Volume 16, Issue 33 - August 14 - August 20, 2008

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An August Delusion

The fish shouldn’t have been there, but they were, and so were we

It was just after dawn, but we had already been working the shallow cove for almost an hour without a lick of success. Regardless, Mike continued to cast his five-inch, top-water plug from the stern of our anchored skiff with a fierce determination.

Expecting good rockfish on the top of skinny water in August heat was betting against long odds. September is really the earliest month associated with any good surface bite. But even the most remote hope of surface action was enough for us. As anglers, Mike and I are often optimistic to the point of delusion.

“This is it,” he said as he threw to the rocky shoreline yet one more time. “I’m going to get one on this cast. I can feel it.” I was about to mention how unlikely that appeared just as water erupted under his lure.

A split second later, a sizeable striped bass launched itself into the air, tumbling and shaking, trying to dislodge the lure now fixed in the corner of its mouth. I yelled encouragements to both Mike and the fish.

Fish Are Biting

The end-of-summer bite is slow but steady. Early and late is the key to finding a bite. Rock are still good sized, blues remain smallish, perch and spot steady and croaker waning. There are rumors of trout to the south. Crabs are making their last, big, summer sluff; there are doublers everywhere. Enjoy.

Most battles with rockfish in the Chesapeake take place in deeper waters. They are invisible struggles, with the fish making short, powerful circling runs, resisting all attempts to bring them up. The striper is largely unseen by an angler until the final moments of the encounter.

But when there is only two feet of water, there are really only two ways for a fish to go, up or long. There is no deep. Visually it can be spectacular.

This fish picked the aerial route. Flinging itself out of the water again and again, it gave us a good look at its five-pound physique. It also planted the horrible and very real fear in Mike that the next head-shaking vault would dislodge his plug.

He maintained relentless side pressure on the fish between jumps, first from the right side, then leaning to the left. This definitely confused the striper and finally persuaded it to abandon its attempts to fly. It swirled, then darted out of the rocky, snag-filled cove toward the main Bay.

But by then it had exhausted itself, and my partner finally subdued the fish, bringing it to boatside. We had forgotten the net, so I scooped up the handsome rascal with an old bushel basket. Mike was ecstatic. It was his first top water fish of the season, and it was only early August, a very good omen for the fall.

The Second Time Around

Not really expecting much more than one wild stroke of luck that morning, I casually continued to cast my chugger up into the cove. Falling back into an imaginary baitfish-distress scenario that allowed me to induce action to my lure without thinking about it, I worked the plug back. Pop, pause (help, I’m hurt), swim, pause (help, help), swim faster, pop-pop-pop (look out: I’m escaping).

This strike was different. There was no showy geyser, just a heavy surge of water that churned a boil on top the size of a washtub. My rod arced over and line tore out. I was suddenly hooked up with a runaway locomotive.

Over my shoulder I heard Mike mutter, “I can’t believe it,” as my drag screamed and the fish headed out and out and out. I couldn’t believe it, either. Big fish don’t show in August. Not in shallow water. My reel was half empty by the time the brute paused. Then it ran a little farther.

It took several long minutes and a lot of effort to work it back toward the boat. Then it took off again. Finally it swirled and showed itself. Still a distance off we could easily see that it was as big as we imagined, at least a 30-incher.

Mike manned the bushel basket as I drew the beast closer. It was suddenly obvious that the fish was not going to fit. I forgave Mike in advance for its escape. Leaning far over the side of the boat, he sunk our flimsy basket deep in the water.

I led the heavy striper over the rim. Time stopped. Then Mike gave a mighty heave and a loud whoop as the big rockfish and several gallons of water cascaded into the boat. Victory: my first on top water this season and the biggest rockfish I had ever taken on a surface plug in skinny water.

But the action wasn’t over. We went on to tangle with a number of fish that morning. None was as big as the 30, but they did range from 22 to 26 inches.

Not bad for a couple of delusional optimists in the heat of August.

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