Anglers chase bay rockfish Boats: Crews will carry fishermen out to where the striped bass feed in fall -- and do the dirty work.

November 05, 1998|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

It's enough to make an angler downright giddy -- chilly weather, cool waters, and a bucket of ground fish swill on the Chesapeake Bay.

If you're out for striped bass -- rockfish in these parts -- those are the ingredients of a great afternoon.

But hurry. The season ends Nov. 30. Fishermen are allowed to keep only two striped bass a day, and the fish must be 18 inches or longer.

A pampered way to reel in your catch and also enjoy the bay is to book a trip on a chartered boat or a head boat. The captain does the driving and the mates do all the dirty work, leaving anglers only to find fish, which should be easy.

"Cool weather triggers an increase in feeding" among striped bass, said Department of Natural Resources fisheries expert Jim Uphoff. "The baitfish -- the things they like to eat -- start migrating. [Striped bass] get more aggressive."

Luring with chum

Rockfish are looking for any food they can wrap their jaws around, especially morsel-sized bits, Uphoff said. That's why anglers who might not use chum all summer turn to it in the fall.

Chum is ground bits of raw fish and water. Once the boat is anchored, pails of chum are poured over the side, leaving a trail that leads to larger chunks of fish baited on hooks.

This time of year, the fish typically move to deeper channel waters, chasing migrating baitfish. In the height of winter, rockfish are less active, Uphoff said.

Boat and experts for hire

Even if you have your own boat, going out with a crew is a treat. Mates bait your line, prepare and throw the chum, and come running with a net to help lift that monstrous catch into the boat. Most boats offer to clean the catches for a small charge. The captain and mates are full-time watermen who know the bay, good fishing spots and fish habits.

Head boats usually are more economical because each angler pays a flat fee of about $35 for a six-hour trip. Chartering is more expensive because you're renting the entire boat. The cost is the same whether one person or six, the maximum, take part. Groups split that cost.

Charter prices range from $275 to $299 for a six-hour trip that typically starts about 8 a.m. or $330 to $425 for an eight-hour trip, which starts at 6 a.m. or 3 p.m. Boats leave from Annapolis, Deale or Shady Side in Anne Arundel, Kent Island in Queen Anne's County or Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County.

On a recent trip from Chesapeake Beach on the head boat Tom Hooker, about 27 men and four women rode to near Sharp's Island Lighthouse on a six-hour tour. During the 20-minute boat ride they rented rods, found spots next to their coolers, and stood with fellow fishing fanatics, waiting excitedly to reach "the spot."

The anglers exchanged cans of beer and their hopes of catching their limits as they were carried to the middle of the bay.

'New frame of mind'

"Something about the water puts you in a whole new frame of mind," said Tony Boney of Silver Spring, who, like many of the anglers, had traveled from another county. "Can't you feel that fresh air and cool breeze coming off the ocean? This is nature at its best." A fleet had gathered at the fishing hole, searching for rockfish. Sea gulls tried to scoop the chum as quickly as it was poured by many fishermen. A few anglers were catching easily and often.

After toting a huge bucket of swill from the back of the 65-foot Tom Hooker, mate Ray Holden poured a pitcher of the chum over the bow and watched it descend. That's important, he says: The float of the chum shows the direction of the current. Will the enticing bites be carried beneath the boat, or in the optimal direction -- toward the rear -- where the fishermen can cast? No science ensures the chum will float the right way.

When a rockfish grabs the line with an unmistakable, quick and heavy strike, nearby anglers shout excitedly and the mates charge for a net and squeeze between the crowd waiting for a gray, sleek, striped body to break the water. After it's pulled in, the fish is quickly measured, then given to the lucky angler or returned to the water.

Whether someone goes home with a catch, says Tom Rials, captain of the Tom Hooker, is a matter of skill.

"I try to bring [the fish] up alongside the boat or behind it, but you gotta catch it," said Rials. "It's you and the fish -- no weights, no sinkers, just you and the fish."

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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