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Regulars (Sporting Life by Dennis Doyle)

But when half of all crabs are ­harvested each year, we’ve got to work to keep the population steady

After almost three decades of effort, Maryland’s treasured Chesapeake Bay crustacean, the blue crab, has achieved a major scientific benchmark. The number of spawning females has at last reached the minimum target level for optimum species viability: 215 million sooks.
    The 2017 Winter Dredge Survey put the female population at well over the minimum, 254 million, an impressive 31 percent increase from the prior year. This is an important moment, as just four years ago (and five years prior to that), the female crab population had been ­driven to dangerous, even population-collapse, levels.
    Only relatively recently has the female blue crab population been recognized as key to maintaining sustainable levels of our beautiful (and delicious) swimmers. Females were once assumed (by regulators and scientists) to spawn only once in their lives. Hence, when mature, they could be harvested without consequence. That assumption proved false.
    The one hiccup in this year’s accomplishment was the accompanying news that juvenile crabs had inexplicably nosedived by 54 percent. The blue crab is known for fluctuating numbers and varying spawning successes, so this is not a necessarily alarming happenstance. However, these early low numbers will have a definite impact on commercial crabbers later this year, and most certainly the next, when these crabs reach ­harvest size.
    To protect overall numbers, the Maryland, Virginia and Potomac River Fisheries Commission has proposed shortening the crabbing season and imposing stricter bushel limits on female crabs. No changes to male crab limits were proposed.
    Both Maryland and Virginia will have to decide this month on actions and restrictions to protect and stabilize the general crab population. The very real danger is the possibility that Maryland may once again expand the currently limited female harvest to cover the shortfall of males for commercial watermen. (Recreational harvest of females has been outlawed.)
    The legal season for harvesting blue crabs can run into December, but Maryland Department of Natural Resources has ended the season early upon reaching its targeted harvest levels. Last year’s season ended Nov. 30. The year before, Nov. 19. Each year almost 50 percent of all blue crabs in the Bay are harvested.
    This is the first year since record keeping began that we have reached the minimum female target level for species viability. As blue crabs spawn from May through October, this will also be the first of record with an adequate female population providing for growth.
    The commercial sector has been lobbying hard for changes that would increase their incomes, most notably keeping the legal size for jimmies at five inches instead of five and one-fourth inches. Will females be the next target?
    The excessive harvest of female crabs is the odds-on suspect in the many crab population crises that have occurred cyclically throughout the history of crab management.
    The blue crab deserves to be regulated for overall population health.

Our battle against heavy winds, stalled tide and slack current paid off

Small-craft advisories and a forecast of 15- to 20-knot winds made canceling our planned outing a no-brainer. For those who chose to disregard the warnings, however, that day proved to be a placid beauty with five-knot winds, a slight overcast and a red-hot rockfish bite almost all day long off Hackett’s Bar.
    Re-assembling the next day, this time for promises of a five-knot westerly breeze and a strong falling tide, we motored out of Sandy Point and headed south. I had shoo-shooed my buddy Moe into leaving his foul weather gear in his truck (“no rain possible,” said I), only to have him inform me, a bit after we came up on plane, that he was getting drenched from bow spray.
    That westerly breeze had turned into a wind. I had to stop and give him my stowed waterproof, perhaps about 10 minutes too late. Remaining in the lee of the nearby Western Shore for the journey south, we were going to be in for a rough day.
    Throttling down and cruising out past the green can at Hackett’s and into the chumming fleet anchored there, we marked no fish. Continuing on our southerly heading, within a half mile we encountered a few promising marks on the finder. They were scattered fish, probably stripers, though I was unsure of their size.
    Setting our anchor in 35 feet of water, we swung with the wind, pointing our stern at the Eastern Shore. The full-moon high tide was to have peaked at 6am that morning. Since we launched about two hours later, I was sure we would have a firm, outgoing current.
    Dropping the chum bag over the stern proved me wrong, as the chum sank straight down. We baited and cast our rigs only to watch as the lines listlessly drifted back to the boat.
    Rockfish are generally loath to bite on a slack tide. We were stalled at full flood with no discernible current, the wind sending an occasional wave slapping chop over our stern. The over-sized bilge pump, intended for just such a situation, kept us safe and dry. But the hull buck and the side-to-side rock made it hard to keep an eye on our rods.
    The situation was not good. It was too early to quit and go home, but the wind gave no sign of laying down. Our only hope was to wait for the tide to fall, which might get the fish feeding. An hour later, we were still waiting.
    Then I noticed a rod tip bouncing a bit more enthusiastically than the others. Picking up the rig, I felt some life at the other end. Since the conditions were so abominable, I glanced back at my finder screen to see what possibly could be down there. Holy moly!
    The screen was lit up like the Fourth of July. What that school of rockfish was doing there I have no idea. They might have wandered right under the boat and encountered the falling chum. Or we had somehow blundered upon their favorite lair. In any case, below us was a crowd with marks of all sizes. We were into one fish after ­another for the better part of an hour.
    A goodly number were schoolies that proceeded to delight in seizing a bait from under the boat and screaming off to filch it at a distance or to suddenly drop it out of perfidy. There were, however, a few in the 24- to 29-inch range that encountered the sharp, 5/0 hooks and were eventually wrestled on board.
    Then, mysteriously, that wretched wind died, the seas calmed and the crazy bite was over. With a lovely limit of fat stripers on ice we pulled the anchor and headed home over now-gentle waters.

While not a beautiful swimmer, the channel catfish provides the sweetest flesh a seafood fanatic can hope for

Pulling on my weather gear, I headed out in the morning gloom to hook up the skiff. The forecast was poor, but I had cabin fever and had to get out on the water.
    The white perch were up the trib shallows, I felt sure, and there is no better cure for poor weather than the promise of a good perch fry that evening. Now all I needed was the fish.
    Taking my lightest rods and an ample supply of Rooster Tails and Captain Bert’s spinner baits, I splashed my boat at the local ramp, double-checked my gear and headed out. I was the lone boat to launch that morning. Either I knew something that no one else did, or vice versa. It kinda turned out versa vice, but in the end it worked out.
    It took almost an hour to get the first fish. They weren’t hanging on the shoreline, as I had assumed, but were almost 25 yards out, scattered across the flats. A nine-incher started the game off, and I slipped it back over the side as too small. I soon regretted that move.
    The next fish was about five inches, the next six, and for about a half hour they stayed in that range. Then I lost a good one, at least it had felt like a good one. By then the sky was hanging heavy and the forecast for a day in the 70s looked like so much meteorological wishful thinking. I was getting uncomfortable, and the wind was freshening.
    Perch anywhere near frying size insisted on not showing up. But I persisted. With no Plan B, I did not have much choice. Throwing in the towel and heading in for a hot shower and a hotter cup of tea was crowding my options more than I cared to admit.
    Then my luck changed. At the end of a long cast, I got a firm take, a very firm take. The sound of a singing drag and a rod bent over to the corks, even on a light rod, can give a guy an instant lift, which is exactly what happened.
    You can’t really have a slam-bang battle with six-pound mono and a five-foot spin rod. But the fight can be as tense as any struggle with a trophy rockfish when dinner and the success of the day are at stake. As the fish surged one way then another, a notion took hold.
    If it was a big perch, then it was a really big one. The fish had not come closer in over five minutes of give and take. Plus, I doubted that a giant whitey would be lurking with all those throwbacks. If it was a striper it could mean trouble. It felt substantial, but I feared it would not be over the 20-inch minimum.
    On the other hand, even though it consistently took drag, it did not make a rockfish’s traditional long run in the three-foot depths of the flat. There was a lot of head shaking going on, and the fish stayed deep and fought in short, brutal rushes.
    Eventually the scrapper neared the boat, and I reached for the net. Through the dim, rain-stained waters I caught the first glimpse of my antagonist, a long golden flank flashed through the murk. I was overjoyed.
    The channel catfish is not a beautiful swimmer. It is, however, substantially constructed of firm flesh of the sweetest tooth a seafood fanatic can aspire to. Its tough, rubbery mouth, once punctured by a hook’s barb, does not often slip free. I was pretty sure this one was coming in the boat.
    As I deposited the fat, struggling 21-inch beauty in my fish box, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had my fish fry.
    To affirm that, within another 15 minutes the Chesapeake gave me a twin of the first fish, another fat golden channel cat. There would be enough for company.

In May, it could be full of worms

The second rockfish season opened just days ago to mock my expectations of another great fishing year.
    Day one saw me headed to just below the Bay Bridge Western Shore rockpile, where the fishing had been gangbusters on the opener the last two years. Finding a dozen or so boats scattered there did not bother me. That early bite had been no secret, and I saw good marks on my finder throughout the area.
    Anchoring up, dropping my chum bag over the side and baiting up with some fresh menhaden chunks, I awaited certain action … and waited and waited. All around me for over two hours others were doing the same before leaving one by one.
    Finally, I too pulled anchor and searched south until arriving at Hackett’s green can, where another fleet of boats was holding steady. Despite good fish marking all around me, I found another slack bite there, too. My best effort was a 19-inch throwback. I saw no other fish caught.
    Day two, partnering with my regular sidekick, Moe, we tried again at Hackett’s. Moe’s uncanny luck held out as he landed a nice 25-inch fish within the first hour. I managed to score only a fat blue catfish, my first from the Bay. Then the action died. We held out until slack water but it did not resume.
    Day three I partnered with another long-time fishing buddy, Mike, who suggested a better spot, south of Hackett’s.
    This time we pulled out all of the stops. Anchoring in 35 feet of water, we put a chum bag at the surface behind the boat and another weighted bag about 20 feet down. Starting out with big chunks of menhaden on 5/0 hooks with two-ounce sinkers, we also presented medium-sized chunks, small chunks and gut balls, all down deep. Within the first half-hour, I had a good fish hooked up.
    The 27-incher was game the whole way to the boat, and I let the scrapper do its stuff. Patiently waiting for it to tire, I drew the reluctant fish toward the side until Mike finally slipped the net under it.
    After a picture to verify my official entry into the second season, I then iced it down in the skiff’s cooler, all the while imagining its filets, browned in butter with just a sprinkle of lemon juice and dill. Within the next half-hour Mike broke his season in with a fat 22-incher that gave a distinct impression of a much larger fish all the way to the net.
    Our intense effort included frequently changing baits and cutting the changed-out baits into smaller pieces to add the chum slick. Its third victim was a twin of my first. As Mike netted it and it lay thrashing on the deck, the solution to the recent days’ slow bite was revealed. The fish started spitting up May worms.
    May worm hatches are the curse of the rockfish bite this time of year. Resembling miniature bloodworms, the worms live in the oyster lumps and the shell-strewn bottom of the Chesapeake until they rise up en masse during May, and often into June, in their mating dance. All a rockfish has to do is open its mouth wide and swim through the thick underwater clouds of worms to easily swallow hundreds of the protein-rich little critters.
    With their appetites satisfied, most rockfish then continue to hold in loose schools and casually loiter, awaiting the next worm feast. Meanwhile, boatloads of eager anglers float about on the surface trying to get their attention.
    Mike hit our limit an hour before noon with the biggest of the day, a fat fish just a hair under 28 inches.

With resident rockfish season, ­fishing becomes catching

Trophy rockfish season ends Monday, May 15. On Tuesday, May 16, the second Chesapeake Bay rockfish season begins. At the change, the size limit changes from one fish of over 35 inches to two fish 20 inches or larger, only one of which may be longer than 28 inches.
    Legal fishing areas are limited to the main stem of the Chesapeake from the Hart-Miller Island Dike south to the Maryland-Virginia line plus Tangier Sound and Pocomoke Sound; and the Chester, Choptank and Patuxent rivers and their tributaries. No rockfishing in other rivers, tributaries or creeks, bays or sounds. The geographical limits protect rockfish that continue to spawn in these waters into June.
    Making the transition to angling for resident fish, which will now mostly measure under 30 inches, will mean shifting both equipment and technique.
    This time of year begins light tackle heaven. As rockfish forage in shallower water, they can be pursued on medium-weight spin and casting rods. With the spawn mostly done, patterns emerge as to where the fish can be found.
    As the average size fish will now be about 23 to 24 inches, in tackle drop down to hooks 5/0 and under, leaders 20 to 25 pound or less and lures six inches and under.
    More specifically, trollers should begin dropping back to six-inch sassy shads on their bucktails and parachutes as well as using smaller spoons and swimming plugs. As waters warm, fish begin holding deeper, so additional weight may be needed to present the baits at the necessary depths.
    Chumming, chunking and bottom fishing produce better, as stripers form larger schools, hold in one location much longer and start the post-spawn feed. Alewife, menhaden and bunker (all the same baitfish under different names) continue to be the prefered bait for rockfish. Shore-bound anglers can also rely on bloodworms — jumbos if they can be found — to tempt better-sized fish.
    For now, shore-bound angling is limited to locations that border the Bay proper, among them Sandy Point, Matapeake and Point Look Out state parks. Note that Jonas Green Park and Romancoke Pier, both popular fishing areas, will not be legal until June 1.
    Resident rockfish will now also begin holding on structure such as bridge piers, jetties and along the deeper (five to 10 foot) points and rocky shorelines. This will make them accessible to jerk baits such as Bass Assassins, BKDs, Rapala X-Raps, Rat-L-Traps and similar swimming plugs. At first and last light they will be susceptible to top water baits in the areas along these same structures.

This novice was hooked, even though her big fish got away

Her rod was bowed over with strain, the line hissing out against the drag and the muscles of her arms tensed with the force of a good fish running hard. Julie’s face, however, was bright with a smile. She was checking off a significant item on her life list and was enjoying every minute of it.
    Her fifth fish of the day would measure 31 inches. That was the closest we would get to landing a 35-inch keeper. But failing a keeper did not dampen her enthusiasm. “I’m hooked,” she said. “This is more fun than I could possibly imagine.”
    Julie Wheeler’s rockfish adventure started at a family gathering in the midst of one of last winter’s colder months. My wife’s cousin and the  same age, Julie was born in Baltimore but married and left Maryland with her husband for a New England life. For a time she skippered a 31-foot cruiser in the Atlantic, but she had never caught a striper.
    Having returned to Baltimore a few years ago to live closer to her family, Julie longed to catch a rockfish. I promised to help her as soon as the season opened.
    Our day on the water last week was one of the more beautiful so far this early season. The wind was a mere wisp, the water flat calm and the temperatures moving into the 80s. The trophy rockfish season is an ideal time to tangle with a larger class of fish.
    The bite was constant, with no more than 15 or 20 minutes between fish. While we waited we traded stories about relatives, the Chesapeake, rockfish in general and were entertained by the first of the season’s sailing spiders flying across the Bay, held aloft by long strands of silvery webbing that occasionally caught up our rod tips.
    We were chumming and chunking fresh alewife, and the four rods that we streamed aft southeast of Hackett’s green can were frequently hooked up, sometimes two at a time. The smallest fish we released that day was 24 inches. The largest we never got to measure.
    It was later in the day that Julie managed a straining rod out of its holder. “This is the big one. It’s really strong,” she said. She could hardly hold the rod vertical. Sitting down and planting the rod butt at her waist she began to slowly haul back, then wind the rod tip down, almost to the horizontal, then lift it again, stroking and gaining a little line each time.
    For a beginner, she was a fast learner who had quickly become comfortable with rod technique. “I’m not sure I can get this one” she said when all the line she had just gained went pouring back off the reel on another of the fish’s runs.
    “No, just take your time,” I assured her. “It’s not going to get away. Just keep the pressure on it.”
    It turned out that I was wrong. Just as she began another attempt to turn the fish back toward us, the rod sprang upright, “Oh, he’s gone!” she cried.
    “Keep reeling,” I said. “Maybe it’s coming to the boat.”
    But it wasn’t. It had somehow spit the hook.
    “Losing the big one is all part of fishing,” I assured her. “It wouldn’t be a sport if you got them all.”
    “Yeah, maybe,” she replied, unconvinced. “Let’s get that line back in the water. Maybe it will come back.”
    We finally pulled the plug after about seven hours of effort. All Julie could talk about on the ride to the ramp was how soon we could get back on the water for another try. She wanted to get some keepers, learn how to clean them and get them prepared for a meal. I’m guessing that the Bay has not seen the last her.

Catching this rockfish was one great feeling

I hadn’t been set up long. Fishing big chunks of cut fresh alewife on the bottom in 40 feet of water, I saw the rod in its starboard holder quiver, then dip. I reached over and slid the reel’s clicker off so there would be no resistance on the line. The spool started up, then stopped, then started up again … ever so slowly.
    Picking up the bait-casting rig and thumbing the spool lightly just to be sure the movement wasn’t due to tidal current, I was rewarded by the feel of a fish moving off. I allowed a bit more time for my quarry to get the piece of alewife back in its jaws. Then I put the reel in gear and began to take up slack. Nothing.
    The fish had dropped my bait. Disappointed, I continued retrieving line until I realized it was moving back toward the boat faster than I was cranking. The rascal was still on. Lowering my rod tip, I gathered slack with the reel until the line was almost straight down at my skiff’s stern. Then it came tight. I lifted the rod firmly and felt good resistance. Then I lifted harder.
    This time it came really tight and a fish began to shake its head and move off deliberately. My drag, which was firmly set for the 20-pound mono, hissed as the fish ran about 100 feet, then stopped. More head shaking. I had fished the day before and got a couple of heavy throwbacks. This one felt larger, but I wasn’t sure it was going to be legal sized, over 35 inches.
    Having learned the hard way never to prejudge an unseen fish, I kept the pressure on, lifting and gaining line only to lose it as the fish bulldozed away. As I was alone and had three more rigs in the water, I didn’t put a lot of extra rod strain onto this guy as long as it stayed off to the side and away from the other rigs. The surest way to lose a good fish is getting lines crossed.
    At something past the 10-minute mark, I decided to challenge the fish with some significant effort. With my thumb locking the spool, I lifted until the rod was bent over, almost to the corks, trying to force it to the surface.
    The fish shook its head and ­headed out and away, again with no hesitation, pulling line steadily until my thumb was scorched. At this point, I decided that it was quite likely a keeper — if I could get it to the boat.
    Another long 10 minutes of tense back-and-forth action finally brought the fish near the surface and provided a first glimpse of my adversary. The size limit was definitely not going to be a problem.
    Grabbing the net, I watched the beast make another determined run. I bided my time and let it have its head. A patient fight has one definite advantage in the last moment of the battle. Though the longer the struggle the greater the chance of losing, at the moment of truth when the net is in the water, the fish is usually so exhausted that there is no last-minute explosion.
    Such was the case this time as I brought the brute to the surface again. Managing it into my skiff at last, I had quite a handsome trophy rockfish, my first of the season.


Light-Tackle Fishing
    I’ll be teaching a course on Chesapeake Bay Light-Tackle Fishing at Anne Arundel Community College Saturday, May 6, 9am-2:30pm (course AHC 36): 410-777-2222.

Leo James knows better than most what’s swimming down there

In gauging the chances of a successful fishing season, I have learned to distrust the forecasting of state and conservation officials as fraught with politics and self-interest. Worse, my own guesses have proven wrong so often that I’ve learned to stop making them. There has been, however, one source I rely on year after year.
    I’ve come to think of this fellow with his thick mane of white hair as the Oracle of Mill Creek.
    Leo James has again and again captured the essence of the unfolding seasons more accurately than I thought possible. Living on the same Mill Creek waterfront property that his family has held over the last 100 years or so, this mostly retired waterman still rises at 3am this time of year to set nets for fresh bait. He fishes, tends to his marina and shares his knowledge of the Chesapeake with anyone who doesn’t irritate him. Luckily, I sometimes fit that qualification.
    “More rockfish than I’ve seen on the Bay in a lot of years,” was his first take this year. “The fish were so thick out there in February and March that they ran all of the alewife up into the creeks. Then more rock showed up this month, lots of big ones, too.”
    His prediction: “We’re going to have a good many fish for the trophy season this year, even better than last. And the regular season should be just as good.”
    Being on the waters of the Bay almost every day over the last 70 years has given James a prescience that eclipses the attempts of many highly educated scientists. The strenuous life he’s led has also left its mark on him. To say he’s fit is an understatement.
    The daily schedule as he moves about on the water and in his marina would put most of his age group (myself included) in the hospital.
    “But I can’t work into the night then be back on the water by 3am any more,” he confessed recently. “Guess my years are catching up with me.”
    In our conversation, he also reminisced to back in the day when 50- and 60-pound rockfish chasing fleeing alewife would slam into his bait nets.
    “They’d rock the whole boat. You almost couldn’t stand up some days. A rock tail two feet across would come up out of the water so it took your breath away. I remember one fish so big that it just tore through the whole net, never even slowed down. On one or two days, we had to quit setting. The fish just ran us right off the water.”
    Hyperbole? I’m not so sure. I’ve read and heard similar stories and caught glimpses of too many really big fish moving through Bay waters to discount any of the Oracle’s recollections.
    Part of the beauty and mystery of the Chesapeake is that you never really know what’s beneath. Of course, Leo James has a pretty good idea.

Use light-tackle techniques for the fairest fight

If you want the best odds for hooking up and landing the most and the biggest migrators in the early trophy rockfish season, then troll. A wide spread of big baits with multiple heavy-action trolling rods spooled with 30- to 50-pound line will give you a definite edge.
    For many anglers, however, the trophy-sized rockfish deserves to be challenged on light tackle. There is nothing certain about tangling with a giant ocean-running striper on medium-weight spin or casting tackle with line testing 20 pounds and under. You’ll not only have to be at the top of your game but also a bit lucky to land a keeper, minimum size 35 inches.
    For the true sport, that’s exactly how it should be. Right from the start it will be a man-versus-fish battle with not much connecting you other than a slender rod and thin, delicate line. A trophy rockfish hooked and landed on light tackle is indeed a trophy.
    As the fish are traveling in the warmer top 15 feet of the water column this time of the year, you don’t need a lot of weight to get the lures to the proper depth. Thus trolling is a viable option. The lighter test and thinner lines on your tackle will allow a medium-sized swimming plug to get down to the proper depths.
    The hottest swimmers for this type of operation are the Rapala X-Raps, Mann’s Stretch Series Plugs and Bomber Long As. For filling the water with sound and vibration to get a big fish’s attention, add Rat-L-Traps.
    Traditional buck-tail jigs in small to medium sizes dressed with skirts and adorned with Bass Assassins, Sassy Shads or similar soft bodies will provide larger silhouettes and interest larger fish. Paddle-tail variations will add noise and vibration to your spread.
    Be wary of especially large hooks. Their thicker diameters, regardless of how sharp they are, can make penetration problematic, especially with the harder mouth structure of older stripers. When you do get a good strike, set the hook firmly and more than once. A big striper can simply hold a lure in its jaws and prevent hook penetration. That’s one of the few drawbacks of using light tackle.
    When boat noise drives the fish down from the top of the water column or they’re feeding near the bottom strata, you can still use light tackle by jigging. Once you marked a pod of big stripers holding deep, metal jigs such as a Crippled Alewife, Stingsilver or Little Jimmy can get down to the sweet spot and induce strikes. Seven- to 12-inch soft plastics like the BKDs and Bass Assassins will also get results when matched with jig heads of proper weight, three-quarters to two ounces.
    Using ultra-thin braided line such as Power Pro, Spiderwire or Fireline gives you a definite advantage. There is less resistance in the water so you get deeper with less weight. And as there is little to no stretch with these lines, you can troll your lures far behind the boat or jig deep water without fear of getting good hook sets on any fish that tries to eat your lures.
    The third and final technique for trophy season light tackle fishing is simply old-fashioned bottom fishing. The best baits right now are fresh menhaden and jumbo bloodworms. The addition of chum to your presentation can also attract attention. The only problems will be the unpredictability of the fish and the fact that they are in small groups and constantly on the move. So as you are committed to one location, patience and persistence will be key.
    The prime locations for presenting these baits will be near the mouths of the larger tributaries where the migratory stripers will tend to stage before moving upriver to spawn. That’s also where they are likely to pause and feed post-spawn in preparation for the journey back to the ocean. Bay shore areas such as Sandy Point State Park, Matapeake State Park, Tolley Point and Point Lookout offer public access where the odds of encountering a giant are also good.
    The trophy season is the ideal time for encountering the biggest rockfish of the year, so be prepared. Make sure your line and leaders are fresh, your knots tight, your hooks sharp and your drags set properly. These migratory giants will test every part of your tackle and all your angling skill.
    Good luck as we welcome the 2017 rockfish season!

Trophy season opens in just a week

The trophy rockfish season is fast upon us.
    These migratory trophy-sized fish are in spawning mode. First they move up the Bay to their natal headwaters. Then, having spawned, they move back down the Bay, returning to the Atlantic. They move in pods unpredictably. Thus fishing in a fixed spot or targeting a specific area is not the most productive strategy. Constantly moving and presenting baits continually over an area as large as possible is the better method. That’s trolling.
    For these big fish, you’ll be dragging a lure 12 or more inches long. Its size tends to discourage undersized rockfish, less than 35 inches, but it does not eliminate them, as even 16-inch fish will attack and get hooked.
    While the spawning rockfish are almost impossible to anticipate in their movements, some considerations can be helpful. Because of the Coriolis effect caused by the earth’s rotation, a stronger (and saltier) incoming tidal current occurs on the Eastern Shore of the Bay, with a correspondingly greater outgoing tide on the Western Shore. Thus stripers tend to ride the incoming flow up the Bay on the eastern side and leave on the Western Shore’s stronger ebb.
    The keyword is tend because there are other variables at work. The availability of forage fish is equally important as stripers feed throughout the spawn. If the baitfish are congregated on the Western Shore, the rockfish will soon be there as well. If the stripers’ natal water is a Western Shore river, that’s where they will eventually be.
    The migrating pods of striped bass will also transit along the deeper channels of the Bay because that’s where the tidal currents will be the strongest. The temperature comfort zones this time of year will be in the top 15 feet of the water column. That’s the depth where trophy-sized fish can usually be found — unless they are not.
    Boat noise will drive the fish deeper, and a lot of boat noise will put them right on the bottom.
    Feeding fish can also be found down deep unless they’ve keyed on schools of bait higher up in the column. Keeping an eye on the fish-finder will establish where most of the bigger fish are. Adjust your trolling weights and lure type accordingly to target those depths.
    Color also has a part to play in your trophy-fish solution. The traditional selections are chartreuse, white and yellow in fluorescent or standard colors or combinations. There are also days when purple, black, green or red are catching the fish. The only consistent color consideration when fishing the early season is that, inevitably and ironically, the biggest fish will want the color you don’t have. So be prepared and change colors frequently, especially if you are moving over fish that aren’t responding.
    To present your baits over as wide an area as possible, avoid traveling in a straight line, especially directly down or up current. Instead move diagonally, and change course frequently until you find some pattern to the presence of fish. They may be on the edges of deep channels, in the middle of the channel or over a specific depth.
    Finally, keep your boat’s speed on the slow side. Three to four knots is about right, but don’t hesitate to vary your speeds a little to find the speed at which the fish want the baits presented. Rockfish will often take bait moved very slowly, but they’ll rarely hit one being trolled faster than five knots.
    Have you got all that? Is your boat shipshape and your tackle set? Then you’ll be ready to go April 15.