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Want to Catch Rockfish?

Learn to work a chum slick

Our fish box contained three fat and healthy rockfish from 27 inches down to 24 inches. We had released a half-dozen smaller fish — and we had been fishing for only two hours. With one more fish to fill our limit, we were being pretty selective about who was good enough to keep. Ed Robinson and I had decided that it had to be over 30 inches, just to make it a challenge. Anything under would be unhooked and thrown back.
    Anchored a bit south of the green can buoy off Hackett’s Bar in 35 feet of water, we were enjoying one of the most productive angling methods on the Chesapeake.
    A mesh bag holding a gallon of ground frozen menhaden was hanging from the stern, trailing out small bits of the oily baitfish and laying a long scent trail, or chum slick, in the tidal current. This scent trail was intended to attract any passing striped bass to our baited hooks.

Planning for Chumming
    Chumming is a very popular boat-fishing technique for catching rockfish, second only to trolling, with many anglers doing both. This time of year, chumming is arguably the most productive method of securing a limit of rockfish. It’s easy, too, requiring only a bit of knowledge, patience and the most basic rod-handling skills. Plus, of course, a bag of chum, sold frozen at tackle stores.
    That is not to say chumming is infallible. Here are a few details for a chum-fishing expedition to have a good chance of success.
    First is the weather. Winds should be under 15mph for chumming to be a comfortable endeavor. Otherwise, the resultant seas and the boat’s motion can make for an unpleasant day.
    Second is the tidal current. Chumming requires an anchored boat so that both the chum and the baited fishing lines stream aft in the passing current. If the breezes are mild, it makes no difference whether wind is aligned with tidal current direction because the current alone will be strong enough to determine the direction the boat swings at anchor. Higher winds in an opposing direction may cause the boat to respond to the wind rather than the tidal current.
    In such cases the boat, at anchor, may trail in opposition to the current. Fishing craft are usually constructed with angling areas (and rod holders) in the back half of the boat, making fishing from the bow or from the forward half of the boat difficult. The wind could also place the anchor line directly in the area being fished, creating another problem.
    Fortunately the tidal current reverses itself every six hours or so. When wind velocity and direction indicate a conflict with the predicted tidal flow, wait until the tidal current is most in sync with the wind.

Luring the Fish
    Tide and wind with you? Then anchor, suspend your chum bag over the stern and bait your lines. For two fishers, I set out four rods with fish-finder rigs, two-ounce bank sinkers, 6/0 hooks on 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders. Bait is a chunk of fresh menhaden.
    Rockfish smell their way to these baits, which eventually lose their scent, so change your baits every 20 to 30 minutes.
    When removing washed-out baits, cut them into smaller chunks and distribute them into the current. Trailing down into the chum slick, these tidbits often provoke the rockfish holding below into feeding more aggressively.
    Another useful tactic is to shake the chum bag from time to time. Shaking will dislodge larger chunks of ground menhaden that may have clogged up the mesh bag and slowed or stopped the continued distribution of fish and scent into the current. It will also provide a burst of the chum mix into the water, encouraging passing stripers to investigate and discover your baits.