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Trophy Rockfish Season

This year brings prime opportunity to catch a giant fish

      Little darlin’, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter …
      Those words, sung long ago by the Beatles in their popular anthem of hope, Here Comes the Sun, couldn’t be more appropriate than right now. Warmer temperatures have arrived at last, and the trophy rockfish season opens Saturday, April 21. Alleluia!
       This year promises to be a smashing experience. The big chill of these last few months means one good thing for anglers: A lot of the really big migratory stripers are still in the Chesapeake. 
       They’ll be around for weeks to come. That means memorable fishing with some real tackle-busters.
       Recreational anglers in our neck of the woods usually get only a brief shot at the giant striped bass that have, historically, reached 100 pounds. That scarcity is due to the fish’s particular life cycle. Eighty percent of all rockfish swimming in the Atlantic are born in the Chesapeake. Most, especially the females, leave after four or five years to cruise the eastern seaboard.
     They can grow huge. The big fish return to the Bay briefly to reproduce each spring, then immediately return to the ocean. Since our trophy season is timed to expose only post-spawn stripers to anglers, we have a small fishing window before most of the biggest fish, which usually spawn first, head back to the Atlantic.
      This year looks different. Below-normal springtime water temperatures have reportedly delayed the spawn, stacking up some of the big fish waiting to ascend the rivers.
       They’re out there, but it’s up to you to find them.
       One of the difficulties in locating rockfish this time of year is that their behavior is unpredictable. Moved by urges that are unique to groups of fish and in many cases to individual females, spawning rockfish are erratic and dynamic. There is no discernible pattern to where they will be.
       The fish travel in pods or small groups. Once arrived, they begin holding in large staging areas until reproductive conditions are ideal. The males tend to linger in the area through most of the spring until no more females gather. The females are different. When their time is right, they spew their eggs, then immediately leave for the open ocean.
       You never know when or where the pods of spawning fish will pause, when they will travel, when or where they will likely feed or how soon they will leave. So this year’s presence of many fish brings opportunity. 
       With opportunity comes the potential downside of taking too many roe-laden rockfish and devastating future seasons. Wise anglers will harvest their first legal giant but return any other pre-spawn females they catch to fulfill their destiny and keep our waters populated with these great sport fish.
       It only takes a few dozen trophy-sized females under the right conditions, each spewing a half-million eggs or more, to supply the major part of an entire year’s class of striped bass. When you’ve got an unspawned trophy on the deck, you’ve also got the future of your sport in your hands. If you’ve already got a keeper this season, let her go.
Fish Finder
       As trophy rockfish season opens, the sweetest spots are warm water discharges, but the fish are well distributed throughout the Bay. Legal trophy fish areas are limited to the Bay proper, so stay out of the tributaries.
        Tradition favors the Eastern Shore from Bloody Point off the mouth of Eastern Bay and Poplar Island, Gum Thickets and on up through the Dumping Grounds. Western Shore spots include the mouths of most tributaries and up through Hacketts Point and Podickery Point and the mouths of the Magothy and Patapsco rivers.
        The channels off the Eastern Shore are the highways most spawners use to travel up the Bay, while the channels on the western side are the exit routes.
       Trolling lots of big baits is the traditional approach. But bait soakers have been increasing in numbers and effectiveness. Trophy-sized fish can usually be located in the top 15 feet of the water column when trolling, but boat noise can put them on the bottom.
        Catch-and-release on the Susquehanna Flats is seeing the best season in the last few years. But that always depends on the dam discharges, and recent rains may put a stop to it.