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A Soft-Shell for a Rockfish?

We’re not the only ones that bite at that delicacy

     Flipping my bait over the side, I spooled out line, letting my bait disappear into the shaded depths and off the down-current side of the Bay Bridge pier. The tide had been moving for under an hour; the gentle current was just slow enough to allow my hook to sink to where I hoped the rockfish were holding.
     Eventually I felt a tiny tap-tap. Trusting that the bite was coming from a nice striper jetting off with its prize — not some white perch eating an expensive meal — I tightened up my line and struck. A heavy pull followed, then a run that stripped line despite my tightly set drag. I put my skiff’s motor into reverse and pulled away to prevent the fish from wrapping my 20-pound mono around the pier leg.
     At almost noon, the waters around the Bay Bridge had more than a few anglers still trying to put ­another rockfish into their coolers. It was a tribute to the effectiveness of my bait that I had managed to entice a keeper to eat. The motor noise was cause enough for lockjaw.
     A soft crab is an especially good bait. Vulnerable after it sheds its hard shell, blue crab in filet mignonette phase is the most desirable prey for any predator swimming the Chesapeake. In that fresh state, the crab exudes a specific odor identifying their tenderness to any passing predator, which is why it is so effective as bait.
     There is one big downside to using the softies. They are so delicate that they can easily be torn apart by any fish, even a small white perch or croaker.
     There are tricks to keep the offering on your hook.
     Quarter larger crabs, half smaller ones, then run the point of a 5/0 J hook through the leg joints where they meet the crab’s body to provide the most secure attachment.
     Alternatively, use a No. 2 treble hook, as the extra points keep the piece of bait together longer than a simple J hook. Adding a small rubber band will also hold the bait more securely, as will covering the bait with a small piece of sheer mesh fabric. 
     The best solution, however, is acquiring a paper-shell crab, a soft crab further along the way to hardening. Its toughened shell resists the bait thieves and remains on the hook while retaining the soft crab scent and appeal. 
     The best tide phase to fish soft crab is the first hour of the moving tide. At that point, you need little or no attached weight to get your offering down to the better fish hanging in deeper water. As the water moves more briskly, the least intrusive and most effective weights are rubber-core sinkers wrapped on your line approximately 24 inches away from the bait. Use a light fluorocarbon leader.
     Soft crab can be fished in lots of ways. Drift them at bridge or pier structures, along the shallower channel edges (if you are marking fish there) or anywhere rockfish are holding in a loose school. On chumming days when the rock are finicky and hesitant to eat your menhaden bait, you might spark their appetite by presenting a soft crab on one of your live-lining rigs.
     If the worst happens and the fish are not there or just not eating, leaving you a half-dozen or so soft baits left in the cooler at the end of the day, eat them yourself. Cleaned, rinsed, dusted with flour, fried in hot peanut oil and placed between two slices of white bread with lettuce, tomato and a bit of mayonnaise or tartar sauce, that soft crab will restore your spirits.
Fish Finder
     The rockfish bite in the mid-Bay is lackluster with few fish over 23 inches. Trolling and jigging are the big producers. Medium red hoses, five-inch Sassy Shads on jig heads and medium-sized spoons are doing the best for bait draggers. Jig fishers are using metal and soft plastics just off the bottom. Chumming has been hit and miss, with many throwbacks and missed strikes. There are rumors of the start of a surface bite during the wee hours.
     Perch have fallen off with the arrival of filthy water from the Susquehanna.