Sporting Life

Trophy Rockfish Season on the Horizon

By Dennis Doyle

For Maryland anglers, the world begins on May 1, opening day of trophy rockfish season for the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. 

This year’s season looks like a good one. Of course, that’s from my personal perspective that any day on the Bay offers a glimpse of paradise.

My chief guru of the Tidewater, waterman Leo James, was too busy painting hulls at his LJ Marina for an in-depth discussion of the coming season as yet, but he did relate that there was a lot of bait (menhaden) in the mid-Bay area and he had just recently released a fat and healthy 50-inch rockfish that had become entangled in one of his nets.

The trophy season (May 1-15) is the best chance for a Maryland angler to tangle with a big striper, as this is the one time a year that the anadromous, ocean running, migratory giants that are birthed in the Chesapeake return to spawn. The minimum size during this period is 35 inches with a limit of one fish per person per day.

All male rockfish will stay in the Bay on the spawning grounds until the females stop arriving, but the females promptly return to the Atlantic once they’ve deposited their roe. About 70 percent of all striped bass swimming the American seaboard is birthed in the headwaters of one of Maryland’s fresh water tributaries.

Our smaller, resident rockfish will also spawn in the freshwater tribs where they were born but they will continue to live in Bay waters until about the age of 4 when most females and a large portion of the males will leave life along the Atlantic littoral. Migratory striped bass from our waters will later be found all the way from Nova Scotia down to Louisiana.

Because of a downturn in rockfish populations from serious overharvest in the last decade, the last two years have seen some severe restrictions in limits and seasons. Hopefully the species will recover soon but in the meantime there will be a 19-inch minimum size and a limit on one fish per person per day. The season for these fish in the main stem runs May 16 till May 31. After June 1, the rockfish season opens throughout the Bay and its tributaries until December 10, although all rockfishing will temporarily be closed from July 16 through the end of the month to protect them from severe heat.

The principle difficulty in fishing the trophy season will be the weather. Springtime winds and rain can limit opportunities for all but the larger sporting craft so if you plan on fishing this season keep your eye on the forecast. Trolling large baits such as bucktails with 6- to 12-inch sassy shads as trailers and stinger hooks, umbrella rigs and chandeliers are the traditional methods of enticing trophy sized fish.

 Lure colors can be important but are generally limited to white, yellow, green, chartreuse, and combos thereof. Rockfish in the early season usually cruise in the top 15 feet of the water column (due to better temperatures) but will descend toward the bottom to feed or to avoid engine noise from boats.

During the spawn, the fish will be found in pods, constantly moving, each toward their respective natal waters and impossible to anticipate.  They generally arrive from the ocean in channels along the Eastern Shore side and leave via the Western Shore channels where the incoming and outgoing tides tend to be more favorable.

Though dragging big baits means using heavy tackle and 30- to 50-pound test lines, light tackle enthusiasts using much lighter rods and light 20-pound test line have begun trolling smaller, diving swim baits such as Rapala Magnums and X-Raps at 15- and 30-foot levels in Bunker, Red-Head and natural colored patterns. 

Baitfishing from shore, chumming and chunking from anchored boats can also take trophy sized fish this time of year, weather permitting. Circle hooks and copious patience are mandatory for this technique. The best bait bets are jumbo bloodworms and cut menhaden, the fresher the better.   

     No live eel baits are permitted this time of year and gaffing of rockfish is prohibited. Possession of any rockfish from midnight to 5 a.m. is also outlawed. Bycatch this time year will be blue, channel and flathead catfish. All have no minimum size and no possession limit and are excellent on the table. Some of these rascals can grow to well over 100 pounds. Best of luck to all.