The Big Day Nears
April 21 is the date some 300,000 anglers have been waiting for since the season closed more than four long months ago. That’s opening day of rockfish trophy season, when giant striped bass — ocean-running beasts some of which were born decades ago in the Chesapeake — return to their natal waters to spawn.
Early birds scoping out the trophy season are encountering plenty of big rockfish, many over 40 inches, on both sides of the Bay. It’s strictly catch-and-release action, and extreme care must be taken with these pre-spawn fish, but they are definitely out there. Many anglers worry that the big guys will have spawned and gone by April 21, but right now opening day appears to be on time for maximizing the number of post-spawn fish.
These magnificent fish — their muscles honed and toned in hunting the high, vicious surf of the North Atlantic — travel back up the Bay, feeding along the way on the schools of herring, shad and menhaden migrating back to much the same waters, also to reproduce.
Since our rockfish are being driven by individual instinct and spurred on by subtle and constant changes in sunlight, water temperature, moon phase and tidal current, it is impossible to anticipate the exact timing of their arrivals. We know they are all drawn toward the scent of the fresh water where they were born. There they will spawn, then immediately head back toward the ocean to resume their wanderings.
Because of the Coriolis effect caused by the earth’s rotation, incoming tidal currents are strongest on the Eastern Shore and outgoing currents the strongest on the Western Shore. Due to this phenomenon, the big rockfish are more often found coming up the Bay using the strongest incoming tide on the eastern side and leaving after they spawn with the strongest outgoing currents to the west.
However, as they travel up and down the Bay, the presence of schools of herring, shad and other baitfish also seeking their own respective birth waters can draw hungry stripers astray, at least for a time. In the end, despite the most rigorous and scientific analysis, it’s virtually impossible to predict the exact whereabouts of trophy-sized fish this time of year.
Seeking the Big Ones
Under these circumstances, trolling is the most effective means of fishing during the trophy season because anglers using this method can search large areas of the Bay for the ascending and descending pods. Moving up and down the deeper channels where the stripers typically prefer to travel and altering their course methodically to cover a maximum area of water, trollers score the most giants.
Dragging lures at two to three knots within the top 20 feet, no matter how deep those channels are, is also a reliable trophy tactic. This upper layer of water is warmed by the sun and more comfortable to the stripers than the deeper waters, so that’s where they tend to travel.
The top trolling lures this time of year are parachutes, umbrella rigs and tandem bucktails all rigged with soft-body shads in six-inch to one-foot lengths. White and chartreuse are by far the most popular colors.
A crowd of fishing boats and their accompanying noise, however, will drive the fish deeper. Boat anglers must keep a sharp eye on their fish finders to note when that is happening and adjust their lure depth accordingly.
Fishers without a watercraft have to wait for the fish to come to them. The prime locations for shore-bound anglers are Sandy Point State Park on the Western Shore and Matapeake State Park on the Eastern Shore side. Private piers, community beaches and bulkheads along both Bay sides can also be good.
Shore fishing is mostly a bait fishing affair. Using fresh menhaden or big bloodworms on bottom rigs, anglers must wait patiently until the unpredictable migrators decide to grace the area with their presence. It’s definitely a waiting game, but one that can be rewarded with the fish of a lifetime. Scenting the baits with menhaden oil, Berkley Gulp or similar applications plus changing baits often (at least every 20 minutes) are also winning tactics.
It’s spring, rockfish season is opening, the giants are coming and all is right with the world.