The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle
Big Fish Fever
It’s a primal rush few experience in this civilized life
Late October is when it begins to happen. I start to get a haggard look in my eyes from loss of sleep. During the day, I’m scanning the treetops for wind signs. I plot for time on the water when calm evenings and quiet mornings can send my pulse thumping with anticipation.
Up before dawn, back well before noon and then out again at dusk, I’ll be fishing sometimes till long after dark. Mid-day, if I have time, I’ll be trying to get back some of the sleep I lost.
The water temperature is falling and I know they’re coming: big fish. I mean really big fish. Thirty pounds and up. Stripers that can pull harder than I can; fish with shoulders, heavy shoulders. Rockfish that can inhale lures bigger than my hand and blow up stout graphite rods like sticks of uncooked pasta.
Since the passing of spring, we’ve matched tackle to the fish at hand. Light gear is more than adequate for the youngsters, the majority of fish that inhabit the Bay during the temperate months.
The Chesapeake is known as the striper nursery of the Atlantic. When our striped bass get to be about three to four years old, they leave the shelter of the Bay for a life at sea; generally only the adolescents remain. But that changes at the end of October.
Now is when these mature fish, grown large and strong in their wild ocean wanderings, will return for a visit and a heavy feed. Winter is coming and they know that their old nursery grounds provide a haven for other fish as well, fish that will provide them rich sustenance: silversides and anchovies; perch, and spot; yearling and adult menhaden.
These forage fish, preparing for winter themselves, gather into large schools, presenting prime targets for the heavy hitters from the ocean. Smaller predators, trout and bluefish, seeking out the same quarry will also become their prey. Nature’s autumn can be fierce in our estuary.
The trollers now bring out serious hardware: thick rods, heavy line and umbrella rigs that feature six to eight soft shad lures, vibrating, quivering and filling the water with noise and action in a whole school of ersatz baitfish.
Chandelier rigs emulate even bigger schools of bait. Flashing spoons the size of shovel blades dwarf the hands that attach them to long, sturdy leaders. Large bucktails swing hooks that could hold a quarter of beef. The big guys often need big temptation.
Light-tackle addicts gear up as well. Fly fisherman put away their diminutive and sporty summer sticks and pull out the 10- and 12-weights. They are a chore to cast, but sizeable flies need heavy lines to carry them. Plug casters turn to beefy rods and bulkier plugs. They spool on stronger line as well. It’s time for warmer clothes and aching muscles. It’s time to test yourself.
The migrators don’t set up house anywhere. They roam where they please; you’ll find them where they find you. Fishing a point or a rip morning after morning or trolling the channel edges and not hooking up doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong spot. It just means that the big guys haven’t showed up there yet. If you stick with it, they’ll come and you’d better be ready.
Tie a bad knot, they’ll break it; a worn line, adios; shoddy lure, they’ll destroy it; dull hooks, they’ll spit them before a curse can form on your lips. You and your best gear have to be in top shape, because your adversaries certainly are. And now is the best time of the year to meet up with them.
When there is a massive swirl where your lure once swam … the rod suddenly bent almost to the water and your reel screaming hot … line smoking out toward the horizon … you will feel a primal rush few experience in this artificial construct of civilized life.
You will be intimately connected to a strength and wildness that is magnificent. It will resonate to your core. Big fish fever: Be very careful, it may never let you go.
Fish Are Biting
The fall bite is progressing nicely as the water temperature drops. Keeper rockfish can be found among and beneath breakers throughout the mid-Bay. Good-sized stripers are foraging up in the tributaries and can be caught on top early and late in the day. In the main stem, vertical jigging is effective, but the chummers and live liners are catching as well. Trollers are going deep with small bucktails and soft shad.
Some trout continue to be found around the Bay Bridge and in the Eastern Bay. Large spot have reappeared in the Severn, though most are on the way out. Perch fishing is excellent and that should continue into late fall. Bluefish are still visiting and biting on just about everything. The arrival of big ocean-run stripers is imminent. All is well in the Tidewater.