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Volume 16, Issue 5 - January 31 - February 6, 2008

It’s a Whopper

And that’s a true story

Lord grant me a fish of such size that when describing it thereafter I need never tell a lie.

–Old fisherman’s prayer

“All men are equal before fish,” wrote former President Herbert Hoover in his book on fly fishing. No Izaak Walton can argue that. It’s a given; be at the right place at the right time with the right bait, and it makes no difference to the fish who is at the other end of the rod.

King or peasant. Or Fred Barnes of Chesapeake, Va., a regular 63-year-old guy — who last week lost all measure of anonymity. To fellow anglers, his has become a name up there with the revered Zane Gray and Ike Walton — who never caught a fish anywhere near the size of the one Barnes reeled in at the 4A buoy off Cape Henry near the mouth of the Bay on Jan. 23.

It was a rockfish, the most prized of all species from Maine to North Carolina. It was a big fish, an awesome fish at 73 pounds. It measured 52 inches from snout to tail, and around its belly it was 31 inches. It was only five and a half pounds shy of the International Gamefish Association’s all-tackle world record. Yet it came right outside the mouth of our Chesapeake Bay. Had it not made a big mistake, it probably would have been there for Maryland fishermen when our trophy season opens in mid to late April.

Catching the Big One

Fred didn’t do anything wrong. But any seasoned striper fisherman will tell you slow trolling is the way to go for stripers; fast trolling is for speedsters such as Spanish mackerel and bluefish. In winter, the metabolism of fish is even slower; they are comfort creatures, as are we. They save their energy.

Barnes was aboard the charterboat Country Girl skippered by Capt. Pat Foster out of Virginia Beach Fishing Center. A few fish were already in the box, none of them of unusual size, when about lunchtime the skipper saw birds working. He kicked up the engine to about five knots to reach ’em before the feeding spree ended and the fish went deep.

Five knots is an unusual speed for trolling, but the captain didn’t want to wait for lines to be reeled in before heading to the birds at an even faster speed with no lines dragging behind. No one expected any interest from fish; this time of year no fish would snatch a bait going that fast. Never!

The rod tip went down and after a scrap of only 10 minutes, the skipper and Barnes were looking at their neverfish. The more Barnes — an experienced angler whose biggest fish prior to the neverfish was a 58-pound, 13-ounce striper taken from the lower Eastern Shore surf — looked at his fish, the more he thought they should pull their lines and head back to the docks rather than trying for another.

The Big Fish Club

Shoreside, Barnes was flabbergasted to learn neverfish weighed in the 70s, putting him among a distinguished group taking a striper above 70 pounds. Since record keeping became formal, anglers so fortunate can be counted on the fingers of both hands, leaving a few digits to spare.

Barnes’ fish also ensures that Virginia fishermen will rule the Chesapeake for quite a while. When I arrived here in 1956, the Old Dominion had no maximum length limit for stripers; Maryland regs dictated that any striper more than 15 pounds had to go back pronto. Once we were allowed to keep big fish much of the time since, our record rockfish were heavier than those in Virginia, a sore point among fishermen south of the border.

Maryland’s current record is 67.5 pounds for Devin Nolen’s catch on Memorial Day weekend of 1995 off Bloody Point, a time when all the trophy silversides were figured to have left the Bay after spawning. The response to the suggestion that a record rockfish could be caught so late — and by a middle-schooler at that — would have been never. Devin caught his neverfish on a Nicks Stix soft plastic eel attached to a big bucktail. For more than a decade, he ruled for rockfish honors in the Chesapeake.

But in the past several years, Virginia fishermen edged closer. Two years ago, Clay Armstrong’s new Virginia record was 68 pounds one ounce. Devin still holds Maryland’s record, but Armstrong doesn’t hold his state’s any more.

Big Baits for Big Fish

Talk about nevers. Two weeks ago, when I was fishing with Skip Zink of Severn, his father Warren and Charlie Ebersberger, who runs Angler’s Sporting Goods outside Annapolis, the subject of big rockfish came up — and with it big baits, among them the Stretch series made by Mann’s Baits of Alabama.

This hard-plastic swimming plug was hot for a couple of years, then virtually fell off the display racks. Charlie wasn’t ordering many; his fishermen had turned to soft plastics for trolling. No way could a Mann’s Stretch 30 catch bigger and more fish than a nine-inch soft plastic swimming plug of the Tsunami or Storm brands.

Guess what Barnes took his neverfish on? A Stretch 30. It was red and white, certainly not a particularly popular color combination for the Bay; it’s more associated with fresh and brackish water fishermen. Barnes’ line was 50-pound test and spooled on a Penn 30 level-wind reel. Shows you what we know about fishing.

At the Show

Rod, reel, line and fish — on ice in a tub — were carted that very night to the 55th annual Mid-Atlantic Sports and Boat Show at Virginia Beach, drawing more attention than any boat in the exhibit hall. Most anglers at the show would rather have caught that fish than be given a 48-foot sportsfishermen completely rigged with fly bridge.

All men are equal before fish. Enough said.

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