The Last Hurrahtesttest
They started to arrive late last week. First you saw a few 38- and 40-inch rockfish in angler’s boat boxes. Then the really big guys appeared, up to 47 inches so far. The ocean-run migratory fish have reached the mid-Bay, and they are awesome.
Falling mainly to anglers trolling big lures deep, at 40 to 60 feet, the monsters are providing lots of thrills after we’ve been struggling the last several weeks to get fish over 18 inches. It’s a welcome change.
The key so far has been big spreads: planer boards dragging large numbers of baits fished deep. The fish are hanging at 50 feet and down. A boat with 20 trolling rods arrayed across the stern is not unusual these days. Setups of four to six rods are not nearly as effective, which suggests that to get the attention of these giants coming to winter in the Chesapeake, you’d do well to emulate a school of baitfish.
Trolling big spreads deep has been the key the last week or so to locating and boating big migratory stripers. Bloody Point, Tolley Point and Thomas Point have been paying off particularly well. Chummers fishing fresh-cut menhaden on the bottom at Podickery Point in water as shallow as 30 feet have also been doing well with limits of fish that often exceed 30 inches. Perch, and lots of ’em, can be found over the deeper areas of shell bottom at 40 to 50 feet around the Bay Bridge. Use bloodworms or appropriate sized metal jigs with small droppers.
Umbrella lures are getting the largest fish. For these lures, one or two soft, hookless, swimming shad bodies are rigged on each of the four to six ribs of a wire frame that resembles the skeleton of an actual umbrella. Maryland fishing regulations limit the number of hooks on a line to two, so the big lure at the center of the umbrella, usually dropped back on an 18- to 24-inch leader, is fitted with the hooks. The assembled lure is large, heavy, very cumbersome to troll — and deadly.
White is the hot lure color most anglers are choosing right now, but that detail is subject to change at a moment’s notice. Chesapeake Bay rockfish are notoriously fickle as to their favorite hue, so wise anglers stock all of the past favorites as well: chartreuse (else it’s no use) yellow, fluorescent-yellow and green are the essentials. There are also fans of purple, black, pink and combinations of them all.
If there’s one rule for trying to anticipate the best color on any given day, the inevitable (and maddening) answer will always be: It’s the color you don’t have.
Running at the slowest possible speeds (three to four knots max) and angling across the deeper channels that the big fish are currently favoring gives you the best opportunity. Turning constantly to allow your baits to drop to the deepest levels and keeping a sharp eye on your finder screen is also a critical part of the search for the giants.
When you’ve spotted good numbers of big fish, keep working them. Because of the low water temperatures, currently approaching 50 degrees, the fish will not actively feed throughout the day. The best tidal phases usually occur within the two hours on either side of high and low slack, when the currents are in transition. Plan your trips accordingly.
Double check all of your leaders and change them if any are in doubt. Up to now, 30- to 50-pound monofilament was all that was needed. But with the arrival of the recent giants, 60- to 80-pound test is not an over-reaction. Be doubly sure no leaders have abrasions, nicks or kinks, any of which could cost you the biggest fish of your season. Retie all your knots, and if they don’t look just right, cut them off and tie them again. Knot failure is the overwhelming cause of losing big fish.
Be sure your net is up to a 50-pound trophy. Gaffs are prohibited for landing stripers in the Chesapeake, and it takes a stout net to engulf a migratory giant. Next to a bad knot, the next leading reason for losing a big rockfish is the net.
Anglers without the benefit of a large boat to drag multiple outfits are not at a significant disadvantage this time of year. The recent world-record striped bass of 82 pounds taken in New Jersey fell to a live eel on a single rig. Drifting and live-lining eels has always been the traditional method of choice for taking larger fish in the Bay.
Also remember that chunks of fresh menhaden (aka alewife or bunker) fished on the bottom from the shore and from boats of all sizes (especially while chumming) have been deceiving big rockfish into taking a hook for as long as there’s been a rockfish season on the Chesapeake.
Also necessary in any quest for a giant: extreme patience and endurance. Fortune, especially when fishing for the big guys, has always favored the relentless.
Mark Your Calendar
Ally with like-minded people to safeguard Bay rockfish, crabs and oysters. A new Annapolis chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association convenes at 7pm Tuesday, Dec. 6, at Boatyard Bar & Grill in Eastport. Shawn Kimbro, a particularly accomplished area fisherman, talks on successful fishing for cold-weather rockfish. The meeting is free and open to all.