Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Day on the Clay Banks and the Gooses

It is spring again and that always means it is time to repair to the gentle solitude of Tilghman Island, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for another outing on the Chesapeake Bay on board Captain Bill Fish’s 46-foot Nancy Ellen.  I have written here about previous outings on the Bay, and so it is only right that I share my latest adventure.

My last outing was in October 2013, at the tail end of the rockfish (striped bass) season.  I did not post a report following that trip, promising that “what happens on the Nancy Ellen stays on the Nancy Ellen.”   But now I have thought better of it.  Intending to live line, we filled the bait barrel with dozens of spot jigged from the depths of the Choptank River on blood worm offerings, and then quickly made our way to the edges of the shipping channel near Sharp Island Light.  And we were rewarded with a cooler full of late autumn rocks (in the 18-24 inch range) and some handsome chopper bluefish.  In fact, the rocks were few and far between as we watched the Bay’s water churn to a froth by several “blitzes” as schools of blues lashed through balls of baitfish and occasionally feasting on one of our proffered spots.  A fine way to end another sporting season on the Chesapeake Bay.

This spring’s trip began like all the others.  Our fishing party arrived on Tilghman Island the night before, enjoying good food and drink before turning in for a few hours sleep.  Unfortunately, 5am came around too quickly and we dressed for the day not knowing for sure what the weather gods would throw our way.  We drank some coffee and nibbled on some muffins and by 6am we had gathered at the marina on Knapps Narrows to board the Nancy Ellen and prepare for another day of fishing for rocks.

The trophy season, which commenced back on April 19 and ran through May 15, ended the day before our trip.  During that season each angler is allowed only one fish daily and it must measure a minimum of 28 inches.  All rocks caught in certain tidal tributary rivers must be released while most of these waters are closed as the fish are still on their spawning runs.  The rules changed for our trip, on May 16.  Each angler is permitted two fish measuring 18–28 inches, or one fish 18-28 inches and one fish over 28 inches.  Angler may not have two fish exceeding 28 inches in their possession.  Who knew how our luck would run?

Much to our chagrin, the last day of the trophy season saw several inches of rain fall over the Chesapeake watershed, and fears ran high that the inclement weather had scattered the fish from their favorite hang-outs.  The recent reports before the rains had been most promising.  The recent warm weather had brought the mid-Bay’s water temperature into the high 60s, and the post-spawn rocks were moving down from their  tributaries - in our case the Choptank - and back into the open Bay.

Not to be dissuaded from our mission, the skies were mostly clear and the sun rose behind us as we motored down the Narrows to the open Bay where the wind quickly caught us full in the face and the water roiled beneath us.  Throttling up the engine, Captain Fish pointed us toward the southwest in the direction of the “CR” buoy in the main shipping channel.  Arriving near there we quickly moved to a fish grounds known locally as the “Clay Banks” situated along the steep western edge of the shipping channel near buoy “80.”   Here we deployed the planing boards and began to spread our dozen or so weighted trolling rigs at 30-40 feet to the stern, each with a dual skirted ten-inch white or chartreuse Sassy Shad bait.  Then came the wait.  I had a sandwich and a can of beer and watched a freighter silhouetted by the sun as it moved upbound for Baltimore.

It was not long and came the cry “fish on” and we brought two nice rocks on board measuring 24 and 36 inches respectively.  With our first fish in the cooler and our lines returned to the water, we continued to troll over the Clay Banks.  Several other boats were running trolling patterns near us and Captain Fish and the other captains continuously exchanged notes and plotted strategies.  The instruments were showing occasional balls of baitfish, but no more cries of “fish on.”   The rough seas and what we agreed were hit and runs by smaller fish were playing havoc with our trolling rigs and we spent a great deal of time resetting our lines.  Still no fish.  

With nothing much happening, Captain Fish took us farther south and west, to an area known as “the Gooses” (there is a “Winter Goose” and a “Summer Goose”) in the vicinity of buoys “78" and “78A” and not far off Plum Point and Chesapeake Beach, on the Western Shore.  Captain Fish shook his head.  “Every time I take you boys out we end up down here.”  He stared at the instruments and his location plot.   “I keep saying I ain’t going to come back down here and yet here we are.”  But the truth of the matter was he wanted to catch fish just as bad as we did, and he was willing to go anywhere the fish might be hiding out.

Even when the fishing is slow, we manage to find ways to enjoy our time on the water.  Some will find a spot to stretch out and catch up on the sleep they failed at the night before.  Some sit out on deck to watch the other boats while enjoying a sandwich, some fried chicken, and a can or two of beer.  Or we will chat with the captain; tales of previous trips, the long winter and cold spring, the comings and goings here on the Bay.

Toward mid-afternoon the instruments showed larger concentrations of baitfish, and not long after that came the long awaited “fish on.”  Within the next hour we had brought three more rocks on board, all of which measured well over 30 inches.  And just as quick as it started, the run was over and once again we were trolling over vacant waters.  But we had five very nice fish in the cooler, and being far enough south it was time to bring in the lines and store away the equipment.  I am sure Captain Fish would have loved to have put us on more fish, but I don’t think anyone came home disappointed.  These are the chances and gambles you take.

And what a difference a day makes!.  The rough seas and the cloudy skies of the morning gave way to sunny skies and more placid waters by mid-afternoon and this all made the fishing a bit easier to enjoy.  So all in all it was a very successful outing on Chesapeake Bay on board Captain Bill Fish’s immaculate Nancy Ellen.  Perhaps we did not catch as many fish as we would have liked, but the ones we caught were beauties.

I look forward to each and every one of these trips; a chance to be with good friends as we enjoy the bounty the Bay has to offer.

    Though inland far we be,
    Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
    Which brought us hither
            ~William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”

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