The Chesapeake tide was ebbing to almost placid. Rockfish prefer their dinner be swept to them by moving water. But in this case the stalling currents allowed them more freedom to gather around the structures where we were fishing. Our bait was their favorite snack this time of year, Norfolk spot.
Tom Schneider and I were drifting on just the slightest of current, aided by a mild southern breeze just off of one of the Bay Bridge’s more complex, eight-legged supports. Pinning 6/0 Gamakatsu circle hooks lightly just in front of small spots’ dorsal, we both flipped our fish over the side. The little guys jetted toward the bottom 20 feet down.
The rockfish bite is excellent for every type of technique. The one fly in the ointment, particularly on the Eastern Shore, is that the fish are concentrated in just a few areas. Commercial hook-and-liners in the same locations as recreational anglers can wipe out entire schools of fish with their mass live chumming and combined quota tactics.
As Maryland Department of Natural Resources is financed largely by recreational funds and as recreational anglers outnumber commercials by almost 1,000 to one, it’s surprising to find the two factions in the same areas.
White perch are here and there, but no one is bragging this season. Norfolk spot have arrived in good numbers but are mostly live-lining size. Croaker are generally missing this year. Crabbing in the mid-Bay is lackluster.
Using medium-action casting rods with small Abu reels spooled with fresh 20-pound mono and even fresher 25-pound fluorocarbon leaders, we could feel the spot, unencumbered by weight, pulsing down. We had to be careful not to give them too much slack or they would circle the nearest column and foul the line.
The most serious activity for the baitfish was evading the stripers that lurked among the concrete piers awaiting any small fish, crab or morsel of seafood. We already had two fish in the box, 22- to 23-inch specimens, a perfect size for dinner. But we were hoping for some larger adversaries and had moved a number of times seeking them.
Aside from location, a number of factors can tweak the game in the favor of the angler. Sometimes shifting the hook location in the bait can change things up by making the baitfish’s actions more enticing. A nose- or mouth-hook position on the spot triggers an attack by rockfish. A more rearward hook placement, such as behind the dorsal fin or on the underside, can also affect their swim movements.
The best live-lining presentation is always weightless. But if it becomes necessary to add weight, the absolute minimum that will get the bait to the level desired is always superior. I prefer to use split shot or rubber core sinkers well up on the leader. When the tide is really roaring, I’ve found switching to a heavier soft plastic or metal jig is more productive than attempting to present a live bait.
On this outing last week, our problem seemed to be simply a preponderance of barely legal fish eating our baits. We kept moving from pier to pier, thinking that the bigger fish would be by themselves or in small groups and not hanging out with the little guys. Eventually we blundered onto them.
My spot suddenly stopped its wiggling swim and morphed into slow and powerful acceleration. Lifting the rod tip, I stopped my line and hoped that the circle hook would find its place in the predator’s jaw. A hissing drag and an arcing rod indicated that it had.
Next the beast altered its direction and headed back across the nearest pylon. Putting my motor into gear, I nudged the skiff forward to lessen the line’s bearing on the structure, thanking my stars that there was little current to complicate things. When my rod tip and line cleared the column, the fish really began a run. But now its path was toward open water beyond the column. I snugged the drag down and added thumb pressure.
The fight was brutal, but within a few long and strenuous minutes, the fish was alongside the boat. But it evaded the net. Catching a glimpse of the hook firmly in the corner of its jaw, I relaxed.
Eventually worn out, the big fish slid into the net. The handsome 32-incher came onboard and into the box, making the two keepers already in ice seem mighty small.
Within a few minutes both Tom and I were hooked up, again with powerful fish.
Tom’s 30-incher eventually went into the box, and my 27 was set free to swim another day, hopefully educated to the treachery of a free meal.