Volume 14, Issue 49 ~ December 7 - December 13, 2006

The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle

The Best Laid Plans

We were in a perfect position to make a haul

The conditions were perfect last Thursday. We arrived off of Hacketts just as the first blush of sun glowed over the Eastern Shore. It was the last hour of the ebb, and the wind light but chilly. The forecast was for temps in the mid 60s, but I was still glad I had on my fleece undies and a good foul-weather vest.

We were going after some late-season lunkers, the big ocean-going rockfish that come up into the Bay this time of year. It’s not exactly certain why they make the trip. Perhaps to winter; perhaps to feed on the perch and menhaden that are gathering into big dense schools; perhaps both. But what is known is that they do come, and some were here now.

Setting our anchor in 40 feet of water, Mike and I began preparing the tackle. We had made some last-minute purchases for this trip to increase the odds in our favor. A packet of gleaming, razor sharp, 7/0 Owner Hooks was in my hand as I began tying the snell knots that would secure them on four-foot, 30-pound, fluorocarbon leaders.

A 25-pound flat of frozen menhaden was in the stern along with a big bucket of frozen chum that Mike quickly lowered over the side in a mesh net. Our cooler had a healthy supply of fresh menhaden for the bait. We were loaded for the big guys.

A heavy-duty grinder was secured on a gunwale so we could add more menhaden to the slick the chum bag was already putting out. Our intention was that any wandering stripers would scent the delectable odors of the crushed baitfish and follow the trail to us, where they would find even bigger chunks of the sweet, oily fish lying in wait on the bottom. But these would have a surprise inside.

One Fat Fish

I knelt down finishing the last rig as Mike baited them and cast. “Look out behind you!” he called. I ducked my head reflexively, and he deftly reached over, plucked out a rod from the holder behind me and, grinning, leaned into an obviously heavy fish.

Frowning as I reached for the net, I thought briefly of whacking Mike on the head with it. Then admitting that I had been well foxed, I chuckled and took up position to assist him. He worked the fish expertly. It closed fast, perhaps not knowing how much trouble it was in, then made the mistake of surfacing just as it neared the side of the hull.

I already had the net in the water, and as the fish emerged I scooped quickly. Up it came, thrashing violently, frantically throwing its weight, but too late. He was ours. It was winter fat and gleamed silver in the fresh light, a really beautiful fish. Taking it out of the net Mike exclaimed, “Good, he’s just under 28. That means we’re right on schedule for our four keepers.”

We had done our homework for this outing, checking closely the tide tables, current predictions, weather reports, moon phase and all of the recent fishing reports. The Internet has made all of this possible and has increased our ability to select optimum days and conditions. We were in a perfect position to make a haul; we were going to be in the meat bucket.

A Curious Twist of Tide

The current slacked quickly without another fish, though we had two tentative hits. After a half hour or so of dead water, the tide finally reversed and the incoming current took over. Our boat swung around at anchor, the stern now facing north, our chum slick quickly flowing out behind. We put fresh bait on our rigs and recast them, preparing for the feeding frenzy that was sure to start. Then a curious thing happened.

Our lines began drifting back toward the boat against the flow of the current. Perplexed, we reset all of the baits, increased the weight of our sinkers and cast them once more out into the new tidal flow. They came dragging back again.

A seemingly impossible situation was occurring. Though the tidal current was now flowing north on the surface, down in the depths of the Bay it was still flowing out to the south. Disaster: Our chum slick, as it sank, would be disbursed by the conflicting currents somewhere far from the boat. The fish would never find our baits.

There’s an old saying, If you want the gods to laugh, tell them your plans. Our perfectly researched conditions had just collapsed around us. We hung in, hoping that the bizarre tidal flows would finally align themselves, but it just didn’t happen. Approaching noon, Mike had to go to work, and I had had more than enough. There hadn’t been a nibble in three hours.

Dumping the last of our bait and chum as a parting gift for the fish we didn’t catch, we headed for home — not quite so sure of ourselves anymore.

Fish Are Biting

The weather has continued to disturb any patterns that might make finding fish easier, but persistent trollers are occasionally scoring nice rockfish. They are deep and usually located near the channels. Perch remain the only consistent story. Better odds can be found well to the south.

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