The summer's sea bass blitz is on center stage for vacationers and weekend visitors fishing out of Ocean City.
On a rainy, stormy day in midweek I joined Glen Burnie's Chris Jensen and Bill Bates aboard the OC Princess and brought home a dozen of the bluish-black bass.
Both Anne Arundel anglers make this trip throughout the early summer months, and Bates even made plans to return during the weekend.
The OC Princess, which operates out of Shantytown Pier, is 3 years old and pure state-of-the-art headboating. Among its comforts are air conditioning and heating (which we needed during Tuesday's voyage), a sun deck and fully provisioned galley.
At Captain Monty Hawkins' fingertips are more electronics than has ever been placed on a headboat before. For instance, when we cleared the Ocean City beach, Hawkins punched some numbers into a computer, sat back and enjoyed a cup of coffee while the ship's computer guidance system raced us to our first fishing spot of the day.
It took us about an hour to make the 30-mile run to the south and another 10 minutes for Hawkins to set his anchors over the first wreck.
My two partners and I had staked out a standing spot and as the ship was being maneuvered for the correct drift, mates checked everyone's lines for knots, hooks and sinkers while another crew member filled bait bowls with a yummy mixture of clams and squid to be shared by two.
Here, most folks use a conventional reel matched with a stout five- to six-foot rod. Most lines are 20- to 30-pound test mono, though Bates favored his heavy spinning rig. Light tackle certainly will work on these fish, which now are ranging up to the 5-pound class, but it often isn't the best choice for water this deep.
The idea is to drop your line to the bottom, give it an occasional jig and hull up a sea bass or two on the double-hook setup.
My line barely had touched the artificial concrete reef when instead of a "tap, tap" signaling a hookup, the rod was nearly jerked out of my hands. In a short while I landed a 3 1/2 - to 4-pound sea bass and still was removing the hook when Bates began reeling in one as big, maybe a hair larger. Then Jensen's rod bent and he, too, landed a similar bass.
The action was furious for all 60-plus anglers on board for the first 15 to 20 minutes. Then things slowed slightly and the threatening morning sky made good on its promise of squalls.
Hawkins said to "always fish the first 15 or 20 minutes after the anchor is set, because that is the best. After that, the action always slows and the fish tend to get smaller."
Hawkins was right. During that first flurry, the three of us put nearly two dozen nice bass in the cooler, but after that, only about one out of three met or exceeded the minimum 9-inch length.
After a wet hour, we pulled anchor and moved inshore about five miles. Here, Hawkins positioned the OC Princess above the wreck of the David H. Atwater, a U.S. ship sunk during World War II by a German U-boat.
We dropped our squid and clam baited lines over the sides and fished between raindrops and held onto the rails as the Atlantic waters bucked us about. I caught more than two dozen bass, but not one in excess of 9 inches, while anglers on either side of me landed nice keepers.
Sea bass, which are heaven on a dinner plate, stay around these parts until November. Mostly, they are found around sunken wrecks and average between 1 and 2 pounds. Sometimes smaller sea bass are taken around bulkheads and docks. These fish are called Black Wills, rather than sea bass.
Headboat fishing is pure fun. You pay a set fee, bring your cooler to carry the fish home with a minimum of trouble and either carry your own rod and reel aboard or rent one for the trip. I usually use the ship's tackle -- it's good quality and ideally suited to deep-water, ocean fishing.
Both the OC Princess and the Miss Ocean City operate out of the Shantytown Pier. The OC Princess is used for full-day fishing, leaving at 7 each morning and returning at 2, while the Miss Ocean City makes two half-day runs (8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m.).
The OC Princess also is used for Tuesday-Saturday Nature Cruises, featuring dolphin, bird and whale watching and, in season, 24-hour tuna fishing trips.