Volume 12, Issue 16 ~ April 15-21, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton
Editor’s note: Bill Burton is on leave this week, so we flash back 10 years to his rockfish season-opening column of April 21, 1994. His advice still holds true, and we’ve updated regulations lest fishers be misled.

Big Baits Catch Big Fish

Think big. Think big because that old piscatorial adage to the effect that big baits catch big fish can be taken literally. Sure big baits also catch small fish, and small baits also catch the occasional big fish, but why take chances? It’s only natural that a big fish is going to be more interested in a big bait.

Think like a Fish
Big rock targeted for the spring season are lean, mean and hungry. They have been busy in the tributaries of the Chesapeake, tending to their spawning ritual. Sure, it was a cold and icy winter, but the rockfish turned up on time: they have a built-in biological clock as well as thermometer. They’re anxious to spawn and get on with their carefree lives. Any mother will understand.

Once the eggs are dropped, they want to feed well following the long winter and their near indifference to food during the spawning mission.

After they broadcast their roe, they have another mission: to leave the Chesapeake Bay. They head south to its mouth, then make a turn north up the coast where they will remain until it’s time to spawn again.

If you were a big, hungry and impatient fish with hundreds of miles to travel, wouldn’t you prefer a whole meal in one bite or two? Why have your journey interrupted to chase after scores of smaller morsels when you can be done with just a gulp or two? Now you’re thinking like a fish.

Fish Early and Often
A fisher’s best chance for success is to be in the right place at the right time with the right bait in the water when a big fish swims by.

Following spawning, each rockfish is on its own — whether it comes from the upper reaches of the Nanticoke, Choptank, Patuxent, Potomac, upper Bay or its tributaries. They won’t school up in areas where baitfish and other food is available, as they do in the fall.

Not infrequently, these fish travel alone or in a small bunch. They have no time for large schools. Each big female (the males are usually considerably smaller) is impatient to get to the Atlantic.

This pattern makes the trophy rockfish season a hit-and-miss mission. By the time the season opens on April 17 (it was May 1 in 1994), many rocks already will have left Maryland’s share of the Chesapeake; by May 17, when the trophy season ends, most will be gone. In the final week or two, pickings of fish of the legal minimum size of 28 inches (it was 34 in 1994) will be slimmer.

So be prepared to do your fishing as early and often as you can.

How to Catch a Rock
At this time of year, seldom will the fish be found in shoal waters. They’re taking a direct path down the Chesapeake and will stay with the shipping channel. Look for them along the edges of the channel in waters of 30 feet or more.

Regardless of water depth, don’t look for rock on the bottom. Many fishermen claim they are within 20 feet of the surface; I find my best fishing within 12 feet of the surface. The trophy I caught in 1993 was within a couple of feet from the top: I was using only a one-ounce sinker. The previous year, I took a keeper on a lure trolled within four feet of the top.

So now you have it: Fish the deeper water channel edges, but work the trolled baits not too deep. Time of day really isn’t important, but a moving tide in ether direction is preferred.

As for trolling patterns, some fishermen prefer a course up and down the Bay; some have trolled across the Bay on the assumption that they stand a better chance of encountering fish headed south by working at a right angle. Geometry was one of my poorest subjects, so I can’t comment on that. I just meander about in a wide circular pattern, hoping that a fish and my lure will cross paths.

Fish Bite If You’ve Got Good Bait
Unless I change my mind at the last minute, the bait I will start the season off with will be a Parachute, something akin to a large bucktail with flowing strands not only at the rear of the head but also at the nose. Some weigh as much as one and a half pounds, the thinking being that with all that weight, little or no sinker is needed to make it work 10 or more feet below the surface. If you use one of these lures, don’t pay out more than 75 feet of line or it will work below the fish.

I will use a lighter parachute with only a couple ounces of lead that should ride only several feet down. It will be white, though luminous green is the hottest seller. To the Parachute, I will add a large soft plastic Sassy Shad, or a large Twister Tail, which will bring the lure’s length to more than one foot.

As a second bait, I will use a Nick’s Syix soft plastic eel, motor oil in color. It will be rigged with a one-ounce sinker at the head of the leader, which should make it work only a couple of feet below the surface.

The heavy, wide Bunker Spoon wobbles slowly and doesn’t look like much, but it certainly catches fish — big fish. The price is also big.

I’m thankful I still have some of the old models made in New Jersey many years ago; new ones cost up to $25. I like the Equalizer Bunker Spoon made by Reliable in luminous green. Like other bunker-type spoons, it has a weight built in, which means less weight is needed at the head of the leader. You don’t want to troll this too deep: If it snags bottom, you’re out a lot of dough.

Traditional good bets include exceptionally large bucktails in either white or yellow with long Twister Tails, Sassy Shads or other soft plastic tails added. Or play it old fashioned and add a big strip of pork rind.

Don’t overlook the Big’n Grub, a bucktail-like lure with large lead head and an exceptionally long and thick ringworm-type Twister Tail added. It looks God-awful to me, but fish love it. I prefer it in white with luminous green head.

Traditional Bay spoons — the Huntington, Crippled Alewife, Tony, Cather and Hopkins — are all good bets, especially in white, silver, gold, luminous green or blue.

No artificial lures can have more than two hooks.

Real baits — except eel, whether alive or dead — may be used. Many in the lower Bay chum with ground-up alewives and bait up with chunks of alewives or spot. But most fishers don’t think chumming worthwhile at a time when rockfish aren’t schooled up.

Who knows? Maybe something entirely different will work out this season, whether with real or artificial baits. Fishermen continually experiment. That’s one of the things that makes it interesting.

Spring Trophy Season: 2004
April 17 thru May 15 excepting midnight to 5am in all Maryland waters of Chesapeake Bay proper from Brewerton Channel to the Maryland-Virginia Line; Tangier & Pocomoke sounds. No tributaries.

Each fisher is allowed one fish per day of 28 inches minimum length; captain and mate are ineligible. A Tidal Sport Fishing License is required for all fishers 16 years and older.

More information? DNR Fisheries at 800-688-fins • www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/regulations/recregchrt.html.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated April 15, 2004 @ 1:12am.