Giants of the Chesapeake
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!