Swimming a Spot for Rockfish   

Randy Steck with a rock from better days.

By Dennis Doyle   

The sun was getting lower in the evening sky and gathering clouds pushed things even deeper into the gray as I drifted at the river’s mouth. I could feel the small live spot I was using as bait pulling ahead and taking even more line off my Abu baitcaster but I remained patient and eyeballed my fish finder, marking nothing in the seven to 10 feet of water well off to the side of the main channel.  

This kind of event frequently occurred a year or so ago, though these days the vicious tendrils of Hurricane Ian have kept me and everyone else shorebound. But conditions should become ripe enough again and the fall patterns generate more exciting afternoons on the Chesapeake. The falling temperatures and shortening days are schooling up and driving baitfish en masse out of their shallow headwater nurseries in our tributaries.   

Game fish know this instinctively and push up the rivers to meet them and to feed heavily for colder weather. Live-lining spot and white perch in the skinny waters adjacent to main channels make for exciting late afternoons this time of year plus there is the added possibility of encountering some ocean-run big fellas coming up into the Chesapeake to winter.  

Letting the small spot get well away from your boat is not the usual tactic for live-lining, but this time of year—and in the shallows—it is almost essential. Rockfish are skittish in thin water and can sense the presence of nearby boats, so allowing your baitfish to wander off is a wise tactic. You’ve got to check the little devils from time to time to be sure they haven’t found a pile of rocks to hide in or a piece of debris to wrap around but otherwise, they will cruise uncomfortably away till a lurking rockfish takes an interest.  

That evening, I could sense a change in the spot’s behavior as my reel spool gave a start or two, then it began feeding out line faster and faster. Dropping the reel into gear, I waited as the line came taut, then pointed my rod at the fish and winched the reel handle until I was tight to the fish, a necessary tactic with circle hooks. Slowly lifting my rod to increase pressure, the drag groaned then started singing as a good rockfish felt the hook, panicked, and headed for deeper water.  

Fall rock are super strong and speedy, the lower temperatures and higher oxygen content of the Bay’s water gives them extra energy and endurance. It also firms up their muscles and provides a definite edge to their flavor. Cold weather rock are very tasty.  

Care must be taken when fighting shallow water stripers, as they can easily scrape your line against underwater obstructions and boulders, cutting you off with not even a fare thee well. It’s prudent to keep a high rod tip during a battle. Run your thumbnail down the last 20 feet or so of your line after each fish to feel for damage. I prefer clear, 20-pound fluoro-coated mono on my reel with 6 feet of 15-pound fluoro as a leader. Stealth is paramount in skinny water, especially when the fish are scarce.  

Live Norfolk spot remain the most effective bait for live lining but as temps drop and the spot return to the Atlantic small white perch will become necessary. Rockfish don’t like the perch as much but they will soon get hungry enough to take them. Soft crab can also work but are difficult to use as the smaller river fish will eagerly steal it all off your hook whenever they can.