Bill Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 12
March 22-29, 2001
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Spring’s Call of the Wild

Their fishing is much in boats They make a thread very even and readily They make with it lines for angles. Their hookes are a bone grated as they noch their arrows in the forme of a crooked pinne or fish-hooke and with the end of The line, they put on the bate.

-Capt. John Smith, 1624.

Such were the comments on angling on the Chesapeake when its famed English explorer observed the Indians catching fish, possibly striped bass, 377 years ago. In the meantime, much has changed.

The fish are presumably the same; we really haven't fished out any species that I can think of since that legendary skipper first sailed up our Bay. But as we look to the opening of the 2001 rockfish season, just about everything else is different.

Native Americans didn't pollute, and though they needed fish for food they didn't catch too many. Probably like us of today, they discovered patience was almost as important as bait. In Capt. Smith's days, fishing wasn't very efficient considering the primitive tackle available, but if the finned fish weren't cooperative, there were other options for the cook fire: crabs, oysters, clams, mussels and who knows what else.

Certainly, there were many more fish available, some we rarely or no longer see due to pollution, not hooks or nets. When ice covered the Chesapeake, there were deer, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, squirrels, rabbits, waterfowl and other game birds. You might say a smorgasbord of nature.

Avoiding the Skunk

As we go into the 2001 striped bass trophy season, we need not fish for food. Many still do so because we like the taste and texture of fresh fish, especially the delicate flavor of the white filets of rockfish, which the Indians assuredly must have appreciated, as well as Capt. Smith and early settlers who followed him.

But fishing today is more a sporting challenge than a necessity. If we don't catch anything, there's always a supermarket with shelves packed with edibles.

Yet, like the Indians, we take our fishing seriously. Maybe going home with empty fish boxes doesn't mean a hungry family, but to get skunked can reflect on our ability to outwit a creature whose brain might be no larger than a postage stamp.

Yes, and we all know of a fisherman or two who after a bad day on the Bay - if there is such a thing - has stopped at a seafood market on the way home to buy a fish or two, maybe more. And with no intention of mentioning that detour once he empties the ice chest with family and friends looking on.

Which reminds me of a little scenario I witnessed nearly a half century past. It didn't involve fishing, instead hunting, and it's appropriate to recall when one considers what outdoorsmen will do to embellish their images after a day on the water or afield.

The late John Hammond was a likable operator of a shooting preserve just west of Hancock, and seldom did I head to the mountains that I didn't stop to visit him, sometimes to pass the time of day, other times to pot a pheasant, quail, chukkar or perhaps a pen-reared wild turkey for dinner at camp or the home where I would be visiting.

At shooting preserves, one pays a fee for going afield, then is assessed an established amount for what is bagged, and John had a nice little business in his Hammond's Long Acres not far from Woodmont Rod & Gun Club, which was frequented by sports luminaries, leaders of business and industry, even presidents.

We were chatting one fall day about prospects for the approaching deer season when up drove three Baltimore hunters who told us they had been wild turkey hunting, confessed they hadn't scored - and no, they didn't want John to release a few of his pen-reared gobblers of wild strain so they could go afield with better odds favoring them.

Instead, they wanted to know if they could buy three of John's wild turkeys alive. They claimed they wanted them to stock at their Eastern Shore Club grounds, and John nodded in an understanding way, then selected three plump gobblers, put one each in a big burlap bag, and charged them the going price, $15 each which was more than pocket money back in the '50s.

As they drove down the long winding and wooded driveway, John and I resumed our discussion only to be interrupted by a series of shotgun blasts akin to the Battle of the Bulge. John paused, winked at me, and within a few moments the three hunters reappeared.

Could they, they asked shyly, buy two more turkeys, and this time pay to have them plucked and dressed. And while he was at it, would he also do the same to the lone turkey they had bagged when all three birds they had previously purchased somehow escaped from the burlap bags inside their vehicle.

Business is business. John obliged them with an understanding nod, and within an hour they were on their way again. John and I would like to have been a fly on the walls of their homes when they arrived, gobblers ready for the oven. The stories of their hunt would have been interesting indeed.

Getting Ready for Rock

If you're tempted to think about a solution along these lines when the trophy rockfish season opens April 20, think again. It won't work.

In trophy season, keeper rock must be 28 inches, of which size the market has few if any displayed on ice. The commercial fishery is based more on smaller fish this time of year. So you've pretty much got to catch a biggie yourself, which really shouldn't be too difficult.

Our trophy season targets large female stripers who have completed their spawning mission in tributaries of the Chesapeake. They return to the Atlantic to summer over, and their route takes them along channel edges, in waters 40 or more feet deep. And there will be many of them, though the peak of the run could be a bit later this year because following the severe winter, Bay water temperatures won't warm as quickly.

This could work to our advantage. In recent years of more moderate spring water temperatures, much of the action for large fish has ended by the first week of May as fish took advantage of warmer climes on the spawning grounds. So we might have an additional week or two of the big migration.

Little else will be different. As you prepare tackle, think white, green or yellow - favorite colors for Parachutes, bucktails, Umbrella rigs and the soft plastic trailers also added to the hooks. In considering spoons, those colors work, but add silver to the choices.

Think big. Following spawning, the fish are hungry. Also, larger baits are easier for them to detect, either by sight or by the vibrations the lures send out.

Plan on trolling with the bait from two to 15 feet below the surface. Departing fish aren't deep like their equally large or larger counterparts in late fall. Just have patience. After spawning, these fish travel alone or in small bunches, and you have to wait until your lures and the fish are in proximity. Much depends on luck and being at the right place at the right time. Sooner or later, you'll hit it right.

The trophy season continues through May 31, with one fish a day allowed and fishing only in the Bay proper and there not north of the mouth of the Patapsco. The summer/fall season opens June 1 and continues through Nov. 30. Then all waters are open, and you're allowed one fish 18 inches or longer, no maximum, and a second one between 18 and 28 inches. It should be a great year.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly