We were drifting quietly well off the mouth of the Severn in 30 feet of water. It was not yet sunrise but the first blush of daylight lit the water’s surface well enough to show some very nervous schools of baitfish swimming around us.
Here and there small menhaden — peanut bunker — would shower into the air, fleeing something sinister below. There must have been a heck of a spawn this spring because I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many menhaden schools this early in the year.
The summer rockfish bite has been fairly consistent, though smaller fish are becoming more common. Chummers and live-liners are getting nice limits on the western side at Podickery, on the channel edge just below the Sandy Point Light, Hacketts, Tolley and Thomas Point Light, while Swan Point (off of Rock Hall), Love Point, Bloody Point, the Hill and the Diamonds on the eastern side have been good. The Breezy Point radar towers have been producing good-sized rockfish and nice bluefish as well. Spot the right size for live-lining have finally showed in good numbers, but larger, eating-sized fish remain scarce. Jigging and live-lining are starting to work in southern waters, though trolling remains the most consistent way to take fish.
Then about 100 feet off to starboard, a noisy swirl created widespread peanut panic. I turned and thumbed out a long cast, my black, floating plug splashing just outside the disturbed area. As soon as it touched, I gave it a hard tug, throwing water into the air and creating a loud gurgle.
That was all that was needed. The broad, striped shoulders of a husky rockfish pushed up through the water as the fish pounced on my lure, making a hole in the water the size of a truck tire in its violent departure. I waited until the weight of the fish was apparent, then set the hook.
The surface erupted again in a waist-high gusher as the brawny fish felt the lure’s sting and flew into a tantrum. The fight was on.
Morning’s the Time
At the boat ramp earlier that morning, still groggy from my 4am wake up, I had to mentally check through my launching procedure before I traveled the last few feet to splash the boat. My head has always been foggy in the wee hours, so it wasn’t unusual when, sheepishly, I had to stop, drive 10 feet back up the ramp, set the brake and get out to put in the boat’s drain plug.
Finally ready, I eased the trailer back down the ramp and slipped the skiff into the water. My partner was minding the bowline on the finger pier, and he, too, had to think hard about what to do next.
We both hate to get up this early, but in the midst of summer there are few options. By 11am, it would be in the high 90s and we had no intention of being on the water by then. The bite would be done by that time and so would we — one way or another.
Stopping at the tackle shop near Sandy Point at 4:30am, we had stocked up with some fresh menhaden and some frozen chum. But our real hopes resided in the surface plugs already rigged and ready on casting rods poised in their holders along the center console.
Now with my rod arced hard over it looked like we were in luck with the top-water bite after all. Our early morning rise had been more than worth it. I searched for my net. My partner in the bow would be of no use to me; he was busy struggling with his own fish.
The fat striper was still thrashing as I lifted it into the boat. Carefully removing my popper, I settled the fish into the ice chest, cleared my rod and looked for my next target.
Watch Your Time; Consider Your Choices
Middle summer marks the start of surface action on the Bay, but it’s fickle. Being on site as the sun comes up is one key to success, for the larger fish. Schoolies in the 16- and 17-inch range can often break on and off all day and they are fun to tangle with. But if you want keepers, you’ve got to get up early or stay out late.
Staying out late can be a serious problem in the heat of the summer. With extreme daytime temperatures, the cooling evening airs often spawn violent thunderstorms. Frequently they’re invisible, coming upon you in the gloom of sundown. It’s wise to pay strict attention to weather forecasts and the Doppler radar sites.
It’s also prudent to plan alternate strategies in case the fish don’t rise or you can’t locate them in the early morning. We had chum and fresh bait to use for the rock later if that dawn bite with the schools of peanut bunker hadn’t happened. We often also fall back on live-lining if we can catch small spot.
The deeper water surface bite can be good. Can is key. Alternately, try the shallow, river mouth shorelines, where the stripers will sometimes congregate on cool mornings, chasing bait. It’s not always a sure thing, but when the fish decide to hit on top it is a blast.