Mackerel keep anglers guessing


August 07, 1994|By PETER BAKER

Terns and gulls were screeching, whirling, diving. Here and there baitfish cleared the surface of this small portion of Chesapeake Bay, chased upward by hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of larger fish feeding heavily.

And Jim Phillips was laughing.

"D'you see that?" Phillips said, balancing against the starboard gunwale. "I had just taken my fly from the water and a striper came two feet out of the water after it. Too bad it missed. That would have really been something."

As it was, the previous 30 minutes or so already had been something special.

I had been out for a few hours with Phillips -- a free-lancer from Annapolis who writes issue papers on fisheries matters for the Department of Natural Resources among other things -- hoping to take Spanish mackerel on the fly.

And, frankly, the early part of the trip had been a bust.

Tides and current were running behind schedule. What should have been close to maximum flood current at the mouth of the Severn was instead an almost imperceptible drift.

Where there were one or two terns sweeping low over the water and gulls sitting on the surface, the sonar marked fish; and bloodworms or crab baits, bucktail jigs or deep-diving rattling lures probably would have taken a fair number of fish.

And while there were spinning and bait casting rods aboard -- and while I wanted badly to use one -- we were committed to fly rods and Phillips was committed to Spanish mackerel.

"I heard earlier today that they have moved up the bay over the past few days," Phillips said, as the weak current carried us downwind and downtide toward a deep edge. "I've never caught a Spanish mackerel with any kind of tackle. But taking one on a fly, they say, is about as tough as it gets in the bay."

Phillips, formerly an Associated Press reporter assigned to cover the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and I have been friends for several years. And in most cases he is more the skeptic on most matters.

But I found myself thinking, Spanish mackerel on the fly? Here? Now? Pshaw!

So, while Phillips had deftly tied on a 1 1/2 -inch, olive-and-white epoxy minnow, I had lashed on a 4-inch, blue-and-white deceiver, figuring that he could have all the Spanish mackerel he could find -- and I'd be perfectly content with blues or three-pound stripers.

For a couple of hours we prospected the Tolly Point area -- in the shallows, midway to the 30-foot drop-off, and along the deep edge itself. Floating lines, sink-tip lines. Slowly stripped lines, quickly stripped lines. It made no difference.

The fish were not taking. We needed current. We needed an edge for the current to move across, and we needed hordes of concentrated baitfish, preferably bay anchovies.

"I don't know if all that is a lot of hooey, or not," said Phillips, as we headed uptide toward Thomas Point, where the submerged bar runs well out into the bay. "Does anyone really know why fish feed where they do?"

But had we been after freshwater trout, bass or tiger muskie we would have set up so that our flies could be worked in areas where fish were likely to feed -- where the current carried food downstream, where the predator would have the advantage of cover to hide in and structure to break the flow of the water, making the business of feeding less strenuous.

At Thomas Point, the flood current was moving well, sweeping over the bar and washing baitfish before it. Three separate schools of rockfish and snapper blues were working uptide into the shallows from the cover of deeper water.

Above them the terns and gulls were whirling and diving, screeching as they fought over scraps of food.

With the monster deceiver traded for the small epoxy minnow, which matched almost perfectly with the size of the baitfish, the action was as fast and fun -- and could have gone on longer.

But Spanish mackerel there, then?

Not yet, but soon.

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