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So Much So Soon

They shouldn’t have been biting. But they were. And I was catching.

At so many levels I suspected the morning was going to be a waste of time. Plus, getting up at 5:30am, though always painful for me, is even more so when I’m not expecting to catch anything.
    I was going to try plugging the shallows for rockfish. It’s my favorite kind of fishing but an end-of-September activity, not promising during a long August heat wave.
    I was determined to go, however, and I went alone because you can’t really subject a friend to such idiocy. Among other things, our hotter-than-ever summer was a strong signal that stripers would be later than ever starting up their fall patterns.


    The recent break in the hot weather has invigorated the bite everywhere on the Bay. Perch and spot are taking bloodworms over shell bottom in 18 to 25 feet of water. Some Spanish mackerel have appeared on the Eastern Shore at the mouth of the Choptank. Nice croaker are being taken in the evenings off Hackett’s. Rockfish are regrouping around the Bay Bridge and schooling at Love Point and Podickery Point and the False Channel. Live-lining is still producing the nicer-sized fish, while soft crab, peeler and cut bait are catching limits of smaller fish. Breaking rockfish have been concentrated in waters around Poplar Island with the better fish to the south. Crabbing should improve with the falling temperatures.

    But it was a beautiful, calm morning as I slid my skiff into the water. My pup, Sophie, who was eagerly eyeballing a marina mallard coming carelessly close, reluctantly jumped on board, and I fired up the Yamaha.
    After a long run to the south, we coasted to a stop about two hundred yards off a rocky point, and I turned on the electric motor. Even if you don’t expect to find fish, it’s a good idea to be quiet: Noise guarantees that your worst expectations will be realized.
    We made a suitably stealthy approach in the just-broken dawn and anchored up a long cast from the likeliest-looking area. Picking up an outfit and pulling the cover off the small Shimano casting reel, I was happy that last winter I had cleaned and oiled its bearings.

Casting for Fun

    Thumbing the spool with an easy cast, I sent my top-water plug sailing out. It plopped down, and I chugged it back in an irregular, wounded-baitfish kind of dance. I love to cast plugs with bait-casting gear. There’s something very satisfying about the whir of the bearings and the low arc of a cast that you can control by just the lightest of touches on the turning spool.
    The next throw, I pulled out all the stops and fired it hard and tight to the shoreline, popping the plug solidly as soon as it landed. I then started swimming it back, spitting and gurgling and creating my own particular brand of small-fish panic, more to entertain myself than to attract a strike.
    Then the water exploded around the plug as a striper hit.
    My rod tip surged down, and, feeling the fish, I set the hook reflexively with a firm sideways sweep of the rod. I could hardly believe this was happening.

Angling Heaven

    My rod bent hard over and the fish, obviously a good one, sent its wake crashing against the nearby shoreline as it launched through water less than two feet deep and then headed out into the Bay. My heart lit up like a carnival at nighttime.
    The fish pulled line out in gobs. It was gratifying to feel the silky smoothness of the drag feeding yard upon yard without the slightest hesitation, that too a product of my wintertime maintenance. I was in angling heaven.
    Patiently playing out the fish and enjoying every moment, I finally netted the scrappy devil (a fat and shiny 22-incher), took its picture and buried it in ice. My out-of-town brother Tim and his family were in D.C. that day and coming to Annapolis for dinner. This would be the centerpiece and main course.
    Looking at the once-again-quiet shoreline, I still felt dazed at my good luck. The fish was probably a loner. Still, I sent another cast out toward the shoreline, but I wasn’t disappointed when my retrieve went unmolested. As did the next.
    But the third was pure juju as water erupted under the plug about halfway back to the boat. My biggest failing in top-water fishing is reacting to the splash too early and pulling the lure away from the fish. Why this time I had the composure to resist is still a mystery. But for some reason, I did.
    As the water cleared, I could see the plug bobbing along, untouched in the receding turmoil. I paused, then gave it just a twitch. Nothing. After a long minute I twitched it again. The rockfish apparently was waiting for just one more sign of life because at the second twitch it smashed the bait, and the game was on again, my drag hissing and the taut line singing through the water as the fish made for the horizon.
    I won’t post any records, but let me say that the next two hours were as close to being in top-water paradise as an angler can get. Fish after fish smashed my surface plugs and tore apart the water in their eagerness to engulf them — then in their eagerness to depart.
    On the way back to the ramp that morning with two fat rockfish on ice, my fingers worn and bleeding from countless releases, I was exhilarated. It would be difficult to have a better day than this, but it would be fun trying.�