My alarm clock sounded at 4:30am. Shutting it off, I took a deep breath and laid my head back for just a second to collect my thoughts. If the cat hadn’t knocked its dish off the table downstairs two hours later, I probably would have slept on until noon.
Still groggy despite the extra sack time, I struggled up. Since the boat was already hitched to my vehicle and my tackle sitting ready at the door, the tardy start was not a disaster. But I was certainly not adhering to my own hot weather advice: Be on the water when the sun comes up.
Incredibly, the rockfish population in the middle Chesapeake remains outstanding. Large fish 34 to 38 inches are still being encountered, and fish in the 26- to 28-inch range are fairly common. Stripers often have lockjaw from mid-day on, but morning fishing has been excellent. Late afternoons can be productive when the threat of thunderstorms is low, but you must fish with extreme caution. Some unpredicted and violent storms have burst upon us in the early evenings.
A stop for bait and ice, the drive to Sandy Point and launching my skiff burned up more of my morning. It was about 7:30 and 87 degrees before I was up on plane and headed out onto the Chesapeake.
Word of a recent good bite off the Eastern Shore just north of the Bay Bridge sent me in that direction. But on my arrival it was obvious that the conditions were all wrong. Southerly winds were light, but the current was just about dead. Any kind of chum or live-lining was improbable until the tide turned, and that could take an hour or more. I headed for the Bridge itself.
Slowly and quietly cruising likely bridge supports, my electronic finder eventually noted some fishy marks on one particular set of pilings. Scoping out the light breeze and what current still existed and calculating my probable drift, I eased up parallel to the pilings, flipped out a five-inch spot hooked lightly in front of its dorsal fin and let it swim down.
Almost immediately something ate the bait and headed for the bottom. I cinched the rascal up and within a few short minutes had a fat 22-inch rockfish alongside. That really surprised me. Having had difficult outings the last few times on the Bay, I expected nothing less again. A quick success at this hour was something new.
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Heat waves and July weather in general do more than make anglers uncomfortable. The extreme temperatures affect the fish. In high summer, early morning fishing is more reliable. Early means first light.
While on occasion schools of rockfish stay active until later in the day, it is much more likely that they will feed at first light, then perhaps again when the early morning tidal current suits their fancy. After that they almost always shut off, suspending and resting at depths where the water temperature and oxygen content is most
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I made ready for another drift, this time choosing the largest spot in my bait bucket. I wanted the second striper — if I was going to get it — to be a big one. And time was running out. The bait swam down as my skiff inched slowly along with the final stages of the tidal ebb.
At exactly the same spot as my previous success, the line again began to fly off the spool under my thumb. Throwing the reel in gear, I set the hook. This fish shook its head then ran toward the pilings, easily taking line against a firmly set drag.
Though it reached the middle of the support cluster, I somehow managed to finally stop it and bully it back out without getting wrapped. The barnacle-studded pilings would have made quick work of my 20-pound mono line in any extended seesaw struggle with this fish.
A few minutes later, out in more open water, I drew a really nice 28-incher to the skiff, managed it aboard and settled the beast down deep in the ice with the first fish. Limited out in 20 minutes: That was my personal best this season.
Cruising along toward shallower water and intending to do a bit of perch fishing before it hit 100 degrees, I felt a bit of pride in my angling skills. Of course I had been lucky, but I’ll take that kind of luck any day — especially a hot day in July.
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Catch-and-release rockfish anglers should be aware that when air temperatures go above 90 degrees, removing gamefish from the water — particularly striped bass — drastically increases the mortality rate, even if the exposure is short. Unhook and release them in the water. Or do your catch-and-release fishing later in the year when conditions are not so extreme.
Diamond Jim Surprise
No fewer than 12 Diamond Jim striper tags have been recovered so far this year. That’s way ahead of previous years’ recoveries, indicating that the 400 specially tagged stripers are not in any hurry to leave the area. The chances of landing one may never be better. Diamond Jim himself is worth $25,000, and the 399 imposters bring $500 each. Details at www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/challenge/.