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The Learning Curve

This novice was hooked, even though her big fish got away

Her rod was bowed over with strain, the line hissing out against the drag and the muscles of her arms tensed with the force of a good fish running hard. Julie’s face, however, was bright with a smile. She was checking off a significant item on her life list and was enjoying every minute of it.
    Her fifth fish of the day would measure 31 inches. That was the closest we would get to landing a 35-inch keeper. But failing a keeper did not dampen her enthusiasm. “I’m hooked,” she said. “This is more fun than I could possibly imagine.”
    Julie Wheeler’s rockfish adventure started at a family gathering in the midst of one of last winter’s colder months. My wife’s cousin and the  same age, Julie was born in Baltimore but married and left Maryland with her husband for a New England life. For a time she skippered a 31-foot cruiser in the Atlantic, but she had never caught a striper.
    Having returned to Baltimore a few years ago to live closer to her family, Julie longed to catch a rockfish. I promised to help her as soon as the season opened.
    Our day on the water last week was one of the more beautiful so far this early season. The wind was a mere wisp, the water flat calm and the temperatures moving into the 80s. The trophy rockfish season is an ideal time to tangle with a larger class of fish.
    The bite was constant, with no more than 15 or 20 minutes between fish. While we waited we traded stories about relatives, the Chesapeake, rockfish in general and were entertained by the first of the season’s sailing spiders flying across the Bay, held aloft by long strands of silvery webbing that occasionally caught up our rod tips.
    We were chumming and chunking fresh alewife, and the four rods that we streamed aft southeast of Hackett’s green can were frequently hooked up, sometimes two at a time. The smallest fish we released that day was 24 inches. The largest we never got to measure.
    It was later in the day that Julie managed a straining rod out of its holder. “This is the big one. It’s really strong,” she said. She could hardly hold the rod vertical. Sitting down and planting the rod butt at her waist she began to slowly haul back, then wind the rod tip down, almost to the horizontal, then lift it again, stroking and gaining a little line each time.
    For a beginner, she was a fast learner who had quickly become comfortable with rod technique. “I’m not sure I can get this one” she said when all the line she had just gained went pouring back off the reel on another of the fish’s runs.
    “No, just take your time,” I assured her. “It’s not going to get away. Just keep the pressure on it.”
    It turned out that I was wrong. Just as she began another attempt to turn the fish back toward us, the rod sprang upright, “Oh, he’s gone!” she cried.
    “Keep reeling,” I said. “Maybe it’s coming to the boat.”
    But it wasn’t. It had somehow spit the hook.
    “Losing the big one is all part of fishing,” I assured her. “It wouldn’t be a sport if you got them all.”
    “Yeah, maybe,” she replied, unconvinced. “Let’s get that line back in the water. Maybe it will come back.”
    We finally pulled the plug after about seven hours of effort. All Julie could talk about on the ride to the ramp was how soon we could get back on the water for another try. She wanted to get some keepers, learn how to clean them and get them prepared for a meal. I’m guessing that the Bay has not seen the last her.