Enjoying dawn of rockfish season


September 25, 1994|By PETER BAKER

The pre-dawn was cool enough for a good flannel shirt, the breeze a whisper from west of north, and rafts of mallards paddled out of the way as the boat idled through the darkness out of the creek channel.

Ahead, in the river proper, the running lights of a handful of other powerboats could be seen, running fast toward Chesapeake Bay, their skippers and crews hot for the first licks of rockfish season.

But while the others ran for open water, the boat was headed into the Severn River, holding to about 12 knots and dodging crab pot floats and debris washed downstream by heavy wind and rain a couple of days before.

Within a few minutes we were off the rock seawall of the U.S. Naval Academy, where rumor had it there were rockfish as long as your arm lurking to feed in the last hour before dawn.

Orion stood overhead west of south, bright despite a clear sky and a bright moon, past its zenith and pulling the tide up as it

slid toward the western horizon.

Dozens of ducks and gulls sat atop the water, squads of men drilled on the Academy grounds, shouting out cadence. And the second cast of a diving, rattling plug brought the strike of a striper from the edge of the rocky wall. Not as long as an arm, but 19 inches if it was one -- and the first decision of the day had to be made.

It was 6:15, the dawn was a rose-colored line in the distance over Kent Island, and already a limit was in the boat.

Heck, 6:17 and stripers had been caught and released all summer long, so what was to prohibit taking another keeper over 18 inches at some point in the next few hours as the tide finished its flood and the birds began to mark the breaking schools.

Sometimes, of course, those decisions that seem sublimely right turn out to be wrong. Such was the case yesterday morning.

With the sunrise, the gulls began to fly, leaving their perches on buoys and pilings, scouting the current edges and bait slicks for food, and the boat followed them out of the river, which with first light had become crowded with fishing boats.

Off the entrance to Lake Ogleton, a school of baitfish finned on the surface. And while the other boats ran past toward the bay, a half-ounce, silver Kastmaster spoon brought three stripers to the boat on three casts. At about 14 inches each they were sent

quickly and gently back into the water.

A short while later, north toward Hacketts Bar, a bucktail dressed with a white, curly tailed grub brought a nice striper up from deep beneath a group of gulls resting atop 25 feet of water. An inch short of the minimum, it was sent on its way.

A quick check of the bay bridge, crowded with boats and fishermen, led one to believe that the area held more danger for fishermen than Haiti does for an occupying army, and the boat was headed south.

At Thomas Point Light, a ring of boats worked frenetically around the screwpile, and the boat was headed slowly north.

A mile or so above Thomas Point Light, gulls were feeding heavily over a breaking school of fish -- blues from 2 to 4 pounds, which would have been an absolute delight on any day but the opener of rockfish season -- and for a few minutes a three-quarter-ounce Swedish Pimple took a fish on every cast. At least until a major portion of a couple of dozen fishing boats assembled a half-mile away took notice and charged up, driving off the gulls and sending the blues deep.

Two hours into opening day and midway up my line a gull was thrashing, the monofilament wrapped around its wings after the young bird had flown up into the line after the lure had passed it.

Sheepishly, we brought the gull aboard, the young bird leaving evidence of its presence in spots along the deck. And, after loosely covering its head with a rag to quiet it, the line was tediously untangled while three men in a nearby twin-engine outboard were laughing and joking about the "catch of the day."

"I prefer," I said, as the last wrap was cleared from the gull's wing, the hood removed from its head, "to think of it as catch-and-release."

The four of us laughed as the gull, squawking and marking the water, flew away. A bucket of water was drawn and the spotted deck was rinsed clean.

So far, since that first decision along the Naval Academy sea wall, the day had indeed been a washout.

But inshore, where the current ripped over a wall cut out by a clammers' rig, more birds were wheeling and diving -- and there had been big and little stripers along the edge all summer long.

First cast. Small fish. Second cast. Bluefish. Third cast. Fourth cast. Fifth cast. Striper. Twenty inches if it was one.

, No debate this time. Cooler.

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