Wooden boat expert Llewelyn Howland probably said it best. “Everyday on a fishing boat it’s a little theater. There’s blood. It’s a self enclosed world. It’s womb-like. Time is different. Time begins at dawn and ends at sunset. Here is a perfect time on a boat. You’ve had a long, hard day, you’ve caught your fish, and now you’re purring home, toward your mooring.” That describes this past Saturday to a tee as I joined good friends for our fall outing on the Chesapeake Bay in search of rockfish (striped bass). Our spring outing in early May when we trolled for trophy rocks had been disappointing. An early spell of warm weather interrupted the normal biorhythms of the fish. http://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/2012/05/ning-dreams-of-rockfish.html
Reports so far this fall had been quite promising and anglers were encountering a mix of rockfish and bluefish in a wide variety of fishing situations in the middle region of the Chesapeake below the Bay Bridge linking Annapolis with Maryland’s Eastern Shore. So with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy just two days away we set out in the early morning hours from Knapps Narrow, on Tilghman Island, and watched the island’s lights dim on the horizon as we navigated south to the expansive mouth of the Eastern Shore’s Choptank River.
Here we paused in almost 30 feet of water and fished bloodworms to catch several dozen 4-7 inch spots - also known locally as croakers - which we would use for bait (although spot are a tasty fish in their own right). These fish can often be found in shallower inshore waters but recently they had gone deep and begun to migrate south as colder weather approached. Our first stop was a brief one as we were only catching small 6-10 inch sub-legal (under 18 inches) rockfish. So we moved a bit south and soon we were situated near buoy #10 [see map] in a patch of water rich in spot feeding right on the bottom. Before long our bait barrel was brimming with spot.
With the sun beginning to rise we were soon churning out of the mouth of the Choptank River toward a fishing ground east of the main shipping channel known as the Clay Banks [see map] where there were reports of rock mixed with blues. We were curious how the approaching storm from the south might affect the fishing in the Bay. There were already a few boats, mostly from the Western Shore, on the grounds when we arrived. There were trollers, some with outrigged planing boards to keep the lines away from others, while other boats were anchored and live-lining bait. There were lots of sub-legal rocks mixed in with “chopper” bluefish up to four pounds. This time of year there is a personal two fish limit for rocks 18 inches and above with only one allowed to be over 26 inches . . . unlike the spring trophy season when one is permitted only one fish over 28 inches. As the strong flood tide began to ebb we saw more nice rocks in the 18-24 inch range.
Live-lining takes concentration, unlike trolling where you sit around and wait for a fish to hit one of the lines. This is hands on fishing requiring one to monitor how far out the line is running and at what depth, trying to keep the bait - a live spot - down near the bottom where the fish are feeding. Once there is a strike, which can be a very subtle tapping, the natural inclination is to strike and set the hook. Yet given the size of the baitfish, it is necessary to allow the rock to get it all the way in its mouth. Strike too soon and all you retrieve is a dazed and confused and rather “manhandled” spot. Patience pays off. On the other hand, if a bluefish strikes and you wait, all you will have in the end is a well “apple-cored” spot. So how can you differentiate between rockfish and a bluefish strike? You can’t. That’s why it can be so frustrating at times. And why it is a challenge and why we like to fish the Chesapeake Bay.
This kind of fishing takes concentration. It is a virtue not to talk unnecessarily. It is a matter of luck, or superstition. If you talk too much, you divert attention from more important things. There is time for talk while en route to and from the fishing grounds. Some fish outings can become rather competitive; who can catch the most and largest fish. I and those with whom I choose to fish see it more as a competition with oneself. How can I prove that someone with a postgraduate education can outsmart a fish with the brain the size of a small pea? It ain’t easy . . . that’s for certain. This trip we were lucky and by early afternoon we had caught our limit of rockfish and had several nice blues in the cooler, all nestled in a bed of ice diamonds for the trip back to Tilghman Island.
An unusually strong tide due to an almost full moon coupled with the approaching storm and the water levels throughout the Bay were much higher than usual. The developing offshore low pressure system associated with Hurricane Sandy (still almost 600 miles to the south) brought ever stronger winds from the north throughout the day and we had heavy rolling seas smacking our bow square on as we labored our way back to Tilghman Island. We noticed several crabbing boats gathering their pots. Everyone is taking Hurricane Sandy very seriously.
Last night I smoked the bluefish and today I am fixing the rockfish for lunch. And now that the predicted and promised tropical storm winds and rains have reach us here in Maryland, I would not want to be out on Chesapeake Bay this week. The rockfish and the bluefish (even the spot) can rest easy for a few days. But once the storm passes, the boats will be out and about until the season ends in mid December. Then it will be a long winter until the trophy season arrives again in April.