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Features (Fishing)

Trotline your way to a pickin’ party

Heading out from the ramp in a late morning sortie for white perch, I encountered a solo crabber’s boat at the edge of the channel. He was pulling in his trotline from the stern and looked up as my skiff approached.
    Seeking info on the crab catch, I gave him the sign language gesture asking how he was doing (arms open and a questioning look on my face). Shaking his head. he indicated problems. I killed my engine and drifted closer.
    “My line got tangled first thing; It took almost an hour to get it cleared. Then the side of my basket broke open,” he indicated with a flip of his head toward the shattered pieces of a wooden bushel in the bow. “The crabs got out and they’re crawling all over the boat. I’m going home.”
    “Bad day then,” I answered.
    “No, a great day,” he replied. “I got almost a bushel already. I’m just tired of them trying to crawl up my legs.”
    I gave him a thumbs-up as I restarted my motor. He flashed a big grin and resumed retrieving his line.

Do It Yourself    
    Finally, a good year for crabbing. After three years of Maryland Department of Natural Resources promising that crab numbers were improving, they are. Bouncing back from the slow recovery of a female population once again driven into near collapse by commercial over-harvest, the recreational crabbing season is proving a good one.
    Recreational crabbers can once again expect to get a family crab dinner with their own hands in a reasonable day’s effort, though DNR continues to add constraints on recreational crabbers: no female harvest, reduced trot line length and delayed starting time (all to favor the commercial sector). There’s no better crab than what you yourself provide.
    Feasting on succulent blue crabs a mere two or three hours out of the water is one of the finest epicurean experiences a Marylander can have. Just about anyone can catch their own, with a minimum of equipment, although a boat of some kind (even a borrowed kayak) is required to get the job done with a trotline.
    The trotline is the best, most effective device for catching crabs in any quantity. Six hundred feet is the current legal maximum for one crabber. If you fix a chicken neck bait every four feet on your line, that’s 125 baits (about 10 pounds of necks).
    Motoring, paddling or quietly pulling yourself down the crab line and netting each crab as it lifts up from the bottom, you can now expect to fill a basket in under a day. Starting early is the key as the crabs will usually stop moving to feed by about 11am and won’t start up again until later in the afternoon. On cloudy days, the bite may stay steady.
    Anchored on either end and marked by identical buoys, the trotline is kept on the bottom by about three feet of galvanized chain on each end. Constantly running the line with a wire-basket net will maximize the catch you will accumulate in the traditional split-wood bushel basket. The current minimum size for a male crab is 5¼ inches.
    Choose a day with a good tide running right from the start, for crabs move with the tidal current, and you need a steadily moving crab population to keep your trot line producing.
    If you’re not catching and the tidal current is moving, try another location. The one you’re at is probably not going to work.
    Area sports stores or crabbing stores offer the most affordable supply of line for crabbing and can fill in the details of just how to set it up, how to tie the slip knot for the chicken necks and the current depth where crabs are being found (right now it’s between six and 10 feet). They’ll also have a ready supply of chicken necks and the proper nets, anchors and floats.
    Crabs inhabit just about every body of water that feeds the Chesapeake. As long as you’ve got a good run of water (i.e., 600 feet) of the proper depth you have an excellent likelihood of catching Mr. (but not Mrs.) Blue Crab.

Plan B might be your score

I lifted my rod tip to strike and felt a solid resistance. The small rod bowed. About 30 feet from the boat, I saw the swirl of a fish breaching just under the surface. Then my drag started to sing. We were in the skinny water just off of a rocky Bay shoreline and throwing Capt. Bert’s Perch Pounders.
    There was either a really big white perch at the end of my line — or a lurking rockfish had fallen victim to my black-and-orange spinner bait. After about 50 yards of line had sizzled off of my small spin reel, I was guessing rockfish. It headed into open water and had my thin six-pound mono stretched tight and singing with tension.
    It was becoming a long run, even for a striper. Since less than half my line remained on the spool, I raised the Power Pole anchor to chase the speedy devil. Starting up the Yamaha, I eased out from shore and followed the fleeing fish. It finally slowed and allowed me to put some line back on my reel.
    Lifting and reeling, I brought the fish nearer until it decided it didn’t like that development and took off running again. Within a few short seconds, my line supply was again reduced. I put the motor back in gear and resumed pursuit.
    That I was enjoying the situation was an understatement. I hadn’t had such a tussle in weeks, and the fact that it was on a light five-foot rod didn’t diminish the experience. Determined not to lose this torpedo, I kept the rod pressure moderate, constant and off to the side.

Fishing Against the Tide
    This had turned out to be a fine day.
    Low tide was to have been at 5am on the charts, so when we splashed the boat at 7:30am we felt the current should be on the point of reversal, if not solidly incoming. However, the water at the Sandy Point boat ramp was just under the finger piers, hardly low-tide conditions.
    Arriving at one of our favorite Bay Bridge supports, we found no current. The water was flat calm, and my finder was blank of any fish marks. In anticipation of the imminent arrival of the current along with Mr. Rockfish, we began to live-line small spot down around the supports
    An hour into our efforts the water was still as dead as the bite, not surprising since rockfish are always reticent to actively feed unless there is current. The Bay, unfortunately, often runs its own tide schedule regardless of the printed versions. This was just another incidence of its fickleness.
    Should we continue live-lining and hope — or resort to Plan B? Having been at the mercy of tideless days on the Chesapeake, we had included in our tackle arsenal a couple of perch rigs, a supply of Bert’s Perch Pounders and some of our favorite Rooster Tails. Thus we voted for Plan B.
    After a quick run to shallow water, our fortunes improved. Thick and hungry white perch were hanging on almost every rocky erosion jetty that came out from the shoreline. They attacked our lures with gratifying vigor regardless of the lack of tidal current. There were a lot of nine-inch fish, but there were also some heavy-shouldered black-backs that passed the ten-inch mark.
    Then along came that Olympic-level rockfish. Eventually, I managed the marathon sprinter into my net. Surprisingly it measured just barely 20 inches; I had assumed it to be larger from the way it had resisted capture.
    Once on ice, it might shrink below the minimum size. I decided this particular fish’s fighting genes should be passed on to as many offspring as it might manage, so I eased it back over the side.
    By 10:30, the sun was getting oppressive, and we had enough big perch on ice to supply dinner for six.

Fish favor a careful angler

We were drifting soft crab at the Bay Bridge for rockfish when I let my bait get too deep. It fouled on bottom debris. Gritting my teeth in frustration, I maxed my drag, froze my reel spool with my thumb and backed the skiff away. I had lost a number of rigs over past seasons on this particular support, so I assumed that this was just another dues payment.
    I felt my monofilament line stretch as I moved away until it finally broke free, and I reeled my line back. I was surprised to see my hook still attached. Checking its point to ensure it had not been dulled, I rebaited and we set up for another drift.
    When a short time later a good-sized rockfish took my bait, I realized two mistakes I had just made. The first was that I had maxed my drag setting when I snagged my line and had neglected to reset it. The second was that I had ignored the effect of putting so much strain on the line. When that big lunker headed away, the drag held fast. I desperately backed off the adjustment, but my line snapped before the effort could have enough effect. Slumping dejectedly as I retrieved the loose line, I felt like a fool. This was far from my first rodeo, and I had made these mistakes before. Together they spelled disaster.
    As you impart acute strain on a knot, as I did when trying to break off my snagged bait, it continues to tighten, stretching the line and causing it to cut into itself until the knot, or some other weak point in the line, eventually fails.
    Though in this case the knot had not broken and my bait had pulled free, the mono within the knot had already been critically weakened. Coupled with the subsequent stress of a big fish and an extreme drag setting, the knot failed — and a trophy-sized fish easily broke off.
    The lessons, of course, are that when you put high stress on knots, cut them off and retie them — or suffer the consequences. When you mess with your drag, always remember to adjust it back to the original setting.
    The next disaster due to detail happened just a few days later. My favorite hook for bait fishing is made by a quality manufacturer, but with one minor flaw. The shank gap where the hook eye was formed was just a little larger than I would have preferred.
    Early in the season, it made no difference because we were using 30-pound fluorocarbon leaders, more than adequate for our light tackle and thick and tough enough to withstand a questionable hook-eye gap. However, a few weeks later the bite changed. We went from fishing big baits deep with 30-pound leaders to live-lining small perch with sections of 20-pound leader.
    You can guess the rest. During a battle with a particularly large and powerful striper, I experienced a long-range release, inexplicably losing the big devil. When I retrieved my line, I discovered my knot was intact but had slipped through the gap in the hook eye. There’s an old Wall Street saying: To know and not to do is not to know. I had known of the flaw and had done nothing. Willfully, I remained stupid.
    I still use that hook as its other qualities are significant. But ­whenever I get a fresh pack, I anoint the gap on each hook eye with a touch of epoxy. I have not lost a fish to that defect since.
    Retying stressed knots … modifying or eliminating flaws in terminal tackle … always checking for nicks and abrasions in the your line … being sure that the ring inserts on your rod guides, particularly the tip top, are undamaged … continually checking your drag settings: All of these are small habits acquired by experienced anglers.
     The longer you fish, the more little stuff you remember. When that big fish is finally on the line, minor details can make all the difference.

First, catch some small spot

As I flipped my live perch over the side, my son did the same. Hoping that we would not have to wait too long for action, I let the small baitfish swim down and away from the boat. The lines streamed aft and out to port as a light wind pushed our skiff over the calm water.
    Within a few seconds, my line was feeding out unusually fast. I glanced around for orientation to gauge just how fast the tide was moving. My son called, “Dad, your line is crossing over mine,” but when I tried to check its flow, I discovered it wasn’t the current that was pulling out my baitfish. It was something far stronger.
    “I’m getting a run already; something took my bait.” I said, “You’ll have to bring your line in.”
    “I can’t. I have a fish on,” he answered. His rod was bent to the corks, and line was pouring off of his spool.
    Throwing my reel in gear, I came tight to my fish to the same effect, my rod bent down and a strong rockfish headed out and away. I did my best to keep my line from crossing my son’s. For long moments it was a delightfully difficult situation.
    Laughing and dodging around each other as we finally got separation, I had to warn John to push his rod tip deep underwater to keep his line clear of our motor’s lower unit. His fish had turned and managed to angle his line under the hull. I thought about raising the motor in assistance, then decided my hands were full. It was every man for himself.
    The response had turned us optimistic. When we arrived, I had been alarmed to see more than 50 fishing craft clustered in the area. Fortunately, most of the others were trolling or anchored and fishing bait. Neither would interfere with our live-lining tactics.

Tips for Live-lining Success
    A number of details can make big differences in your rate of success. The bait must swim as naturally as possible; ideally no weight should be added to the line. Place the hook no deeper than one-quarter inch just in front of the dorsal.
    To maximize the bait’s freedom of movement, we use loop knots to secure a 6/0 live bait hook to the leader. Using at least 18 inches of no more than a 20-pound fluoro leader helps in the stealth department.
    When fishing open water, make your presentations to marked fish in drift mode to give you a definite advantage. Search until you have found good marks, move up current, then drift down over their location with your motor off. Your electronics will tell you how deep your quarry is and approximately when your bait will drift through them.
    Maintain constant but delicate contact with the baitfish through line tension. Knowing just how the bait is swimming — and lending pressure when it is to your advantage — will trigger strikes. When you feel the baitfish making evasive movements, snubbing it up briefly will make it move more frantically. The stripers are alerted to the bait’s distress and often respond with immediate attacks.
    A long pause, free of all line pressure, is almost always necessary after a rockfish grabs the bait. Unless you’ve got very small perch or spot, it’s difficult to get a hook set until the rockfish has really engulfed the bait. A long five count is the minimum.
    Strike with a firm, measured pull, not a hard strike. Particularly with bigger fish, if it has swallowed the bait, a forceful strike can rip the bait and the hook out of the soft tissue of the fish’s throat. During the fight, keep the pressure moderate for the same reason.
    Do not attempt to horse a fish in the last few feet nor snub a last-minute dash for the bottom. Be patient, set your drag on the light side, let them run and you’ll land ’em all — as we did that day.

When spot are missing, will they bite on white perch?

It was sunny and flat calm on the Bay, and I had made record time to get on site. But the area I had chosen was empty of boats. With such great weather, I assumed that at least a few sports would be working the flat. The schools of good-sized rockfish that had been teeming there were certainly no secret.
    On my fish finder, the water looked as vacant underneath as on top. With a sinking heart, I cruised slowly an irregular pattern in the general direction of previous good fortune. The bottom appeared featureless and empty; my scan of its 20-foot depth ran steady flat.
    I searched for a half-hour before my screen lit up. Netting a small but lively perch out of my bait bucket, I fitted a 6/0 hook just under the skin in front of its dorsal. I wanted that hook to break free with just a bit of a tug so it could easily find purchase in the rockfish’s mouth.
    One of the most frequent causes of losing big fish when live-lining is placing the hook too deep in the baitfish. Deep hooking obscures much of the hook gap, and it makes it more likely that, when the striper takes the fish down, the hook will turn back into the bait’s body and not into the rockfish.
    Motoring up current, well past the marks, I flipped the small perch out away from my skiff and felt it shoot down toward the bottom. I settled my nerves and waited out the drift with my thumb lightly on the reel spool. It was almost mid-day, and though the sun was high, its heat was not oppressive. The day couldn’t have been more pleasant.

What to Feed a Rockfish
    My trip had started out that morning, as it often does, with an unwelcome surprise. The perch I had planned to catch for bait were no longer where I had been finding them. Just a few days past, the area had been choked with schools of the little white devils, many just the right size, no more than five inches. This morning the bottom looked like a desert on my finder; no life anywhere.
    Moving about with my eyes glued to the sonar produced nothing but eyestrain. I gave up and headed for a sizeable creek where I had occasionally caught a few small perch. It appeared, at first, to be just as empty, but by moving about and trying every piece of structure, I finally found a small school of whities.
    It took another hour to get about 10 decent sized scrappers in my aerated bucket. The morning was wearing late when I finally fired up the Yamaha and headed for rockfish water.
    Would my perch baitfish work?
    The last few years, it has been virtually impossible to get rockfish to eat a white perch. If a live-liner didn’t have a supply of small Norfolk spot, it was unlikely a striper would be tempted to bite. Last year, the number of small spot in the Chesapeake dropped. This year, spot of any size seem to be missing. Since rockfish have to eat, I reasoned, perhaps it was finally time for white perch as bait.
    As I drifted over the area where I’d had likely marks, I felt my baitfish making a number of sudden dashes. Then it stopped. My line started up under my thumb in long, erratic bursts. I fed into the action, guarding against a spool overrun while trying to minimize resistance on the line. Giving the situation a long 10-count, I came tight again.
    When I felt solid resistance I struck, and the fight was on. The hiss of a smooth drag is lovely music to an old angler’s ear. It says big fish and means you’d better be extra careful. There are lots of ways to lose a big guy, as I well knew, but only one sure method to land it: patience combined with constant pressure and focus.
    Eventually that fat, healthy 32-inch fish came to the net and into the boat. As I buried it in ice, I marveled at how well things had turned out. My white perch had carried the day and I had more than enough to get another striper to fill my limit. But another fish didn’t really matter. Everything was already fantastic.

 

Mastering your electronics will increase your catch

I’ve had a great past two weeks fishing the Chesapeake. Nice rockfish to 34 inches were in multiple small mobs, hanging in 20 to 30 feet of water. When I located one on the finder, they promptly attacked any jigs or baits we dropped on them. A number of friends had the same experience.
    Yet later this week, I heard from anglers who had cruised the same waters and hadn’t been able to catch anything. What’s more, they told me, they generally had trouble catching rockfish, despite serious effort.
    Digging deeper I ferreted out a common denominator. All had electronic fish finders on their craft but weren’t up to speed on using them. Depth was about all they understood.
    It’s a dictum of fishing the salt that 90 percent of the task is locating the fish. The single most effective tool in finding fish on large bodies of water, like the Chesapeake, is the electronic fish finder.
    Locating fish with the finder does not guarantee that you will catch them. But it is impossible to catch fish that aren’t there, no matter how hard you try.
    Today’s fish finders are able instruments with multiple options to tailor them to your unique marine environment and detect just about anything underwater you’d care to find. Based to a certain extent on anti-submarine technology, these babies are so technically sophisticated that they remain illegal for export to foreign countries.
    But a few days ago I was reminded of just how daunting dealing with these instruments can be. My unit hiccupped during booting and failed to load. When I turned it off and back on again to reboot, I saw that most of my settings had been lost and the unit’s displays were unrecognizable.
    It had been years since I set the machine up and fine-tuned it, so I had no memory of how I did it. With multiple screen menus each with many options, I had to go back to the manual and start over.
    Turning on my unit with my boat on its trailer beside my house, I had no distractions. With the manual in my lap, I went through the setup again. A basic menu option on any recently manufactured unit is a reset to original manufacturer defaults. That’s where I started.
    If you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with electronics, I recommend you begin there as well. There is little intuitive about setting up a fish finder, but most manuals are fairly helpful.
    If the original manual for your machine cannot be located, most manufacturers offer them on their websites. As a last resort, you can call the manufacturer and order a copy.
    Do not attempt to set up or review your settings while fishing; There are just too many distractions.
    Once you’ve entered your initial settings, take a short cruise (with the manual and without your tackle) to fine-tune them.
    Repeat, trying different options and watching your screen to observe the effects. If your choices end in confusion, reset to the default settings and start over.
    A well-tuned instrument will become a customized tool that meets your requirements, eye and angling techniques. The reward will come in terms of more fish in the boat and more confidence in your approach.

The concept couldn’t be simpler or the results better

My life as a sportsman has undergone any number of wild, unorganized, swings of interest. Angling-wise, I have immersed myself for long periods of dedication to salt-water fly-fishing, freshwater bass and bluegill fishing, a few years of an offshore blue-water crusade and plenty of surf and inshore wade fishing. Only in the last three years have I become absorbed by bait fishing in the Chesapeake.
    Perhaps it is because I don’t quite have the excess energy so advantageous to wielding the long rod, plugging the shallows with a casting rod or thrashing the oceanside high surf with a big stick and heavy metal. Plus, rising well before dawn to get the jump on big fish in skinny water or staying up past midnight to work an opportune tide no longer have the old attraction.
    Bait fishing, I’ve found, is a more relaxed pastime. The open-water bite, particularly in the Bay, is just as good during the day as the night, so there is no reason to wreck sleep patterns or strain domestic relationships to enjoy a dance with our game fish.
    Its basic concept couldn’t be simpler: decide on a species; determine what they usually eat and present it to them where they are most apt to be found.
    On the Chesapeake, species selection is fairly straightforward. It’s rockfish and white perch for most of the year and croaker and spot during the hotter months. I’ve excluded bluefish, drum and Spanish mackerel because of their mostly tentative presence in the mid- and upper Bay over the last decade.
    Rockfish — striped bass — are the most sought-after species by area anglers and rightly so. A particularly handsome, silvery striped fish with excellent table qualities, rockfish is just selective enough in its eating habits to be a challenge to catch.
    It is also sufficiently numerous to provide fairly frequent limits of two fish to all but the most casual anglers. The fact that it can be encountered in the Bay in sizes from barely two pounds for a legal possession to in excess of 50 pounds adds drama to the pursuit.
    Presenting the freshest cut menhaden, crab or a big lively bloodworm as bait will result, as likely as not, in the relatively prompt attention of any nearby rockfish. Attention to your rod tip is mandatory, as on many days stripers will sip the bait off your hook with nary a twitch to betray it.
    Time your strike properly. Sometimes a quick pull on the rod is necessary, particularly with small, soft baits. Other times, and especially with larger baits, if you don’t give the fish time to get it well into its mouth, your strike will result in nothing but a water haul.
    Another challenging baiting technique is live-lining. Presenting a frisky baitfish such as a four- or five-inch white perch or Norfolk spot near structure where rockfish like to hang out can result in some electrifying moments. A 30-inch striper on a medium-weight spin or casting rod will make any outing memorable.
    White perch are often, and quite mistakenly, overlooked or regarded as undemanding. Nothing could be further from the truth. The smaller sizes of perch are so eager to bite that they can amount to a nuisance, while the larger, those 10 inches and over, can be challenging and should be regarded as a premium catch, especially for the table. They like bloodworms, grass shrimp, crab.
    Norfolk spot and croaker can also be taken on the same baits as perch and are often found in the same areas. They are also frequently in such numbers that it is an ideal fishery for youngsters just starting out.
    The saying All good things come to those who bait is often spoken as angler’s jest. But in my time on the water, I have found it has a solid ring of truth.

You’re not alone in loving soft crabs

In early morning, we were drifting bridge structure for rockfish on a slowly moving tide. I had already dropped down my bait, lightly weighted with just a quarter-ounce twist-on sinker, and fed out plenty of line. Thinking it finally near the rubble-strewn floor 30 feet below, I put my thumb on the spool and lifted the rod tip to give the bait a bit of motion. I may have waited too long. Apparently my rig was hung up on the bottom.
    Shifting the Yamaha into reverse, I crept back up-current to get a better angle to try to work it loose. But the line angled off in an unexpected direction into the water.
    Suddenly suspicious, I put the reel in gear, cranked in line to eliminate any slack and lifted the rod in a strike. Something powerful came immediately alive on the other end, unhappy with the sudden pressure. My spool blurred, and the drag hummed as a large and angry fish headed away. The king of baits had seduced another victim.
    Bait-fishing is about the oldest technique for catching fish on hook and line. It also remains the deadliest. From producing the most fish to securing the largest, it continues to be the ultimate method.
    However, not all baits are equal.
    Worms, baitfish of all types, clams, squid, shrimp and their ilk are all great producers at one time or another on the Chesapeake. But one bait in particular will outproduce all others: the soft crab.
    Like human epicureans, most of the fish in the Bay love soft crab. Its mere scent makes virtually every species of pan or game fish throw caution to the wind in their desire to find and consume it.
    Anglers determined to tempt larger rockfish from their lairs will often find that just a half or quarter of a soft crab is sufficient to get their attention. Many anglers prefer to present these baits on a treble hook, believing that the extra hook points mean a more solid purchase within the bait, so they can strike instantly upon noticing any degree of bite and be assured of a hook-up.
    The 34-incher below that bridge abutment was just the last of our limit that morning to fall victim to our supply of softies. The remainder of our baits we would use (in smaller pieces) to temp the lunker white perch that often populate the bases of the same bridge piers that larger rockfish like to frequent.
    Though rockfish consider most white perch legitimate prey, an 11- or 12-inch perch with big, needle-sharp spikes on its fins is usually safe from all but the largest rockfish. While these big perch are well experienced, having survived at least six or seven seasons and among the more difficult types to entice with the usual baits, they, too, cannot resist a piece of tasty soft crab.

Big fish love to eat them

It started with a comment by an angling buddy who had been fishing for white perch the day before. “I was getting them two at a time, but they were nowhere near big enough,” he said. “I had to search another three hours before I found any keepers.”
    Early the next morning, I was on that very same site with my trusty perch tackle: a light six-foot rig able to handle drifting a two-ounce sinker and a hi-lo rig in deep water. My No. 6 hooks, dressed with orange beads and a small spinner, were baited with nice bits of juicy bloodworm.
    Slowly cruising the area, I found promising marks on my electronic finder and lowered the baits to the bottom 20 feet below. Within a few minutes, I had a thrashing beauty to the surface and then in my hand: a five-inch white perch. Another 20 minutes resulted in a dozen more swimming in my live well. These guys were going to be perfect baits to live-line for rockfish.
    I racked the perch rig in the console rod holder, fired up my Yamaha, kicked the skiff up on plane and headed for my new destination at full throttle. There was not a minute to lose. This was going to be a morning bite — if there was to be any bite at all.
    The bridge I had in mind had not been very productive of late. Jig anglers who normally target the structure for rockfish had migrated. Throttling down and approaching at slow speed, I noted that I had no company.
    Being the only angler in a normally congested area can mean one of two things: Either I was going to be the first to discover a good bite … or everyone else already knew something I didn’t. Hoping for the former, I netted the smallest perch I could find from the live well, gently slid the 6/0 hook just under its skin in front of the dorsal and flipped it over the side close to a concrete pier.
    As the released perch headed for the bottom, I lightly thumbed my reel letting the spool spin freely as 20-pound mono followed the fish into the depths. With no weight and a light fluorocarbon leader, I was depending on the perch to get down to the proper depth where, I hoped, it would be ambushed by a rockfish.
    I did not have to wait long. First I felt the perch make a number of rapid dashes, then all movement stopped. Slowly, then more rapidly, my line began to move away from the structure, going deeper, then heading for the other end of the concrete pier.
    When a striper takes a white perch, it inevitably does three things. First it disables the baitfish with a crushing bite. Then, because of the perch’s sharp spines, it turns it head-first in its jaws. Only then does it swallow the baitfish. Hoping that the fish below had completed these steps, I put the reel in gear and struck.
    The satisfying bend in my rod indicated success as the fish below went wild, pulling line off my reel. I let it run while I shifted my quietly idling motor into reverse to pull away from the bridge.
    Thumbing the spool to add more resistance to the running fish, I slowly increased separation from the bridge and began to draw my adversary into more open water where I could let it run at will. Twenty-pound mono is no match for barnacle-encrusted bridge piers.
    A few minutes later, I led a fat, shining rockfish into my landing net. After measuring and admiring the 23-inch fish, I deposited it into my fish box and covered it with ice. I had dinner plans for this one.
    It took another hour before I could put its twin on ice as well. Releasing the remaining perch from my live well, I fired up my outboard and headed for home, well before noon.

If you want to amuse the fish gods, announce your plans

It was the simplest and most delicious of meals. A thick rockfish fillet anointed with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse-grain salt, fresh-ground pepper and dill and broiled long enough to brown both sides. Served with the fish were the first ears of Florida Silver Queen corn, boiled for only four minutes, plus thick slices of fresh tomatoes also treated with olive oil, salt and pepper and sprinkled with chopped basil.
    The dinner had taken a little over 20 minutes to prepare. The complete operation, however, involved many difficult hours. There’s an old saying to the effect that if you want to give the fish gods a chuckle, announce your plans.
    Foolishly I had proclaimed how good the bite would be on the opening day of the second rockfish season May 16 and just how readily I would procure large and tasty fillets for a springtime meal that very evening.
    When I peered out my window that Monday morning, I saw that opening day was going to be a washout as a drenching rain would fall all day. My plans were as sodden as my newly planted raspberry bushes, at that moment threatening to float down the driveway.
    My angling efforts during the latter weeks of the trophy rockfish season had resulted in lots of close calls. We had caught and had to release a surprising number of fat stripers up to 32 inches but landed few of the legal 35-inch minimum. I expected a superb bite when the minimum size fell to 20 inches.
    The day after the deluge dawned with great weather. But much to my surprise, the areas from above the Bay Bridge to below Hackett’s were pretty much rockfish desert. The thousands of marks I had seen on my finder in previous weeks were no longer there.
    Oh, there was a blip here or there. But the fish-rich scene painted by my angler sonar in early May was no longer there, though I searched from the Baltimore Light down south past Tolley’s Point. Questioning fellow anglers later that day confirmed my experience. There were lots and lots of long faces on the second day of the second season.
    The problem with stripers, an old waterman had confided, was that the rascals have tails. They can and will often be many miles away within a short time. As there was also no evidence of the gatherings of baitfish that had previously teemed in the mid-Bay, I could only surmise that right around opening day the baitfish had left with the stripers following.
    Still, I persevered. Jigging some areas and fishing cut bait in others, I worked for more than six hours to get a single bite. That lone 23-inch rockfish was it for the day.
    The meal my wife and I shared that evening was worth every moment it took to acquire it. There is nothing to compare to dining on a rockfish caught the same day.
    I managed to score some nice fish later in the week, though rockfish still have not returned in their previous plentitude. I am confident, however, that fishing will continue to improve — but not so confidant that I will tempt the fish gods again by flaunting my plans.