My hiatus has lasted longer than I had first planned I am gradually adapting to this new lifestyle following my retirement in early March, falling into a routine that will hopefully allow me more time to get some of these random thoughts down “on paper.” And, hopefully, more time for fishing.
It is springtime in Chesapeake Bay country, and after a long and unusually cold and snowy winter, it is time to look forward to the various rites of spring afforded us. There was the blooming of the Japanese cherry trees down at the Tidal Basin along the Potomac River which we missed this year due to an extended sojourn in Florida in March and April. So, upon our return to Maryland, it was time to prepare for an early morning drive across the Chesapeake Bay to Maryland’s Eastern Shore . . . more specifically the sleepy (and sleeping) village of Tilghman (on the island of the same name), hard and fast on the shoreline of Knapp Narrows. The trophy rockfish season is in full swing.
Warming waters bring striped bass, also known locally as rockfish, into northern waters in February, including the Chesapeake Bay, to spawn in its freshwater tributaries. Once the deed is done, they begin to move back down the Bay, chasing schools of baitfish as they go. They move according to the wind, tide, and the time of day.
My son Ian and I once again boarded the Nancy Ellen, our favorite boat moored at the Narrows, and set off on our second annual outing during the spring trophy season (see my May 3, 2009 posting). By 6:30am we had departed the marina and were churning southwest through a mild chop toward the fishing grounds along the shipping channel cutting the length of the Bay. It felt good to be back among our fishing buddies and with Captain Bill Fish at the helm of his immaculately outfitted Nancy Ellen.
Captain Fish had already informed us that the weekend had seen a number of boats on the water, and even though the season had been a good one so far, the fishing over the past few days had slowed down considerably with a high pressure ridge keeping the fish deep and unresponsive. Water temperatures were in the high 50s and good populations of both rockfish and white perch were moving through the Bay. But you had to hunt them down; they were not going to come to you and jump into the boat. His parties over the previous few days had landed some nice fish, the best results of any of the boats operating out of Tilghman Island, but these were hard-fought efforts. We crossed our fingers and spit over the transom in the hope that we might fare better. We were prepared to take as long as it took to find the fish and bring them home. Ian had been a little disappointed last year when we had caught our limit by early afternoon and headed back in. He wanted to spend more time on the water. But rocks were the only fish biting and all of us had a keeper in the cooler, so it made no sense to burn fuel unnecessarily. We all sensed that this year’s outing would put us to the test.
We continued down the Bay as Captain Fish closely monitored the depth and fish finders and plotted Loran coordinates in a spiral notebook. Soundings were running 40-50 feet as we skirted both sides of the shipping channel. Soon we passed the fishing grounds around Sharp Island Light which gave up the fish we caught last year. There were large schools of baitfish (mostly pinfish and menhaden, which we call bunker in this neck of the woods), and the fish finder was picking up reports of some larger fish, perhaps pods of rockfish, mixed in. But what we saw was not terribly promising, or so I surmised from my read of Captain Fish’s face. Sportfishing is a terribly come-what-may enterprise, at best. Last year’s fish came fast and furious; this year slow and aggravating even though we had fifteen lines arrayed at depths of 25-40 feet and at varying distances behind us, all outfitted with white and chartreuse Sassy Shad ™. We were not scouting for particular drops, or stationary locations where the fish are found. Instead, we were trolling a wide swath of normally promising water.
Captain Fish already knew that the waters around Sharp Island Light, including the Stone Rock grounds to the north, would be unproductive, and he pushed southward to an area known locally as the “Summer Gooses” situated astride the shipping channel between Plum Point and the mouth of the Little Choptank River and near buoys 78 and 78A.
By 12:30pm we had already been on the water for over six hours with nothing to show for our efforts other than a growing pile of empty beer and soda cans and chicken bones. Not so much as a drag-click from any of the rods arrayed across our stern. By this time last year we had a cooler full of big rockfish and we were preparing to head back into Knapp Narrows. Ian had his wish; we were going to be on the water awhile this time around. We never lost our faith in our captain or his ability to put us on the fish. There was no way we were going to be skunked on such a beautiful spring day. “Five more minutes!” I yelled from wherever I happened to be as we anxiously awaited that first strike of the day.
We moved farther south and we eventually arrived among a small community of boats near the “CP” buoy as they moved back and forth across a patch of water situated northeast of the gas docks below Calvert Cliffs. Knots of bait fish were passing below, but still no big fish. “Five more minutes!” I shouted as I leaned back against the transom. When we were not monitoring the depth and fish finders, we found ourselves sequestered in various comfortable nooks and niches to get out of the sun, rehydrating with a beer or two, and watching the day unfold around us. A freshening breeze arrived out of the west/southwest at around 20 mph nudging several sailboats out from the Western Shore.
Fishing along the shipping channel allowed us an up close and personal look at the maritime traffic heading north to Baltimore and south to the Virginia Tidewater and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The Maritime Gisela, a tanker registered in Hong Kong, and two car carriers, the Tranquil Ace registered in the Cayman Islands, and the Marina Ace, flying the flag of Panama, passed close by as we inspected our planing boards and adjusted the depth of our bait. “Five more minutes,” I called out from the wheelhouse where I was chatting with Captain Fish.
We were sitting some 20 miles from Tilghman Island, southwest of James Island and east of Calvert Cliffs. “Man, I haven’t fished this far south all year,” Captain Fish confided as he tousled his hair, still staring at the fish finder. Early in the afternoon a neighboring boat radioed him to report the catching of a couple of undersize rocks (keepers have to be a minimum of 32 inches). Big fish, but not big enough. We started to wonder if the fishing gods might not be with us this time around. We, and Captain Fish most of all, did not like the idea of returning to Tilghman with an empty cooler. But I never lost my faith. “Five more minutes,” I yelled as I hit the head in preparation for more rehydration.
Shortly before 2pm, we were trolling in almost 70 feet of water southwest of Oyster Cove and the mouth of the Little Choptank River. “Five more minutes.” were my words of encouragement to my mates as I returned to the deck with a cold can of beer in my hand. No sooner had these words drifted off on the breeze lifting a brace of laughing gulls above us when one of the rods on the stern began to tick . . . tick . . . tick . . . .giving way to a slow whiz of line rolling off the spool. “Didn’t I say ‘five more minutes’ five minutes ago?” I said to Ian as he lifted the rod and began the slow retrieve of the day’s first fish. A few minutes later a nice 36 inch rockfish was pulled over the transom. “It was like pulling up a cinder block from the bottom,” Ian allowed.
No sooner was Ian’s fish deposited in the cooler when another rod began its telltale clicking. Five minutes later a 34-incher was netted and placed in the cooler. Captain Fish was breathing a little easier and there was a big smile across his face. We would not go home empty-handed as the rocks had grown hungry. Better late than never. Five minutes later I was fighting my own fish. I would retrieve line only to watch it pulled back into the water. “We need a bigger boat,” I suggested as I slowly pumped the rod urging the fish to give it up. “Five more minutes?” Ian jibed as I battled to bring number three to net . . . a nice 39 inch rockfish. I popped a beer when it was safely aboard. “Let’s not stop now. Five more minutes!”
An hour of “five more minutes” passed and it became clear to all of us that our brief run of luck had run out. And so had our time. It was 3:15pm and we had to begin our long trek back up the Bay to Tilghman Island. Ian got his wish, a full day on the Bay and a very nice fish in the cooler as a reward for his patience. The return trip took a different route as several other boats followed close in our wake. We turned east into the mouth of the Choptank River, rounded Black Walnut Point and proceeded up Harris Creek to the eastern end of Knapp Narrows. Captain Fish claimed he wanted to check some of his “honey holes,’ promising me that some day he would show me where they are. Somehow I felt he had made similar promises to others. We passed the Rebecca T. Ruark, one of the very few skipjacks under sail still found on the Bay (I will be writing more about her in a future posting).
Soon we were back in the Narrows and passing under the busiest drawbridge in the United States (over eleven thousand raisings in 2009) and tying up the Nancy Ellen at her berth. Everyone was tired and we gathered our gear and packed our catch for the trip back across the Bay Bridge. We stared down the Bay and were thankful for a day on the water. There was nothing I would have changed. Well, it would have been nice to have a few more minutes, if not hours, with Ian while we were fighting the good fight. There is always next year!
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