Chesapeake Bay fishing season opens officially on April 16, when Maryland's spring trophy rockfish season comes in, but some of us have a hard time waiting, particularly when the sun pops out as it did briefly last week and word spreads that big fish are already here.
So it was that Andy Hughes and I took a morning off and made the long, open-water boat run from Breezy Point south to Calvert Cliffs on the Chesapeake Bay's western shore, where a small armada of anglers gathers daily this time of year to catch and release big rock in the warmwater outfall of the nuclear power plant.
Andy Hughes of Annapolis catches a rockfish near Calvert Cliffs Power Plant. Chesapeake Bay fishing season opens on April 16.
(Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
No, these fish don't glow in the dark. In fact, the so-called nuclear rock are fat and healthy, no doubt because they've been gorging on the groaning board of food that swirls around the outfall. The power station sucks in millions of gallons of bay water to cool its reactors, then sends it surging back out in a gusher 300 yards offshore, mixed with bits and pieces of whatever critters got caught up in the intake.
It's a nonstop smorgasbord for rockfish, which feed best in strong currents. At the power plant the current runs hard all day, every day, and as plump rock move up the estuary toward spawning areas this time of year, many stop by for a feed. Early spring fishing can be spectacular.
Indeed, the whole experience can be spectacular. Hughes and I left home shortly after 5 a.m. under a star-strewn sky and crested the rise on Route 260 leading to Chesapeake Beach right at dawn, as a rising sun shone fire-orange across the glassy bay. Anyone who has fished out of Chesapeake Beach is familiar with this memorable scene, which is worth the drive from Washington even if you never go fishing.
We had a few miles still to go, south through marshes and woodlands down winding Route 261 to the Breezy Point turnoff, then through the little cluster of ramshackle summer cottages at the end of the road there to the launch ramp at the marina.
We backed in my newly refurbished, 41-year-old Boston Whaler for its maiden fishing trip and it floated off the trailer like a prim young swan. It's amazing what $100 worth of sandpaper and paint can do for a ruined beauty. The 30-year-old Evinrude fired right up and we were away on the 11-mile run, kicking up flocks of scoters and oldsquaws on the way. (These malingering sea ducks should be heading back to arctic Canada any day.) Hughes scanned the sky for bigger sea birds, hoping to see gannets diving over bait, a sure sign of rockfish feeding below. Two years ago we were on the way back from Calvert Cliffs in March when a flock of gannets appeared off Parkers Creek. We stopped to cast bucktails and instantly hooked up to matching, 30-inch rockfish. We had that school all to ourselves.
No such luck this year. The bay was barren of boat traffic but the only birds around were the sea ducks and a few seagulls as we sped south at 25 knots. The power plant was visible miles away as the rising sun glinted off its shiny exterior. "I'll drive," said Hughes. "You rig up. The best fishing is usually early. You want to be ready when we get there."
He wasn't kidding. Five other small boats already were working "the rips," as the fast-flowing outfall is known, and every one had a fish on as we motored into the mix. The standard procedure is to idle in as close as you dare to the outfall itself, where warm water violently gushes up from the bottom, then cut your motor and drift with the flow. The current starts off rushing but eases the further you go and all but dissipates after a few hundred yards.
Anglers toss 1½- to 2-ounce bucktails or plastic-tail jigs into the fast water and let them sink and swing in the current, waiting for the bump on the line that signifies a rockfish has mistaken the lure for a helpless baitfish caught up in the flow. It's not easy fishing, requiring keen concentration, and it's not without peril. Though the outfall water is slightly warmer than the surrounding bay, it's still in the 40s and rough, and it's no place for an accidental swim. The current runs so hard that even a heavy boat pitches, bounces and spins 360s. Smart anglers don lifejackets.
We slipped in alongside Capt. Skip Slomski, a charter skipper from Baltimore who was in the process of releasing a 26-incher, and began our first drift. Hughes had two bites but failed to hook either fish, while I had none. On the second drift he reared back and set the hook on a 20-inch rock and a little later I was fast to another about the same size. In most places that would be a great start, but here everyone hopes for bigger fish.
"Good one," Hughes grunted a few drifts later. His rod bowed sharply and 20-pound-test line spun off the reel. I set my rod down to help out and moments later we brought a goliath of a rock to the boat. He hoisted it up for a quick photo but we wasted no time weighing or measuring it, both of us having already chastised anglers around us for keeping fish out of the water too long.
Big rockfish in the bay this time of year are here for one reason -- to spawn -- and it's bad business to jeopardize their prospects by manhandling them. Most of the fish we left in the water for the release, minimizing any chance of damage. Ideally, I suppose, you wouldn't catch them at all, but catch-and-release is legal under state regulations and, if practiced with care, seems to do little harm.
By 9 a.m. we'd hooked and released more than two dozen rock, including two or three over 30 inches. It was all an angler could hope for, mid-March in the mid-Atlantic, and there was no point in making pigs of ourselves. "Time to go to work," said Hughes. We turned north for the run home and gunned it, grinning like idiots.