From Ocean City to the Susquehanna Flats, there's a lot of great rockfish angling taking place right now in the Free State. Here are several places to try this season!
Circle hooks allow bait-fishermen to catch and release striped bass, as these hooks will catch in the corner of the fish's mouth instead of down its gullet. Photo by Ken Freel
By C.L. Marshall
According to a recent report from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the striped bass fishery continues to thrive, especially when it comes to the number of adult stripers that constitute the spawning stock. These are fish that enter Chesapeake Bay during late fall and through much of the winter, eventually ascending their natal rivers to spawn.
When water temperatures reach an average of 53 degrees, the spawning ritual begins. This activity usually begins sometime in late April, continues through May, mostly concluding by early June. Keep in mind, however, that these dates are not etched in stone. They can vary a couple of weeks in either direction, depending mainly on water temperature and the amount of rainfall or run-off that takes place during March and April.
Traditionally, the summer striped bass season does not open until June 1, which is when the Fisheries Service of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources figures most of the larger rockfish (stripers) have already completed their spawning cycle and are migrating out of Chesapeake Bay. After June 1, anglers are permitted to keep two fish measuring 18 inches or larger, only one of which can measure larger than 28 inches.
Additional protection to spawning stocks is afforded by limiting all fishing activity during the spring striped bass season to the open waters of Chesapeake Bay only, in an area that ranges from the Brewerton Channel Light south to the Virginia state line. All tributaries and the entire upper bay north of Brewerton Channel Light remain closed to all striped bass fishing until the June 1 opener.
This year, for some unexplained reason, though, the DNR seems to have changed its posture when it comes to the spawning cycle timetable, at least when it comes to bag limits. While the 2004 summer striped bass season still does not open until June 1, a two-fish bag limit is in effect, which began back on May 16, two weeks earlier than normal. During the spring season (April 17 to May 15), anglers are permitted to take one fish daily measuring 28 inches or larger from the bay's open waters. The Atlantic coastal waters remain open year 'round with a two-fish bag limit and 28-inch minimum size.
Because the winter of 2004 was colder than normal and quite snowy and wet, the Chesapeake's tributaries were running at record-high flows, while water temperatures were several degrees below normal. This will likely prolong the spawning run, stretching it well into late April or even early June.
Consequently, there should be more spawners lingering in the bay's middle and upper reaches, fish that can easily tip the scales at 25 to 45 pounds or more. While the odds of catching a fish of this proportion are never good, there are a few locations where you can always count on hooking up with larger-than-average striped bass. The following is only a partial listing of striper fishing hotspots based on information gleaned from individual anglers, charter captains and local tackle shops.
THE SUSQUEHANNA FLATS During the past decade, the DNR has constantly changed its attitude as to the spawning importance of the Susquehanna Flats. This vast delta holds large numbers of stripers of all sizes throughout the spring and summer months. Ironically, shortly after the catch-and-release season closes here, anglers seem to overlook the summer fishing potential of this highly productive segment of Chesapeake Bay.
During the spring and summer of 2003, the entire upper bay was essentially a sea of muddy water that was littered with huge amounts of flotsam and other forms of debris. This drove most anglers to more southerly regions of the bay, but not all.
"We had some fairly clean water at the mouth of Furnace Bay, probably because it was being filtered by aquatic grasses, and all those freshwater clams we've been seeing for the past couple of years," Captain Mike Benjamin said. "Dad took me to his honeyholes and taught me how to fish each and every one of them. That's how I found out about rockpiles, small channels across the flats, and where not to be when the tide was beginning to fall. If you're at the wrong place on the flats when the tide runs out, you could end up spending the night with the gnats and mosquitoes," chuckled Benjamin.
When the June 1 season opens, Captain Benjamin can usually be found near the North East River's mouth at Rocky Point. The depths here fall off to about 12 feet at mid- channel, and quickly rise to just 3 feet a short distance away on the flats.
"Most of the time we'll catch rockfish measuring 18 to 22 inches here, plus a fair number of throwbacks, but if the weather has been cold during the spawning run, we'll still have some 20- to 30-pounders hanging around here," Benjamin said.
His secret to success varies to some degree, but most of the time he's casting 4-inch Opening Night patterns of Bass Assassins rigged to 1/2-ounce leadheads, working them slowly, close to the bottom. If water temperatures are below 62 degrees, the strike can be nothing more than a slight change in line tension, especially when there's an exceptionally large fish at the end of the line. For some strange reason, the smaller fish will smack a lure hard and take off like a shot.
As the season progresses, Benjamin will spend a bit of time fishing other nearby locations such as Furnace Bay, Red Point, Battery Island Light, and a narrow trough that runs north to south across the flats and parallels the main shipping channel. At high tide, the ditch is about 5 to 7 feet deep, while the surrounding waters range just 2 to 3 feet deep at best. When the grasses are thick, he merely removes the leadhead from his lure, then rigs it weedless with a 3/0 stainless, wide-gap hook and floats it over the top of the grass. The technique is most effective early and late in the day.
CHESAPEAKE BEACH AREA This segment of Chesapeake Bay is quite heavily fished, especially during the spring and early summer months. A large contingency of charter boats from the ports of Deale, Chesapeake Beach, Tilghman Island and Kent Island descend on the bay's channel edges at locations known locally as: the Gooses, Sharps Island Flats, Stone Rock, Gas Buoy, the Diamonds and False Channel. Each of these locations is adjacent to the bay's main shipping channel edges, which is where those big stripers that are migrating south tend to congregate before exiting the bay's confines.
While most of the charter boats will begin their season trolling a vast array of large lures to catch the season's largest stripers, by mid-June most will have switched over to chumming. A handful of anglers will continue to target those larger stripers; however, they'll use a technique that has only recently been introduced to Chesapeake Bay rockfish anglers: vertical jigging.
"I can catch big rockfish pretty much year 'round using jigging spoons," said Easton resident Jim Price. "The bigger fish tend to follow the bay's channel edges, and most of the time I'll find them just west of Tilghman Island near the Choptank River's mouth. Sometimes they're scattered and you have to look around before you find a pod of larger fish, but eventually I'll find them somewhere along the bay's channel edges.
"A lot of people believe that all the big spawners leave the bay after spawning, but that's not the case. There seems to be a significant number of bigger fish that stay in the bay all summer long and never leave. They have different feeding habits than the smaller fish, and when you find a school of breaking rockfish on the surface, fish that only measure 12 to 20 inches at best, more often than not, you'll find some 32- to 36-inchers tight against the bottom directly below the breaking fish. Granted, the little fish are easy to catch and lots of fun on light spinning tackle, but the bigger fish are a real challenge."
Price uses a lure called a Jackie jig, which in some ways resembles a hybrid between a Hopkins jig and diamond jig. The lures range in size from 2 to 4 ounces; they have a slight fluttering action when jigged and most of the time, they're hit during the drop. Essentially, the lure is lowered to the bottom, and then lifted with a quick, jigging motion of the rod. When you feel a slight change in line tension, or the lack of weight, set the hook and hang on. Six chances out of 10, you'll be fast into a big rockfish.
SOLOMONS AREA A virtual armada of private and charter boats venture out of the Patuxent River's lower reaches on a daily basis. These boaters search for striped bass, bluefish, flounder, weakfish and croakers, which are all in relative abundance in this particular region of Chesapeake Bay. One particular location, the Gas Docks, traditionally holds large numbers of striped bass during the summer months, some of which measure 22 to 36 inches. Unfortunately, since the tragedy at New York's World Trade Center, the Gas Docks have become off limits to any and all recreational boating traffic.
It didn't take anglers long to discover that if they established a chum slick uptide of the structure, they could eventually entice bass from fairly long distances, stripers that normally did not stray more than a few yards from the platform's concrete pilings. While most of the stripers lured into these chum slicks measure less than the 18-inch minimum size limit, a few creative anglers found a way to entice larger stripers as well.
Their technique involves fishing in the Patuxent River's confines before heading to the open waters of the bay. Using small bottom rigs, they baited small hooks with a morsel of bloodworm and drift-fished the river's channel edges in depths of 12 to 20 feet. Their catch here will consist mainly of 6-inch spots, similar size white perch and small croakers, all of which are carefully placed in a circular livewell. These fish are then transported to the open bay, rigged to heavy boat rods with the aid of 10/0 circle hooks and carefully lowered overboard into the chum slicks.
One- to 4-ounce sinkers are used to get their offerings down to the correct depth. When a hit occurs, the angler simply waits a few seconds until the circle hook turns and sets up in the striper's jaw. Most of the stripers caught using this technique measure 26 to 38 inches, but a few 30-pounders are weighed in at local tackle shops each season, too. The only time this technique is ineffective is when schools of bluefish invade the bay and devour the baitfish as soon as they hit the water.
POINT LOOKOUT AREA There are dozens of highly productive locations to fish for big stripers between Point Lookout and Hooper Island, and on any given day, each will produce more action than most anglers can handle. "We usually begin chumming sometime in early June, and this time of year you never know what size fish you're going to run into," said Captain Bruce Scheible at Scheible's Fishing Center in southern Maryland. "Last June, I was into some nice trout (weakfish) along the bay's eastern channel edge, near the U.S. Navy target ship American Mariner. The trout were averaging 6 to 8 pounds, but I had a 9-pounder earlier that day that hit in about 25 feet of water. The next hit was not real hard, not unlike that of a trout, but when I tried to turn the fish, it just swam off and peeled out about 40 yards of line. It must have taken another 15 to 20 minutes to get the line back, and when the fish finally swam into the landing net, I realized it was a big rockfish. Later, back at the marina, the scales went down to 29 pounds. Now, every time I get near that spot, I drop a Stingsilver to the bottom, just to make sure. More often than not, I end up with a couple of big rockfish and some nice trout to boot," Scheible added.
NORTHWEST MIDDLE GROUNDS Charter captains from Point Lookout, Crisfield, Hooper Island and northern Virginia frequent the Northwest Middle Grounds through much of the summer. Most of these veteran captains have no trouble catching their limit of stripers ranging 18 to 24 inches while chumming with ground menhaden and using fresh-cut strips of menhaden for bait. The bait is merely rigged to a 10/0 to 13/0 circle hook and floated back with the chum until it reaches 50 to 100 feet astern of the boat. At this point, you can place the rod in a rod holder and open a can of soda or snack on a sandwich while you wait for the action to get underway. No need to worry about setting the hook, the fish will do this on its own. This is the beauty of fishing with bait and circle hooks.
Most of the stripers here are nearly identical in size, but there is always the exceptional fish, one that dwarfs those 18-inchers ripping through the chum slicks. This time of year, however, big stripers rarely travel in large schools. Small pods of two or three large fish often move into the chum slick, gulp down a few smaller fish such as croakers or spots, and then move off unnoticed. This is where a live spot drifted in the chum line can be quite effective. To a large, hungry rockfish, this is a steak dinner just waiting to be eaten.
OCEAN CITY While most of the coastal stripers will eventually make their way to New England to feed on bunker, herring and mackerel, a significant number of bigger fish seem to take up residence along Maryland's coast, mainly just inside of Ocean City Inlet. The inlet's massive jetty boulders attract large numbers of small baitfish, mainly killifish, silversides, spots and later in the season, croakers.
As the tidal currents rip through the inlet, the turbulent waters contain large quantities of plankton and other microscopic animals from the adjacent back bay, thereby causing the smaller fish to feast on anything smaller than themselves. The same holds true for marauding schools of stripers, wh
ich, in turn, feed on the scavenging baitfish. Most of the stripers caught from the inlet last summer ranged from 24 to 38 inches. Yes, some were throwbacks, measuring less than 28 inches, but there were sufficient numbers of larger fish to make the effort worthwhile.
If you want to get away from the tourists and traffic jams, the waters beneath the U.S. Route 50 bridge to Ocean City's southern end is where some of the best striper fishing takes place. The beauty of fishing here is you don't need a boat to get in on the action.
While there are a few fish taken during the day, the majority of the larger stripers, those measuring 32 to 40 inches, are frequently caught between 9 p.m. and midnight, especially during a strong ebb tide. Everything from plugs to live eels is effective, and this time of night there is never a crowd to contend with. While anglers are permitted to catch and keep two fish measuring 28 inches or larger, most anglers are happy to keep just one fish of this size and release any subsequently caught striper to fight another night.
Listing every striped bass hotspot in Chesapeake Bay and along Maryland's coast would require an entire book, and there have been several written on the subject. We've only listed a few of the more productive locations that have consistently provided good to excellent catches over the past decade.
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