      Most of the land-locked crews were armed with nine- to 11-foot surf rods, 20- to 25-pound mono or braid to 40-pound test, long leaders and big bloodworms or chunks of fresh menhaden for bait, along with three- to five-ounce sinkers.
      While I prefer to spend opening day interviewing the throngs of anglers rather than competing with them, I plan on being in action soon. If I’m not out chumming or jigging from my 17-foot skiff, I’ll be ensconced in a lawn chair behind my own surf rod and soaking a chunk of bait off of one of our Chesapeake access points. It’s all good on the Bay.
 
Fish Finder
Opening day of trophy rockfish season was a non-event with keepers of 35 inches and up not responding to the thousands of baits being dragged or soaked throughout the Bay. Sunday was just as bad.
The situation should not be a surprise with our colder-than-normal spring. The overwhelming majority of anglers expect things to improve in the near future and improve greatly by the end of the month, and I agree.
If you don’t like the slow start for rockfish, the white perch run is still on, pickerel fishing is hot, there are scads of hickory shad still in the rivers and the catfish bite is excellent.