Sometimes it pays not to catch the biggest rockfish in the Chesapeake. Take the other day as an example.
The fish felt huge when it struck near the yellow buoy just south of Green Buoy No. 5 off Pooles Island. It smacked a Nick's Stix Stinger eel of white shortly after I paid out enough line to work it about 15 feet down.
Skipper Scott Sewall at the wheel of his 25-footer was reading fish halfway down on his electronic fish-finder, others on the bottom. We decided to leave the bottom huggers to those drifting eels nearby. About half the other craft were eeling, the remainder were trolling waters over the uneven bottom.
Why didn't the fish strike on the heavier trolling rods, I asked myself as I tried to reel it in. My rod was a light one, rigged only with 15-pound test line; the other two rods had 30-pound test line and had more backbone to them.
I hadn't intended to troll the lighter one; it was for drifting eels when the tide got right. The other two rods trolled bucktails, but on a hunch I wanted to try the long soft plastic eel made in Dundalk.
Within 10 minutes the fish hit the eel hard, and before I slowed it down it had taken another 100 feet off the small reel.
I finally got the fish turned, Sewall came to the cockpit with a net. My heart sank.
His only net was a small one he uses for bottom fishing. Rock trolling was new to him.
Regulations prohibit the use of a gaff on rock, so the net had to do. There was no way I could reach a fish in the water to grasp it, and the leader was too light to try swinging it over the side.
As I finally got the fish near the boat it surfaced and I breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn't the 36-incher I had figured by its scrap. It was smaller, yet still big for the net.
I got it alongside, and Sewall managed to work it into the net with its head out one side, its tail out the other. It measured 24 inches -- about 7 pounds. I had my one fish allowed, and was done for the day.
We resumed trolling for a couple hours without a strike. We saw no other fish caught, though when we pulled alongside the No Fish Today its occupants said they had one.
We saw a few undersized rock tossed back, but obviously neither were the fish as plentiful as when the regular season opened Oct. 9, nor was there as much boat traffic. There were 50 boats at the most within sight.
We tried drifting eels, but didn't get a pickup. One nearby boat took a small rock jigging a bucktail, and that's all we saw from the remainder of the fleet, prompting us to head for the Key Bridge to try bottom fishing for white perch.
Once in the Patapsco we would troll to the bridge in hopes of taking a rock en route. Waters off Fort Smallwood had turned up some keepers.
About two-thirds of the way to Hart and Miller islands from Pooles Island we spotted gulls diving, so we decided to swing by to take a look. Under the birds were fish, and we had heard in the waning days of the regular season a few legal rock were taken by plugging there -- some approached 24 inches.
Sewall's wife Irene scored quickly with a rock of 12 inches, which promptly went back; my wife Lois got one of about the same size, Irene bounced back with a bluefish of 11 inches.
Hey, it was like the old days in the upper bay. Suddenly there were fish breaking all around us, mixed rock and blues. Acres upon acres were in the shade of thousands of gulls with swirls, dimples and splashes under them. Our white and yellow-orange Atoms scored consistently, though the biggest rock was a 16-incher, 2 inches shy of legal. We released nearly 40 of them, and kept the blues. When we left after working the school more than an hour, the birds were still working.
Elsewhere, on opening day of the extended season, anglers were doing well at the Bay Bridge, also near the Dumping Grounds, along the Kent Island shore, at Hacketts, West River, Thomas Point and the Choptank.
In the next day or two we get the word from the Department of Natural Resources as to whether there are enough rock left in the quota to allow fishing Friday, Saturday and Sunday. HC