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Rockfish regulation clarification

      Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has withdrawn its proposed emergency rockfish regulation modifications for the 2018 May season, citing confusion caused by the proposed new J-hook requirements. That leaves the current regulations in effect until further notice.
      My understanding is that to avoid that confusion, DNR will do three things:
1. Issue emergency regulations mandating non-offset circle hooks for chumming and live-lining from the May season onward. 
2. Leave J hook regulations as they are now.
3. Retain the 19-inch minimum size requirement.
At our publication deadline, however, DNR officials had not yet made that decision. 
Anglers’ Adjustments
       Circle hooks can be difficult to master for anglers accustomed to J hooks. 
       A circle hook has its point bent 90 degrees to the shank. A non-offset hook has a flat shank up to the hook point bend. Laid on a level surface, a non-offset hook contacts the surface along its entire length.
       The classic J hook striking action requires an angler to bring the line somewhat tight then to swing the rod back firmly to set the hook. That technique will not work with circle hooks. A violent striking pull will snatch a circle hook completely out of a fish’s mouth.
      The proper technique with a circle hook is to bring the line tight to the fish by methodically winding the reel with the rod tip lowered and pointed directly at the fish. More simply, let the fish swim away, pulling the line tight. The success rate of hook-ups with these methods is reportedly 95 percent, with the hook firmly penetrating the corner of the fish’s mouth.
      Circle hooks are well proven to significantly reduce deep hooking, which results in at least a 50 percent mortality rate. Thus they are a sound fish conservation tool, particularly when a considerable number of undersized fish are returned to the water or in catch-and-release fishing.
       It is my understanding that these modifications are to be required beginning May 16. 
      It is not yet clear if the circle hook requirement will affect trophy seasons in following years. I urge DNR to make it so, as an increasing number of anglers chum during the trophy fish weeks.
      Choosing the proper circle hook for chumming and live-lining can be confusing, as there are no uniform industry standards for hook size. A 7/0 circle hook manufactured by Eagle Claw can be a different size than a 7/0 hook from another company. The hook size you select, however, should reflect the size of the bait you will be using and only secondarily the size of the fish.
       Rockfish are striped bass. As members of the bass family, they have very large mouths in relation to their body size and can ingest large baits and big hooks. So you can usually get away with a larger sized circle hook than the J hook you may be using. When you are using circle hooks for bait-fishing, however, do not embed the hook deep into the bait but leave the point well exposed so the hook can break free of the bait and easily find purchase in the fish’s mouth.
       I’ve chosen an 8/0 Trokar model circle hook by Eagle Claw for bait-fishing the trophy season. They are wicked-sharp, strong and a good match for the big chunks of menhaden and jumbo bloodworms used to entice the big migrators. Later in the year, starting May 16, I’ll drop down to a 6/0 or even smaller when chumming, depending on the size of the dominant class schoolies that remain in the Bay.
        For leader material for bait-fishing, 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon for the trophy season and 25-pound in later months is superior to anything else. Using a loop knot to secure the leader to the hook allows the hook to move freely on the line and find easy purchase in the corner of the fish’s mouth. 
       I have read studies by the commercial fishing industry that claim a snelled circle hook, where the line is wrapped firmly around the hooks shank, results in measurably better hook-up percentages. During the coming season, I will be experimenting with both knot types to see which is superior for my setups. It should be interesting.
Fish Finder
Colder-than-normal March and April temperatures have slowed the rockfish spawn as water in the Bay remains in the low 40s. The good news: trophy-sized rockfish will be around longer than usual this year. The bad news: a lot of pre-spawn stripers will get caught while still laden with roe. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a less-than-desirable scenario.
Catch-and-release reports for early-season rockfish have been lackluster with fish of all sizes but not yet plentiful.
In the meantime, white perch and shad are swarming up the creeks along with herring, crappie and a few carp.