Rockfish within reach dispel despondency with delight
Just this time last year, I was sulking in my skiff about 50 feet off a long rocky point. A brisk tidal current hissed under the boat, and my shoulders ached from an hour of casting my nine-foot fly rod without a hit.
The descending sun was sinking through the top of the trees on the western shore. I was running out of time again.
The previous two weeks of too many evenings and early mornings devoted to not catching anything on a fly was having an effect on me. It wasn’t a good one. Breath came reluctantly and heavily from my chest as I questioned my own judgment.
I was alone on the water, and it became more and more obvious why: There were no fish here, and there weren’t going to be any. Not a half-mile away, and in plain sight, sat a lighthouse that marked a channel loaded with seven- to 10-pound rockfish.
All it took was a few live spot and a two-ounce sinker to have my limit, just like everyone else. Feeling the fool is not a particularly satisfying state of mind.
Then came the sound of a water boil not too far away. I looked up and immediately saw another. It wasn’t the water frolic of a lively baitfish either; the movement was heavy and carried with it the unspoken final moment of some hapless perch or alewife. Hunting stripers were coming through.
My depression was dispelled as I eased myself back up onto the rear casting deck, cleared my line and looked for more fish sign. It came quickly not 60 feet away. With two false casts, I laid my popper within inches of the still-moving water. Two weeks of fruitless casting had at least sharpened my skills.
I stripped line and the popper chugged, spit, popped and disappeared into the big hole that appeared under it. A slab-sided rockfish, glowing green in the evening waters, pivoted with the lure in its jaws, churning water and heaving its bulk into a rod-bending turn. I set the hook and the fish broached, throwing its head from side to side to rid itself of the sting. I cinched him up again, and he took off running.
My heart was warm; a fish was on, and so was I.
Rock on the Fly
Fall is a great time of year to be a fly angler. That evening, I was to score seven very nice fish in less than an hour and a half. Every futile minute that I had experienced the previous two weeks was suddenly time well spent. Perspective changes everything.
Chesapeake Bay holds a special challenge for the fly angler. For just a few weeks during springtime, the striped bass spawning run provides an excellent opportunity to hang a big striper on a fly. But the long months that immediately follow are difficult at best for the long rod.
After the spawn, virtually all the larger migratory stripers leave the Bay to return to cruising the Atlantic littoral. The younger fish of 10 pounds and less will remain, but they will school and seek out deeper, cooler water for the duration of the summer months, out of the reach of the traditional fly angler.
Finally, beginning in September, the chillier evenings will bring the water temperature in the tributaries back into the striped-bass comfort zone. Packs of roving rockfish suddenly driven by a new and instinctive hunger brought on by the approach of cold weather will leave the depths of the Bay once again to hunt baitfish in the rivers and creeks.
If you haven’t fly-fished for rock before, now is the time to try it out. A nine-weight rod is the most practical tool for this time of year. The nine will handle the large poppers and the bigger streamers necessary to match the size of the baitfish that the roving bands of rockfish are pursuing.
Floating lines are best in the shallows, and bright-colored flies work well until dark; then black is usually the best. Vary the length and profile of the flies you use until you find one the fish prefer. When you feel the solid resistance of that first good striper on a fly, you’ll be glad of every moment you invested. I always am.