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Hold onto Your Nerves

Top-water fishing is invigorating

     Top-water fishing for rockfish is one of the few things that can get me up well before dawn. To have the quiet of an early Chesapeake morning broken by the explosion of an attacking striper will undo your nerves.
     This time of year forage fish that provide sustenance for our rockfish are moving out of the upper estuaries and headwaters and descending toward the Bay proper, heading for their wintering grounds. Rockfish are schooling and moving up into the shallows to meet these peanut bunker, silversides, Bay anchovies, small perch and spot.
    Top-water fishing is a low-light, first-light and last-light activity. Stripers like a bit of water under their belly to roam freely, so lower tide cycles won’t attract them.
     Structure is another marker for top-water opportunity, including the mouths of any estuaries, especially on a falling tide. Chesapeake Bay stripers didn’t get the name rockfish, by accident. Rocky shorelines, rock jetties, submerged rocks from eroded edges, riprapped shorelines and stone erosion jetties protecting inlets or beaches are all prime targets this time of year.
      Boat stealth is a necessary element of success. In skinny water, rockfish are particularly intolerant of extraneous noises. Once they’re scared off, they probably won’t return for hours. Quiet electric trolling motors can improve your success. So can coasting the last few yards. Use your main motor as sparingly as possible.
     Electric anchors, such as the Power Pole shallow water anchor, that are virtually silent can also provide an edge. A small conventional anchor, sometimes referred to as a lunch hook, can be very handy as it, too, is quiet to use. Deploying your main anchor to hold your place against a breeze or a moving tide will prove to be a handicap.
      Top-water lures number in the hundreds. The main categories are poppers, chuggers, walk baits, prop baits and wake baits. These lures are cast, pulled violently to create a disturbance, paused, then jerked again and so on until the retrieve is complete. A Smack-It-Jr. is a local favorite. Other good ones are Heddon Chug Bugs, MirrOLure’s Popa Dogs and the Nomad’s Chug Norris.
Poppers create a loud popping noise, similar to what a predatory fish makes when attacking a baitfish near the surface.
      A chugger type also makes a disturbance when pulled. It is not as loud and is meant to swim enticingly as well as noisily. Among this type are Bomber Badonk-a-Donk, River2Sea Whopper Popper and the Heddon Chug’n Series.
Walk-the-dog surface plugs are meant to be retrieved in a rapid zigzag pattern, suggesting a panicked baitfish fleeing across the surface. They are remarkably effective. Among this series are the Heddon Spook Series, Rapala’s Skitter Walk and Strike King’s Sexy Dawg.
     Prop baits are unique for propellers fore and/or aft that produce a noise remarkably similar to a breaking shoal of minnows or small fish. These can be deadly just before dark and just after first light, especially on a still day when their unique sound carries far.
     Wake baits, one of the few saltwater finesse baits, make a surface wave or wake on a still day. I’ve found them deadly close to dark and just at first light. They won’t startle gamefish in really shallow water, when big fish are the most skittish, and can often produce in thin, hard-fished waters. Heddon Swim-N Image and Bomber’s Jointed Wake Minnow are the better choices.
      Colors are anyone’s guess as success can vary day to day, You can’t go wrong with all black, all white, the natural baitfish colors. Try anything that strikes your fancy. I’ve known anglers that have scored big on plugs painted like the Maryland state flag. Go figure.
     Finally, never strike at the explosion of water, no matter how fierce. Wait until you feel the pull of the fish before you cinch them up. Many times a rockfish will smack a bait with its tail, hit it head-on to stun it or just plain miss the strike. They usually return if you don’t move the bait, and they may be lying there watching it. After a minute, lightly twitch your plug, then hold on to your rod and your nerves.
Pollution Alert
     A billion-gallon release of raw human sewage into the Susquehanna, then into the Chesapeake, courtesy of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and a number of other Pennsylvania cities in past months are foiling Maryland’s efforts to clean up the Bay. State politicians on both sides need to begin earning their salaries to remedy this barely mentioned scandal.
Fish Finder
      Rockfish are cruising Seven Foot Knoll, Man of War Shoals, the mouth of the Chester, Podickery, Love Point, the Bay Bridge, into the Eastern Bay, Thomas Point and Chesapeake Beach.
      Trolling medium bucktails, spoons and hose gets fish. Shore anglers are using crab and bloodworm. Chumming and live-lining remain effective as long as spot linger in the Bay. Casting soft plastics on jig heads like the Assassins and BKDs is always effective.
     The Spanish mackerel bite is as good as it’s been in years. Clark spoons, epoxy minnows and Kastmasters on a fast troll (six to eight knots) or a quick retrieve will get a few of them in your coolers.
     Crabbing also remains excellent.