Oct 06, 2018 12:00AM
● By Brian Saucedo
By James Houck
Take the rod, take the rod…somebody…take…the…darn…rod!” was the call screamed at us over my right shoulder by the first mate. Three of us were frozen anxious, in a standstill daze as the Penn reel peeled line, screeching as an assumed lunker rockfish took the bait below and bellied off to munch. Hook, line, and sinker we had one on, but none of us were moving at a proper clip from the cabin to the deck to take control. It was a frigid late-October morning on Chesapeake Bay waters south of Solomons Island. Our aptly named boat, Lochjaw, was in the main channel, trolling for a trophy fish and the fall’s first major cold front had pushed into the region.
Yeah, it was cold. Darn near frigid. Cold enough to keep our small party pinned inside the cabin while we plowed the channel for a good hour before the bite hit. After the frenzy of “Fish on!” woke us up from solid state, I found myself with the fishing rod in hand and began frantically cranking the reel’s handle before settling into a methodical tug of war with the specimen below. It felt like five minutes later, but probably the better part of 20, that we managed to get the fish on deck and got our first good look at her. She qualified as a solid whopper at 38 inches, was our lone trophy keeper that outing, and fed us for days after. That fish is why October rocks; why fall is just as good, if not better than spring to land a trophy rockfish. Caught seven years ago, it still stands as my personal best. I need to get out more; so, do you. Here’s why and how.
Rock Around the Clock
Rockfish is a colloquial term used the world-over to describe different species of fish. Here, in Chesapeake country, we, of course, are referring to striped bass, a.k.a. stripers. No matter what you call ’em, rockfish are a prized game fish and important culinary staple in both galleys and kitchens. In fact, the fish is listed by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as the state’s most important recreational and commercial species. Their stocky, silvery musculoskeletal frame, accented by horizontal black stripes, and wide-gaping mouth make the fish a spectacular fighter and eager eater. Catching an average specimen isn’t terribly hard; catching a behemoth on the other hand…can be a painstaking exercise of futility. But this game of chance—the chance that you’ll happen upon a monster—is what keeps anglers on the water season after season, year after year…dating back to the colonization of America.
The first accounts of rockfish and their abundance in Chesapeake waters are the hand-written records of the first settlers to the region; the most famous of which is, perhaps, that of Captain John Smith. In his 1612 journal/book titled Map of Virginia, he wrote: “…we found and, in diverse places, that abundance of fish lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan; but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with. Neither better fish, more plenty or variety, had any of us ever seene in any place, swimming in the water, then in the bay of Chesapeake, but there not to be caught with frying-pans.”
Although the magnificent abundance with which Smith saw in the 1600s had severely declined by the turn of the 20th century, the species made a remarkable rebound by the late 1990s, largely thanks to the state’s five-year rockfish moratorium that started in 1985. Today’s anglers, and diners alike, owe much of what they catch and enjoy to that ban.
This year, Maryland has enacted a brand-new series of angling regulations aimed at protecting and sustaining the species. Coinciding with the start of the regular rockfish season (May 16th), the new regulations dictate.
Effective through October 12th, these emergency regulations are the precursor to permanent regulations that the DNR plans to enforce through 2019. “The new rockfish regulations seek to address the shared concerns of anglers, charters, and conservationists who have reported high mortality rates of sublega rockfish,” Fishing and Boating Service Director David Blazer states. “The new rules aim to increase fishing opportunity and success while reducing unnecessary mortality in the bay.”
Regulation of this fishery is necessary for those reasons and more, not the least of which is the exploitation of rockfish migratory patterns by poachers and the simple ignorance uneducated anglers. Sublegal rockfish is a delicate way of saying illegal catch. And illegally catching of undersized fish or keeping fish out of the “slot length” allowed during certain seasons can have harmful repercussions on the species’ overall reproduction and sustainability.
Rockfish spawn in the spring, which is, of course, Mother’s Nature’s season of fertility. The smaller yellow perch get their start in February, working their way into the upper reaches of all Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Then the rockfish follow, swimming from the challenging Atlantic currents and into the Chesapeake to spawn. By mid-April, there are pregnant cows and big boys roaming bay waters. Because this is spawning season, anglers are allowed to catch/keep only one rockfish daily and with a size limit of 35 inches or larger. It’s called trophy season for this simple reason.
Summer soon settles in, spawning begins to peter out, and the migratory rockfish start making their way to coastal waters, migrating as far north as Nova Scotia before doing a U-turn toward southern waters (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina) to winter over and prepare for the next spawn. During this migratory exchange, rockfish pitstop back in the Chesapeake during the fall and winter, which is like a second trophy season kicking off…it’s Rocktober!
“Fall is, without question, the best season for striper anglers in most areas,” says acclaimed local angler Lenny Rudow in his 2007-published book Rudow’s Guide to Rockfish. “The fish feed and they feed hard, trying to fatten up before winter sets in. Breaking water on bay anchovies, glass minnow, sand eels, and bunker becomes common. The fish in open water gather together in tight schools (making them easier to target) and good numbers of fish continue to feed in the shallows of coastal bays and tributaries.”
Rockfish, by their very nature, aren’t finicky eaters—after all, they can live upwards of 30 years, so they’ve adapted to enjoy all of the bay’s bounty. Baitfish, clams, eels, crabs, lobsters, mussels—you name it, rockfish eat it, including artificial baits that imitate what’s on the menu.
“By mid-October or early November, the fish’s peak feeding times have expanded greatly and may well be double what they were a few months ago,” Rudow writes.
To get to the fish, however, novice anglers would do well through chartering an experienced boat and captain. Even if you’re seasoned, a charter offers a no frills but no fuss approach and, during the fall, you’re all but fully-guaranteed to land a cooler’s worth of “schoolies” (the smaller resident bay rockfish) and a single keeper trophy.
Half-day charters can cost between $300–600 depending on your party size and launch point. Chesapeake Beach, Solomons Island, and Kent Island are popular, but there are marinas with charters in seemingly every tributary. A full day on the water will cost twice that. And always have a Ben Franklin in hand ($100) for the first mate. In return, you’ll be taken to the captain’s best producing fishing locations, all tackle and rigging will be handled by the first mate, your fishing license is covered, and they’ll clean (filet) what you catch (sometimes for a few bucks extra). On most outings, it’s B.Y.O.B., snacks, and whatever else your captain allows. Ask first and behave.
Before hooking into our lunker on that frigid fall voyage, our captain, Loch Weems, motored us just south of Solomons to a popular spot where resident rockfish were schooling. Within our first two hours, we had almost limited out, catching enough mid-size rockfish to qualify the outing a success. By dropping umbrella rigs that mimic small pods of baitfish, we pulled up one decent fighting fish after another.
“Wanna go for a big one?” Weems called out to us with a salty smirk. “If ya do, we gotta put away these rigs and set up for trolling the channel. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
And it’s the never knowing that attracts anglers, old and new alike, to the sport. As the saying goes, “Lured once; hooked for life.” Now go get yours; there’s nary a better time than Rocktober.