Volume XI, Issue 18 ~ May 1-7, 2003

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Burton on the Bay | Chesapeake Outdoors | Sky Watch | Tidelog
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Burton on the Bay

Catching Rockfish: The Old Man of the Bay Tells All

El pez muere por la boca.
— Spanish proverb

Unless translated, those six words don’t mean much to the average Izaak Walton, but put them in plain English, and everyone who has ever wet a line will nod in agreement. El pez muere por la boca: The fish dies because he opens his mouth.

So here we are again. It’s spring and time to catch fish — especially big rockfish. The task at hand is to figure ways to prompt a big fish to open its big mouth, which it must do if we are to catch it legally. Which we will get into in a moment.

Among rockfish of the Chesapeake, spawning is still underway in the shallows of tributaries. Many of the big cows — as the old females are referred to — have already dropped their eggs. Others are doing so as you read this, and, within the next few weeks, many more will make their donation in this annual ritual at such far flung Chesapeake reaches as the upper Nanticoke, Potomac, Choptank, Patuxent, Chester and Patapsco as well as the rivers that feed the Susquehanna Flats and who knows where else.

On Fish and Fishermen, Weather Gods Smiled
The winter many of us cursed a few months back is now revealing its silver lining. All that cold and snow we endured set the stage for what appears likely to produce a bumper crop of fledgling striped bass. What’s more, the frigid temperatures, snow, the resulting meltdown and heavy late winter and early spring rains have combined to produce ideal conditions for Maryland’s spring trophy fishing season. That’s good news for the state’s thousands of fishermen.

It’s not like last year when there wasn’t much winter and hardly any spring. In 2002, we went from a mild winter to a hot summer. There were some mid-April days when the thermometer read 90 degrees or more. Waters warmed quickly, and most anglers know much spawning activity comes as the wet stuff in the tributaries gets into the 50s. Thus in ’02, the fish dropped their eggs quickly and vamoosed.

By the time catch-and-keep fishing opened April 20, many of the cows had already spawned. One might say the season was over before it began — though for about a week, the catching was good.

This year things are different — which is good for both fish and fishermen.

For fishermen it means the run of fish that have spawned will last longer, hopefully much longer than last year. For the fish dedicated to replenishing their numbers, a protracted spawn means they’re not putting all their eggs in one basket, so to speak.

When the weather is such that most fish spawn in a short period of time, the year’s hatch is vulnerable. One big setback in conditions — especially low water temperatures (below 50 degrees) — can wipe out many of the larvae. The eggs are more tolerant to colder waters, but not so the hatchlings.

Spread spawning over a longer period, and chances are greater for good production: One big blast of adverse conditions won’t get most of them. In ’02, the Young of the Year index — the count of young stripers in major spawning tributaries — was among the lowest since the moratorium. This year, methinks (barring any unexpected calamities on the spawning grounds), we should have a good if not great index.

On average, May 5 is the peak of spawning activity. Though many fish have already spawned, some others will be doing so through much of this month. Here’s how things are going on the spawning grounds:

Fishing by the Fish Clock
On the April 20 opener of the season, the cows were staged in big numbers, prepared to spawn in tributaries. To protect the brood stock, fishing for them in those rivers is banned until June 1. This year the brood stock was in fine shape and fine numbers. Ideal conditions prevailed: gradually warming waters and much minuscule nutrition for larvae, thanks to good runoff conditions.

Fish intent on spawning don’t eat much. The bigger cows are dedicated to dropping their eggs, the smaller males intent on fertilizing them. But once that’s over, rockfish have two things on their mind: catching up on their eating and, especially among the cows, obeying the inherent desire to leave the Bay and head up the coast for the summer.

Weather, water temperature, other water conditions and the whims of individual fish determine when the time is right. The eggs are dropped then fertilized. The brood stock heads south down the Bay, then turns north up the coast. No longer are they schooled up; instead they depart in singles or small patches. And they waste no time.

The chances of fishermen intercepting them depend almost wholly on patience and luck. Keep in mind that these trophy fish are swimming in deep waters along the channel edges indicated on charts of the Chesapeake. This traditional route can be on either the east or west side of the channel in waters of 40 feet to 80 feet.

Regardless of depth, the post-spawn fish can pretty much be counted on to be in the upper 15 to 20 feet of the water column. Like humans, fish seek comfort: warm water in cool and cold weather, cool water in hot weather. On a day when the sun is bright, surface waters are warmer, and it is not unusual to catch fish only several feet below the surface. Fishermen say these fish have come up to ‘sun’ themselves.

Rigging for the Feel of the Fight
Whenever I fish on a bright sunny day until mid-May, my lures are worked within six or seven feet of the top. I pay out on trolling gear about 200 feet of line with only an ounce or two of sinker weight. I do not use an Umbrella rig or other exceptionally large bait.

Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that close to the surface a huge bait is not necessary to catch the eye of a fish sunning itself. In addition, catching a fish on a light rig with little sinker weights is more enjoyable and satisfying. The fight of the fish, its every move, can be felt and appreciated.

Who can savor a scrap that is nothing more than a brute tug of war — which it usually is with heavy rod, reel and sinker in combination with an Umbrella rig, all its teasers and an exceptionally large bait.

If you want some satisfying trophy angling, try it my way.

You will want to be rigged with 20- to 30-pound test line on the reel. At the end of the line, attach a ball bearing snap-swivel.

At the other end of the swivel, attach an inline sinker of two to four ounces. And at the other end of the sinker, tie a leader of at least 40-pound test monofilament line that’s 15 to 18 feet in length.

At the other end of the leader, attach the bait, and you are ready to go fishing. The preferred lure is a two- to three-ounce bucktail of yellow, green or white. Add to it a six-inch soft plastic Sassy Shad. Pay it 150 to 200 feet to the stern, troll the channel edges. Try Deale to Thomas Point Light. Some excellent catches have been made in that area.

You have a rig that should make a striper open its mouth. With fish in singles and small patches along just about any channel edge, all you’ve got to be is at the right place at the right time — when the fish are passing by. Your chances are as good as anyone’s.

What are you waiting for?



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Last updated May 1, 2003 @ 2:57am