I could feel the five-inch white perch on my line swimming toward the bottom 30 feet down. The pulses of its efforts transmitted plainly up the line on my bait-casting rod. As the baitfish reached its goal and settled down, I lightly thumbed the narrow spool of my casting reel and lifted my rod tip just enough to make the fish’s movements a bit more frantic.
I was drifting over some nice marks on my depth sounder off the mouth of the Severn, and I suspected the arches represented sizeable rockfish.
Spot Versus Perch
Had I been using a small Norfolk spot on this live-lining outing, I would have been a great deal more confident. But spot are exceedingly hard to come by as yet, and little perch aren’t.
The rockfish bite continues throughout the Bay, though fish larger than 30 inches are becoming scarce in the Bay’s upper reaches. The stripers that are being caught, however, are fat as footballs, and skin infections continue to be few and far between. Starting from Swan Point to the north of the Chester on the Eastern Shore and the Baltimore Light off of the Magothy to the west, good schools of rockfish are schooling at the mouths of the tributaries, feeding up and providing excellent sport for anglers chumming, chunking and fishing cut bait. Many fishers have also begun jigging on the schools and doing well, though a lot of that action is with smaller fish.
Rockfish find it hard to resist Norfolk spot this time of year but will ignore a live perch unless everything looks just right. I was swimming my whitey, lightly hooked in front of its dorsal fin, on clear 14-pound test fluorocarbon line tied with a loop straight to the 4/0, short-shacked live-bait hook. I hoped that setup was invisible to the striper and allowed the baitfish to move freely and naturally.
My thumb suddenly picked up the tics of some urgent efforts on the part of the small perch, so I released almost all pressure except that necessary to prevent a spool overrun if something big and fast was after my bait.
Abruptly my spool whirred as that something grabbed my bait and jetted off across the depths. If you’re fishing spot under those conditions, in a moment or so you can usually (and safely) drop your reel in gear and set the hook. Because spot are soft rayed (no prickly spines in their fins), stripers will chomp down and immediately eat them tail first, head first or even sideways.
Perch, on the other hand, have needle-sharp dorsal, pectoral and even anal fins, and so present a special challenge to hungry rockfish. They can’t be swallowed tail first; only headfirst so their fins can be forced down flat. No matter which way they’re captured, the striper has to stun the prey with a mouth crunch, maneuver it into position, and all the while guard against pilferage by hungry fellow rockfish swimming nearby.
Patience Is Key
If you try to set a hook quickly, immediately after a take, you will snatch the baitfish from the striper’s mouth. That will leave your intended quarry perplexed, alarmed or alert to your attempt at deception.
Patience is the keyword in this scenario. Anticipating the actions of the rockfish as it swims below in the form of a long 10 count will give it time to perform the necessary manipulations and get your bait down. Only then can you give a good heave and set the hook.
Even having struck well and been rewarded with a heavily bowed rod, you’re still not quite free to lean on the fish and bully it in. There is no way of knowing exactly where your hook has found purchase.
There is a significant chance with a perch as bait that the hook isn’t penetrating anywhere in the bass but remains stuck in your baitfish. Your baitfish, now lodged by its sharp spines in the fish’s throat, is the only thing keeping the bass on your line.
If the striper is not particularly large and has a narrow gullet, it will be unable to eject the baitfish. But if it’s a good-size rockfish with a correspondingly larger throat, you could yank the baitfish (and your hook) right out and lose the fish.
Fight it carefully, I told myself. The struggle was a fairly long one. When the fish put on its final tantrum at the side of the boat, mouth agape and pointing right at me, its head shaking vigorously, I released almost all line tension.
When it stopped and turned to head back to the bottom, I resumed pressure with my rod, halted its departure, turned it sideways, then led it into the net. As I pulled the big striper out of the net bag, it gave a mighty shake and the perch (and my hook) popped out and landed on the deck.
That was a close call. I sure hope the Norfolk spot show up soon.