Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 44

October 31 - November 6, 2002

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Catch ’Em While You Can

It was always the biggest fish I caught that got away.
—“Our Biggest Fish,” Eugene Field: 1850-1895

In no other sport is big so dominant. In football, a coach wants big linemen; in baseball, it’s big hitters; basketball, big scorers — but in fishing, all emphasis is on big. Big fish — fish big enough that an angler doesn’t have to stretch the truth when telling of the catch.

We’re coming into that season on Chesapeake Bay, the time when the biggest fish of all will be available. Fish, big enough that those who put up their boats early will wish they left them in the water.

In from the Ocean
In more recent years, for some reason only known to fish, we’ve been getting more big stripers in the Chesapeake. It seems that as migrant fish from the north as far as New England head for wintering grounds off the Carolinas, some swing into Chesapeake Bay, presumably in chase of menhaden.

These are primarily big fish, ocean fish: fish that mostly were hatched here years ago but now visit only in the spring to spawn — other than those who in the fall make forays into the Bay to fatten up for winter. Most of these fish top 30 inches; those of 40 or more inches aren’t rare, and a few of 50 or more inches are caught.

We really don’t know why things changed, or maybe they really haven’t. There is the possibility some late big fish have always been coming into the Chesapeake but enough weren’t caught to make us aware of them. Maybe it’s that we just didn’t use appropriate gear or baits, fish the right places or wet our hooks as late as we do now.

But now we know they can be expected, though there were nagging fears that this year might be an exception because they weren’t on schedule. However, ocean waters, like those of the Chesapeake, have been much warmer in this year of drought and high temperatures. Presumably, that’s what held these fish back.

Had they not arrived, we would have sorely missed them. These fish are bigger than those in the spring trophy season, big enough to keep anglers out on the Bay. And this year, Maryland Department of Natural Resources has extended the season by 15 days so we can fish them until December 15, which happens to be my birthday. So weather permitting, you know where I will be.

Our apprehension about a return of the biggies this year was eased in mid-month when the first of the lunkers turned up. These fish can be distinguished by other than size. In their gills, they have fresh, live sea lice that drop off not long after they’re in the less salty waters of the Bay.

Some fishermen think finding butterfish in the bellies of big rock is another indicator, but that isn’t always true. There are some butterfish in the Chesapeake, though most anglers don’t realize it. Some are known to spawn in the Bay in July and August.

One fisherman, Joe Lorenz of Millersville, was among the first to see sea lice on big rockfish. He was fishing the MSSA Fall Tournament (had already taken an eight-and-a-half-pound rockfish big enough to win him $2,295), when on an Umbrella rig he hooked two snollygasters at once.

He reeled them in close enough that he could see the sea lice in the gills. But Umbrellas fished with more than one hook can be trouble if more than one big fish strikes at a time — and Joe had that problem. They twisted the line so badly that by the time they got to the boat, the snarled line popped. Both fish were gone.

How to Catch ’Em
In some ways, late-season fishing is like that in spring trophy season. Trolling is preferred by most anglers, though Capt. Jim Brincefield of the charterboat Jil Carrie tells us that in the past couple of years he has at times turned to vertical jigging with large metal or feathered jigs. And he catches some.

Capt. Johnny Motovidlak of the Dawn Marie out of Harrison’s Chesapeake House, Tilghman Island, stays with more traditional rigs. He usually uses Umbrella rigs that feature exceptionally large bucktails or parachutes with big soft plastic Sassy Shads added.

Capt. Bruce Scheible, who sails out of the family fishing center at Ridge on the Potomac, fishes tandem rigs — two baits to a line — in the deep waters at the mouth of the Potomac, including Smith Point, which is a favorite late-season fishing area for boats out of southern Maryland and northern Virginia. These waters offer great December opportunity in years when the sea-run fish are present.

Whatever, the bait or rig choice, other than for jigging, the baits should be big. No truer words are spoken at big rockfish time than ‘big baits get big fish.’ Curiously, though some big rockfish caught in late fall have sand or regular eels in their stomachs, surgical hoses don’t appear to do as well as other baits. I’ve yet to catch a big sea-run striper on an artificial eel, but word is that’s what Joe had on his Umbrella rig — red hoses.

In spoons, No. 19 Tonys or No. 11 Crippled Alewives are as small as one should use. It’s better to go even bigger, like the No. 23 Tony. Big fish prefer lunches of big menhaden, and the No. 23 (or No. 21 if you can’t locate a 23) certainly swims like a big menhaden.
Follow the Birds

It’s fairly obvious why big fish want big baitfish: It takes fewer of them to make a meal. And this is where big birds come into play in late fall and early winter fishing. They are a big help in locating fish.

In late November last year while trolling off Breezy Point with Capt. Motovidlak, we noted a small flight of pelicans. We headed for them, trolled the area thoroughly and took three stripers of better than 38 inches. The baits worked about halfway down. Gannets — they’re big birds that look for big baitfishes — are another sign of big fish.

Trolling, of course, is the preferred technique in the fall as well as spring trophy season. But after spring spawning, big cow rockfish head down the Bay in singles or in small patches and are fished for near the surface where springtime waters are warmer.

In fall and early winter, the big sea-run fish travel in massive schools, often in exceptionally deep waters, though not necessarily on the bottom. Catch one and you can be pretty sure there are many others around. Trouble is, that with the sea-run fish, it can be difficult to catch your second keeper.

Anglers are allowed two fish a day of 18 inches or more in the regular season, but only one of the rockfish can be longer than 28 inches. Once the run of fish from the ocean develops, it’s not easy to catch that second fish of less than 28 inches. Reeling in one of over 28 inches is often not much of a problem, but connecting with one less than that length can be a challenge. Only at this time of year is a smaller fish welcome.

The bigger fish are found mostly in the mid- and lower-Bay, though some are caught as far north as the mouth of the Patapsco River. Capt. Ed Darwin, probably the best charter skipper of the upper Bay, trolls two bucktails on tandem rigs in deep waters at the Mud Dumps north of the Bay Bridge, at the Wild Grounds or outside the Hill off the mouth of Eastern Bay.

Though big fish action usually involves trolling in exceptionally deep waters — 60 to 80 feet, or even more — the baits are usually worked from 25 to 40 feet down, unless electronics indicate the fish are at other depths. This often means working the outside edges of the ship channel.

There you have it. The fish are moving in. What are you waiting for?

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly