The other morning, after a couple of hours trolling among a multitude of boats off Matapeake on Kent Island, the boat was run up to the Bay Bridge to jig the piers, pilings and rock piles for rockfish.
To say the least, the fishing had been slow and it had been difficult to keep our lures near the bottom while trolling. And while tying on a small mushroom anchor instead of a 16-ounce bell sinker might have done the trick, the tide was moving well and the bridge seemed to offer better possibilities.
After all, everyone knows you can always catch fish at the bridge. Right? Wrong, at least on Sunday morning.
While moving among the bridge pilings, we came upon Capt. Ed Darwin and his charterboat, Becky D, with a half-dozen busy anglers at the stern and a retinue of smaller boats hanging on his perimeter.
It was about 11 a.m., the tide was ebbing well and Darwin was holding the stern of Becky D close to a massive concrete pier on the western edge of the ship channel beneath the bridge.
The anglers were casting to the pier and letting their baits drop close along its side, and every so often a rod would bow, the fisherman would reel in and a rockfish would come up from the wall.
While Darwin's party was casting and cranking, the captain said in a clipped conversation that fishing had been excellent, not only Sunday but also through most of the rockfish season.
"Got any chum aboard?" Darwin asked, one hand working the fore-and-aft tiller, the other on the throttles. "We were chumming earlier and had excellent success. Get some."
Now chumming has always seemed a filthy way of fishing. But there is no question that it will work very well when the conditions are right. And with the rockfish holding mostly in water deeper than 35 feet, chumming can bring the fish up toward the surface where lures or cut bait can be cast to them.
On Monday morning, it worked well for us.
Chumming is a free-form baiting system, achieved by ladling a soupy mixture of fish parts, blood and fluids overboard into a tide or current that will carry it to the fish. The fish, sensing a plentiful food course, follow the trail of fish bits and scents up current or uptide to its source.
Once the fish are feeding in the chum line or slick, the fisherman casts lures or bits of bait to them.
Packaged chum can be purchased from tackle stores or bait dealers, or you can make your own by mincing or grinding small spot, for example. At this time of year, with the spot long since gone south, store-bought chum is your best bet.
Some larger boats carry grinders and create their own chum from trash fish caught during the day. But for a fisherman in a small boat, a bucket of chum or a chum bag will be easier to work with.
With chum on hand, there are a few steps that must be followed to make the chum line work -- and to keep it working.
First, you need a current or tide that will carry the chum to the fish. To me, it seems the ebbing tide is preferable, because the falling tide always leads to deeper water, and that is where the stripers are now.
Then you need a place to anchor, preferably within a couple of hundred yards of a deep drop-off that is adjacent to an underwater ridge or oyster bar located downtide.
Once those parameters have been met, cupfuls of chum are ladled over the side. The fish oil will form a slick on the surface, while the bits of flesh and scraps begin to sink.
By watching the slick and where it forms, you can get a good idea if your chum line is spreading where you want it to go. Keep in mind that too much current or tide may keep the chum too close to the surface and carry it farther than you want, and too little tide or current will not carry it far enough or let the scraps settle before they reach the drop-off.
Satisfied that the chum line is where you want it, add a cupful of chum to the line every few minutes to keep the fish coming your way.
If ladling fish scraps and blood over the side seems too gruesome a job, a porous bag -- such as closely woven burlap -- can be filled with chum and tied off at the transom or on the anchor line to create a chum line. The difference is that you haven't as much control over how much chum gets in the line at any one time.
If you are going to go to the trouble of setting a chum line -- and
there is no question that once properly set up it will bring in the fish -- there is another factor to consider -- boat traffic.
A chum line must be continuous, a long, bait-filled line that reaches out to touch fish. A boat or boats passing through your chum line is likely to break the continuity and ruin your day faster than a couple of hours of unproductive trolling.