First Rockfish of 2020
“Uh, the net is too small.” One of our rod tips began to twitch, then a second later it slammed over, bending the whole rod dangerously in its holder as the line peeled off the baitcasting reel, its clicker alarm distorting into a metallic shriek. Our spirits soared and the 2020 rockfish trophy season suddenly became a reality.
Despite the usual discrepancy between the weather forecast and the actual conditions on the Bay, our first foray into trophy season, spent south of Hackett’s Point, was unfolding nicely. The tidal phase was initially also a mystery, but as the outgoing current gradually took form it looked as though our plan to chum and fish cut baits with light tackle remained valid.
The preeminent method of fishing during the trophy season has always been to troll big, artificial baits with heavy tackle and lately, lots of big baits with heavy gear. Because trophy-sized rockfish are unpredictable this time of year, the most effective techniques are those that cover the most water. Trolling certainly fills that requirement better than any other.
But if light tackle is your passion the next best technique is chumming and fishing cut bait. Putting a trail of chum (ground menhaden) into the tidal current could entice a big, migrating striped bass, having recently spawned, to interrupt its departure back to the ocean for a quick meal.
The key ingredient is an intense bait slick. Since the desired fish may be quite distant from your location, a broad sensory avenue back to your baits has to be as savory as possible. For that reason, we put one chum bag deep to lure feeders to our baits on the bottom and another bag over the stern at the surface to seduce the more distant travelers. We also, periodically, cut up and distribute small chunks of menhaden overboard to further encourage the bite.
The heavy distribution of chum can also attract quite a number of sizable blue catfish. In the first hours that morning, my long-suffering outdoor buddy Randy Steck and I had already slid four hefty cats into the cooler. Since blue cats exhibit a stubborn-but-localized resistance when hooked, we recognized the fish screaming away for the horizon that morning as certainly a rockfish and most probably a keeper (over 35 inches).
For a few moments our choice of light tackle was also seriously in question as that salty brawler immediately had me on the ropes. I was forced to pause patiently as the fish ran off whenever it wished, sometimes alarming distances. My fresh 20-pound mono and the medium-heavy power six-and-a-half-foot casting rod were always stressed to their max, the line stretched so tight it vibrated with the arcing rod’s graphite fibers creaking dangerously in protest.
We were using 7/0 circle hooks on three-foot, 30-pound fluorocarbon leaders and sliding, fish finder rigs with two-ounce sinkers. Dead sticking the rods with firmly set reel drags in stern rod holders. we would not begin to handle the tackle until it was obvious that a fish was well hooked.
At long last, I managed the monster up and alongside the gunnel when Randy announced the last serious impediment to victory, “Uh, Dennis, the net is too small.”
Luckily, the fish was exhausted and compliant by now and my friend, ever accustomed to difficult situations when in my company, simply and selflessly took a knee, leaned well over, slid his hand under the fish’s large gill cover, and wrestled the beast up over the side and onto the deck.
We endured until early afternoon without further luck when a slack current put an end to things and we finally pulled anchor and headed back to the boat ramp. Exhausted and exhilarated at the same time, it was a fantastic day and we both announced it quite acceptable as our first trip of the new season.
The rockfish trophy season is proceeding nicely but without many of its previous celebrants. The Bay has remained almost empty of the usual crowd of sporting boats, but with the recreational fishing ban lifted (including catch and release), that may turn around. Those anglers getting on the water are having a reasonable amount of success and the Internet has seen quite a few portraits of happy anglers with trophy-sized rockfish. Trolling is getting the job done and the most joy is coming from the south, down around the Deale area. However, we all know that the fish could (and will) be anywhere by tomorrow. Side planer boards with multiple rigs are quite popular with the boats getting out, so if you’re cruising the Bay watch for the boards and their small marking flags off to both sides of the craft. Give them a wide berth. Trollers cannot maneuver quickly and crossing the rod lines will cause chaos. The white perch run is still happening as is the snakehead bite up in the tribs. Hickory shad have also shown up and are putting on their usual aerial exhibition. Blue catfish are almost everywhere throughout the Bay and fish over 10 pounds not uncommon. Spring is sprung and fishing season has arrived.