Getting in on the early-winter rockfish bite can be quite unpleasant. Except for the lucky anglers with big, enclosed boats that can safely and comfortably ply our cold, windswept Bay, most anglers this time of year must simply deal with November’s increasingly nasty weather.
Fish Are Biting
Good fishing for stripers is occurring throughout the main Bay, with fish to seven pounds being taken by trolling, fishing cut bait, chumming and casting to breakers. Farther south, near Bloody Point on the Eastern Shore and below Thomas Point on the Western Shore, fish to 40 inches are being found on occasion. Big perch and lots of them are schooling off Podickery, around the Bridge and off Hacketts, falling to smaller vertical jigs or bloodworms on the bottom. Rockfish season closes December 15.
Details at: www.dnr.state.md.us/huntersguide/pdfs/Hunting_Seasons_Calendar.pdf
Canada goose, migratory Atlantic thru Nov 26
Ducks thru Nov. 26
Black ducks thru Nov. 26
Canada geese, resident thru Nov. 26
Light geese thru Nov. 26
Mourning doves thru Nov. 26
Woodcock thru Nov. 26
Snipe thru Nov. 26
Whitetail and sika deer, bow thru Nov. 26
Whitetail and sika deer, firearms Nov. 27-Dec. 11
Sea ducks thru Jan. 29Ruffed grouse thru Jan. 31
Squirrel thru Feb.
Rockfish for the most part have abandoned our more sheltered tributaries. Their source of food — the yearling silversides, anchovies, spot, croaker, crabs and menhaden that were busy growing and putting on weight all season long in the shallower, nutrient-rich, upper water — have left. They have headed either for deep-water wintering grounds in the main Bay or are well on their way to the Atlantic.
Shore-bound anglers will do best now to exclusively target the Bay proper and limit their efforts to the darker (and more uncomfortable) hours or to overcast days when the fish are more likely to abandon deep-water sanctuaries. Fishing the freshest baits and changing them often can result in surprisingly large catches as big wintering stripers move up into the mid-Bay.
Small-boat anglers hoping for rockfish must now target the main stem of the Chesapeake, and that usually means picking a calm day, an event that has become distressingly rare. If you get that good day, dress warmly and have a tolerance for low-temperature discomfort, there is still excellent fishing to be had.
Time to Chase the Birds
The name of the best game in town this time of year for anglers with any size boat is chasing the birds. With schools of baitfish continuing to migrate down the length of the Chesapeake, our rockfish, also gathered in sizeable schools, actively key on this food source, sometimes for hours on end. That invariably attracts the attention of large numbers of seagulls.
A good pair of binoculars and a full tank of gas are two essentials for cruising for flocking birds. When chasing the flying fish indicators, follow the rule of the big: The bigger the gull, the bigger the baitfish and the bigger the rockfish.
Once you’ve discovered a gathering of seabirds over feeding rockfish and eased to within casting distance, the next item on your agenda is matching the hatch. If you’re on a school of medium-sized menhaden being pursued by big stripers, throwing small bucktails will not get you much action. Use lures that approximate the size (and hue) of the baitfish.
If the rock are busting on top, there is no better way to mix it up with them than by throwing top-water plugs. Make the lures spit and pop non-stop and wait until you feel the weight of the fish before you strike — no matter how explosive its strike. A rockfish’s approach is often so eager as to push your lure away in the effort to engulf it.
Try to throw your lure along the edge of the scrum. Sending a bait sailing into the midst of a feeding melee is tempting, but it can result in cut-offs. When you hook up, your line will be pulled through the midst of the school by the struggling fish, exposing it to the many razor-sharp gill covers and abrasive tail edges of the other frenzied stripers.
Arriving at a large group of whirling sea birds only to discover that there are undersized rockfish doing the feeding is no cause for despair. There are sometimes much larger stripers lurking below the little guys. They are leisurely feeding on sinking baitfish injured or stunned by their overeager juniors on the surface.
If you chance upon groups of sea birds sitting calmly upon the water, do not pass them by. These gulls are often sitting over fish feeding deeper in the water column, waiting for wounded baitfish to struggle to the surface. Drift around and through the birds using vertical jigging techniques to entice strikes from the fish below.
Wintertime rockfish are the best-eating fish of the year. They have been feeding ferociously for weeks and are fat, heavy and delicious. The discomfort you may experience during a day on the water will soon be forgotten. When the snow begins flying, only warm memories will remain to help you through to next spring.