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Coming Soon: Trophy Rockfish Season

Five ways to try for your big one

Up to now it’s been just the small stuff, yellow and white perch for Bay anglers, crappie and largemouth bass for the sweetwater buffs. These species may be great sport and a welcome antidote to Maryland’s traditionally uncomfortable winter, but they’re not the Big Show. That comes April 19, the opening day of the trophy rockfish season. This year’s could be the best ever.

Early adventuring catch-and-release anglers have seldom reported so much success all up and down the Chesapeake. Fish under three feet aren’t even mentioned any more. If it’s not over 40 inches, no one is interested. Stories of 20-plus-fish days have not been unusual.

The bigger stripers have been taken on a wide variety of baits, most run just a few feet under the surface. In the springtime, that’s the cruising zone for giant rockfish moving up to spawn in their natal headwaters, then migrating back out to the ocean. The top 15 feet will be the warmest and most comfortable for them. Unless the fish are holding a deepwater bait ball, you’ll rarely find them any lower this time of year.

The trollers have been doing the best by far, dragging mostly tandem rigs featuring big parachutes with nine-inch soft shad trailers or traditional bucktails dressed the same way. Chartreuse and white predominate, but black may be the sleeper color of the spring. Several canny charter boat captains and more than a few anglers have been loading up on lures and trailers of this hue.

Mann’s Stretch Lures have experienced resurgence in popularity, especially since the new 73-pound Virginia state record was caught on one over the winter. Stretch lures are designed to dive to specific depths: the Stretch 25s swim at 25 feet; the 15s at 15 feet, and so on. The actual depth of individual lures will vary depending on boat speed, line diameter, current direction and how far back the lure is fished, but there is no denying their effectiveness.

Fish Are Biting

The white perch run continues to occupy most early anglers high up in Bay tributaries, while crappie and bass anglers pursue their sport on our freshwater ponds and lakes. But most of the Tidewater’s attention is on striped bass. Catch-and-release fishermen are doing exceptionally well from Breezy Point up to the Bay Bridge. The Susquehanna hasn’t quite turned on for lure anglers yet, but it should turn red hot with only a day or two of warmer weather. Trophy rockfish season starts April 19 and promises to be one of the best ever. Don’t miss out.

This time of year is not the best for light tackle. It is difficult to find and cast baits to stripers constantly on the move. Swimming in loose schools and rarely hesitating in one place for long, stripers are in one area one day and 20 miles distant the next.

That is not to say, however, that light-tackle fishing can’t be done. Especially around the Bay Bridge, a determined light-tackle angler can sometimes find large fish holding on structure long enough to be presented soft swim baits such as Storm Jigs, Bass Assassins and BKDs. A 40-inch rockfish on a seven-foot spin or casting rod is an experience worth any amount of effort.

Bait fishing may also work for you. Aficionados drifting live menhaden and herring suspended at various depths swear by this method — once a school of hungry stripers has been located. Dead bait fished the same way can do almost as well. That is fortunate because of the difficulty in acquiring live menhaden and herring and keeping them alive for any period of time.

Chumming at anchor is only marginally effective this early in the year considering the unpredictability of fish in any given area, their constant movement and the fact that the colder water temperatures are not as conducive to scent dispersal as are warmer. Contrarians, however, have occasionally come up with surprisingly good catches with this approach.

Fly and plug casting are the least productive of all sport fishing techniques on the main Bay in springtime — unless you find surface-feeding fish. Then fly and plug gear make the most exciting fishing. Birds screaming and wheeling above the thunderous splashes of heavy fish, howling reels and straining rods can create an experience that will instantly wash away the memory of 20 unsuccessful sorties.

The siren song of these wild-run stripers has already reached the ears of Tidewater anglers. The glazed looks of longing and the harried attitudes of men and women hastening the completion of their springtime chores increase daily as we close on the magic date of April 19. For some anglers, it will be the highpoint of the year. For the rest of us, it is far more important than that.

Tournament Alert

The 7th Annual Boatyard Bar and Grill Opening Day Rockfish Tournament still has room for a few boats to join the fray on opening day. Many big prizes have been donated. it’s the best opening day party in Annapolis, and all proceeds go to support the Bay. $150/boat. Register by Friday, April 18:

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