With the season's first northeaster blowing through recently, some saltwater species have already begun their autumnal migrations south towards the mouth of the Chesapeake and beyond to deep offshore wintering grounds.
But not all have left yet, by any means.
And those fish remaining are feeding with an urgency seldom witnessed during summer's doldrums. The fish sense that lean times lie ahead and that they'd better get one last belly-stuffing binge or two in before moving out. Here are a few good bets for the rest of fall. WEAKFISH -- Sharp's Island Light, the Stone Rock and James Island have all held dense schools of trout in the 3- to 9-pound range since late August. Some of the best charter boat captains fishing this area, such as Dick Houghland, have been taking up to 20 or more trout per half-day trip. On a recent full-day outing with this skilled skipper, we hauled in 80 weakfish, releasing many towards the end of the day.
Houghland's success lies in experience and attention to details. White and yellow bucktails in 1/8 to 3/4 ounce sizes are the best offering, with weight varying according to tide and wind. A strip of pork rind should be added as a trailer, but Houghland likes to doctor his rind by cutting a section out of the middle. This leaves two pairs of toothpick-thin strands that wiggle seductively behind the jig.
Locating the school is the next step. Usually there will already be some boats on the fish by the time you get there. If not, look for the trout on the depth-finder in 15-25 feet of water, on the stone piles. The fish appear as a broad, thick band moving solidly up from the bottom on the sonar. Often the trout will show five- or six-feet thick. Stay on this dense part of the school at all times. If they start to move, try to anticipate their direction and work the fish on the "leading edge." These are usually more willing to strike than the ones in the middle of the school.
Houghland recommends casting and retrieving the jig slowly along the bottom, rather than vertical jigging. "You get a lot of hits jigging it up and down, but missed strikes are more common that way, too." As he retrieves the lure, he pumps it softly and sporadically -- no violent jerking. Every five or six turns of the handle he opens the bail and lets the jig sink back to the bottom.
These big schools of trout should remain through most of October. "Last year," said Houghland, "we caught them until Thanksgiving."
While these local fish seem content to hang around the Chesapeake's rock piles, most sea trout have begun amassing off the East Coast for their fall migration. Catches have been heavy and consistent from Ocean City south to Wachapreage, from one to five miles offshore in the Atlantic.
Sea-worthy private boats can reach these fish, most headboats are working on them and many charterboats specialize in fishing autumn's weakfish run. It's really not too complicated. You run out till you mark fish along the shoals off the beach or find other boats congregated on the trout, then toss out the lines. With any luck, tasty weakfish should charge into the baits. Or maybe croakers, since the two congregate together on these offshore waters during fall. But with four-pound hardheads on the prowl, few anglers complain when one of them beats a trout to the bait.
But there are ways to specialize, even if you're fishing from a headboat and don't have much choice as to where you fish. Trout like long, tapered strips of squid retrieved slowly along the bottom. Croakers will munch on shorter pieces and couldn't care less if the bait's moving. Fish accordingly.
This angling should stay good for close to a month, if the Atlantic doesn't take on a nasty complexion. BLUES -- Most saltwater buffs have had their fill of these ubiquitous battlers by now, but there are a couple of opportunities that bear mentioning. One is breaking fish. As the Bay cools, fish ravaging menhaden on the surface will be an increasingly common sight. Keep a light spinning-outfit with a short wire-leader and either a spoon, plug, or jig handy at all times, just in case you run into such a mass of churning choppers. Diving gulls will tip you off to the surface action from some distance. Probably you won't want to spend a day this way, but it does add variety to any trip.
Fall frequently means a run of big blues in the 6- to 15-pound category moving out of the bay also. Sometimes these fish move close enough to the shores along the lower Potomac and Patuxent for pier and surf fishermen to reach them.
It's one thing to battle blue after blue on a charter trip, but when you go out on your own and tag into one from shore, the surge of pleasure runs deeper. From dusk to dawn is the productive time, and often those haunting hours from three until daylight, when only the diehards still tend their rods, are best of all.
Use enough lead (2 to 4 ounces) to cast way out, a bottom rig or fish-finder, and cut spot or menhaden.Watch the rod closely: More than one angler has seen his favorite tackle to sailing into the surf as an unseen brute tore off with his unattended bait. STRIPERS -- Nothing like the days of old, but a fair number of fish are caught drifting live eels and casting twister-type grubs and bucktails in the Kent Narrows. The Choptank holds some fish on Chancellor's and Horn points, and the Morgantown Bridge area of the lower Potomac yields fish on bucktails.
The Bay Bridge also has stripers, but they're quite fastidious about what they'll eat. Chumming with live grass shrimp seems to be the only consistent method, and finding the shrimp is just about impossible, locals say. WHITE PERCH -- These delectable saltwater panfish will provide the most consistent fishing of all over the next few weeks. Seldom do they weigh over a pound, and the challenge of catching them is slim, but visions of perch filets floating in lemon-butter are enough to rank them high on the list of many fall anglers. Their flesh is delicate, firm and sweet.
Just about every feeder-creek and river off the Chesapeake has perch in its lower reaches now and many can be caught in the Bay proper. Love Point, Kent Narrows, the Severn and Chester river mouths, Eastern Bay, the Wicomico, Bay Bridge and tributaries of the lower Potomac are some of the best spots.
For the most consistent action, use bits of bloodworms or clam snouts on a doublehook bottom rig with a one or two ounce sinker. Drift in 5 to 40 feet of water till you find the fish. For the more adventuresome, perch will also nail Beetlespins, Mepps spinners and small, colorful streamers fished on a fly rod.
Ice the catch down good, slice the delectable filets off their flanks, and you'll dine like royalty.