With the spring trophy season for rockfish over and a month left in the early summer season, bay fishermen are starting to hit bottom -- and bottoming out on the Chesapeake Bay can be a fun time indeed.
While there will be those who continue to troll through the summer for diminished numbers of bluefish and unpredictable Spanish mackerel, and also those who will catch and release rockfish, the best Chesapeake fishing will be for big black drum, croaker, sea trout, spot, white perch and flounder. And all those species are primarily bottom feeders.
Black drum have been off the Stone Rock at the mouth of the Choptank for a couple of weeks and will be in the area as far up the bay as the flats north of Poplar Island through early July.
Croaker, too, have moved north in the bay above the Choptank, with scattered numbers of them to 14 inches taken off Hackett's Bar and Tolley Point.
White perch are on the points and humps off the mouths of tributaries and in the lower rivers.
Sea trout, which are more numerous below Cove Point, also are in the area in promising numbers, although a smaller percentage seem to be over the 14-inch minimum.
Spot have been moving into Tangier and Pocomoke sounds and should be up the bay off the Magothy River within the next few weeks.
Flounder, which have been active in the Atlantic coast back bays for a couple of weeks, will fill out the Chesapeake action from late July through September.
Not surprisingly, many of the same baits -- crab, grass shrimp, bloodworms, clam snouts, squid strips -- will attract most or all of the primary summer residents that feed on oyster bars or near channel edges.
And variations of the simple, double bottom rig will catch them.
The key to better fishing is to pick the best bait and rig setup for the fish on hand and to fish where and when the fish are feeding.
For spot, croaker and white perch, oyster bars, humps or old structures encrusted with barnacles and weed are good locations to fish.
For sea trout and flounder, channel edges, which attract baitfish and small crabs, are good choices.
In all cases, a changing tide seems to stimulate feeding as the current sweeps over the bottom or past structures. Flounder, especially, lie in wait on the bottom just past the lip of an edge on the downcurrent side. As smaller fish are swept past the edge, the flounder rises to strike.
As it is for the flounder, positioning is critical for the bottom fisherman, who can either anchor so that the boat lies barely beyond a deep edge or set up to drift with wind or current along the preferred side of a hump or oyster bar.
A good rig for black drum fishing, in which the catch often may exceed 40 pounds, is a boat rod spooled with 30-pound test or better, a sinker that will just keep the bait on the bottom and sharp, 6/0 to 8/0 hook baited with soft crab. If you are using a manufactured bottom rig with two hook leads, cut the top one off and tie a 2- to 3-foot leader of 50-pound test to the bottom lead. Heavy line will help in hooking the fish and last longer when fishing abrasive bottom structures.
For spot, croaker and white perch, the standard double bottom rig will work well with spinning or casting tackle sensitive enough to detect the bite of these smaller fish. Hook size is important, because all three species have relatively small mouths. Sizes from 4 to 6 are good choices. Bloodworms will work well for all three, but croaker seem more partial to sections of soft crab, white perch seem to prefer grass shrimp, and spot swarm inch-long sections of bloodworm.
Sea trout and flounder rigs tend to be a little different, often with spinner blades and beads set ahead of a single hook to attract the fish with flash and vibration. But a standard double bottom rig will work well for sea trout, especially if the bait used is fresh peeler or soft crab. Bucktails and twister tails also will work well if trolled or worked along the bottom, and cut spot makes a good substitute for crab baits.
Flounder rigs, which often use single hooks larger than 2/0, serve a more specialized purpose, keeping a live minnow, strip of squid or both suspended just above the bottom where the flounder can see it as it approaches overhead.
From a three-way swivel, one ring is tied to the line from the reel; a second is tied to a leader that leads through a spinner blade and as many as a half-dozen beads to a long-shanked live bait hook; and the third ring is tied to a dropperline of about 18 inches that connects the sinker.
In all cases, keeping in touch with the bottom is the key. Fish when the tide is changing and make certain the current is drifting your boat from shallow to deeper water or bringing baitfish and predators across the bar or hump to where you have anchored.
SUMMER LIMITS AND MINIMUMS
Bluefish ... ... ... 8-inch minimum, 10 per day
Spanish mackerel ... 14-inch minimum, 10 per day
White perch .. .. .. No minimum if caught by hook and line
Black drum ... .. .. 16-inch minimum, 1 per day
Flounder ... ... ... 14-inch minimum, 8 per day
Sea trout .. ... ... 14-inch minimum, 10 per day
Croaker ... .. .. .. 9-inch minimum, 20 per day
Red drum .. .. .. .. 18-inch minimum, 5 per day, 1 over 27 inches
Spotted sea trout .. 14-inch minimum, 10 per day
@4 Source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources