Reach for the bottom for fun and profit


July 14, 1992|By PETER BAKER

It was Friday afternoon, too early for the muscle boats to be making their thunderous runs into Annapolis for the parade of egos along the city docks, perhaps too hot for many other boaters to be about, and the Chesapeake was almost flat.

The surface of the bay was rippled by the northwest wind, and to the south, inside Thomas Point, the gulls could be seen searching for baitfish schooling at the surface.

On several days earlier this summer, we have chased the birds, caught up with them and often found them diving on menhaden fleeing the attack of larger fish feeding from below.

In most years, the predators would have been bluefish by mid-July. But on each occasion this summer, spoons cast into the melees have caught only rockfish.

At some point, one has to assume, the blues will come to take up the hunt, and chasing the birds or trolling the channel edges again will be a pursuit that will result in a keep instead of a catch and release.

But for the time, the fun has gone out of it. You might say that the fishing has reached bottom -- which is not necessarily a bad thing because spot, croaker, sea trout and summer flounder all are products of the depths to which fishing has fallen.

Friday, with the tide two hours into ebb, we set up a drift along Tolly Point bar, fishing double bottom rigs baited with bloodworms.

With the wind out of the northwest and the tide receding, the drift was carrying us quickly south-southeast and the first drift produced a handful of large spot. But the drift, starting in a depth of 18 feet north of the bar and ending in 20 feet on the south side of the bar, was too fast.

At the rate the wind and tide were carrying us, we would have spent as much time motoring back to the head of the drift as we would in the strike zone, those areas of oyster bottom in 15 to 12 feet of water where the larger spot and croaker would be feeding on small crabs, worms, mollusks and the smaller fish of the beds.

So we gave up the south side of the bar and rigged to drift in a more easterly direction.

Drifting with the bow into the wind, a five-gallon bucket was tied off the starboard bow cleat, allowed to fill with water and sink. It became, in effect, a sea anchor that swung the stern of the boat to the east as intended. But it also slowed us to a standstill and we were forever getting to the strike zone.

The bucket was retrieved, five 1-inch holes were cut in the bottom and it was put back overboard at the end of 15 feet of line. The stern swung again to the east and the drift proceeded at a comfortable rate, all along the north face of Tolly Point bar.

The fishing was good that evening. More large spot than we cared to keep. A half-dozen croaker of legal size. One legal flounder. Several damnable toadfish and a cownose ray. Two pound-and-a-half stripers that were released.

The best drifts are when the tide and wind are in the same direction and moving toward or alongside the area you want to fish.

You pick a location from the bottom contours in the chart book, verify your position with the depth sounder and buoys or landmarks noted on the charts, shut down the engine and bait and lower your lines.

Most likely, in this summer when there seems to be an abundance of spot and a very good amount of keeper-sized croaker and flounder, the fish will take care of the rest.

Tolly Point, for example, is great on either tide when the wind is anywhere but north or south.

On the rising tide with an easterly wind, the drift may be set along the south edge of the bar toward shore from the bell buoy at the edge of the ship's channel. On the falling tide, with the same wind, drift the north edge of the bar.

When the wind is westerly, drift out toward the bell buoy.

At Cook Point, at the mouth of the Choptank, where the bottom comes up quickly from 50 feet to five, the falling tide will produce an excellent drift when the wind is easterly and the rising tide will do so when the wind is southwest to west.

Belvidere Shoal, between the mouth of the Patapsco and the mouth of the Magothy, can produce a good drift on any tide and is especially good for white perch.

From Point No Point to Point Lookout, at the mouth of the Potomac, there are good possibilities with a northerly wind and a falling tide or a rising tide and southerly wind.

The same may be said of either edge of Tangier Sound and hundreds of other places throughout the bay and the lower extremities of its tributaries.

The common element is good oyster bottom, where the abundance of aquatic life draws the little fish that eat the plants and plankton and the bigger fish that eat the smaller fish.

Good depths to check are those from about 12 to 25 feet, deep enough to obscure sunlight and restrict the growth of thick grasses and not deep enough to limit oyster growth.

Get out the book of charts and pick a spot -- or a croaker, flounder, sea trout or channel bass.

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