This is turning out to be a difficult striped bass season. Dirty water coming down the Susquehanna River and into the Chesapeake has sent resident mid-Bay fish fleeing to cleaner currents and deeper water. Only over the last two weeks is the water clearing and the fish returning.
It’s on and off and on again at Love Point on the chumming bite for rockfish. Limits of fish have been boated, though not yet regularly, but last reports were hot. The bite is also reported to be improving farther to the south all along the Eastern Shore where water quality has generally been better.
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This time of year, the best way to catch rockfish is chumming ground menhaden from a boat and fishing cut bait back in the chum slick. Chumming is very effective, though a bit messy.
The superior technique involves mounting a meat grinder on the side or stern of the boat and grinding fresh or frozen menhaden (also called alewife or bunker) in a slow but continuous stream into the tidal current.
Menhaden, a particularly oily fish, is the food rockfish prefer. When ground in this manner and introduced into the tidal current, it produces a chum slick that spreads and drifts back into the depths. Any marauding schools of stripers that encounter the fishy smell follow the trail back to its source, where the canny angler has set down larger chunks of the baitfish with hooks hidden inside.
If you don’t want to invest in the gear or in the messy process of grinding the odorous fish, an almost equally effective method is to purchase blocks or buckets of pre-ground, frozen chum. These are then placed in mesh bags and lowered over the side of the boat.
As the chum thaws, it releases the oil and small pieces of menhaden into the current, providing basically the same attractant. Either technique can secure a good limit of fish quickly this time of year.
Light tackle is often employed in this pursuit, as only one or two ounces of weight is necessary to get the bait down behind the boat. Some baits should also be drifted back weightless, or nearly weightless, in the slick. Rockfish tend to follow the waterborne scent to its point of release, and you are never quite certain just how deep the fish are behind the boat.
Joining the Chum Fleet
When fishing with chum in the more popular areas such as Love Point, Podickery and Hackett’s, boats generally congregate in a fleet so that their combined slicks tend to improve the odds of attracting and catching fish. There are protocols to follow when joining up with other boats.
When joining a chumming fleet, set up off to one side at a comfortable distance from the next boat. If you’re not sure how far away you should be, look at those previously anchored up and emulate the spacing already established.
Never attempt to anchor anywhere behind boats actively chumming. You will in effect be stealing fish attracted to their chum. Nor should you motor across areas down current within a quarter-mile of the boats. Doing so will disrupt their established chum slick. Violating either of these rules could cause a display of bad temper from the offended anglers.
Don’t Leave Dead Fish in Your Wake
Chumming has one downside. Since the baited rods are generally placed in rod holders awaiting action, a rockfish can sometimes swallow a bait before an angler can react. This is not a problem if the striper is of legal size and intended to be eaten, but it can also result in hooking deep in the stomach an undersized or oversized fish that must be released.
Approximately half of all deep-hooked fish die within two hours, regardless of how gently they were handled and released or whether the hook was removed, according to DNR studies of chum fishing on the Chesapeake. Death is a result of the hook piercing internal organs.
Employing circle hooks virtually eliminates deep hooking. Circle hooks are not yet mandated by DNR regulations. But they are strongly recommended, especially in encounters with large numbers of smaller fish or fish larger than 28 inches. (Remember that the daily, two-fish limit of striped bass can only include one fish larger than 28 inches).