Volume XI, Issue 36 ~ September 4-10, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Lessons on Fall Fishing

In the autumn, fishing is coming to an end, and each day you are parting with it — for a long time, for a whole six months.
— Sergei Aksakov, 1791-1859

It’s not autumn yet, though autumn is described by my dictionary as that “time between summer and winter,” which also holds for fall. But I’m a country boy, and those of the country consider autumn not as that period between September 23 and December 21 but as the time when leaves of the maple turn brilliant colors and apple cider pours from the mills.

We also call it Indian summer, a time when warmer weather prevails amidst the beginning of the chill that comes in late September. But weatherwise, New England is far different from Maryland, at least those parts of this state east of Garrett and Allegany counties.

The calendar tells us September is new, but with autumn three weeks away as I write, the mighty Chesapeake shows signs of fishing patterns more akin to those of fall than late summer. This is good. For many of the favored species, fall is the best time of year for Izaak Waltons of the Chesapeake complex.

I thought that perhaps my observations on angling patterns were alien as I pored over catch info of the past couple weeks, but when I called Angel Bolinger, who prepares weekly fishing reports for the Department of Natural Resources, I found that she, too, has the same impression. Already, fish are beginning to show autumn inclinations.

This, of course, means that it is time for anglers to fish fall patterns. In fishing, you don’t pursue fish in methods according to the calendar — not if you want to enjoy the catching. In fishing, you must fish according to the whims of the fish. It is the fish that set the rules, and we who seek the fish must adjust accordingly.

Pleasing the Fish
Now that we’ve established the ground rules, it is appropriate to delve into what they mean to fishermen in the months ahead. Aksakov talks of parting with angling for a whole six months, but for those who fish the Chesapeake for rockfish, that is stretching things. Realistically, we have only three and a half months of fishing ahead. So, let’s make the most of it.

This has been a curious year, a cold and wet late spring, so much rain that the Bay has been much less salty than normal, and perhaps fish are confused. But, they still have to eat, and we still like to catch them. So let’s look over our options.

Currently, more fishermen on the chase for rockfish have turned to trolling because they find a much better class of fish than those who insist on chumming, which by the calendar is the way to go. At the moment, chumming for keeper stripers is dependable only in waters off the mouth of the Potomac and below — and that’s true for blues as well as rockfish.

Deep Fish
Methinks the fishermen who troll with surgical hoses or bucktails of medium size (the same with spoons) will do much better in the days ahead. Troll channel edges and vary the depth you fish. Work some lines just off the bottom, others spaced between bottom and seven feet from the surface.

If one depth produces better than the other on a given day, switch most of your lines to that depth, but always fish one line close to the bottom, which is where you are more likely to come across a big rockfish. Big fish are often deep.

To get the bait deep, might I suggest paying back line until you feel the sinker bounce bottom once. Then let it bounce a second time (you will feel it via the rod), put the reel into gear and commence trolling. If your trolling pattern takes you into more shallow or deeper waters, you must reel in or pay out more line. Some fishermen prefer to reel their rigs in and start over via the feel of the sinker bouncing bottom. As for the other lines, no change is necessary.

For rockfish, choose primarily green, yellow or white bucktails or parachutes, which are basically bucktails with more flowing hair. To the hooks of the bucktails add a soft plastic six-inch Sassy Shad or a Twister Tail for more lifelike action.

If trolling spoons, go with a No. 17 (five and a half inches in length) or No. 19 Tony Accetta (six and a half inches and wider) of the same colors, or perhaps silver. Drone, Crippled Alewife or other spoons should be the same size. Nothing should be added to the hooks of a spoon, we’re told, but not infrequently I add a short Twister Tail of a couple of inches.

Surgical hoses should not be overlooked, and they can be from eight to 21 inches, preferably in red, green, amber or neutral. They are increasingly effective for rockfish, and they are preferred for bluefish. An aggressive bluefish of just a couple pounds will not hesitate to take a long hose, and hoses are designed to mimic live eels, which bluefish favor. If a real eel is mature and long, a smaller bluefish will attack it from the rear to bite the tail off, so if that perceived eel is your hose, you still catch a bluefish.

However, if Spanish mackerel are your preference (and they are available now from the mid-Bay south), I suggest you troll smaller and thinner spoons of silver. Tasty mackerel have small, thin mouths, thus they want small baits, so a spoon of no longer than two and a quarter inches is recommended. Blues also take small spoons, and so do smaller rockfish — though occasionally a larger one can surprise you. Spoons are best fished from halfway down to within a few feet of the surface because that is where blues and mackerel are usually found.

Surface Fish
By the calendar it’s early. But remember, this year we’re not going by the calendar, so many fish are already feeding on the surface. You can find them by their splashes in chase of baitfish or by gulls diving to the water to snatch small baitfishes fleeing from hungry jaws of rockfish, blues and mackerel.

Catching them is one of the most exciting of all fishing sports. You can cast a bucktail, jig or spoon to them, but best of all is a plug such as the Atom of two and a half to three inches. Pop it vigorously on the surface amidst a school of breaking fish, and it will be quickly taken. Choose a plug with single hooks; when treble hooks are used, much time is lost unhooking the fish — and often, breaking fish don’t stay on the surface long once a boat moves in.

There is one more exciting option when breaking fish are encountered. Not infrequently, fish on the surface are small (most rockfish are throwbacks), but underneath them and usually on the bottom can be sea trout. If it’s trout you want, rig up with a weighted feathered jig of green or yellow or perhaps a small spoon. Cast it, then allow it to drop all the way to the bottom. When you feel it hit the floor of the Bay, jig it very lightly and slowly, and if trout are present you will know quickly.

We can’t rule chumming out for the remainder of the year. Bigger fish will probably show up in chum lines soon. But until then, do what it takes to put fish in the box, and earlier than usual trolling, jigging and plug casting can be the ticket. By mid-to-late October, the blues and mackerel will be gone, and it will be time to troll very large baits for big sea-run rockfish until the end of the season, December 14. There’s much good fishing ahead.



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Last updated September 4, 2003 @ 2:17am