The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle
Look for clear, cool, oxygenated water with access to depth, structure and food
Evening was beginning to descend. The heat of the day had left some swirling tendrils of warm, heavy air, but the cooler currents of sundown were already apparent. A rippling wake from a distant boat gently rocked my skiff as I relaxed, the Magothy barely in sight over my left shoulder.
A falling tide kept the anchor line taut with my stern facing almost due east. There was just enough wind to keep the flies away, but it barely rippled the water‘s surface. Another craft, larger than mine, swung some distance off. I could glimpse rods pointed skyward, but from the faint sound of music and the muted laughter in the cabin, I could tell their attentions were on other things. I was getting drowsy.
I had only two rods in the water, both trailing lines aft, delicately tight to the small perch that I imagined finning slowly near the bottom 20 feet down. I was fishing a pair of old Ambassadeur bait-casters loaded with fresh 20-pound mono on beefy, seven-foot St. Croix rods, my favorite rigs for live-lining. I had the reels in free spool with just the click set to hold the baits nearby.
Time passed so gently it was difficult to estimate how much had slipped by. It could have been 15 minutes later or even 30, but it ended with just one sharp click. Then another. Then a quick series. I was instantly awake.
Focused on the reel that was talking, I waited: a few more clicks, another pause. Was it just a nervous perch, or a hungry rockfish? Then that sweet chatter began again, this time a serious pull, running the clicks into a lovely growl. It stopped.
I had already taken the rod out of its holder, dropping the tip to minimize the line’s drag through the guides. My breathing had become shallow and hesitant. I waited. It was long seconds until at last the movement began again, faster.
I tripped the Ambassadeur into gear, and as the line came tight, I struck hard. The rod bent deep, and a solid fish ran off against a groaning drag. I could feel it shaking its head as it bored deep. I let it run, keeping the rod pressure low and to the side.
I didn’t want to force the fish to the surface. If it came up and got its head out of the water, it just might generate enough violent movement to eject the baitfish that it had eaten, and perhaps my hook as well. I wanted this fish to stay down.
As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. When I felt I had tired him sufficiently, I tried to short stroke him up to the boat, lifting the rod only a brief distance before dropping the tip, reeling, and lifting again. It didn’t work. The fish had no intention of coming up. I would crank line on the reel, only to see it slip off as I tried to raise him.
Finally after a number of long, tense moments of unrelenting pressure on my part, it rose reluctantly to the surface, totally spent. I was a bit winded myself, and I barely got the net under the handsome fish as it finned slowly on its side. It was fat and heavy, and I quickly covered it with ice in my cooler.
Although this was the only action I encountered that evening, I considered myself content. Under the current difficult conditions, success on striped bass can usually be counted on very few fingers.
How to Catch ’Em
One of the major keys to finding fish during the perils of summer is locating relatively clear, cool, oxygen-bearing water in a location that provides the fish with access to depth, structure and food. The extended areas around the mouths of the tributaries are often a good place to begin, especially after heavy rains. The river currents tend to flush out the silt runoff from the endless construction and landscaping projects, plus fending off the debris and muck coming down from the Susquehanna.
One of the best ways to fish these areas is live-lining small perch or spot. A live-line rig, often called a fish finder, is a simple affair. A sliding sinker is placed on the fishing line above a swivel that acts as a stop. This is then attached to three to four feet of 30- to 50-pound test mono, or fluorocarbon leader, knotted to a 3/0 to 6/0 hook. Simply add a lively baitfish to the rig, cast it out a ways, and you’re in business
When a striper becomes interested, it will grab your bait and immobilize or stun it. If you strike immediately, there is a good chance you will pull the bait and your hook out of the fish’s mouth. You must wait as the striper swims off with the prey to eat it, which is where the sliding sinker comes in. It permits you to give line to the fish without its feeling the sinker’s weight.
Give the fish a slow count of at least five so it can get the bait turned head first to avoid its spines. After the count, strike hard. With luck, you will get a good hook set and then have the luxury of another problem: getting your fish to the boat.
Fish Are Biting
Striped bass, defying all expectations, are still biting, even in off-colored water. There are lots of keepers at the Dumping Grounds, Podickery, Hacketts, Tolley and the mouths of the South and West rivers. Chumming and live-lining are the top producers, but slow trolling is getting them as well.
June’s heavy rains and its influx of fresh water have pretty much dashed hopes for a good croaker run, and these fish are scarce to non-existent in the mid-Bay. Perch, and a few spot, are schooled over hard bottom in the main stem, though their average size continues to disappoint most anglers. Crabbing is also off, and water quality is the number-one problem for the time being. Even with dry weather, it could take two weeks or more to clear up. Be patient.