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Holding Back Winter

Even this time of year, you might find a rockfish. Or two.

The temperatures were actually mild the other day. Rain and wind were forecast as an all-day certainty, but I kept a close eye on the weather. Late that afternoon, sure enough, the stiff breeze lay down. With no looming sign of rain from the heavy cloud cover, I hooked up my trailered skiff and headed for the Bay. My heart was set on a fresh rockfish dinner.
    Splashing the boat barely an hour before sunset, I headed full throttle over a glassy calm for my favorite rocky cove. The strong southerly winds of the last four days plus more than three hours of incoming tide should have pushed plenty of water up there to entice stripers to move in close and hunt baitfish.
    The Chesapeake, however, will always surprise you. When I arrived on site, I saw that my assumptions were dead wrong. Despite the earlier wind and the incoming current, the water level was low, poor conditions at best for finding rockfish close to the water’s edge.
    Ignoring my disappointment, I raised up the Yamaha to be sure it cleared the rock-strewn bottom, switched to my electric motor, moved in quietly and made my first cast. As I chugged the Stillwater popper back, a small knot of bluebill ducks flew out of the clutter of the dark tree line and zoomed over my head.


    Anglers are getting some nice rockfish when the wind becomes manageable. Trollers are scoring on small bucktails. Deep-jigging trout bombs and metal jigs with a dropper attached are producing as well. Working Bass Assassins on structure and the Bay Bridge supports is also excellent and providing a lot of action for light-tackle addicts.
    Chumming with fresh-cut menhaden for the stripers is popular right now. Drifting live eels has been coming on unusually strong this month. A technique out of fashion on the Bay the last few years, eeling is a great method for ensuring sizeable fish. It has always been a sure formula for the 50-pounders lurking at the Bay Bridge Tunnel. The new world-record rockfish (82 pounds), caught in New Jersey, was fooled by a live eel. Drifting the eels at different depths over previously marked fish is the most productive approach.
    Big schools of White perch are erratically orbiting the Bay Bridge oyster bars. Some are big. Bloodworms and smaller metal jigs are doing good business with them.

    Turning to watch them depart, I was caught off guard by the wallowing strike on my plug. I didn’t even try to set the hook. That turned out to be a good thing, because when I gave the popper another twitch, the striper returned and smashed it hard.
    Playing the fish with one hand while groping my net out of the forward hatch with the other, I really tempted the fates. But the striper stayed on, and in a few minutes I had the rascal onboard and iced down.
    That was the end of the bite.
    I worked my lures hard on down the shoreline as the light faded, switching from poppers to swimmers to crank baits to jigs to wake baits. Nothing happened. Either the water was empty, or the fish would not bite. I gave it up, started my motor, turned on my navigation lights and headed for home. At least I wasn’t skunked.
    Passing the spot where I’d had my earlier success, I ventured one last effort. By now it was full dark, and I had to be careful moving in.

Try, Try Again
    Finally I drove in my anchor spike about 60 feet off a slight rip forming over one of the cove’s submerged erosion jetties. The swirling ripples were barely visible in the meager light of the moon trying to force its way through the heavy overcast.
    I rigged up a Rattle Trap. A few years ago, when first becoming enamored of plug casting, I had searched long and hard for lures that would swim just above the rock-strewn bottom, the result of many decades of riprap scattered by storm.
    Only after amassing a number of these baits and achieving rather middling success with them did I discover the real secret to triggering strikes on this structure, especially at night. It wasn’t swimming plugs over the submerged rocks but actually banging lures into them, ricocheting them off like a baitfish in full panic. The Trap is an especially good plug for this tactic.
    In the dark with confident technique, I gave this failing autumn day one last try. Hoping that fish had moved into the area since I had first visited, I cast out past the rip and brought my bait back with long sweeps of the rod. I could feel it vibrating, then caroming off first one sunken boulder, then another.
    A striper suddenly ate my plug. It was a good fish, about four pounds or so, and it gave a vigorous account of itself in the dark. As I added it to the cooler, I relaxed, my plan for a rockfish dinner now assured.
    I needn’t have worried. Emboldened by the darkness, stripers were swarming all over the place, and they were hungry.
    Moving at intervals along the jetty and getting a fish on almost every other cast, I enjoyed myself well into the night. Winter has been advancing steadily, but that evening I managed to hold it back for a little while longer.