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Can’t Wait for Rockfish Season?

Bundle up, pack a long rod and head to Sandy Point

      The first signs of the spring rockfish run come to Sandy Point and Matapeake parks. Surf rods, some of them 12 to 14 feet long, will be strung out, poised in rod holders along the pier and beaches. Bundled up in insulated winter coats and camouflaged hunting attire and settled in on aluminum lawn chairs, these anglers have found the cure for cabin fever.
      Early springtime’s catch-and-release rockfish season has been starting earlier and gaining popularity over the last half-dozen years. It is a fully legal activity — so long as the fish are caught with circle hooks, then ­promptly and safely released.
      Visiting the beaches over the years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see catches at almost every visit. Lots of the fish are small, but size doesn’t seem to matter. As the old saying goes, The tug is the drug.
      This year, I plan to join them. The gear is a bit specialized; trolling or light-tackle rods won’t do. 
       You’ll need a long rod, designed for surf fishing, that can handle four ounces of weight and 20-pound line. A nine-footer is on the short side but much easier to handle than the longer affairs. That length is also sportier once a fish is hooked. The 10- and 11-footers are most common, however, and many reels are spooled with lots of 40- and 50-pound braided line, especially those hoping to tangle with the big migratory fish. If you know your knots, however, 20-pound mono will do the job nicely. As long as you’ve got at least 250 yards of line you will have the upper hand against most rockfish.
       Pyramid sinkers, two to six ounces, are popular for those who want their baits to stay in one place. Bank sinkers are the choice of those who don’t mind (or even prefer) their rigs drifting a bit with the tidal currents. Fluorocarbon leaders are a very good idea. Little schoolies could care less what kind of leader is secured to their baits, but the larger fish are wiser.
       At least a foot of 30-pound leader and a stout circle hook of about 6/0 size is good starting tackle. Some anglers prefer hi-lo rigs, others a fish-finder rig and yet still others rig baits under a simple in-line or bell-shaped dipsey sinker. They’ll all produce fish.
       Jumbo bloodworms are generally the first choice for bait. Pieces of the worm are advisable if there are lots of schoolies about, but a whole worm is best when the big guys are nosing around. Fresh-cut menhaden, the fresher the better, runs a close second if you can find it. Live clams are popular, as are big bull minnows. Some anglers even score occasionally with squid or bait shrimp.
      Throwing artificial lures is a labor of love and a lot of effort. But if the fish are hitting, and you’ve a good idea that they are in range, a bucktail jig with a strip of bait can produce fish. So can lures such as Hopkins Jigs, Kastmasters and L’il Bunkers.
        Landing your fish can be a problem if you’re not wearing at least calf-high boots. Dragging rockfish up on the sandy beach is tough on their skin coating and can encourage infection. It is best to unhook and release the fish without removing it from the water. Rough handling can also result in a ticket from Natural Resources Police — another reason to release your gamefish promptly and respectfully.

Fish Finder
      Rockfish season is closed on the Chesapeake and its tributaries but remains opens seaside, where the limit is two fish 28 to 38 inches or 44 inches and over. 
Hunting Seasons
Rabbit, limit 4, thru Feb. 28
Squirrel, limit 6, thru Feb. 28
Canada geese, resident, thru March 9
Snow geese, thru April 15