Rockfish Opening Day Again
By Dennis Doyle
Hallelujah, rockfish are back on the Bay angler’s menu. Our cherished line-sided rascals are available for pursuit once again. The problem of course is, where are they? The closed season in August has made their current locations a bit of a mystery.
The proper strategy for chasing them down, as always, will simply be spending some time on the water. Just keep looking. But where to begin? If you go with an early start, the shallows at first light will yield top water fish on surface baits near the mouths of the tributaries and around rocky shoreside jetties and bulkheads.
The water will be coolest in the dawn and the fish active and eager to eat as we enter the first phases of the autumn patterns. The bite will not last long in these areas and you won’t have much time to search them out, maybe until 9 a.m. If your surface baits go untouched do not hesitate to switch or alternate skinny water lures such as Rat-L-Traps, Rapala X-Raps or Assassin type jigs.
Always be sure to have a Plan B and a Plan C the first few trips; things rarely go as planned. A bag of Fish Bites, artificial bloodworms, should be part of your standard kit so that you can do a bit of fishing for small baitfish. If the shallows hold no rockfish, they may well have a good population of yearling Norfolk spot, perch or barely legal-sized croaker.
A half dozen or so in an aerated bucket or a live well can fuel your next tactical move, live-lining. Also, if you can throw a cast net, there should be some small schools of peanut bunker moving along the shorelines in most areas. Evident by the nervous water they create, a toss or two with the net can produce a dozen or more of these shimmering beauties.
They are especially delicate and will expire quickly if not handled carefully and kept in cool, highly oxygenated water. To a rockfish, live peanut bunker are irresistible. Suspended under a small bobber, try any of these baitfish in the nearby shadows under shoreside docks, trees, piers or bulkheads as quietly as possible. You may be astounded at the size of the rockfish hanging out there.
If you’ve not succeeded after the shallow water attempts, head out for deeper waters and the nearest significant structure. Drifting a live spot, small perch or live peanut bunker around lighthouses, the ends of piers and bulkheads or even a navigational apparatus can often hold a lurking lunker, especially in low traffic areas. Use a sinker when you have to, but persevere.
Light tackle sports after this point reach for their box of Assassin type, soft plastic jigs. Paddle tails have been especially potent the last couple of years and throwing to deeper water jetties, around bridge supports, large, anchored ships or even drifting over and deep jigging on suspicious finder marks can produce fish. Chartreuse embedded with sparkly bits is the traditional go-to hot weather soft jig color but an adept sport can score with just about any color presented properly.
Finally, for those prepared for the really long haul and who have a bucket of frozen chum and fresh alewives (menhaden/bunker) in a cooler on board, anchoring up off of a tributary mouth or on the edge of a chumming fleet and soaking some cut bait down deep can be an opportunity to relax and still continue the pursuit.
And then there is the single, most important rule this time of year, especially after experiencing our recent mandated closure. A skunk is not a sign of incompetence or cause for disappointment nor despair. You have merely eliminated, efficiently, a number of early options, tomorrow is another day. Hope rules.
The rockfish season is open again and the limit remains one fish at 19 inches minimum. Expect to move about more than usual to locate fish or begin your trip by trolling medium to small bucktails until you’ve located fish or good marks. The season was closed Aug 16 to Sep 1 to recreational anglers to help the population recover, after experiencing an alarming drop in numbers. Commercial anglers (some 300 or so) were permitted to continue their harvest of the fish uninterrupted in a somewhat arbitrary decision to insulate their incomes from any unpleasant fluctuation. Spanish mackerel are currently about, so include a rig with a Clark Spoon or a one-ounce Kastmaster and speed up to six or seven knots if you suspect their presence. White perch remain active throughout the Bay though water temps may cause them to move seeking cooler areas. Crabbing is experiencing a definite improvement though it is uncertain how long that will last. Labor Day is here but the sporting season is far from over. Get out on the water now.