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Bring on Cooler Temperatures

Autumn’s feeding frenzy will fatten your chances

As temperatures drop, baitfish will descend from tributaries toward the mainstem, and the big fish will follow them down.
      I finally got my second keeper rockfish at about 11am, but only after releasing some dozen undersized schoolies and more than two dozen burly and uncooperative channel cats. The sun had already been blazing hot for some time. I was scorched and pooped as I headed back in for a shower, a sandwich and a nap.
      I do love Chesapeake summertime, but I’ve now had enough summer, really. These endless 90-degree-plus days have left me limp and senseless. With surface water temperatures that soar into the 80s with the rising sun, finding rockfish early and fast has become a necessity. There’s not a lot of time to search before the bigger fish have fled down deep to cooler water and unknown locations. But that should change soon.
     Late August gave us a few nights in the 60s, and a lot more are to come now that September is here.
       One of my more reliable piscatorial analysts, waterman and soothsayer Leo James, tells me that he suspects that when the dolphin invaded the Chesapeake this summer and effectively pushed most of the mid-Bay rockfish up past Rock Hall, a lot of the larger fish went up the rivers to escape — and stayed there.
      As fall temperatures arrive, the baitfish in those tributaries will descend toward the mainstem. The big fish that have been feeding on them will follow them down. As the menhaden, silverside minnows and Bay anchovies form their wintering schools and stage for migration, all of our gamefish will start the fall feed-up in preparation for wintertime.
      The shortening daylight and temperature drops trigger all sorts of instinctive behavior in the many species of the Chesapeake. Just about all of it is good news for anglers. 
      To put on fat, our gamefish —rockfish, bluefish, croaker, spot and perch — will start chasing bait actively in the shallows, particularly early and late in the day. We’ll also spot them under birds, working the gathering baitfish schools in both deep and shallow water. The gamefish will stay on station longer, especially when there are overcasts and showers. Bluefish, particularly, will also become more active, especially in the evenings.
      Stock up on your favorite surface plugs, such as MirrOlure Poppa Dogs, Heddon Spooks, Storm Chug Bugs, Offshore Angler Lazer Eyes and, when you can find them, Stillwater Smack Its.
      Swim plugs and jerk baits such as the Rapala X Rap and Yozuri Crystal Minnow will become particularly effective, as will the Bill Lewis classic Rat-L-Trap series.
       Metal jigs like the Lil Bunker, Crippled Herring and the P-Line Laser Minnows will be great for targeting or getting under breaking schoolies for the larger rockfish below.
      Continuing effective are jigs including bucktails and the Bass Assassin; Sassy Shads; soft plastic types, especially the newer paddle-tail varieties; and the BKDs all in lengths to match the baitfish present. To avoid hanging up when targeting the shallows, use lighter jig heads and try fishing them slow and weightless, especially after dark.
      Lure color has always been a contentious issue with just about every angler I’ve ever met. The general rule has always been dark colors under low light conditions; lighter and brighter colors in higher light situations and illuminated areas. Of course the color the fish really want is always the one that you don’t have, so prepare accordingly. 
      Stay flexible in your approaches. Chumming and live lining will continue to produce limits up to wintertime, but light-tackle lure fishing can be far more exciting. If you haven’t tried it, now is the best time to begin.
      To reduce gamefish mortality and mouth-structure damage, consider replacing the treble hooks on your lures with single hooks — or at least flattening the barbs once you’ve got your limit. It may surprise you, but it doesn’t make much difference in the fish you eventually bring to hand.
 
Fish Finder
      As the temperatures drop, the bite heats up. Driven by their fall instinct to feed for the coming winter, rockfish are getting more aggressive, especially in low light. Trollers using small bucktails and soft plastic jigs are finding bigger gatherings of rockfish on the hunt. Light-tackle sports are also increasing, throwing plugs and jigs along anywhere there is current and structure. Bait fishers are getting their rockfish on soft crab, fresh menhaden and big bloodworms.
       Spanish mackerel are showing up in breaking schools all the way up to the Bay Bridge, hitting swiftly moving lures such as Clark’s Spoons, Kastmasters and Hopkin’s Jigs. White perch, spot and croaker are in mixed schools just about anywhere there is a shell bottom at 15 to 30 feet. Crabbers should anticipate a surge when the waters cool a bit.