The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle
Dancing on the Dark Side
Nighttime Bay reverts to the wild
Memorial Day has come, and with it the flood of motorboats, sailboats, jet skis, water skiers and swimmers on our hospitable waters. The daylight hours have become theirs; the dark time beckons to others.
Only at day’s end, when night begins to fall, will an older Chesapeake reclaim itself. The wind drops, motor noises die and quiet descends on the water. Civilization fades. During these evening hours and late into the night, rockfish will venture from deeper sanctuaries and probe shoreline waters, seeking prey that have also abandoned their refuges.
Grass shrimp boldly wend their way through the sprouting grass beds, picking and choosing ripe morsels to consume. The smaller perch, menhaden and minnows become more daring in the dark amongst the jetties, riprap and piers. You can see their antics dimpling still waters.
Crabs scuttle about openly, as great blues and night herons move through their practiced routes searching for sustenance. They have all become more nocturnal, and to a great extent, so have I. This is my favorite time to fish.
The new moon’s deep dark is the best phase. The stripers seem to hunt in bigger schools during these times. If you find one, you’ll find more, sometimes lots more. During the bright moon period, the fish tend to be more scattered and difficult to find, though it is always fun trying. And the Bay is never more beautiful.
Sound carries clearly on the water at night. The unseen splash of a heavy fish is unmistakable. It sends your heart pounding, and if it is accompanied by a sudden, strong pull on your line, there can be ecstasy.
At night, your ears must satisfy what your eyes cannot. You move your boat slowly and quietly. Noise discipline is paramount. An idling outboard will spook fish 50 yards away. Carelessly drop an anchor or flashlight on the deck, and you are now assuredly alone. Use electric motors, push poles, paddles sparingly. Nothing else. Not if you want good fish. Anchor quietly, be patient.
Stripers can find a lithe, black streamer or a small, darting jig in pitch dark, turbulent water. Their lateral lines allow them to detect the smallest movement or vibration at amazing distances. The night doesn’t hinder them at all; in fact, it increases their edge.
The first rule of night fishing is that you never go anywhere you haven’t fully experienced in the daytime: Surprises in the dark can be unpleasant. Wear a life jacket at all times. The new inflatables are so convenient that you are scarcely aware you have one on. Falling out of a boat is hazardous under the best of conditions. At night it can be fatal.
VHF radios or cell phones are a must. Breaking down at midnight is not news you want to keep to yourself. It is best to fish with a partner. Have all your equipment in first-rate condition, and have all Coast Guard requirements on board. A spotlight or very bright flashlight is essential. Carry a good, sharp knife. You may have to cut your prop out of a fouled anchor line or a piece of drifting trash.
Your peripheral vision is superior in the dark; use it to look for difficult objects. While you are moving, scan against shoreline illumination to pick up the silhouettes of channel markers and buoys: They can appear out of nowhere.
Never go up on plane if you cannot see every surface detail. At speed, a floating log, timber or roped crab buoy will disable your engine or worse. Be especially careful around all man-made structures. Stay away from crab pots. And do not chance thunderstorms. A violent squall can move up on you in the dark with no warning.
Sound hazardous? Perhaps, but I cannot resist it.
Note to Night Fishermen: It is not lawful to have rockfish in your possession while fishing between the hours of midnight and 5am, although rock may be caught and released during those hours. All other legal fish may be retained.
Fish Are Biting
Schools of good-sized rockfish are starting to gather off of the mouths of most of the rivers in the mid-Bay, usually toward a channel edge in 25 to 35 feet of water. Love Point, Bloody Point, Hacketts, Thomas, Tolly and The Hill are all worth trying. Most anglers are chumming, though many of the charter captains are continuing to troll. It remains to be seen if the schools of bait the stripers are feeding on will venture up into the tributaries or hold in the main stem. Wherever they go, the rock will follow.
Perch fishing is starting to pick up both in the Bay proper and the smaller creeks. Flounder have been reported, but locations (as usual) are undisclosed. Look for the crab, croaker and spot fishing to blossom in June. The freshwater bite is holding steady.