Sunday, May 3, 2009

Entr'acte III - A Day on the Bay

Yesterday my son Ian and I shared an annual spring ritual here in Maryland. We arose before dawn at a friend’s house on Tilghman Island and by 6am we were on board the Nancy Ellen, a 46-foot custom-built charter boat, motoring out of Knapps Narrows and into the middle section of Chesapeake Bay. The rockfish (striped bass) season began back on April 18th and through May 15th is considered trophy season, when each angler is permitted one fish measuring 28 inches or more. The fishing reports were good and we would not be the only boat on the Bay in search of what may be the biggest fish we will ever catch in our lifetimes.

This was my third trip on the Nancy Ellen under the watchful eye of Captain Bill Fish (yes, that’s his real name) who has three decades of experience in Bay and open ocean commercial fishing. He has been based on Tilghman Island for the past 21 years and now specializes in light tackle on the Chesapeake Bay. Last May I fished just after the end of trophy season in mid-May. From then until the close of the season on December 15, anglers are permitted two fish measuring 18 to 28 inches, or one fish 18-28 inches and one in excess of 28 inches. On that trip we trolled artificial lures west of the shipping channel and closer to the Chesapeake Bay’s Western Shore, and I landed two very respectable fish measuring 19 and 23 inches respectively. In fact, all of my boat mates brought in their quota. We went again in early October hoping to repeat the success of that first trip. We fished live bait, and so after spending an hour or so jigging bloodworms for pinfish at the mouth of the Choptank River in order to fill our bait barrel, we moved into the Bay near the Sharp Island Light. That day we did not see a single rockfish, nor did any of the boats fishing near us. We did, however, tie into some schools of bluefish cruising the shoals, and each of us caught several tipping the scales at 6-10 pounds. A very successful day and pound for pound you can’t find a fish that fights harder than a snapper blue! But they were not rockfish and that is what we went to catch. So we were all very eager to return to the Bay this spring at the height of the trophy season in the hope of catching the big one. This time Ian went with me; his first sportfishing trip.

The word was that the rockfish had been spawning in the upper reaches of the Choptank River since mid-April, and with the water warming, especially after a recent spate of 90-degree weather, most of the spawning is over although it could last another week or two in some places. This meant that the post-spawn rocks would be moving quickly from the Choptank River and into the Bay. Tilghman Island, which is situated at the northern end of the mouth of the Choptank, is the ideal place to begin a trip to find these Chesapeake leviathans in the Middle and Lower Bay. Boats whose home ports are located north of the Bay Bridge connecting Annapolis with Kent Island, on the Eastern Shore . . . places like Rock Hall and Chestertown . . . have a lot farther to travel to get on the fish. Not so the Nancy Ellen.

As we passed the last channel marker exiting Knapps Narrows, Captain Fish turned south/southwest in the direction of the Sharp Island Light and opened up the engines as we navigated the False Channel while watching the depth-finder which would show us where the fish might be. Some of the guys snoozed or sat in the pilot house with the captain. Ian and I preferred standing aft while watching the sun begin to rise over Tilghman Island. The weather report had been promising the possibility of rain and choppy water, but it was turning into a rather pleasant day with a mixture of sun and some overcast. Captain Fish was in regular touch with other boats; everyone was trying to pin down the best place to fish without having to contend with the entire charter fleet operating all around you. Some were saying the shipping channel edges further north, near Bloody Point and Thomas Point, were good places to troll. Others said it was better on the west side of the shipping channel from Breezy Point south. Captain Fish split the difference and we selected a piece of water between buoys 82 and 83 in an area known as The Hook, on the east side of the shipping channel between Tilghman Island and Breezy Point, on the Western Shore.

Once we picked our spot, Captain Fish shoved the throttle into idle and we quickly deployed the two spreaders - a triple-winged device - that would allow us to troll fourteen lines at roughly ten-foot intervals behind the boat. Once the spreaders were in place, each of us busied ourselves feeding line from the heavy-duty boat rods. At the end of each line was a rig outfitted with a combination of white or chartreuse parachutes and bucktails dressed with 6-inch supple plastic lures known as “sassy shads.” These contraptions are guaranteed to attract the attention of big, hungry rockfish coming off the spring spawning run. With our lines in the water, Captain Fish throttled up and now it was a waiting game. We drew from a deck of playing cards to determine the order we would battle the fish once they began to hit our rigs. I pulled an “ace” and would have first crack. Ian drew a “six” and would fish fourth. Time for a beer and a sandwich!

The first fish hit shortly before 8am. I retrieved the rod and moved to the stern where I would spend the next several minutes slowly pumping the rod – up to pull the fish closer to the boat, and then down while cranking in the line. Occasionally the fish would move side to side, then dive deep only to come back up to the surface. The dorsal fin would break the surface and it felt like a good fish although I would not know for sure until it was in the boat. For the most part it felt like I was trying to pull a cinder block off the bottom of Chesapeake Bay! When I finally managed to get the fish up to the transom, one of my boat mates quickly netted and finessed it on board. “Holy S**t” was the only thing that came to mind! A very nice rockfish measuring 40 inches and weighing in at 28 pounds! Lots of high-fives and into the cooler it went. Captain Fish looked around the boat and announced to no one in particular - “I think we are going to hang around here for awhile.” No one argued with him. My arms were quivering and my muscles burned. Time for another sandwich and a beer.

With a couple more very respectable rocks in the cooler, it was Ian’s turn. He was excited. The biggest fish he ever caught was a two-pound bass on a plastic crayfish lure when he was a kid. He knew we were looking for bigger game this time around. Hell. The lures we were using were bigger than that first bass. Another fish hit and soon Ian was pumping his rod and slowly working his fish closer to the boat. It was fun to watch the determination on his face. Captain Fish was not impressed as he threw ice cubes from the cooler into the water. “I just hope the fish doesn’t go bad before you get it in the boat.” But Ian did land it . . . 37 inches and 24 pounds! Since I was the first draw, I had the honor of fishing for the “boat’s fish,” the one the captain would get to take home. She was a beauty. Not quite a big as my first one, but a little fatter - 36 inches and 28 pounds.

With a cooler containing seven rockfish with a composite weight of roughly 185 pounds, we pulled in our lines and stowed our rods before retrieving the two spreaders. It was time to head back to Knapps Narrows after a very successful outing. Once again a time to snooze, drink beer, and shoot the breeze with your fishing buddies. A time for a father and his son to share a common sense of accomplishing something special together; a memory for both of us to hold on to. I am quite certain we will have an opportunity to share another day on the Bay together. I sure hope so. It really doesn’t get much better than this!

NEXT WEEK: Confessions of a Cheesehead - Part 1

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