Expanded bay area for rockfish highlights new season's changes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The spring season for rockfish opens Friday, with changes in size limits, creel limits and, perhaps most important to local fishermen, the fishable areas of the Chesapeake.

In previous spring seasons since the end of the moratorium, only the main-stem waters of the bay below the Bay Bridge could be fished.

This season, from Friday through the last day of May, the bay's main stem will be open from Brewerton Channel (mouth of the Patapsco River to Swann Point) south to the Maryland-Virginia line and including Tangier and Pocomoke sounds.

Not only does the opening of the area above the bridge allow Baltimore-area fishermen a quicker run to the fishing grounds, it opens an area through which rockfish must migrate. In the spring, mature rockfish return to the tidewater from the ocean to spawn in the reaches of rivers and other areas where fresh and saline waters mix.

The Susquehanna Flats and the rivers of the upper bay that flow across them are a productive spawning ground, as is the Chester River, which enters the bay at Love Point, within the newly opened area.

"Historically, a lot of catches have been made in that area," said Dave Blazer of the Department of Natural Resources' Tidewater Fisheries. "But we still want to maintain closures on the spawning reaches to protect the fish.

"We are still well south of Worton Point and within the guidelines set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and within the guidelines we have set. But I expect there will be some pretty good fishing up there."

According to charterboat captains and fisheries biologists, rockfish migrate to and from the spawning rivers along the edges of the bay's main channel, what 10,000 or more years ago was the bed of the Susquehanna River.

And by this time of year, the great majority of rockfish making their trip to the spawning grounds should already be well up the Potomac, Patuxent, Nanticoke, Choptank and Chester rivers, as well as in the upper bay system.

Spring trophy fishing becomes a matter of finding fish on their way back to the Atlantic in small groups or alone. And because they are intent on joining the seasonal migration northward along the Atlantic Coast, the rockfish seem to feed opportunistically rather than schooling up as juvenile resident bay stripers might.

Because the rockfish are migrating, spring fishing tactics are somewhat different than those used in the fall. Instead of drifting live eels over concentrations of fish, for example, the better tactic for large fish becomes trolling, where more area is covered quickly.

While a lot of people seem to pick a side of the main bay channel and troll the same depth of water north and south along it, trolling east-west will bring lures across multiple depths and therefore through changing combinations of water temperature, current and water column depth.

An east-west trolling pattern between the mouth of the Patapsco and Swann Point, just above or below the bay bridge, or below the mouth of the Chester, Choptank, Patuxent or other major spawning river, should produce fish if the right lures are used.

Trolling depth should be limited to the top 15 or 20 feet of the water column, where temperatures will be warmest and the warmth will attract migrating fish.

As for lures for the spring trophy season, they should mimic the menhaden, the nine- to 12-inch baitfish that enter the bay in the millions in the spring, and on which rockfish and bluefish feed. Spoons, bucktails and the relative newcomer, the parachute, are good choices.

Among spoons, the No. 19 and 21 Tonys, 9/0 and 11/0 Crippled Alewives and the nine-inch Reliable Bunker Spoon work well. Bucktails in the 8/0 and 10/0 sizes are good choices when dressed with plastics such as six-inch sassy shad, six-inch or larger twister tails and split-tailed plastics. Parachute lures in the three-ounce size worked well last year when some 3,000 trophy stripers over 34 inches were caught.

Color selection is a matter of personal preference, so long as white, gold or silver are used in low light conditions and bright, enamel colors are used on sunny days. But in any condition or depth, it is hard to beat white or pearl, which resembles the underbelly of a menhaden.

As for tackle, a 20-pound class rod and a good level wind reel such as the Penn 309 are hard to beat when trolling for spring stripers.

By counting the number of times the level wind guide passes from one side of the reel to the other (about 10 feet per traverse on a Penn 309), the amount of line let off the reel can be measured -- and line out, sinker weight and boat speed control depth.

In the spring fishery, leader length and size are important, with strength probably the greater consideration. A 30-foot leader of 50-pound test, high-quality monofilament will stand up well.

Leaders should be tied directly to the lure, especially with spoons to ensure good action of the bait. Midway between the lure and the other end of the leader, a ball-bearing swivel should be tied in, and at the rod end of the leader a snap swivel should be tied on.

The in-line sinker should be connected between the snap swivel at the end of the leader and a snap swivel of equal strength tied on the end of the line running off the reel.

Weight of the sinker also is variable with boat speed, but, in general terms, at about 4 knots eight ounces of weight and about 100 feet of line will take your lure to the bottom of the zone you want to fish, and a lure trolled with no weight and about 180 feet back will cover the top.

Richard Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and a successful bay charter captain, recommends the following five-line set (starboard across the transom to port): eight ounces, 90 feet; four ounces, 140 feet; floater; two ounces, 160 feet; six ounces, 120 feet.

ROCKFISH SEASON

When: Friday-May 31.

Creel limit: One fish per day; maximum of five per season.

Minimum size: 32 inches.

Where: Waters of the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay from Brewerton Channel (mouth of the Patapsco River to Swann Point) south to Maryland-Virginia line and including Tangier and Pocomoke sounds.

Special provisions: All anglers must purchase $2 rockfish stamp (includes five rockfish tags), all legal fish kept must be tagged immediately, and all catches must be telephoned to DNR on day of catch (800/999-2800).

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