Elm Staff Writer
Last Saturday marked opening day for rockfish season in the Chesapeake Bay. After a long and miserable winter, the Chesapeake’s waters are finally starting to warm up as the days have become longer and daytime temperatures steadily remain above the 60 degree mark. These long, warm, sunny days have brought the water temperatures climbing into the upper 50s throughout most of the bay, and have kickstarted the spawn of a variety of species.
Late February and March brought about the yellow perch to most of the bay’s rivers, followed shortly by white perch and shad. As temperatures climbed over the 50 degree mark, migrant rockfish from the ocean began moving up the main shipping channels toward the rivers in which they were conceived. They come here to spawn, but will only stick around until sometime in May, depending on temperature and moon phases. This time of year provides some of the best fishing in the area as big rockfish need to keep eating along their travels.
While the weather has been surprisingly pleasant the last few weeks, the huge amount of snow and below-average temperatures in February and into March put the spawn on hold as rockfish waited for the water to hit the 55 degree mark. This “magic” number turns the attention of rockfish toward the one thing all creatures have in common during the springtime.
While the rivers are off-limits to anglers chasing rock, the main stem of the Chesapeake (not including the waters north of Brewerton Channel up north) is open to fishermen to pursue those huge ocean-run rockfish which can grow to be well over 40 inches. The Susquehanna Flats are another prime location to hook into one of these jumbos with light and even fly tackle.
After last Saturday, there is no restriction on the number of rods a boat can use while trolling. Most people will be dragging large parachute lures accompanied by nine to 12 inch shads in chartreuse or white. These are usually rigged in tandem, but umbrella rigs seem to produce more fish. Just remember that umbrellas require a stout rod and at least 40 pound line to handle the immense drag of all that wire. Most big rockfish will be within the top 20 feet of the water column, as this water is usually warmest from direct sunlight. Lines should stay within this zone, unless fish are seen (via sonar) elsewhere.
Huge spoons such as the Tony Accetta (size 21) or Crippled Alewife (11/0- 13/0) in gold, silver, chartreuse, or white are other excellent choices, especially when rigged solo and sent way back (300 feet) behind the propwash. (Check with other fishermen on VHF channel 68 to see what’s working for them if you’re not having much luck.) I’d recommend dragging an assortment of parachutes, umbrellas, and spoon in the shipping channel off Kent Island (Matapeake, Brickhouse Bar, Gum Thickets) with the most productive spot likely being near Bloody Point light. Basically, any spot deeper than 40 feet and away from heavy boat traffic will work. If you mark fish, stay with them by circling until you see if they’re feeding. Finding a secluded spot is crucial on weekends when the water can turn into a parking lot for weekend warriors.
Even if the hotspots get crowded, planer boards have become a must for trollers this time of yea. This is due to their ability to increase a boat’s trolling spread to more than a hundred feet on either side. This basically means you can cover a huge expanse of water and troll with twice, even three times as many rods. I have recently adopted this method after switching over from cumbersome outriggers with great success. Just make sure to watchout for other boats out on the water because planer boards make you responsible for an area 100 feet on either side of your boat.
Doing this makes the outside planer lines rise with the speed increase, while the inward lines fall. The rise and fall of your lures through the water column allows for even broader coverage of the depths and possibly picking up a few suspended fish. This method is nearly impossible to do on opening day, however, as the boat traffic will have your lines crossed with someone else’s in about 10 seconds.
Opening day also means you can finally keep these big fish. Boats are allowed one fish per day, for each person aboard with a minimum size of 28 inches, but remember that the Susquehanna Flats remains strictly catch and release for the remainder of the trophy season. No fishing is permitted between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. regardless of location on the bay. Remember to register with NOAA and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to get your proper licensing and registration.
If fishing by boat is not an option, any shoreline along the bay (especially ones closer to deep water) will work. Use a hefty surf rod, or at least something capable of launching baits hundreds of feet from shore. Bloodworms on circle hooks are the top choice, with fresh cut herring a close second. Shoreline fishing also gives you a chance to hook into some smaller resident rockfish, as well as some good sized white perch. Weights should be kept to less than three ounces because any more will hinder your ability to detect strikes as well as adding the possibility of the fish feeling the weight and dropping the bait.
While it is tempting to keep big fish, many anglers choose to release these big spawners after a few quick pictures and a measurement, thereby sustaining a healthy population of big breeding stock rockfish. Unless you are entered in a big money tournament, I highly recommend the CPR method: catch, photo, release. Remember, keeping one of these spawning fish will have an impact on the future of the fishery, however small it may be.
The trophy season only lasts until May 15, so now that the the fish are biting and weather is getting warmer, get out and enjoy yourself with all the Chesapeake has to offer.
If you have questions, tips, or want to share your own fishing report, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.