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Articles by Dennis Doyle

Sometimes it takes fish to catch fish

Chumming is one of the simplest and most effective methods of getting a limit of rockfish this time of year. The fish have just schooled up and are hungry from spring spawning. Here’s how it worked for me one recent June morning.
    I try to be careful when I get a bite when chumming, immediately easing the reel clicker off to eliminate any resistance on the line, thumbing the spool lightly as I remove the rod from its holder and letting the fish run off a bit before setting the hook.
    But this guy just grabbed my bait and ran, setting the reel to screaming and hooking himself before I could even touch the rod. By the time I got the rod under control, the powerful striper had the line over its shoulder and was headed for the horizon.
    As we arrived at Hackett’s Bar at the mouth of the Severn, 30 or so boats were scattered off the big green can marking the edge of the channel, waiting for the bite to begin.
    We had already investigated a number of alternate locations (Podickery, the Bay Bridge and Dolly’s Lump) after launching our skiff at Sandy Point State Park that morning. Having found no promising marks on our fish finder, Hackett’s was our best and last hope.
    I wanted to be off the water before 11am, when the mass of non-fishing recreational boaters shows up on weekends, turning the waters into a washing machine of conflicting wakes. It would turn out to be very close.
    Dropping anchor, we noted the charter boat Becky D sitting nearby. That was a good sign. Ed Darwin is an experienced skipper, and if he was in the area, we probably couldn’t have chosen any better.

Setting Up for the Chum Bite
    Setting up in 35 feet of water, I lowered our weighted chum bag — a gallon of frozen, ground menhaden — over the side and tied it off on a cleat at about the 15-foot level. Many anglers hang their bags over the stern near the surface, but I’ve found that having the chum source nearer the bottom can bring the fish in closer so that they can more easily find our baits, particularly when the current is running strong.
    Our rods are rigged with fish-finder rigs, sliding nylon sleeves on the main line with an integral snap for our two-ounce sinkers. The main line is tied to a swivel that acts as a slider stop, followed by three feet of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader tied to the hook.
    We used 7/0 Mustad super sharp live-bait hooks. That large size is necessary because we were using big pieces of bait. Our menhaden were cut in vertical pieces about two inches wide, from large, fresh fish. When a striper picks up the bait and moves off, the line will slide through the sleeve where the sinker is attached. The fish will not feel its weight.
    For a good, solid hook set, feed line into the run and give the fish a few seconds to get the meal well back in its mouth before striking. Striking too early will often pull the menhaden chunk out of the fish’s mouth, especially with the large baits we use to attract larger fish.
    Change baits every 20 minutes to keep the scent trails fresh and the baits attractive. Rather than discarding the old pieces of menhaden, we cut them into smaller chunks and distribute them widely into the current to further encourage the rockfish to feed aggressively.


•   •   •
    Our first fish that hit that morning turned out to be the largest of the trip, a fat male that weighed about 15 pounds. We limited out by 11:30am with three more fish in the 10-pound range.

Some days, they listen
It was an ideal morning at Hacketts Bar (38° 51'; 76° 25'). A flood tide was just making up, a gentle southerly wind caressed the waters and the sun was hidden by a thin cloudbank that permitted just the right amount of warmth to permeate the air. 
 
The anchored fishing boats were strung out more or less in a line from just off of the green can in 25 feet of water due east to depths of 40 or more feet. We had anchored up in the middle, our chum bag trailing from a stern cleat and our baits settling nicely. Within minutes, we had action. 
 
My fishing partner was Vince Ransom who had accompanied his wife, Tarin Fuller, down to Annapolis from their art gallery, Iandor Fine Arts, in the Ironbound area of Newark, New Jersey. They were spending a few days with my sculptor wife and me in an artists’ meeting combined with a bit of fishing.
 
Vince once lived on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, becoming an insatiable angler, but he had been unable to continue his sport since moving to New Jersey. I hoped to help him remedy that.
 
We had four rods out using cut menhaden for bait. His was the first to go down. I netted a nice seven-pounder for him a few minutes later, and his long fishless spell was finally broken. “You don’t know how much I’ve missed this,” he said. His demeanor had changed, his whole frame relaxing, his face beaming.
 
Usually when you’re trying to show someone an especially good time on the Bay, things don’t go the way you planned. This time was different. Vince must have had a pile of charitable acts banked in his karma bin because his baits were seldom without some kind of attention from the rockfish.
 
We had several throwbacks and a few shorts, but we released all the fish under 23 inches and little by little we accumulated some very nice rock in our cooler. For the last fish, we chose to hold out for over 30 inches. That strategy is often self-defeating and this time appeared no exception. The bite stalled. 
 
We made to pull up our gear when I had a good run. I missed the strike, but we stayed put, thinking a new school of fish was arriving. But nothing happened until we made ready to move yet again. Vince immediately had a strong fish on, but the hook pulled.
 
Our remaining bait was running low with all the attention from the throwbacks, and we were also running out of time. But I believed Vince had some special juju, and we were going to capitalize on it or go home short a fish.
 
By this time getting a bite with every decision to move had become a running joke. We began threatening a move whenever we had gone a while without something nosing our baits. Eerily, a bite or a fish (though not a keeper) was almost always the result.
 
Finally, with just a chunk or two of menhaden left, I called out over the stern: “This is the very last time. We are going to go, and we need a big fish, not one of these little guys you’ve been sending us. And we need it right now, or we really are going home.”
 
I know that sounds silly. But what is more preposterous is that Vince’s rod promptly bent over in the holder, line screaming off the reel. Fifteen minutes later I netted a gleaming, 34-inch striped bass fat as a fireplug, the biggest fish landed on my boat this year.
 
If you’ve been on the water long enough, you know that peculiar things can happen.

When you get your fish, all’s right with the world

When you’ve gone through a long series of skunks — as anyone who has fished much has — you start questioning your skill. Where were you going wrong? What else could you do? Serious uncertainties also creep in: Was the past season’s long string of successes real?
    That’s about the way I was thinking the other day, anchored a bit south of Hackett’s with only one other boat near. The finder screen was lit up like a fireworks display, but once again my baits went untouched.
    After almost an hour, one of the rod tips began to twitch. It stopped. I lifted the rig and moved the bait just an inch or two but felt no resistance. My heart was heavy. It had been a long spring with virtually no success chasing rockfish. Either the weather or the bite — or both — had been consistently horrible.
    The morning had started badly. Having gone to bed with excellent weather and good tides forecast for dawn, I opened my eyes at the appointed hour to the sounds of an approaching jet. Then I realized that it wasn’t airplane noise at all, it was thunder, lots of it.
    Another fishing trip scratched, I feared. Would things never go my way? Then, as if in answer, rain drummed down on the roof as if being poured from a giant bucket.
    I got up, reluctantly, to call my partner to cancel. But by the time I had a cup of coffee and picked up the phone, the skies had cleared and the sun was bright. Could lady luck be smiling at last? Or was she toying with us?
    Once on the Bay, we looked out over calm waters and a nicely moving incoming tide. It was looking good, but I steeled myself for more disappointment, reminding myself that dry spells make the good bites that much more enjoyable. But it was getting to be a very difficult sell.
    Then a rod tipped down with a serious run, the reel chattered as line poured out and all of those dark thoughts vanished. Feeling the weight of a good fish heading off against the drag, I smiled.
    It was a lively fight for a few minutes before my partner slipped the net under the six-pounder — and just that quickly our day had changed.
    As I buried the thick fish in ice and gave my buddy, Moe, a fist bump to celebrate the end of our rotten luck, another rod slammed down hard in its holder, and a 10-pounder took off for the other side of the Bay.
    With a couple of throwbacks and a pulled hook or two, we collected our limits in short order. The summer had officially started, and that miserable series of fishless days receded into the dim and forgettable past.
 

Many virtues make it my favorite sweetwater fish

This is a special time of year for me. There have been a number of 80-degree days, trees are filling out nicely and the strawberries in our garden are ripening. The day lilies are blooming, brightening the landscape, and birds are busy, singing their songs and building nests just about everywhere.
    Our freshwater ponds and lakes are also awakening. Water lilies are reaching up and extending their green pads and white blossoms above the surface. The frogs are croaking and peeping amorously, and along the shallow, tree-shrouded shorelines, saucer-sized beds are beginning to be scraped out of the bottom by a small but mighty fish.
    Each spawning site will be guarded with singular ferocity by a brightly colored male. His profile is as saucer shaped as the spawning site he has just created, and the little bull is relentlessly intent on attracting a mate. These fish are bluegills. A good-sized fish is only 10 inches long, but it is my favorite species in all of the sweetwater.

Hooked on Fishing
    Perhaps it’s because the bluegill was the first fish that ever pulled on the end of my line. I was about six years old and remember that tug as if it was yesterday because it was followed immediately by a bigger tug. Then the small, bamboo pole I held bent over in an acute arc.
    It was all I could do to hold it upright as my heart raced like never before. Somehow managing to get the brightly colored fish up onto the old wooden dock, I watched as the furious rascal beat a reckless tattoo on the weathered boards.
    My father was careful to subdue it without getting spiked by the critter’s sharp fins, and we soon had it back in the water on a stringer, which I checked every 30 seconds for the remainder of the trip. I didn’t catch anything else, but it mattered not a bit to me in my first flush of piscatorial victory.
    For the next two days, I paraded that bluegill about the neighborhood on the stringer, eventually boring all but my mother with repeated descriptions of the grandeur of the moment. The ’gill was a big one, I was told, and without anything else to compare it to I accepted that judgment unequivocally.
    By the end of the second day my parents convinced me to give the deceased a proper burial, explaining that it was gathering an odor and we had perhaps waited a little too long to serve it as supper. But I knew there were others out there, and I solemnly dedicated myself to their pursuit. I have held to that promise for over 60 years.
    These days I have exchanged the simple cane pole for a fixed line; a hook and a red worm for a light graphite fly rod adorned with a small black reel, a floating line and a little popping bug.
    In years past I have consumed at least my share of the tasty devils, but lately I have taken to releasing almost all of them. Each of my catches, I have come to realize, are either too small to eat or too large and grand to kill.
    Over the years, pursuing these bold swimmers while wet wading, from the shoreline, from canoes, kayaks, skiffs, bass boats, dingys and even inner tubes, I have found all of the experiences the same: fantastic. There is no other fish as willing to do battle, as eager to strike in hunger or defending its territory and as energetic and resolute in continuing the fight all the way to my hand.
    These fish are a model of life lived to the fullest. Each time I pursue them, I feel blessed to experience their fiery hearts and exceptional attitudes. My rod and reel are standing at the door as I wait for the wild springtime winds to die down. The ’gills are on the beds, I have an old promise to keep, and I can’t wait to fulfill it yet again.

The female harvest is the ­tipping point

Maryland’s favorite crustacean is in serious trouble, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ 2013 Winter Dredge Survey for blue crabs. Once again, the species is teetering at the edge of collapse.
    The numbers approach population levels in 2008, when the feds labeled the fishery a disaster.
    DNR reads this year’s numbers differently: “crabbing is at safe levels,” according to a recent press release. “The crabbing harvest remained at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year.”
    That interpretation begs comment.
    During the six-year period of presumably safe harvest levels, the overall crab population plunged by at least 70 percent. Is that not alarming?
    Commercial and recreational harvest limits are the primary management tools for controlling crab populations. But they went virtually unused for six straight years.
    Anson Hines, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, confirms fears about continuing difficulties with Chesapeake blue crab populations.
    In the 2008 crisis, part of the problem was harvest quotas based on flawed science. DNR had long claimed that the female blue crab spawned only once in her lifetime, so any size mature female could be taken without reducing the species’ ability to reproduce.    
    When that science was revisited, it was found that mature females spawn again and again. The overall female population, quite possibly, was the key to blue crab stability.
    By then, crab numbers were so low that the natural resources departments in both Maryland and Virginia — plus the Potomac River Fishery — began cooperating to rebuild the devastated species for the first time ever.
    In 2008-2009, winter dredging of dormant females in the Virginia portion of the Bay was halted. Maryland attempted to reduce fishing of females down the Bay in the fall. These actions achieved unprecedented protection for females throughout the Bay.
    These moves were a particularly big deal for Virginia because the crabbing industry in the lower Chesapeake depends significantly on female crabs. As the females prefer the higher salinity of the southern waters, their numbers are densest there. That’s also where all blue crabs spawn. This sparsely populated area relies on commercial fishing for jobs and income. Most of the cost of the fishery reduction was absorbed by Virginia watermen.
    The cutback led to a swift and extraordinary population resurgence. Within two years, the blue crab population rebuilt itself. The Bay saw some of its best recent crabbing seasons.
    But with that population build-up came commercial demands for renewed access to the females.
    During all of these periods of crisis, harvest of females continued under varying degrees of limitation throughout the Bay.
    The harvest of immature female blue crabs by the soft crab industry has never abated. Tens of thousands of small (three-and-a-half-inch minimum size), immature, never-spawned peeler and soft-phase females are harvested with scant control over limits.
    Just four years ago, recognizing at some level a population decline in progress, DNR made keeping female hard crabs by recreational crabbers illegal.
    That move generally transferred that portion of the recreational harvest over to the commercial sector. DNR did little else to abate the harvest of the sooks. What followed was the ecological crisis of 2014.
    This situation points to a serious and continuing shortcoming in the philosophy and management of the species. Based on DNR’s own statistics, from 1990 to 2000 the population of reproductive females in the lower Bay declined by more than 80 percent during the spawning season. The population remained at record low levels until 2008 and triggered the declaration of disaster.
    Now again in 2014, populations are back to seriously low levels, quite possibly because of the continuing and substantial commercial harvest of female crabs. Is that policy wise?

It shouldn’t be hard to outsmart a creature with a brain the size of a marble

The gentle temperatures of May were welcome after April’s cold winds and rain. But then a friend and I fished all day Friday under near-perfect conditions, chumming with fresh menhaden that tempted hardly a single bite.
    I tried to rationalize the failure by reminding my partner that bait fishing is frequently unreliable while the rockfish remain in spawning mode. But reports of fellow anglers boating keepers to our south (we were up around the Baltimore Light) only emphasized the odor of a second straight skunk this trophy season.
    I’ll be gearing up again, and my hopes remain high to score a couple of trophies on light tackle before the big migratory fish are gone. Reports of egg-bearing female stripers continue to dominate, so it’s a pretty good guess that we’ve got two to three weeks yet to get a few big ones in the box.

Well-Equipped
    I had gone over much of my tackle during winter, giving the bearings and drags of my reels some much-needed maintenance and replacing all of the lines. Both my buddy Moe and I switched to fluoro-coated monofilament for our bait fishing this season.
    Last year full fluorocarbon lines produced a slightly better bite than mono, but after a couple of weeks the fluoro lines turned stiffer, had a lot of memory and were not pleasant to use. I’m hoping the coated lines deliver the more reliable softness and low memory of mono while retaining the reduced underwater visibility of fluoro.
    We’re sticking with sliding fish-finder rigs, two-ounce sinkers and 7/0 J-hooks for most fishing days. But we’re prepared to jettison them for circle hooks the minute undersized throwback fish appear.
    For the first time, we’re also experimenting with chumming high and low, a bag sunk to within a dozen feet or so of the bottom and another bag at surface level. That should attract the rockfish cruising higher in the water column this time of year as well as those hunting the bottom contours. We have to drift a bait back weightless, or nearly so, to fish the upper waters. It will be interesting to see how many rock (if any) we score that way.
    Both my friend and I continue to use the round Abu Ambassaduer 5600 four-bearing casting reels, equipped with line-out clickers. The extra control of a revolving spool, the superior drag and the handiness of the line-out alarm overshadow the irritations caused by an occasional backlash.
    Six-foot-six-inch medium and medium-heavy rods remain my favorites for both chumming, live lining and jigging.
    Despite our poor start this year, I am hopeful for the balance of the trophy season. The motto I follow is Find out what makes you come alive and do it because what the world needs is more people who have come alive. For me that means being on the waters of the Chesapeake and trying to outsmart a fish with a brain the size of a marble. Even though the fish continue to win that matchup an embarrassing percentage of times, the adventure of the activity never wears on me. Even after two skunks. Really.

Learn what you need to know, take what you need to have

If you don’t have some type of watercraft — be it canoe, kayak, skiff, sailboat, sailboard or motor yacht — you’ll miss out on enjoying our largest public playground: the vast, 4,500 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay.
    A boat is your magic carpet for roaming the Bay and its tributaries while fishing, sailing, crabbing, clamming, oystering, photographing or cruising and paddling about in the natural beauty of the Chesapeake.

Fish-finder

  The rockfish trophy season is following its traditional schedule. Opening week was great. But springtime weather and the stripers’ natural inclination to elude anglers have taken a toll. Larger rockfish continue to move on their own spawning-driven, immutable and impossible-to-anticipate timelines. In better weather, good trophy fish have been taken all around the Chesapeake. But no one location or pattern has emerged to help anglers concentrate efforts. The spawn is especially late this year, evidenced by the high percentage of roe-laden females boated. So the migratory giants will, in all likelihood, remain available well into May.
  The white perch run is mostly over, as is the hickory shad run. The hickories will be running back to the ocean, while the white perch will wander slowly downstream, then school up and head back to their accustomed hangouts. Some will return to reside in shallow water structures of the Bay and its tributaries, others to the medium depths of the Chesapeake where they will all feed up to regain the body mass lost during spawning. Until the weather warms up and the perch settle down, they will be difficult to locate.
  A few more sunny, 70-plus-degree days will be needed to get the bass and bluegill on their spawning beds. That is sure to happen soon. If you haven’t caught a bluegill (or a bass) on a fly rod and a popper in shallow water, you haven’t lived your angling life to its fullest. This is a good time to correct that oversight.

    But being on the water is not without risk. Every year people are injured and lives lost. Safe boating depends on proper preparation. Step one is following the rules, requirements and guidelines set out by the Department of Natural Resources for boating safety.
    Find Maryland’s recreational boating safety equipment requirements at www.dnr.state.md.us/boating/pdfs/recreationvessels.pdf. Or call DNR and request a copy of the Boat Maryland textbook.
    The most imperative requires that every watercraft of every type, size and location — Bay, pond, creek, river or lake — must have a wearable life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) of appropriate size for each person on board. All children under the age of 13 must wear their PFD while aboard any craft less than 21 feet in length.
    Boats of 16 feet and over must likewise have, readily available, a type IV floating, throwable device (for man-overboard situations) such as a certified floating cushion or life ring.
    Finally, to operate sailing or motorized craft, all boaters born after July 1, 1972, must take an eight-hour Maryland Basic Boating Course and possess and have on their person a Maryland Boating Safety Education Certificate.
    Classes are listed in Bay weekly’s 8 Days a Week calendar of events. Natural Resources Police Safety Education also lists classes: 410-643-8502; www.dnr.state.md.us/boating/safety/basiccourse.asp.
    You can also find online courses at:
• www.boatus.org/onlinecourse/
Maryland.asp
• www.boat-ed.com/maryland/
• www.BOATERexam.com/usa/
maryland
    Find a handy checklist of all boat-safety items required under Maryland law at the DNR website or on page 21 in the Boat Maryland textbook. Failure to possess these required items while operating your boat can cost you a significant fine plus, in some cases, being ordered off of the water until the shortcomings are rectified.
    There is also a list of suggested items that make a lot of sense. These include a VHF radio, cell phone, extra fuel, a boat hook, charts and a compass, a flashlight and batteries, food and water, mooring lines, tool kit, spare anchor, binoculars, extra clothing, foul weather gear, a searchlight, sunscreen, insect repellant, hand towels, a First Aid Kit and a spare paddle.
    If you venture into distant, sparsely populated areas, consider an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and a satellite phone.
    Squalls, thunderstorms and other violent weather conditions — as well as mechanical breakdowns and unavoidable accidents — are always unpleasant possibilities on the water. Keep the DNR emergency response hotline on your speed dial or, at least, in your list of phone contacts: 410-260-8888 or 877-224-7229.
    If you spend enough time on the water, eventually things will get dicey. If you’re prepared, the incident will only result in a good yarn. If you’re unprepared … well, don’t let that happen.

The big fish are here, with anglers on their tails

As our boat, Downtime, approached the Bay Bridge spans, I glanced back at the trolling setup just in time to see the portside rod slam down hard in its holder. Tim Levandoski, an eager angler visiting from upstate New York, rushed to grab the straining outfit. He could barely hold it vertical while line poured off the reel against the drag.
    Welcome to the Chesapeake, I thought, as a broad smile illuminated the face of an angler accustomed to the pull of the five- and six-pound freshwater bass of his home state. Fifteen minutes later, but only after considerable effort, he hoisted up a muscular 36-inch, 20-plus-pound rockfish for some photos.
    That handsome catch was made the last practice day before trophy rockfish season. A stellar opening day followed on April 19. The last half-dozen years, opening day has been plagued by nasty winds and wretched seas. This year’s version was sunny and calm, and the catches impressive.
    Success spread over a wide area including Love Point, the Bay Bridge, Gum Thickets, the mouth of Eastern Bay, Bloody Point, over to Hackett’s and down to Chesapeake Beach, then to Solomons. Our waters are full of migratory stripers, and they are hungry.
    Early reports included a couple of 50-plus-pound fish. A 47-incher (that took a white bucktail) was caught by Jim Aherns on the Pollyann to win the 13th Annual Boatyard Bar & Grill Opening Day Tournament.
    Nice-sized fish seem to dominate the storyline all over the Bay.
    Angler’s Sport Center has weighed in quite a few hefty stripers for citation (40 inches or over), more than I ever remember, and I’ve heard of no throwbacks.
    Trolling typically dominates the early season tactical scenario with boats working the main stem of the Chesapeake. Larger lures such as parachutes rigged with nine- and 12-inch sassy shads (white or chartreuse) are taking large fish, while big umbrella rigs in the same colors have accounted for a few giants.
    Fishing the top 20 feet of the water column is key during the early season, but dragging a few baits deep for insurance makes sense. Working across the cavernous shipping channels all the way past the shallower edges and keeping trolling speeds to under three knots are also part of the drill. Early morning hours are usually heavily weighted with success as daytime boat traffic eventually scatters the fish or drives them deeper.
    Bait fishing is taking increasingly larger numbers of trophy stripers as well this early season as the method continues to become more popular. Fishing fresh-cut bait or bloodworms on the bottom has been surprisingly effective in the same areas that have traditionally been productive only later in the year. The most productive spots are around the mouths of the major tributaries for boat anglers; Matapeake and Sandy Point state parks, or any accessible shoreline on the Bay proper, for land-based sports.
    The opening day of Maryland’s Rockfish Trophy Season is designated by state law as the third Saturday in April. The timing is planned to avoid large female fish still trying to reproduce.
    The result of our unusually long and cold winter, however, is that many of the trophy-sized females landed so far this season are still bulging with roe. Because of the unusually low water temperatures, the spawn has been delayed and extended.
    Prudent anglers will refrain from harvesting these gravid fish, releasing them and choosing to take only the males and spawned-out females. Returning big roe-bearing fish — easily carrying a half-million eggs — to the Bay to complete their spawns will benefit future rockfish populations.

It’s a shame to let April end with no pickerel

Long, lean and equipped with a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth and a nasty attitude, the chain pickerel, sometimes called the water wolf, is the acknowledged king fish of winter. Most other Tidewater species become sleepy and lethargic at lower temperatures. The water wolf seems energized by the chill.
    This past winter season was so frigid and foul that I never managed a single dance with these sly devils. I remedied that recently on the first decent day in months.
    With the water still cold, the fish are grouped to feed on spawning perch and herring. As the water warms, the pickerel will spawn, then spread out in singles and melt into thicker cover.
    We fished the Eastern Shore, but you can find pickerel higher up in most of the tributaries and creeks around the Chesapeake.
    These members of the pike family are ambush predators. You’ll sometimes encounter them cruising in open water, but this time of year it’s more productive to target trees fallen into the water (laydowns), submerged brush, piers, the shorelines of coves, the edges of floating debris, jetties and rocky edges.
    We were using a small gold spoon with a lip-hooked bull minnow. The flash of the spoon — plus the undulating action it gives the minnow as you slowly retrieve — draws smashing strikes. Pickerel will hit either a minnow or a spoon alone, but the two in tandem are especially deadly. As another benefit, the metal spoon generally keeps your line away from the teeth of the fish so you don’t need a leader. Anglers also employ spinner baits such as large Rooster Tails, Mepps, smaller sized Rat-L-Traps and similar crank baits. Our gear was light, six-foot spinning rods with four- and six-pound line.

Give and Take
    We had action as soon as we hit the water. My buddy Moe had the first fish, a big one, right next to us after a considerable battle. During the fight, it managed to open the small snap securing Moe’s lure. With a couple of headshakes at boatside, the fish escaped with my friend’s six dollar spoon sparkling from the edge of its smile.
    Mine was the next hookup, and it felt like a real giant. It came away from the shore pulling deep with steady pressure and passed by us, unconcerned, on the way out to open water. I wasn’t sure it knew it was hooked.
    I increased the drag tension as the fish slowly pulled out line. Only then did it shake its head for the first time. My line went slack. Retrieving my spoon and ravaged minnow, I could only surmise that my hook point had never penetrated the fish’s mouth. When the beast suspected deception, it had simply spit out the offending morsel.
    We kept at it through a subsequent slump, finally hitting pay dirt an hour later while working submerged brush. After landing three nice fish, we keyed on similar structure along the shoreline and drew regular strikes and frothy battles over the next four hours.
    The iridescent green rockets occasionally went airborne, clearing the surface and giving us a good look at their lethal profiles and fearsome dentures. Our fish that day averaged about 20 inches; we stopped counting after 15 splashing encounters.
    A 24-inch pickerel is citation-size and gives an outsized battle. A 14-incher is rather lightweight though still a legal keeper.

Your Turn
    Chain pickerel will continue to haunt submerged structure and cruise the tributaries and impoundments until the end of April, or as long as the white perch runs last, so you can still get in on the action.
    Take a net as pickerel are impossible to handle without one. They are also extremely slippery. You can control them somewhat in the boat by gripping them by the eye sockets (it doesn’t harm their eyes). It’s probably best to leave them in the net until they’re unhooked and ready for release. Never forget about their teeth, which are needle-sharp and abundant.

A Poor Meal
    The down side to the pickerel is in its table quality. It’s got lots of bones, many very fine. The fish are far more valuable swimming than in the frying pan.

Persistence conquers all.

–Benjamin Franklin

Trollers are the majority of trophy-season rockfish anglers, as they should be. There is no surer way to seek out and hook a giant migratory striper than by working the deep-water shipping lanes with large lures and heavy tackle.
    But there are anglers who march to a different drummer in the spring season. They do not hear the rumble of an engine, nor do they smell engine exhaust. Chumming from an anchored boat or fishing cut bait from the shoreline can score big fish. However, the challenges these anglers face are considerable, and only patience and persistence can ensure success.
    The principle problem is anticipating where rockfish might be. Over the next month, rockfish will be on the move, driven by spawning instincts no one can anticipate. Reproduction is the prime motivation of every striper now swimming the Chesapeake.
    There is no way of predicting where a rockfish will be from day to day. Some will be moving up the Bay to spawn, others spawning, some leaving the Bay having finished but pausing at times to feed and regain lost weight. Trollers broadly target anticipated lanes of movement. Bait fishers can only pick a spot and hope the fish will eventually show up.

Trophy Fishing the Hard Way
    Make your tackle a bit stouter. The fish targeted during trophy season are the migratory giants. A minimum-length 28-inch keeper is going to weigh about 10 pounds; a 45-incher as much as 40 pounds. Fish of this size can put considerable stress on your tackle.
    Choose a rod with a good amount of backbone. From a boat, a six-and-a-half-foot medium-heavy to heavy-powered stick, spinning or casting, is the minimum to get the job done. Your line should be fresh and test out at 20 pounds at the minimum with no less than 150 yards spooled on a reel with a good-quality drag that has been recently serviced. A boat angler fishing from anchor should always have the anchor line fitted with a float so that it can be cast off to quickly follow after the fish.
    If you’re fishing from shore, you’ll need a stout 10- to 12-foot rod to get your bait out where the big ones cruise looking for a bite to eat. Shore-bound anglers may also want to upgrade to 30-pound mono or 30-50 braid, all on large capacity reels (300 yards or more).
    Hooks sizes should be substantial. A 7/0 is about standard, and leader material (I suggest fluorocarbon) should be no less than 30 pounds; 50 is better. There are going to be a lot of pyrotechnics, so you’ll need the toughness of such a leader to protect against cut-offs from hull or rock abrasion.
    Your summertime landing net may also be grossly inadequate for the trophy season, and there is no worse time to realize that than with a 45-incher rolling alongside. More big fish are lost in landing efforts than at any other part of the battle.
    The baits used should be as fresh as possible and changed every 20 minutes. With water temps below 50 degrees, rockfish find food by smell. Menhaden (also known as alewife, bunker and pogy) are one of the most popular and successful baits. Use big chunks, both to attract larger fish and to reduce the chance of an undersized fish swallowing the bait.
    Bloodworms are particularly effective this time of year, but always use circle hooks with the worms and come tight as soon as you notice the fish taking your bait to reduce the chance of deep hooking.
    The last essential rule is that all knots should be tied fresh, carefully lubricated with saliva and drawn up with a firm pull. Inspect all of your efforts carefully. If the knot doesn’t look absolutely perfect, cut it off and retie it. You don’t want to blow a single opportunity with one of these great fish.
    Daytime can be productive for anglers this time of year, but the pre-dawn and post-sundown hours will probably score more keepers than any other time of day.


Fish-finder

    White perch have finally started running, and the Tuckahoe is seeing a few good fish caught. Beachwood Park on the Magothy is also producing some nice whities, as is the Choptank.
    Pickerel are really heating up as they are keying on the perch. Herring are moving up the rivers while beginning their own spawning run. Shad are mostly a no-show, but they should be making a move in the near future. Saturday, April 19, is the start of trophy rock season and an unofficial holiday on the Chesapeake.

Saturday, April 19, is the 13th Annual Boatyard Bar & Grill Opening Day Rockfish Tournament. It’s a catch-and-release competition, with proceeds going to Bay charities. Prizes and a party with food, drink and good music lure a thousand-plus Bay enthusiasts: http://tinyurl.com/l8duuvn.